When it comes to one city’s re-wilding efforts, seeing is believing. Written by Leslie Anthony.
Near the end of March, 2013, with the cattails lying flat and brown in forlorn mats, a handful of folks huddled on the boardwalk that zigzags into Cootes Paradise Marsh and trained their spotting scopes on the bald eagle nest crowning a sturdy white pine to the west. Someone thought they saw the small grey head of a hatchling. When further scrutiny confirmed two eaglets in the nest, all hell broke loose. What might constitute a serendipitous sighting elsewhere was, for this cadre, cause for bona fide jubilation.
The broader context for celebration was significant: the first bald eagles to have nested successfully on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario in over 50 years. More importantly and more improbably, however, the birds had done so in the most unlikely of places: Hamilton. Steeltown. The Hammer. Longtime poster-child for the kind of industrial hubris and chemical carelessness that vanquished the once-abundant raptors to begin with.
Although most such offences have long since been regulated into history, a decades-long panorama of belching smokestacks and discharging pipes still engenders a knee-jerk ranking of the city’s harbour with a tar-sands settling pond. Though a bald eagle nest here was unheralded, it was also deserved: a welcome semaphore for the nascent re-wilding of an environment once declared all but dead—or at least too toxic to support the kind of wildlife that might garner such attention.
Like most high-value sightings in the birding community, this one spread like wildfire. There were days when a scope-wielding phalanx of Tilley hats crowded the boardwalk to its very edges. For Cootes Paradise, one of four nature sanctuaries comprising the city’s historic Royal Botanical Gardens, that circus was a now-realized mission statement, emblematic of a decade of concerted environmental rehabilitation. For Tys Theysmeyer, Head of Natural Lands at RBG, it was also a personal victory. “After ten years work we’ve achieved a functioning marsh,” he states proudly. “It’s producing fish, frogs, mollusks and plants the way it should. When you build back basic bottom pieces like lower-food-chain fish, you attract upper pieces like eagles.”
As Tys also makes clear, however, you need “more than snacks” to appease an apex avian predator. Large territories are required, with big trees to support nests that can weigh a metric ton—neither easy to come by in an urbanized landscape. Space, in fact, was the puzzle piece fortuitously in place once the environment improved, a forethought embodied by the establishment of the Royal Botanical Gardens back in the 1920s.
As chemical pollution in the marsh subsided and fish recovered in the new millennium, some birds returned faster than others, causing other problems: the guano of dense flocks of gulls and cormorants denuded entire roosting islands. Biomass was up but it was still an ecosystem out of balance. The arrival of kleptoparasitic (food-stealing) eagles, however, brought these “weed” birds under control: nesting duos of cormorants are down to 20. A single pair of natural predators has fundamentally changed the Cootes ecosystem.
“Eagles were mythical when I was kid,” says Tys, a Hamilton native. “You couldn’t even imagine seeing one. When I saw the first ones here in 2004—two juveniles hacking at a carp carcass—I thought ‘That’s incredible!’ But it wasn’t until the first resident was identified in 2007 that we started to think of possibilities. Then all of a sudden out of nowhere there’s a pair.”
In 2009 those birds took an unsuccessful crack at nesting. The spot they picked, however, was too isolated to manage the inevitable tsunami of visitors. The solution was to send climbers up a tree to build a loose frame of branches resembling a nest. “The eagles went, ‘Yup, we’ll take it,’” recalls Tys. “In 2012 they occupied it and nothing happened. But this year they were back, so we calculated incubation time and went out to the boardwalk when it was up and… there were eaglets.”
Elated but cautious, they decided that the best way to manage the news was with proper publicity and signage – and hope anyone who tried to skirt designated viewing areas would be peer-regulated (they were). In addition, RBG volunteers offered interpretation and education, with scopes and binoculars for those without. After a 50-year absence it was a triumphant return.
If it took bald eagles to bring the Royal Botanical Gardens back to Hamiltonians’ attention, then the Cootes-to-Escarpment EcoPark System initiative currently underway to link wild spaces across the region will help the public understand why this unique area was a nature reserve to begin with, and that emblems like eagles are only the most obvious manifestation of a healing ecosystem. “The eagle story has been remarkable, amazing and a bit nerve-wracking,” Tys says flatly. “But there’s more. Now that there’s more quality territory, Cootes has become a staging area for about 30,000 redwing blackbirds that fly out to surrounding farm fields every morning to feed on bugs and then return every night—that’s exciting, too.”
When it comes to re-wilding, sometimes you need eagle eyes to see the bigger picture.