All posts by TorontoRavines

Based out of the University of Toronto Faculty of Forestry, 33 Willcocks Street, Toronto, ON M5S 3E8.

What did we do before GPS?

We have been out in the ravines setting up our research plots, we are recreating the plots that were set up in 1977 in order to resurvey the canopy cover by identifying all of the trees over 3 diameters at breast height and the under story vegetation. This will give us a quantitative baseline of tree species composition and allow us to track changes in the ravine. Because the plots are large, 80×50 meters we are setting up 10×10 grids within each plot in order for our resurvey to be manageable and have been lucky enough to be able to use a Trimble GPS system. Using a precise GPS system allows us to accurately plot the grids very quickly, we were able to do four plots in an afternoon, which would have taken us twice as long with a measuring tape and compass, though a compass will always come in handy when you are out in the field.

Birding in the Toronto Ravines

Last week we got up very, very early (5am!) to go out birding at all four of the ravines in our study, Burke Brook, Moore Park, Park Drive and Rosedale Valley. We were joined by two expert birders, Mark Peck an Ornithology Technician (what a great title) at the ROM and Daniel Riley from Birds Study Canada: Watching them in action was impressive, they were able to identify most birds just by their calls and Mark had an eye for finding nests. In Moore Park he found a Red-eyed Vireo-Vireo olivaceus nest which was being monitored by the Brown-headed cowbird-Molothrus ater a blackbird that only lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. In total they found a total of 46 bird species in the four ravines, the species composition was fairly consistent across the ravines though interestingly they found more migrant Neo-tropical birds in Rosedale Valley, the only ravine with a road running straight through it. The most exciting sighing was a pair of Great Horned Owls in Park Drive; watching the large creatures fly  among the trees in the middle of downtown Toronto was thrilling!

Photo: By Art Siegel ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



Butternut Bridges Over the Don

Lady Simcoe 1794 Winchester Street bridge over Don (Playter's bridge)

Watercolour by Lady Simcoe, 1796. Retrieved from:

Winchester Street, bridge over Don R. (Playter’s bridge)

In the diary that describes her travels through Upper Canada between 1792-6, Lady Simcoe provides the first settler account of a bridge over the Don River. What, in 1796, she calls Playter’s “picturesque” bridge is actually a modified, fallen butternut tree. Rooted and alive, the branches – which still grew the distinctive long, compound leaves – were spry enough to support the installation of a pole to be used as a handle (as depicted in Lady Simcoe’s watercolour).


The bridge – located at the foot of what is now Winchester Street – would not have been far from the green pedestrian bridge that currently links east and west Riverdale Park and also serves as an access point to the Lower Don Trail. In 2013 the City of Toronto commissioned a master plan for this area, which includes scheduled changes in its environmental protection. We believe that environmental protection should mean incorporating ecological integrity as a target. Scientific research into the ecological integrity of our ravine system – like our proposed surveys – is greatly aided by descriptions that we find in texts like Lady Simcoe’s diary.
Though a highly suitable habitat, you are unlikely to find butternut (Juglans cinerea) growing in Toronto’s ravines today. Butternut is a species exemplifying many of the challenges that exist for the ecological integrity of our ravine system. Though a member of the walnut family, butternut is a relatively short lived tree that is under duress from butternut canker and the introduction of non-native walnut species, with which it easily hybridizes. Butternut canker (Ophiognomonia clavigignenti-juglandacearum) is a usually fatal fungal infection that appeared in North America during the last century and has contributed to the butternut’s listing as a species at risk in Ontario.

Introduced Diseases and the Transformation of Our Ravines

Below and to the south of the dwelling [Castle Frank] was a deep ravine down which between hog-back formations ran a stream named Castle Frank brook, which flowed into the Don, just above a small island on the west side. The marshes gave way on the right at this point to good land covered with elm, butternut and basswood trees (From Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, Vol. 1).

Texts like Robertson’s and Lady Simcoe’s diary provide us with important glimpses of what the Toronto ravine system looked like when it was ecologically integral.

The above passage lists three tree species: American elm (Ulmus americana), butternut (Juglans cinerea), and basswood (Tilia americana). Two of these species, butternut (see our entry “Butternut bridges over the Don”) and elm, have had their populations decimated by diseases introduced in the last century: butternut canker and dutch elm.

This story is too familiar. From American chestnut to American elm and continuing with butternut and all our species of ash, a huge part of the transformation that has occurred in our ravine system and other natural areas is due to the widespread loss of native tree species to recently introduced diseases.

There is important work to be done finding and developing resistant strains of these species, but for those species that cannot at the moment be regained, the question becomes what has their loss meant for the ecological functioning of the environment? To what extent are these services provided by the species that have moved in? How has the change impacted other flora and fauna, and is it possible to increase the presence of other species to mitigate these effects? Some of this work has already been done (including by Eric Davies, a member of our team), but we still lack clear data on the scope of the transformation in Toronto’s ravines. It is useful then to have some quantitative measurement of these changes to couple with our historical vignettes. In addition, a survey of the ravine system is an excellent way to locate resistant trees. This is what our project, beginning by revisiting of the Taylor and Scrivener 1975 Park Drive ravine survey, strives to achieve for the city.