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Secret Lives Exposed: Weird Winter Habits at the Leslie Street Spit

April 24, 2011

It’s a great time to be alive, Spring.

With the Earth’s wobble tilting us closer to the Sun (here in the Northern Hemisphere), the air and ground begin to warm.

Humans and other things shed our winter coats at midday, mimic the Earth by lifting our faces to the sun, and begin to look at our snow-free homes in a new light, making our little plans for the hay-days of full summer.

Each spring, as I kick about at the soil and poke under rocks down at the Leslie Street Spit (now officially Tommy Thompson Park), I am yet amazed to see the little living things under my feet.

The Dead of Winter?

In my sojourns to the Leslie Street Spit, I witness the renewed-life bonanza begin long before we humans label it Spring.

Mid-winter in this unnatural nature area looks dead at a quick glance. But nudge over a driftwood log in the chill of March and you just may see a spider come scrabbling out. Brush the last thin snow from the rocks, to discover fire ants angered by the intrusion.

Come February, birds start to check out mates and nest-sites. Groggy rodents stumble about like hung-over students on a Sunday morning, before grumbling back to their cosy dens. Perhaps the February mating of the coyotes woke them up.

By this time of year though, the ground and trees begin to steadily seethe with increasing life, a visual and auditory overture to the rhapsody of high summer.

Secret Survival

Every spring I ask myself: where have they been all winter? Did these bugs and critters really survive in situ, or do they migrate back early? Is the Leslie Spit like some land-locked biblical ark, with creatures two-by-two staying over to repopulate a frozen world?

When it comes to Winter, Toronto critters have four basic options: die, migrate, tough it out, or sleep it off.

Those fair-weather friends, the birds, skedaddle out of here before the first snowflakes fly. Not all of them, mind you; more geese stay over in Toronto with each passing Climate-Change year. Chickadees, some wrens, owls, cardinals, jays and mourning doves are among the birds we can see and hear over the winter.

Which species winter-over is determined mainly by whether the stuff they eat stays over too. Birds that eat insects have to move on; those that dive for fish remain so long as there is open water; and birds that eat freeze-dried berries or ripened seed pods can stay the whole season.

Adapt or Die

Winter survival comes down to not freezing, or at least, not suffering permanent damage from freezing.

Some animals fatten up for the winter, find a good hiding spot, and sleep through the whole winter with their body processes slowed down. That’s called “diapause.” Some insects that stay here over the winter, including the mantis, are good at that.

“Torpor” means the animal wakes up now and then, has a quick snack, then goes back to sleep for a long time. Skunks are good examples. Beavers are somewhere in between, having stored winter food in their lodges and only venturing out on mild winter days in search of the aspen they adore.

Hibernate, Insulate, Cohabitate

Extra padding, special body fat, insulating fur and collective warming techniques are employed by lots of animals down at the Spit.

Many creatures — even some birds — live collectively in small dens, holes in trees or any other little unoccupied space, to help warm each other.

A kind of heat-exchange artery system keeps some winter birds’ extremities from freezing. It’s the kind of adaptation scientists look for, to identify species’ habitats and evolutionary journey.

Small mammals, including brown bats, and rodents, such as mice and voles, snuggle up in their little dens for long winter naps when they aren’t scrounging around for an occasional meal. Snow actually helps insulate their winter quarters; mice scurry through under-snow tunnels, between nests and food stores.

Two critters’ winter habits in particular once puzzled me: ants and snakes. Just where the heck did they go? Turns out, their winter habits are just the tip of the iceberg of admirable winter survival techniques.

Cold-blooded killers

One thing ants and snakes have in common is also a clue to their winter survival. Ants and snakes are cold-blooded, just like amphibians, including frogs. Without a way to warm their own bodies, they rely on radiant heat from the sun and object it heats, to keep from freezing themselves.

I’m not a big fan of fire ants, which live in enormous colonies down at the Leslie Spit. Invaders from the southern U.S., they’ve settled in nicely. I’ve been bit many times by these vicious red insects. Their stings feels like a needle jab and leaves burning splotches that last for days.

But I can’t help admiring their lifestyle. They build large mounds in soggy ground that, down at the Spit anyway, can tower five feet or more, roomy enough to accommodate dens for foxes, gestating coyotes, gophers and skunks.

These mounds represent just the head of the ants’ homes. Below is where the real ant action is, a maze of chambers and tunnels that can house a massive colony of tens of thousands.

Northern ant colonies seal up their nests for the winter and move deep underground, below the frost mark. These underground cities provide temperature-controlled comfort, exploiting the geothermal process.

Chemistry to the Rescue

Other Leslie Spit ants get through the winter thanks to some cool chemistry. According to Edward O. Wilson, leading ant expert, chemistry basically rules the world of ants. Just like some fish and other animals, ants can produce chemicals (cryoprotectants) in their bodies that act like antifreeze.

Believe it or not, snakes use the same winter survival techniques as ants. Brace yourself if you’re squeamish.

The Leslie Street Spit is home to a rare mutation called the Black Garter Snake. Just like their neighbours, the fire ants, these snakes burrow down deep into the soil to find a winter den in that geothermal layer that provides constant bearable temperatures.

There, the snakes — hundreds, maybe thousands of them — wrap themselves around each other to conserve warmth, forming a gigantic snake ball. Seriously. It’s called a hibernaculum.

When I’m walking along the Spit in winter, I try not to think of the giant ball of gently writhing black snakes, close-eyed, snug in the dark beneath me somewhere.

Toads and frogs can make their way down to the warm-air currents below the frost line, too. Some types take a deep breath and shimmy down into the muck underneath water deep enough that it won’t freeze. In spring, they suck in that air bubble and swim back up.

Some amphibians and reptiles burrow deep into fallen trees, wood piles and leaves and slow all their body processes down to a near-death state, using their cryoprotectant so they don’t freeze solid.

Natural Selection at Work

Bugs mostly die off and don’t have to endure the winter at the Spit with their slumbering buddies. Their eggs are safely hidden away in trees, under rocks and leaves, and even within that deep-soil even-temperature zone.

One pretty cool exception is the goldenrod gall fly, with a two-part plan for winter survival. It may not look like much, but close study of the the gall fly’s life cycle has furthered the theory of natural selection. In addition to making its own antifreeze, the gall fly creates a problem, then exploits that problem for its own gain.

The gall fly lays eggs on the stem of a goldenrod plant in late summer. The plant produces a “gall,” or swelling, in reaction to the eggs which, when they become larvae, chew away inside the gall, to create a winter home complete with an escape tunnel for the spring, when it flies off in search of a mate.

It’s Called a “Cycle” for a Reason

By May, the full complement of critters will have repopulated my favourite urban park. Whether they woke up, climbed up, walked back, winged over, squeezed out, hatched or morphed, each has its purpose and place.

When the grasshoppers hop to, the garter snakes slither up to eat. When the snakes come out, the owls and red-shouldered hawks are happy. And when the hawks are happy, I’m happy.

Note: The Leslie Street Spit is a five-kilometer-long stretch of land that juts into Lake Ontario south of the Toronto mainland.

Built from clean fill and construction waste, it was created as a breakwater. Nature took over, however, and over the last 60 years or so, the Spit has evolved into a neat, unique, ecologically diverse urban park.

Because it is not well-travelled, the Leslie Street Spit provides one of the few places to be alone and safe outdoors in this metropolis. It offers amazing views of downtown, Great Lakes freighters, rare birds, coyotes, monarch butterflies, uncommon snakes, beavers, minks, herons and egrets. Among others.

Leslie Spit Sunset

Leslie Spit Sunset

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Frank permalink
    May 15, 2011 10:48 am

    For someone who loves wildlife you sure picked an odd place to live,lol.We have deer in our back yard every day,(have to shoo them away from the fruit trees)and at night walking here is a crapshoot because of the bears,you should come for a visit some day…

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