by Oliver Bertin
There’s a surprising amount of wildlife at the National Yacht Club, and not just on Friday nights.
I saw a rare Trumpeter Swan during the precious last sail before haul-out a year or two ago, gliding peacefully down the lagoon south of Hanlan’s Point with its black bill proudly displayed. It was accompanied by four Mute Swans, the common European variety with orange beaks that we know so well.
I have seen Ospreys diving for fish in the Long Pond on Toronto Island, the occasional muskrat and beaver, and flocks of Great Blue Herons, which nest in the trees, close – but not too close – to the 4,000 or so Cormorants who make their home on the Leslie Street Spit.
Those Cormorants eat a pound of fish a day. That’s a total of 4,000 pounds of fish a day, every day, for four months a year, every year — 360,000 pounds of fish within flying distance of the Spit. That gives some idea of the biomass that lives in the rich waters of Lake Ontario.
You don’t see those fish very often, but they are definitely there. I’ve seen Pike glide by as I lean over the side of Mary Ann, and I sometimes hear Carp splashing away as they mate in the weeds of the Outer Basin.
Back in my student days, I would catch tiny Bullheads, Perch, Smallmouth Bass and Sticklebacks in my minnow trap and keep them in my aquarium for a week or two before letting them go. They were far more interesting than the goldfish and guppies that my friends used to buy at the local pet store.
Like many zoology students, we used to take a seine net over to Centre Island, where we would catch a month’s worth of fresh smelt in an hour or two, an essential source of protein in the days before student loans.
It’s not just Cormorants and students that fish in the Outer Basin. Four Great Egrets hung around the club for a summer or two, along with Black-crowned Night Herons that appeared on the breakwall like clockwork every summer evening at dusk.
Two minks bounced along the wall for two months last summer, curious little animals that stared at me as I stared back from the cockpit of Mary Ann, a mere 10 feet away. I saw a gorgeous, three-foot-long River Otter near the dinghy dock last fall, probably a visitor from the Humber River.
A Painted Turtle saw me coming one summer’s day and plopped off a mooring tire into the water, while Mergansers paddled about on the surface with their glorious heads held high. Meanwhile, a flock of Bufflehead ducks bobbed away in the Western Gap during haulout, wondering why we were lifting our boats on such a lovely day.
The most curious animals are often the ones we see in the middle of the lake, far from land. A tiny Chickadee chased after me in a 35-knot wind last fall and rested on the boat for a few minutes before taking off again for southern climes.
Butterflies and midges have appeared out of nowhere, but the most remarkable animal I have seen was a bumblebee that flew past in the middle of Lake Ontario, 15 miles from the nearest land. It darted towards my boat, circled twice and headed off again without stopping for breath, obviously on a very important mission. That’s not bad for an insect that has the aerodynamics of a boxcar on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The bumblebee was certainly interesting, but a mother swan fit all the stereotypes of the zoology textbooks. This swan laid her eggs at the end of the 200-series docks, right where everybody passes by. She, of course, would stand upright and lift her wings and hiss and threaten just like mother swans are supposed to do whenever they see a threat.
I got tired of being pushed around by a mere bird, so I played a trick on her. Next time, I went to my boat, I stood on my toes, raised my arms as high as I could, and hissed and spat right back. You should have seen the look of surprise on her face!
We repeated the performance three more times. She would stand up high, raise her wings and hiss and spit. I would stand taller, raise my arms higher, and hiss and spit louder than she could ever do.
It worked a treat. As I had expected, she soon went into her submissive pose like any animal who meets a bigger bully is supposed to do. She would lower her head to the ground, back away and cluck whenever she saw me coming. But that wasn’t all. This bird remembered me for the rest of the summer, whatever clothes I was wearing, and went into her submissive pose every time she saw me coming towards her!