Shorebirds threatened by disc-golf course on dune habitat without public consultation

Shorebirds threatened by disc-golf course on dune habitat without public consultation

“The importance of urban nature has never been greater. During the last year and a half of the epidemic, city dwellers all across the world have sought out and loved urban nature more than ever… Now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to green space design and protection.” —Toronto Mayor John Tory, in a 2021 speech.

I am a Toronto-based naturalist. Ashbridge’s Bay Park, particularly the dune environment near the west end of Woodbine Beach, is one of my favorite places to visit. I was surprised to discover a disc-golf zone built on top of this untamed patch of urban wilderness one day in October 2021.

Without consulting the public, the city allowed an extension to an existing disc-golf course in the park and without understanding how rare and rich with biodiversity this habitat is.

Now this sensitive habitat is in danger of long-term repetitive trampling, fragmentation and degradation. If we Torontonians don’t protect this habitat now, over time the ecosystem will collapse. Toronto will lose yet another corner of wild green space, along with its biodiversity. Such coastal dune habitats are rare in Ontario, and are threatened by development and recreational pressures.

Since the high water levels of 2017, the city of Toronto has encouraged this flood zone to grow wild. It has evolved into a habitat that is teeming with wildlife. More than 265 species, some rare, have been documented on iNaturalist.

The unique plant community in this habitat includes dogwood, milkweed, native grasses, sedges and rushes. Several are considered species of regional conservation concern by Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. One species that has not been seen in Toronto since 1913, umbrella flatsedge (Cyperus diandrus), was documented here in 2020.

This is a crucial bird migration stopover, particularly for shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers that suffer globally from habitat loss. Ground-nesting birds like the savannah sparrow and killdeer breed here. Both are species of urban conservation concern.

It’s a high-quality habitat for pollinators and other insects like native bees, dragonflies, rare sand wasps and one species of special concern, the monarch butterfly.

This natural heritage system feature is part of a green belt/wildlife corridor spanning the shoreline of Lake Ontario, reconnecting fragmented and isolated wildlife populations.

Together with Toronto Field Naturalists, Toronto Ornithological Club, Toronto Entomologists’ Association, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Nature Canada’s Bird Friendly City – Toronto Team, Ashbridge’s Bay Nature Stewards and concerned residents, we are calling on the city of Toronto to reconsider the location and design of the disc-golf course.

Toronto city council’s Biodiversity and Pollinator Protection Strategies encourage long-term conservation of habitat just like this.

There is urgency to this matter. Shorebird migration starts in April, the savannah sparrow will return to its nesting territory in May, and we are told that 3,000 truckloads of sand are scheduled to be poured on the beach.

Ashbridge’s Bay Park already has a nine-hole disc-golf course. An extension could be in Woodbine Park, where there is a large and underutilized mowed grass field. The players would be happy to play on a large field without having to worry about stepping on birds’ nests or hitting a passerby, and the wild dune habitat could thrive for generations to come. Win win.

Toronto is doing a tremendous job restoring sand dunes, planting pollinator gardens, rain gardens and green walls. This corner of urban nature is waiting to join that list and be recognized as something special that is worth protecting.

This article by Noam Markus was first published by The Star on 15 March 2022. Noam Markus is a Toronto naturalist, bird watcher and citizen scientist. He regularly contributes observation to eBird and iNaturalist. 

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