Reaching into a small cloth bag, a volunteer at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station pulls out a tiny magnolia warbler, holding it gently but firmly between his fingers to reveal the dazzling contrast of its black-streaked yellow breast to a gaggle of amazed spectators.
On a sunny, glorious day in mid-May, the cottonwoods, Manitoba maples and black locust trees on the Leslie Street Spit are dripping with warblers and other brightly feathered songbirds. Their brilliant colours are normally only glimpsed by those possessing patience and binoculars as the waves of migrants pass through the city's parks, ravines and backyards.
Touching down on the Spit to rest and refuel on its long nocturnal journey from Central America to northern Ontario, the 10-gram magnolia on display is one of the more than 2,000 birds - some 177 different species - that flutter into the research station's soft, outstretched mist nets each spring. Only briefly detained, they're tagged, weighed and assessed as part of a continent-wide effort to track migrant populations.
Toronto is one of the last stops for many of the estimated quarter-billion songbirds that travel thousands of kilometres, most under cover of night, to Ontario's boreal forest from as far away as the Amazon jungle and Argentine pampas.
But as spring migration peaked this week, the Seattle-based Boreal Songbird Initiative conservation group issued a letter signed by more than 1,500 biologists, climatologists and other scientists from 50 countries criticizing governments for not protecting northern forests.
"We are concerned that current conservation planning efforts are insufficient to sustain the ecological integrity of Canada's boreal region," the report said baldly.
In fact, North American songbird populations have declined steeply, possibly almost by half since the 1960s. Long-distance migrants in particular are under intense pressure both in their tropical winter homes and in northern wilderness nurseries, as well as at most points in between.
This spring's northward passage is the fifth since Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty's pre-election pledge in March 2003 to "institute meaningful, broad-scale land use planning for Ontario's northern boreal forest before any new major development" is permitted. Despite sporadic reports that something is in the works, environmental groups say they're still waiting for the premier to come through.
Last week, with another election just months away, McGuinty seemed to be making no firm commitments. "We're going to have to, at some point in time, address our responsibilities as global citizens when it comes to protecting the boreal forest, which is a massive containment system for carbon dioxide," he told a media scrum before a cabinet meeting. "So all of those present us with some challenges, and we'll continue to grapple with those," he said vaguely.
Earlier this year, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the North American Free Trade Agreement's environmental oversight body, found that the province's forest management plans allow an average 18 per cent decline in habitat for nine out of the 10 indicator bird species that logging operations are required to take into consideration.
This boosted a charge by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund that logging in Ontario's boreal forest is destroying some 45,000 migratory birds' nests annually. A CEC analysis, in fact, found that the actual number "would likely be higher."
"Logging prescriptions don't come anywhere near to reflecting the complexity of uncut forests," says Greenpeace forest campaigner Kim Fry. "A lot of birds are really quite specialized, and a lot of those that are most vulnerable rely on mature and old-growth forests, especially cavity nesters."
But the Ministry of Natural Resources takes issue with Sierra's conclusions extrapolated from known data on bird nests per hectare in areas being clear-cut.
Says the ministry's Dana Kinsman, a provincial resources management planning specialist, "Sierra can't verify any figures. They're just estimates. They don't have any science for it."
Fry sees the NAFTA watchdog as an apt forum for airing the boreal's woes, since such a large portion of its nesters fly to Mexico and beyond.
"The issues of trade and globalization are partly at the root of what is happening in our forests. But it's more than just trade that crosses our borders," notes Fry.
Since so many of the migrants pass through the heart of southern Ontario, she adds, urbanites are not as far removed from the wild north as they might imagine.
Jen Baker, Ontario Nature's boreal campaign coordinator, agrees. "These birds are the bridge linking us to the boreal."
BOREAL BIRD COUNT
Number of boreal land bird species in population decline: about 40
Estimated number of land birds nesting in the boreal region: 1 to 3 billion
Percentage of all land birds in Canada and the U.S. that nest in the boreal: close to 30
Percentage of the boreal land bird population that migrates south: 93
Number of boreal land bird species that winter in Mexico: 115
Number of boreal land bird species that winter in Brazil: 42
Number of boreal land bird species that winter in Argentina: 24
Migration distance of the blackpoll warbler: 8,000 to 16,000 kilometres