Category Archives: Altona Forest

Altona Forest 2020

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Altona Forest in Pickering is known to have a wide variety of wildlife but when we visited in August of 2018 we found the park to be deteriorating badly.  Garbage abounded in the parking lot, the trails were overgrown and most of the boardwalks had become broken and dangerous.  Laceys Pond was impassable because the water level was up from beaver activity and the boardwalk was broken in several places.  I sent the Toronto Region Conservation Authority a link to the blog we published with the pictures of the park’s conditions.  The TRCA responded that they had already purchased materials to repair the boardwalk through Lacey’s Pond but that some sections of the trail in the north woods might be closed permanently.  Nearly two years later we decided to return to see how things had developed.

It’s a good sign when you see interesting wildlife the moment you park the car.  A pileated woodpecker was making its way around the telephone pole a few feet away.  The easiest distinction between the male and females of this, the largest woodpecker native to Ontario, is the red stripe on the cheek.  It looks like a red mustache on the males, which identifies this bird as a female.


The mushroom shown below was one of a couple dozen that were growing in a rough circle around the base of a large tree.  There are several varieties of mushrooms that have scales on them and most of these are poisonous.  Any time the exact identification of a specific mushroom can’t be made it is best to leave it alone and not even touch it.


When we came to the trail that leads toward the pond in the forest we found the newly repaired section of boardwalk.  They’ve done a nice job of weaving the trail among the trees.


Lacey’s Pond refers to a pond that used to exist on the property when it was a farm belonging to the Lacey family.  At that time it was much larger than today and encompassed some of the area where nearby houses stand today.  When developers bought the land they drained the pond and built houses where they could.  Part of the land was still unsuitable for houses and was left fallow until the TRCA bought it in 1995.  They made efforts to re-establish the pond by building a retaining berm.  The pond refilled to about one third the original size.  Further flooding has been caused by beaver who moved into the new pond.  There is no evidence of recent beaver activity as all the stumps appear to have been chewed some time ago.  There is still a series of trails that have been made through the wetlands and some of them had the mud recently stirred up in them.


Lacey’s Pond has an observation deck where you can watch the pond during some seasons.  At the moment the bull rushes are growing tall enough to obscure most of the water in the pond.

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On both sides of Lacey’s Pond the forest is full of cedar trees.  The area was likely a cedar forest when the land was cleared for farming,  One of the advantages of having a lot of cedar on the property is the availability of cedar rails to make fences from.  The Lacey family has used slit rails to make zig-zag fences that now have forest growing up along both sides of the fence and in every corner.

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When we returned to Lacey’s Pond we found that a flock of Cedar Waxwings had arrived.  These are majestic looking birds with yellow breasts and a black mask on a peach coloured head.  They have a crest which sometimes lies flat against the neck.  The tips of the wings are red and their tails are squared off with a bright yellow tip.  Males tend to have a larger dark area under the chin and unless seen in a larger group it can be hard to identify the sexes.


After making our way back north from the pond we set out looking for post number 33 that would lead us to the northern parts of the forest.  The map at the gate shows this part of the forest as being open and the posts are numbered to help guide you through the trails.  The maps haven’t been updated yet but the northern part of the forest is intended to be closed permanently.  The blockade at this end isn’t obvious anymore.


When you come to the section of boardwalk it becomes plain that this section was not repaired.  It has some loose boards and places where it rocks underfoot.  There are also sections where the rebar that holds it in place stands above the surface of the boardwalk presenting a real trip hazard.  When we reached the other end we found that the trail had been closed off and marked as dangerous.  Please don’t use this section of the trail and allow it to become fully overgrown.


Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies were seen a couple of times before one paused long enough to get photographed.  The eggs are laid in bunches between 100 and 700 on the underside of leaves.  The caterpillars go through four stages during which time a high percentage is lost to wasps that lay eggs in them.  The ones that survive to the fourth stage over-winter in leaves on the ground.  In the spring the caterpillars molt and a single fly of Baltimore Checkerspots grace the landscape.


Altona Forest looks like it could be very interesting in every season and we look forward to enjoying a fall day and perhaps a winter day here in the near future.

Our previous feature on Altona Forest can be found at this link: Altona Forest

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Altona Forest

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Altona Forest is located in Pickering and at 102 acres is large enough to have one of the few interior forests in the GTA.  Interior forests create habitat for creatures that do not survive on the forest edge or in the small clumps of trees left along waterways.  Interior forests have at least 300 metres of forest between the forest edge and the interior section.  Since 1982 the forest has been designated an environmentally significant area but that didn’t stop developers from buying up the land.  In the 1990’s after much lobbying the park area was set aside as part of the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) lands.  The southern portion of the park was most recently owned by Dr. J. Murray Spiers and was donated in 1996 upon the condition that it remain a nature preserve.  This portion of the park is off limits to the public.  We parked on Altona Road in the small Altona Forest parking lot.  The trail immediately gives a feeling of not being used very much.

Petticoat Creek flows through the western edge of the park.  It was named by the French as Petite Cote and was slurred into the current name after the English arrived.  The wind has recently brought down several large trees in the top end of the park.

One of the truly great things about Altona Forest is the downloadable trail guide.  It describes the various features along the trail with reference to the guide posts.  Post 32 is shown below along with a little bench, one of many scattered throughout the trails.  Post 32 is found in a mature white cedar forest.  These trees spread to form a dense canopy that very little direct sunlight gets through.  This, along with a mat of cedar needles on the ground, combine to create a forest with very little under story.

Altona Forest has a series of ever changing habitats moving from different types of forest cover to open meadows and wetlands.  This encourages a wide variety of wildlife, some locally rare examples, to inhabit the park.  We saw coyote paw prints but didn’t see any of them as we made our way through the forest.  They share the forest with white tailed deer, fox and opossum, just to name a few.

Overgrowth has choked out the boardwalk in several places and the purple loosetrife and goldenrod flowers were buzzing with bees.  The number of honey bees was very encouraging but it could be a little stressful for those with a bee phobia or allergy.  We found that although we brushed through the bees as we passed they ignored us and returned to their bee business.

The wetlands were filled with the sounds of frogs and last years bulrushes hang like shrouds on the old stocks.

Near post 29 a large section of the forest has been given over to a wetland restoration project.  Until the 1940’s these were farmers fields and many of the wetlands had been drained.  Small mounds of dirt along the sides of the Rosebank Creek tributary remind us of the efforts of the farmers to increase drainage and make the most of some poor farmland.  Ghost wetlands are areas that were drained but can be encouraged to return to their former status thus providing much needed wetland habitat.  An observation deck overlooks the wetland restoration.

We were quite surprised at the condition of the boardwalk in the northern section of the park.  It soon became clear that the vegetation overgrowth was the result of a general lack of use due to the deterioration of the trails.

Chicken Mushrooms are one of the fine edible ones, if harvested when they are young.  They tend to become indigestible as they get older.  They start as bright orange, salmon or sulfur yellow and as they weather they turn white.  They are also called Sulfur Shelf and can grow in overlapping clusters of fifty or more with shelves that weigh up to a pound.  Many people claim that they taste like chicken.


Near post 12 is Lacey’s Pond but it has become inaccessible as has the observation deck located there.  Some of the downed trees are the result of wind storms while the local beaver has also brought down some onto the boardwalk.  This effectively cuts the northern section of the park off from the one to the south.

Having blogged about nearly every destination in the list of TRCA properties several things become obvious.  Firstly, the GTA has an incredible network of ravines and parks that form natural wildlife corridors through the urban area.  Much of this is the legacy of Hurricane Hazel and the movement to secure our flood plains from development.  Secondly, our parks are incredibly free of garbage and generally well maintained.  Altona Forest appeared to be an obvious exception with regards to maintenance.  Hiking the GTA contacted the TRCA to see what was happening with the trails in the forest.  They replied that the boardwalks deteriorated because of the wet conditions and that they are being replaced with materials made of recycled plastics.  Supplies for the restoration, which should last for many many years, have been ordered already.  When they arrive in six to eight weeks the restoration project will begin.  Very soon Altona Forest will boast a new set of boardwalks giving it a new lease on life.

This Hairy Woodpecker is similar to a Downy but larger, with the adults being about 25 centimetres long.  Downy Woodpeckers are only about 15 centimtres long.  Both of these woodpeckers leave small random holes in trees where they dig for insects.  If the holes in a tree are dug in straight lines it is the work of a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker.

Large holes in trees are the work of pileated woodpeckers.  These are the largest woodpecker that you will see in Ontario with the adults being about 50 centimetres long.  The name comes from the Latin word “pileatus” which means capped, in reference to the prominent red cap that the bird has.

We were only able to explore the northern section of Altona Forest and will need to return to check out the other end of the park. We also look forward to seeing the upgrades and repairs that TRCA will be making this fall.

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Monday, August 27, 2018

While exploring Altona Forest we found two different types of Baneberry plants growing within a few feet of each other.  The White Baneberry  or White Cohosh is also known as Dolls Eyes because of the black stigma scar on the end of the berry.  The entire plant is considered toxic to humans.  Ingestion of as few as six berries can cause cardiac arrest and death in an adult.  A child may not survive after eating as little as two berries.  Birds can eat the berries and disperse the seeds through their droppings.


The Red Banberry has a much thinner pedicel or stem on which the berries grow.  The berries start off green but turn red when they ripen.  Each berry contains several seeds.  The Red Baneberry plant and berries are poisonous as well.  A member of the Baneberry family that has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries is Black Cohosh which has been used to treat women’s gynecological disorders.


Watch for more on Altona Forest in a future post.

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