A winter visit to this west-end lakefront neighbourhood may include sightings of these 5 colourful local characters. 

Picture this: Winter at Sunnyside, the waterfront jewel of Toronto’s west end. The air is crisp, the lake still, and the sunshine as white as the snow on the ground, crunched by the footsteps of the surrounding crowd. It’s bustling, even on this frigid day. 

The urban wildlife has emerged from its nightly hibernation, drawn to this sprawling park’s many free amenities. They flock to the beach, the boardwalk, the multiuse trail and the many city parks — including Sir Casimir Gzowski, Budapest and Marilyn Bell — built for adults and kids alike. Some are lured by the neighbourhood’s natural features, others by its rich cultural heritage. 

No visit to Sunnyside is complete unless you spot these five local creatures in their winter habitat. Ready for your urban wilderness safari? Let’s go!

Species: History hounds

How to identify: Sometimes in guided groups, often solo, these humans are easy to identify, as they always have a camera in hand and sensible footwear on their feet.

Field notes: History hounds are drawn by Sunnyside’s storied past as Toronto’s playground, aka Sunnyside Amusement Park. From 1922 to 1955, this stretch was home to rides (a roller coaster, merry-go-rounds and more) and entertainment (think: dancing bears, escape artists and vaudeville acts). 

With nightclubs, the beachfront and a swimming pavilion, the boardwalk park was a hep haunt for all ages. Though most of it was razed in the mid-1900s, a few well-preserved relics remain: the stately Sunnyside Pavilion (which once had 7,770+ lockers and a rooftop garden), Sunnyside Gus Ryder Outdoor Pool (which, when it opened in 1925, was considered the largest swimming pool in the world), and Palais Royale (a former nightclub-cum-event space that once hosted jazz greats like Duke Ellington). Spot a history hound? Ask them for their favourite story about the city.  

Species: City swans 

How to identify: Two types of swans can be found at Sunnyside Park. Mute swans have a bright orange bill with a black knob and an elegant S-curve neck. Trumpeter swans have a black bill and a straighter neck. Interestingly, both have a similar muffled trumpet call, giving us cause to question scientific naming methods.

Field notes: If you see a swan at Sunnyside, it’ll likely be a mute swan, the invasive Eurasian species that has been thriving in Toronto. But if you’re lucky, you may also spot our native trumpeter swan, a once-endangered population that has been making a national comeback as a result of conservation programs.

Swans can be seen (and heard!) along the Lake Ontario shoreline, especially inlets, where the water’s a little warmer in winter. Look for them along the beach, inland of the water breakers, or by Humber Bay Arch Bridge at the western edge of the park.

See a swan? Snap a photo! Try to observe them in flight but beware of flying poop. This writer speaks from experience.   

Species: Calisthenics junkies 

How to identify: Even though they have zero body fat, they’ll be wearing shorts and tanks on the chilliest days. Often flexing and grunting.

Field notes: In midwinter, when average Torontonians bring our exercise indoors, hard-core functional-fitness devotees bring their body-weight workouts to Sir Casimir Gzowski Park. Named for the Russian engineer revered for his 19th-century work on several Canadian railways, the Welland Canal and Yonge Street (aka Toronto’s longest street), this calisthenics park lures musclemen and -women who do pull-ups, push-ups and, well, whatever exercise one does on parallel bars. 

TIP: If you’re feeling swoll from your winter workout, be sure to relax and recover at one of the city’s top spas.

Species: Hissing cobra chickens (aka Canada geese)

How to identify: Look for that unmistakable thick white “chin strap” and a palpable bad attitude. Most often found patrolling the park in search of trouble, like they own the place. 

Field notes: Having shirked their responsibility to fly south for the winter, Canada geese pepper the shores of the park. Sure, their habits are cute: they mate for life (aww!), sleep on water to stay safe from coyotes and foxes (primitive waterbed?) and prefer to spend their time sleeping and eating (preach!), but these aggressive, fickle creatures can be fierce. 

Sure, they beg for food — please, don’t feed them! — but get a little too close, and you’re in for a fight. And they can do serious harm. There are BuzzFeed roundups. There are national news stories. The honking, hissing cobra chicken is no joke. See some cute cobra chickens? Snap your photos, but beware. If they become aggressive, maintain eye contact and slowly back away without showing fear. 

Species: The winter cardio crew 

How to identify: You can differentiate the cardio bunnies from the regular winter walkers by their sleek colour-coordinated athletic wear, water bottle belts and trail runners, which are almost always thick-lugged to prevent slipping. 

Field notes: “I prefer running in winter, actually!” they insist as they jog by, trying hard not to lose their footing. “Biking in winter? It’s basically the same as summer!” they swear, ignoring the threat of slush and ice. 

In fact, you’ll see dozens of avid runners and cyclists undaunted by the snowy weather, following the Martin Goodman Trail, which spans 22 km (14 miles) from the western edge of Sunnyside Park all the way to the east-end Beaches neighbourhood. 

No doubt these winter athletes are training for one of Toronto’s many big races, like fall’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon or summer’s Toronto Triathlon Festival, both of which include a portion of Sunnyside. See one fly by? Smile and nod admiringly, and feel inspired to stay out a little longer.  

Getting to Sunnyside:

Take the Line 1 Yonge-University subway to Queen station, then catch the 501 Queen bus westbound to Roncesvalles Avenue.

Or take the Line 2 Bloor-Danforth subway to Dundas West station, then catch the 504 King bus southbound to Queen Street West.

The 501 Queen and 504 King streetcar routes have been impacted by track and road construction. Visit ttc.ca for more details.