Remembering Celeste, precious pen of Ashbridge’s Bay

Featured Blog Post by Margaret L. Bream, Wild in the City columnist, Toronto Star

For nearly a decade, the mute swan I called Celeste (above left) cruised the waves of Ashbridge’s Bay alongside her lifelong mate, Laika. In good weather and bad, the two swans were a devoted pair, defending their territory together against all threats. Every year, they worked tirelessly together to hatch and raise a new family.

Those of us who visited Ashbridge’s Bay regularly felt privileged to have box seats to a dramatic wildlife show as we observed our resident mute swans through the seasons.

Each year in late winter, Celeste and Laika performed their sinuous mating dance, a pas de deux as graceful as any executed by Nureyev and Fonteyn. In April, the swans constructed a nest on a tiny promontory of land occupied by the Ashbridge’s Bay Yacht Club. In late May, the birds’ never-ending work guarding and incubating their eggs was fulfilled with the hatching of their clutch. Within a day, the two adults led their cygnets — usually eight or nine — over the rocks and down to the calm waters of the marina for the first time. The cygnets’ initial swim was a joyous occasion that brought tears to my eyes every time I witnessed it.

All summer long, Celeste and Laika plied the waters of the bay with their offspring, first finding food for the little ones, then teaching them how to do it themselves. When Celeste’s cygnets got tired or cold, they clambered up onto her back, where they found warmth and protection  — and a free ride — under her enormous wings. It didn’t matter how many cygnets needed help; there could be four, five, or even more buried in her pristine feathers. She was their valiant defender, too, toiling with Laika to keep her cygnets safe from the perils they faced as tiny creatures in a big bay full of potential predators.

As fall arrived, it was Celeste’s job to give her cygnets flight lessons. Leading them in a silent parade from the quiet waters of the bay to the open waters of Lake Ontario, she taught the cygnets to head into the wind, to run across the surface of the water to get the lift they would need to become airborne. It took many lessons before the cygnets, now nearly as big as Celeste herself, achieved lift off. But fledge they did, eventually.

By January, the cygnets dispersed, leaving the bay once again to the adults. How magnificent Celeste and Laika appeared when they sailed into the marina, the angled rays of the low winter sun striking their feathers, lighting them as if from within. At dusk, when Celeste busked with her wings spread over back, her feathers glowed a rose gold. I felt as if I’d been given a gift.

This year, disaster struck Celeste and Laika during the bay’s annual spring swan wars. On Friday, April 20, Laika lost a battle to a rival mute swan and suffered unknown injuries; the next day, Toronto Wildlife picked up the big cob and transported him to a veterinary hospital for treatment, leaving Celeste alone and unprotected. It was the last time I saw her.

When Toronto Wildlife returned Laika to the bay the following day, Celeste was not there to greet him. She died, apparently a victim of predation, about five days later on the yacht club property.

I will remember Celeste as a devoted mate, hard-working mother of dozens, and a creature of ineffable beauty. She is much missed.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: Celeste is left with outstretched wings in the top photo, with Laika in 2019.  Celeste is right front in the bottom photo with her family in 2020.

PHOTO CREDITS:  M.L. Bream, Wild in the City


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