Wild Things at Beacon Hill

Connell takes a summertime ramble to Meeqan observing some of the natural and human history of the park.

From the Victoria Colonist, July 4th, 1943-

Fortunately there still remains in Beacon Hill Park a large part of the original tract of land more or less as it was a century ago. The fine old oaks have grown but little in that period, a few ancient firs still tower above their neighbors, and clumps of wild shrubbery continue in the true line of descent. But it is the few acres of wild grassland, the primitive prairie that fixed the future of Camosun, that most attracts me in spring and summer. Here still linger many of our wildflowers little noticed unless the visitor leaves the roads and paths and walks among the wild grasses.

Douglas Aster (Symphyotrichum subspicatum) growing on the edge of a camas meadow at Meeqan/Beacon Hill Park, July 2021.

Last Saturday the early afternoon was chilly for not only was the wind blowing from the snow banks of the Olympics but the sun, though visible, was merely a glowing ball seen through the grey mist. So I turned aside from my first intention and betook me to Beacon Hill. I entered the park opposite the school and round the north side of the ridge of rock where I found as usual the poison hemlock flourishing as if competing with a maple and a lombardy poplar, as the frog did with the bull in the fable. The aspect of the city and park has greatly changed since I first sat up here 36 years ago and sketched the view looking across the Burns Monument to the Convent roof and the old Christ Church Cathedral on its dominating hill. The only spires then were those of St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the long since vanished Methodist Church that stood west of Douglas Street. The latter spire was a very beautiful and well-constructed one and many of us will remember the dismantling of it. We had no skyscrapers then, but we had lofty trees and more than now, for some of the fine rows of 1902 have disappeared in the name of improvement.

The old Victoria skyline as seen from Beacon Hill Park by Thomas Bamford (c1900).

The song of white-crowned sparrows was in the air and every now and then a bird or two appeared among the bushes or on the grassy ledges of the rock. In the open the flowers of the Hooker’s onion made true “purple patches” and the fool’s onion or white brodiaea more than rivalled it in conspicuousness with its taller flower clusters.

White brodiaea (Triteleia hyacinthina) at Uplands Park, June 2021.

Most beautiful of all were the expanses of the hyacinthine blue or harvest brodiaea, perhaps one of our most richly coloured flowers. While scattered plants of these occurred they were chiefly to be found like the wild onion in colonies, vivifying with their color the ripening grass. In the thickets the Nootka roses scented the air and the osoberry with its bunches of reddish yellow fruit among its pale green leaves. The robins were numerous and noisy in these leafy coverts with their combination of food and protective shelter. A touch of deep gold showed where the woolly sunflower had already opened some of its bright and sunny composite flowers and not far off I came on the first of many patches of daisies silvering the short turf of the mown lawns. It is not to be confounded with the ox-eye daisy or moon daisy, a species of chrysanthemum and a very common weed in old pastures, even intruding itself into cultivated fields. On a moonlit night in summer I have seen fields about Victoria that looked as if they were covered with snow.

“Government House and the Water Tower from Beacon Hill” by Robert Connell, June 23, 1943.

Wild Birds and Caged

Beyond the lakelet stands on rising ground the birdhouse, a relic of an older Victoria and a contemporary of that ancient and long discarded bear pit that once existed in the woods at the southeast corner. It was rather a dreadful thing to look over the low wooden wall and down into the dreary hole, with its black recesses wherein the bears lived. I used to wonder what would happen if a child fell over the parapet. Time moves on. The bear pit has long been gone, and today people complain about the hardships of the little white bear in its clean, airy enclosure with its comfortable house and pleasant pool. It would certainly be better if it had a larger one with more natural surroundings and a mate. How far its happiness would be increased I cannot say. But I do think if critics would direct their attention to the existing birdhouse and agitate for a roomier, airier aviary, it would be wiser and more useful.

The Beacon Hill Park aviary c1900. City of Victoria Archives.

But at any rate all is happiness among the birds today. A piercing whistle rising above the song of the finches. Its author was a bird of almost unbroken black plumage, a large red and yellow bill, and yellow legs. The black is broken by a curious knot-like pattern of bright yellow immediately behind the eye, and a small oblong of white on the wing. When he whistles he opens his bill wide and a few seconds later utters a sound somewhat like the miaow of a cat. This addition to the aviary is Acridotheres tristis, the Indian mynah (not to be confounded with the Japanese mynah common about Vancouver). It is about the size of a small crow.

Nearby I saw a young bird flying across the road and lighting up on the rough bark of one of the trees. I crossed over and putting out my finger the youngster attached itself to it. It was a juvenile flycatcher on an early flight. After a little rest it flew up on my shoulder and then to another tree up whose bark it went in a series of short vertical flights. While I was watching its movements with interest another of the family lit on my shoulder, leaving it when two more of the family came through the air. The flight of the little birds reminded me of bats. While their wings were fairly well developed their tails were scarcely visible and the absence of a balancing rudder may have been responsible for the fluttering flight.

Pacific-slope flycatcher. Wiki image.

All of us are flattered, I suppose, when little young things trust themselves to us, whether bird or beast or child, but in such an incident as that I have just given I think it was not trust but inexperience. The sight of young birds just emerged from the confinement of the nest is probably on a level with their powers of flight, and even more so their mental reactions to what they see. A blind man in an old story tells how he received his sight: “I see men as trees, walking”. Perhaps to the eyes and mind of a young bird you and I are also like trees- objects, that is to say, that are there for comfort and security. Older birds chiefly learn that we are to be avoided.

Crossing the area where once upon a time the park buffalo roamed within the confines of a fence and where now there is a very considerable growth of broom and other shrubbery I came on several pairs of Red-winged Blackbirds or Red-wings for short. As usual the air was filled with their musical whistlings which, however differing in content, have something of the quality of their relative the meadow-lark’s notes. So far as I know Emerson is the only poet who refers to the Red-wing. It is in his “May-Day”:

The Redwing flutes his o-ka-lee.

They are usually found about swampy ground and marshy ponds and lakes, but last year they were common about the Pemberton Woods. Here in Beacon Hill Park they have at any rate plenty of water and where I saw them the ground is inclined to be swampy in spots. As they nest in companies their abodes are always cheerful and even noisy places when anyone strays into the area of habitation.

Going up towards the glaciated rock exposure just after I left the Red-wings I suddenly saw before me a long graceful spire of vivid blue rising from the creamy yellow of the dry grass in a shallow hollow. It was the neck of a peacock that had left its enclosure and was enjoying itself in freedom. I could just see part of the brilliant green feathering of its back. It turned its head and showed its crest as the neck ceased to be a spire and became an exquisite living curve. At length it rose to go but as I remained stationary it settled down again in the grassy lair.

In Bear-Pit Wood

Crossing behind the Albion cricket grounds and the park nursery I followed the road toward Bear-Pit Wood, that south east corner of the park where once upon a time several bears were kept in an underground dungeon.

A bear in the old pit in Beacon Hill Park (1905). Saanich Archives image.

In an attempt to find some trace of this first zoological garden I followed part of the labyrinth of foot paths that now traverse the wood, but I was not successful. I did, however, see more of the trees and shrubs and herbs than I had ever done before. A very rich, rank growth of nettles grew by a thicket of wild rose that rises to a height of 10 feet in places. Elderberry, both black and red fruited, red flowering currant, ocean spray, and osoberry made up much of the thickets, mingled with bracken higher than ones head. Salmonberry bushes bore their golden fruit, not as luscious in our drier climate as they are in wetter regions. Rising above the shrubbery were maples and alders, Douglas and balsam firs, and at least one oak of slender winding habit as befitting the half shade. Some good specimens of large bird cherry were also met with. Along the path I saw the wild large leaved geum in flower and the silver-leaf in bud. Mayflower or wild lily-of-the-valley was passed flowering of course but the large leaves were very conspicuous, indeed larger than they usually are. I came back on the main road through the wood where alternate laurel and purple leaved berberis mark the hand of the boulevard planter.

A pathway through an old woodland in Beacon Hill Park (c1900). CVA image.

This corner is interesting because it shares with some of the grassland and all the oak woods the honor of being a piece of original and unimposed wild country. It is not exactly primeval forest but it is representative of a type of woodland found about this end of the Island as is also a part of the Uplands estate opposite the Yacht Club at Cadboro Bay. In years to come such reminders of the past and of the wild will be more and more valued as city and suburbs increasingly spread. There will always be many unable to travel far or under laborious conditions to see wild nature who will appreciate these next-door fragments of the primeval. Once in one of these fragments of the forest I picked up at the foot of an old fir an arrowhead chipped from black basalt, a reminder of the original inhabitants who were here far before the white man came upon these ancient shores and upon the ancient ways of their people.

Along the Cliffs

In the grass I saw the little blue and white lupine with its silky-haired foliage, a modest somewhat spreading plant redeemed from oblivion by its flowers in which the blue is of the shade we sometimes called “china” and artists call “cobalt”. The yarrow’s white flower heads were conspicuous near Dallas Road, one of the most cheerful and wholesome of plants. The origin of its common name is quite unknown, but it’s generic botanical name of Achilles honours the Greek warrior who is said to have been the first to use it for the treatment of wounds. It is also known as milfoil which is but an English form of its botanical specific name millefolia, the thousand-leaved, because of the fineness of the leaf divisions. Among old folk names in England we find “woundwort” and “old-man’s-pepper”, the first referring to it’s medicinal powers, the second perhaps to its use in food. In some parts of the British Isles it is used as a tea to drive away low spirits and headache. I can never resist plucking a leaf in passing it.

Yarrow and other wild flowers growing in a meadow in Beacon Hill Park as painted by Emily Carr in 1909. AGGV image.

By Dallas Road I saw a fine display of cow parsnip of which I wrote last week. The flower heads were being explored by two or three species of wasp like flies in patterns of black and yellow and black and white. Some of the fruits were not only formed and green but were already dark purple with ripening. Behind the cow parsnip was a little bluff of poplars. The handsome tall cinquefoil was in full flower.

I descended the cliffs by the nearest stairway with a dense thicket of wild rose and snowberry on each side. The tide was fairly well out as I skirted the cliff base towards Finlayson Point. I came on the small-podded lupine whose leafage, with its long silky hair and flowers that upon opening are cream-coloured and become slightly yellow or with age, make it an attractive object on the steep slopes of boulder clay. In some places it was decidedly plentiful. One of its neighbours was an artemisia, and another the long-spiked plantain, a characteristic seashore form. Here and there clusters of young horsetails made bright green patches, and in contrast were the broad rather glaucous and resinous leaves and stems of the gumweed or grindelia.

Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) growing at Ten Mile Point, July 2021.

I passed around the head with a glimpse at the striking contrast between the dark diorite and the light coloured invading grandiorite, and at the pronounced glacial smoothings and furrowings.

Glacial smoothing and furrowing at Finlayson Point, July 2021.

A narrow footpath lead up to the top of the cliff and by it I saw in flower that pretty native clover, the red fringed (Trifolium fimbriatum), so called because of the long slender teeth of the involucre or cup surrounding the flower-head and of the calyx. It is one of the several species of native clovers and may well have been the one that impressed the first group of Hudson’s Bay pioneers as they came up from the sea and thus led to the name of Clover Point being given the long promontory east of Finlayson Point.

An early photo of Clover Point. CVA image.

I returned by way of the flagstaff on the Hill which is now honored by a large cheerful glass-enclosed sitting room or sunroom where several persons are sitting enjoying the view. It is a remarkable change from the days when local [First Nations] spread their bird nets on high poles along here to catch the wild fowl in their flights across to the Arm, or from when later the conspicuous elevation bore a beacon light for the benefit of mariners.

In the chequers pavilion on top of Meeqan/Beacon Hill in the 1930s. CVA image.

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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