Breath of Spring in January

Connell returns to the Lansdowne slope paying particular attention to the winter bird life along the way.


From the Victoria Daily Colonist, January 25th, 1942-

Frost and snow have gone for the present, at least, and today has been a delightful foretaste of spring. A light rain in the morning gave way to one of those alternations of cloud and sunshine that almost make you think April is here in mid-January. Little patches of snow no bigger than your hand that mark some larger accumulation of householders’ shovelfuls or the mounds where children built a snowman on their lawn show our recent emergence from a brief period of flurrying flakes. The evergreens have recovered themselves after their unusual load and the grass looks as green as ever if not quite so graceful. Everything fairly twinkles in the bright sunshine for everything has enough moisture to give it a kind of varnish; buildings, pavements, tree trunks, branches, leaves, all have on their best appearance. But while like all other appearances these are quite possibly deceiving, still we may as well make the best of them while we may, and there is no question these fine warm sunny days of January while the showery sheen still lingers are some of our great pleasures on Vancouver Island. Today is indeed a walking day.


Birds in Town

As I came near the end of Davie Street where it is crossed by Leighton Avenue I heard that cheery chorus which is so common there during the year, but seems particularly noticeable in the winter months. Bordering a lot at the corner are some hawthorns which have rather run wild but which produce in their season an abundant crop of red haws. Here, and especially in the one just on the corner, gather the house sparrows, those little European immigrants that have survived both anathemas and physical force and even the disappearance of the horse from our streets. The passer-by disturbs them but little, only hushing a little the concert. This can hardly be described as singing, at least not as an individual performance, but when you get two or three dozen or more birds all twittering together, the effect is by no means unmusical, comparable perhaps with the sound of water running over pebbles or of the wind as it plays upon the leaves of a tree. There is about the house sparrow concert something of the same good-humored cheerfulness and independence that mark the birds in their attitude to life. There is nothing mean about the English sparrow. He is courageous, independent, cheerful; he makes the best of things and stays with us whatever the weather may be.

Robins and Finches

Along the north block of Davie Street the robins were in scores, a dozen to twenty in each tree, filling the air with musical fragments and at the same time moving on from one point of vantage to another. Mrs. Bailey in her “Handbook” describes the robin in winter as “shy and nervous” and says that in San Francisco the flocks feeding on ivy-berries in the cemeteries are “so timid they hide in the brush in great trepidation on the approach of man.” This is certainly not true of the birds in Victoria. I was able to walk under the branches of the boulevard rowans with robins sitting quite unconcernedly within a few feet. They were occasionally regaling themselves with holly berries in the gardens. But I seemed to detect an unrest born of the spring-like weather with its suggestion of the approach of household duties. Adults of both sexes were present with many juveniles.

The French name is La Merle d’Amerique, the “American blackbird”. If this is a popular name and not a book name, it is interesting because John Burroughs on his first visit to England when he saw the blackbird recognized it as the American robin in another dress. He noted the similarity of flight and manners, of note and call, as well as of size and shape.

Suddenly I came on two flocks of purple finches in successive rowan trees. The rowan berries one would say are over. The pavements are still red with remnants of fallen fruit. But nevertheless there is something left for these agile and active workers as they work their way among the clusters. Perhaps what remains is all the sweeter for the late frosts. Unlike the robins and the sparrows the finches were as silent as they were busy. Sometimes in their search for succulent bits they were upside down, swaying at the tip of a fruit cluster. Their presence in our cities in flocks in winter is a good illustration of the tendency of so many birds to seek out and attach themselves at least casually to the places where people congregate. In the Museum’s Catalogue of 1898 the California purple finch is described as an “abundant summer resident”, but now they are constantly to be seen in Victoria all winter long. Male birds with their very striking red are often met with in the thickets about Pemberton Woods.

Purple finch


Sunshine and Shadow

The broad depression traversed centrally by Shelbourne Street and on the sides by Cedar Hill and Mount Tolmie [Richmond] Roads has suffered by modern improvements so far as the landscape is concerned, but on this particular afternoon the effects of light and shade were such as to hide the rawer features and to emphasize the permanent ones. Thus on the right Mount Tolmie stood up boldly, the wall protecting the summit road very plain in a gleam of sun. Across the valley Oak Hill rose in the shadow which accentuated its prominence. In the distance Cedar Hill [Pkols/Mt. Douglas] itself was in a mist that softened it and made it seem very far off. Even the Normal School took on a certain dignity, and the hill that bears Smith’s Reservoir with its surrounding buildings was reduced to a mysterious blue. The distant ranges of the Sooke Hills and the Beaufort Range were shadowy; even the skyline was soft and indistinct. All around the horizon lay masses of soft purplish gray cloud, except where the eastern part of the Olympics showed its crests sharp and clear against open sky. The westerly wind brought low clouds of pale grey and snowy white across the sky and between them overhead were patches of exquisitely pure blue. All the valley was dappled with moving shadows thrown across its surface by the moving vapors overhead. Scattered gulls and crows moved with apparent aimlessness over the landscape and high above them an airplane droned its way.

The Shelbourne Valley from Richmond (“Mount Tolmie”) Road, 1907, by Robert Connell.

The dappled landscape was particularly lovely where the green fields of the old Deans farm spread their broad acres towards Shelbourne Street. There Bowker Creek came down with its winter waters through its artificially broadened channel, ugly enough in the dry summer weather but now redeemed by the strong stream swinging round the corners and breaking into wavelets with every obstruction of its course. The open fields make a striking contrast with the clustered houses on the other side of the road like runners at a race only waiting the starting shot. But it must be a delight to live in those on the fringe with that vision of green field and distant hills of blue and the song of the skylark at one’s door. As I walked along I felt at any rate the invigoration that comes from such a scene and such a revelation of the glory of light and its accompaniment of shadow. Edward Carpenter sings:

Sweet secret of the open air-
That waits so long, and always there, unheeded.
Something uncaught, so free, so calm, large, confident –
The floating breeze, the far hills and broad sky,
And every little bird and tiny fly or flower
At home in the great whole, not feeling lost not at all forsaken.

Skylark and Sparrow

I was however disappointed at seeing nothing of the skylarks whose favorite haunt this has been for many years, for here on Deans fields they were first established. In the first edition of “Birds of Western Canada” no mention was made of them though the Japanese starling of the Vancouver region was given some prominence. In the new edition now entitled “Birds of Canada” they have about seven and a half lines! And furthermore the reader is given this piece of information: “This is the famous skylark of Europe. It has been introduced in Southern Vancouver Island and a few are to be seen occasionally about Victoria.” Evidently Dr. Taverner did not get his information at first hand or at least was singularly unfortunate in his opportunities. I should like to take him up the Cedar Hill Valley or along Lansdowne Road east of Mount Tolmie Road or on the old Hudson’s Bay farm on Cedar Hill Cross Road or in some of the open fields of Saanich to the north where, on a summer day from early morning to eve the air is literally filled with their song and when you may sometimes see a dozen birds singing their soaring song at the same time. Or within the next few weeks he might witness the remarkable song flights and chases of courtship among hundreds of birds.

I was unable to see any the other day. At this season the larks are usually bunched, feeding here and there in small flocks. In fact I saw very few birds along the road. About half way across six pheasants were feeding. Usually there are gulls about the little ponds in the hollow but not a vestige of one did I come across. But in the roadside hedge just across the shallow ditch and at a distance I could easily have stretched my arm I came on a white-crowned sparrow sitting alone so far as I could see and looking just a little forlorn. Certainly the bird had not the air he has when summer comes and from every bush his brothers pour forth their little song, its very monotony of repetition giving it a peculiar charm. I was particularly interested in seeing this bird, for I have no recollection of having ever come across one before in the winter. Our friend seemed very shabby, his little striped cap having lost the full glory of its black and white velvet. Before the erection of the present Johnson Street Bridge and the construction of the new road and when the traffic across the bridge was largely pedestrian it was one of my greatest pleasures to walk through the white-capped sparrow chorus in early summer. Every bush on the old Songhees Reserve seemed to have a songster in it, each vying with the other in the rendition of the tribal melody. I am glad to say there are still plenty of these pretty sparrows about in summer. If their song were recorded in a moving picture the sound of it would, I am sure, melt the toughest Victoria heart when away from home, so characteristic is it of our end of the Island.

In the Open Woods

I turned off Lansdowne Road into the rocky pasture fields after my accustomed manner. The grey-green grass, the ledges of lichened rock, the oak trees old and young, the balsam firs in their dark shining green, the thickets in the wet hollow all purple and red with wild rose hips, the ancient fences, the cattle paths, the old road whose solitary bridge has at last succumbed to time: All these I know by heart and yet they never lose their attraction under whatever effects of light or vicissitudes of weather they are approached. Sometimes there are cattle in the scene or in the far fields a man and team plowing; very rarely a wanderer like myself.

“A Peaceful Corner, Lansdowne Road, Uplands” By Robert Connell, 1943

I found it however on this visit very still. The little winter brook along broke the quiet with its waters. An aged oak had fallen down and made a quaint bridge over the few inches of width just where the water came through a tiny rocky defile and rushed over a barrier some three inches high. It was interesting and amusing to see how perfectly this Lilliputian stream reproduced the features of their mighty brothers. The long swelling curves of the falling water, the bubbles and the foam, all were there.

The rocks were as usual at this season centers of botanical interest, because of their covering of lowly plants. The lichens especially were colorful objects. Patches of scarlet cladonia bore their brilliant fruiting organs displayed about the funnel-shaped summit of the blue-green stalk.

Cladonia lichen

Another cladonia with fine branching system of a dull brownish hue had tiny roundish knobs no larger than a small mustard seed. Foliaceous species resembled certain ribboned seaweeds except for the color of their branches which were greenish white above the black on the underside concealed from the light. Some species were bright green, others duller and more olivaceous. The barer and more exposed rocks and boulders often showed circular growths of lichens that adhere closely so that it is impossible to remove them. Their dull grayish colors give an appearance of staining to the rock and are one of the important materials of Nature’s palette in rocky and mountainous regions.

As I turned back to Lansdowne Road, Victoria lay beneath a curtain of gold overarched with purple cloud. The spires and towers of the churches with the castellated masses of office blocks were clearly outlined. The city was transfigured in the light of the sun now near its setting, but for the moment hidden from sight.

Victoria from an early 1900s illustration

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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