Through Pemberton Woods in May

Connell visits Pemberton Woods, a remnant of ancient woodland in what is now the Fairfield-Gonzales neighborhood of Victoria, paying particular attention to the wide range of birdlife he encounters there.


From the Victoria Daily Colonist, May 17, 1942-

The fancy took me the other evening to stroll over to the Pemberton Woods which, as many of my readers know by now, are only a few minutes walk away and a favorite haunt of mine. The streets neighboring it on our side are only partially built up and so there still remain acres of meadow where the lover of wild flowers may in summer find some old friends and at times have the excitement of meeting a stranger. They begin with buttercups and spearworts and wind up with Michaelmas daisies and salsify. In between the extremes you have wild roses, crab apple, lupines, owl’s-clover, centaury, and pinks, to say nothing of a variety of composites ranging from cat’s-ears to tar weeds. Garry oaks grow on the higher parts and tall cottonwoods in the background. The whole area is a part of the extensive “raised beach” which extends over so much of the Fairfield and Oak Bay districts and marine shells lie just below the surface in great quantities. A little way off, a man and team are ploughing a short furrow that requires frequent turnings, and the horses swing round at the ends and resume their steady pull in the old-fashioned way. How far it all seems from this motor-mechanical age with its noise and fumes!

Pemberton Woods, at centre, as seen from Gonzales Hill with the Rockland ridge in the background.

There is a westerly breeze, warm here as it blows across the land. It sweeps across the fields and the purpling heads of grass bend before it in waves that are ever moving with a velvety softness and absence of sound. Then a turn of the way brings in view the sea. Its long dark horizon edge is firm and straight, the more noticeably so after looking long and lingeringly at the wind-moved grass. By contrast the sea seems hard and lifeless, cold and repellent; and yet above it, far off in Washington, rise other waves, the stony crests of the Olympics. For mountains, too, have something of the same rhythmic pattern as the sea and the wind-stirred meadows, only in them the pattern seems fixed forever.

The woods are similarly irregular in surface, and it would seem that at a time not very far distant the wind drifted the sands here into low hummocks. At any rate where the north-south ditch runs and wherever excavations have been made parallel to it pure sand has been found. The woods are made up of large-leaved maple with a few scattered balsam firs, patches of cottonwood and alder, and a predominance of fir on the east. Scattered about along the edge of the maple woods are still a number of large bitter-cherry trees. The thickets which abound along the north and south sides are composed of willow, osoberry, salmonberry, spirea, mock-orange, snowberry, red-fruited elderberry, blackthorn, crab apple and Nootka rose. In the shadier parts about the north-east corner there are numbers of small seedling hollies.

“The Entrance to Pemberton Woods” by Connell, June 21, 1939.

The main path runs from north to south, and is crossed by another less used one running east and west. In the northeast quadrant where most of the open area is there are minor paths everywhere, some of them running into dense thickets. To wander along these among the curiously twisted and contorted maples with the dark firs rising behind is in itself a pleasure. When you add to this the glimpses and hints of bird life that come to eye and ear as you proceed slowly and cautiously, the cup of spring’s delight is reasonably full. And it is because of this little corner’s character and inhabitants that I not only go to it again and again with growing interest, but introduce it with some degree of particularity over and over again to my readers.

A remnant of Pemberton Woods still exists at Pemberton Park. May, 2022.

It must be remembered that the early morning and the evening are the best times of the day for seeing and hearing birds in general. The first flush of dawn has hardly made itself evident when the chorus begins. We can hear it in our beds if we are early wakers and still more if we are early risers by preference or by necessity. As there are special songs hours of the day so are there special song times of the year. The latter half of the year is on the whole a time of silence. But anyone who has camped along out northeastward coast in late June and early July will recall the song chorus of the hundreds of robins in the alders morning and evening, as well as the solo performances of other dwellers in woodland and valley. The seasons are a little later in the region beyond Sooke. And when all is hot and dry about Victoria and Saanich the summer fogs come drifting up the Straits from the great ocean and bring with them, as they lose themselves in the forested land at the foot of the hills, coolness and moisture and a lengthening of spring and early summer.

As I enter the woods by the old path this May evening – just after seven by our daylight saving time – the air is almost heavy with the scent of the plant’s new life. From the shining gummy newly-opened leaves of the cottonwood trees to the sanicle whose symmetrical rosettes of leaves have been waiting rather frigidly all winter for the word “Go”, a smell of vegetable cells in active, amazingly active, growth comes to me.

Flowering rosette of the Pacific sanicle, May 2022.

Some plants remind one of cucumber, others have rough crude odors peculiar to themselves. Most of them as a rule require the pressure of the rambler’s foot or hand to make them give up their aroma to the air, but as I walk along the lane with its green walls of salmonberry and osoberry and elderberry no touch of mine is needed to share the bouquet of what George Meredith calls “the woodland wine”. A good designation it is for the scent carries with it a certain intoxicating quality that quickens the blood and makes the brain cells vibrate more sensitively and rapidly. The woodland seems a living conscious thing, rejoicing in its new life as we do, but being without vocal speech using its beauty of color and form and scent to express its joy and gladness. No wonder the birds rejoice with it and love to hide themselves under its shadows and make their nests among its green and growing things.

A Medley of Birds

The robins dominate the scene both by their numbers and by the persistence of their voices. There is a mingling of song and call but this impression, curiously enough, has passed away. Now I appreciate the cheerful challenge to the world the robin throws out so carelessly. One writer on birds gives it as “tra-wee-ah, tra-wee-ah, tra-wee-ah”, with the accent prominently on the middle syllable. The robin of Eastern America, according to a bird-lover of that region, says before rain: “I have a theory, a theory, a theory, it’s going to rain!” with the stress on the first syllable of “theory”.

In the middle of the lane where the salmonberry bushes are thickest another note comes from the cover, a note taken up and repeated in one way and another but always with something metallic, nasal, about it. Even when it is just a plain whistle it has an unmistakeable quality that leaves you in no doubt about the whistler. Seen here among the newly-leaved bushes the male red-winged blackbird is just a plain blackbird, and it is not easy to see him in flight as in the tule swamp where we saw him the other week. Here he is out of his element, making the woodland thickets a transient stopping place before he settles down in his truly domestic location. When he rises above the bushes and flies across the open space overhead the scarlet of his epaulettes is revealed. No wonder with such a display he has been sometimes called the “soldier-bird”. The more common name for the “red-winged marsh blackbird” as he is described in full in some books is just plain “red-wing”, a name that is both brief and sufficient. His mate is, as with the related cowbirds and Brewer blackbirds, browner, only more decidedly marked than they, and there are numbers of them as of the males here in the woods.

A towhee on top of a small tree is uttering his evening song, but cuts it short as I pass. He, too, has a marital air, for although without scarlet he has a bright bay on his flanks and a red eye. The names “towhee” and “chewink” applied to the eastern species are equally applicable to ours of the West, for they are taken from notes common to both. Another towhee sound is a distinct “miaow”, so like a cat’s that if the name had not already been pre-empted the towhee would almost certainly have been called the catbird.

Along the path in front I see several white-crowned sparrows. Many a time have I walked across the old Songhees Reserve and heard them singing, almost a bird to every bush by the roadside. That was in the days of the old hand-revolving bridge, those dear delightful days so leisured compared with these. but the little fellows are not in song this evening. Just to the left of the path that turns toward the girls’ school I come on a Bewick wren singing away as only he can. This wren with a tail longer than that of our other two species, the house and the winter wrens, and with a conspicuous white line over the eye, is noted for his powerful and melodious song, while his scolding notes are equally remarkable in their way.

Turning to the right-hand side of the path I catch a glimpse of a single sparrow, not white-headed, and following it with the glasses I discover it to be a golden-crowned sparrow, much shyer in its habits than the other. Nevertheless patience is rewarded by a really close-up view in which the yellow stripe along the middle of the head, with its bordering bands of black, is plainly seen. And as I withdraw to the main path I almost miss seeing a small bird whose plain dress of black, grey and white seems to identify him as a black-throated grey warbler.

Golden crowned sparrow. Photo by Rich Leche (https://ebirdr.com/bird/golden-crowned-sparrow)

Further on is a piece of grassland bounded on three sides by alders and cottonwoods, with some towering firs behind and much high and heavy thicket. Here I have often watched the companies of friendly birds that travel together in autumn and winter – kinglets, chickadees, nuthatches – moving along that single file of alders on the west. And in summer I have stood under the thicker umbrage on the north and watched the wax-wings overhead, the yellow warblers flitting like living sunshine through the leafy shade, the flycatchers making their short fluttering flights after insects. Last year a pheasant made her nest, hatched her eggs, and brought up her youngsters in this turfy square and within fifty feet of the path much traveled by school children and grown-ups, as well as by dogs. This evening, however, I find no sign of a bird in tree or thicket, in the grass or among the broom. So I return to where the two paths cross and there on the ground not far from where the white-crowned sparrows were are two chipping-sparrows with their little caps of brown velvet. This little bird is perhaps the most familiarly known of all our birds because of its association with homes and households. Named for its little chipping, it is often known as “chippy” for short. Children know its nest well and the part the hairs of cows and horses play in its construction. Unfortunately the horse and the cow have nearly gone from our towns and their immediate vicinity and the little “hair-bird” is thus robbed of an important part of this home-building program, as well as this name.

Chipping sparrow with “hair nest”. Photo by BPQ (https://pqspb.org/bpqpoq/sparrow-of-the-week-chipping-sparrow/chipping-sparrow-nest-build_connie_morgenstern-9175/#)

“The Far Woods Are Dim”

Alone on the bare point of a small dead fir sits a humming-bird, a tiny speck against the western sky and its fading light. No gleam of color is visible even with the glasses, but the slender bill is distinct. A downy wood-pecker on another dead tree makes a resonant drumming that seems out of all proportion to his small size.

Over the old maples fly the swallows who look like skaters in a topsy-survey world as they glide and sweep and twist and turn agains the ice-like grey of the sky. The dead trees are full of holes and one of these days you may see a flicker enter or leave one of them in going to or from its nest. The flicker is not, however, very particular about the location of home. Even the soil of a bank may suit, perhaps, because the ground with its shore of ants and other insects and of fallen nuts and fruits is of such importance in its life. Judging by the flickers’ voices that come across the woods there should be many nests in the neighborhood this summer.

Robins are red-winged blackbirds and flickers and swallows do not constitute the whole of the flyers that pass across the sky within the limits of its tree-bounded horizon. I get sight of wild pigeons, our native band-tailed. “Pigeons” suggests something tame and domesticated, even artificial and abnormal, whereas our wild birds are associated in the minds of many of us with the great stretches of alder woods extending for miles along our seacoast. And it is to me almost impossible to see them there or here without thought of the passenger pigeon. I have just been reading John Burroughs on this bird as he saw it in the early 1870s:

I am always at home when I see the passenger pigeon. Few spectacles please me more than to see clouds of these birds sweeping across the sky, and few sounds are more agreeable to my ear than their lively piping and calling in the spring woods. They come in such multitudes, they people the whole air; they cover townships, and make the solitary places gay as with a festival. The naked woods are suddenly blue as with fluttering ribbons and scarves, and vocal as with the voice of children. Their arrival is always unexpected. Sometimes years elapse and scarcely a flock is seen. Then of a sudden some March or April they come pouring over the horizon from the south or southwest, and for a few days the land is alive with them… A year ago last April the pigeons flew for two or three days up and down the Hudson. In long bowing lines, or else in dense masses, they moved across the sky…The day seemed memorable and poetic in which such sights occurred.

The passenger pigeon was last seen in Manitoba just before the beginning of the present century. The disappearance of this beautiful bird stands alongside that of the buffalo as a tragic memorial of man’s ability to upset in his thoughtlessness the long-established balance of Nature. Not yet by any means is the lesson learned, as our exploitation of resources shows. But at any rate the songsters of matins and eventide are with us yet, and if they do us no other service than to charm us with their colors and music they deserve our thankful kindness and our watchful care.

“The Pigeon of Passage” (Passenger pigeon) by Mark Catesby, 1731.

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.

2 thoughts on “Through Pemberton Woods in May

  1. Thank you. I enjoyed that ramble through Pemberton Woods. In my mind’s eye I can clearly see and hear the birds and flowers encountered along the path.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a young girl attending “the near by girls school” I often played in these woods. A magical space to indulge ones imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

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