The ephemeral cherry blossoms of spring

Prunus subhirtella ‘Rosea’ (Higan Cherry), Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria BC, April 9, 2009)

The subtleties of blossom-watching have raised it to an art form and favoured cultural pastime in Japan, where it’s known as hanami. March and April are also time for Cherry Blossom Festivals in Vancouver and Washington, DC . While Victoria doesn’t have an official festival, it’s nonetheless an amazing place for blossoms, with thousands of Prunus (flowering cherry and plum) street trees and trees in private gardens in bloom–and the spring of 2009 is turning out to be a record year.

Varieties abound to confuse the casual observer, but also spread the enjoyment out over a longer period. Some autumn-flowering varieties can actually start blossoming around Christmas, but the real peak is in March and April. Kathy Voegtle has created a wonderful guide to Vancouver’s flowering cherries. In Victoria, a classic book by Chaster, Ross and Warren (Trees of Greater Victoria: A Heritage, published by the Heritage Tree Book Society, 1988) provides some densely packed and tantalizing hints about this city’s riches on pages 68-70.

Below, a March-flowering variety (unknown to me!) on Government Street next to a handsome Hornbeam, passers-by suitably brolly-ed up.
Moss Street in the Fairfield neighbourhood is known for the Art Gallery, the annual Paint-in in July of each year, and the Moss Street Farmers’ Market. It is also home to an incredible vista of blossoms. The first flush, shown below in April, are probably ‘Kwanzan’. The second flush (alternating trees) will likely be out in May.

Restoration 101

There has been a lot of activity in James Bay and Ogden Point to restore natural habitat and improve ecosystem function. Here are just some of these efforts.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Shoreline Trail: Part of the revitalization of the downtown waterfront in Victoria involves constructing an attractive trial following the shoreline. In the past, armouring the bank up to its top would have been done with large boulders to protect the bank from erosion by the tides. At this site an area about 2-3 m wide was landscaped using native vegetation. Oregon grape, kinnikinnik, deer fern and red osier dogwood were chosen to vegetate this challenging site that would be exposed to both the harsh dry summer of this growing region and the occasional salt spray.

Salt Marsh: In one small pocket perhaps 15 m2 in area, large boulders and sand were used to create a sandy bench that was planted with sea asparagus. Located just at the high tide line, this salt marsh recreated a small patch of what used to be a much more extensive habitat at this site.

Tidal Gate: There is a small inlet at Fisherman’s Wharf where a storm drain serving James Bay exits into the harbour. As part of the stormdrain upgrading for this area a tidal gate was installed to prevent saltwater from backing up into the system at high tide. The city installed a much larger stormdrain pipe in 2009 in an attempt to reducing flooding in the area which during heavy rain events saw some of its roads 30-60 cm underwater.

Seals: At the bottom of the ramp down to the docks are a few shops. Barb’s Fish and Chips is renowned and is a favourite destination for locals and tourists when it is open during from mid-March until the fall. Next to the fish and chip stand is a fish shop that sells fresh seafood. It also sells herring to feed seals that are always there to receive these gifts from avid adventurers. The seals reach way out of the water for the fish dangling from someone’s hand and they can be made to twirl as well.

Playing field

Vortex ceptor: Next to the parking lot for Fisherman’s Wharf is a playing field that sits on top of 5 m of loose fill brought in over the years from various construction sites around the city. The site is unsuitable for building. The city recently installed a large ceptor to capture sediment coming from the stormwater in drains before it empties into the ocean. This large concrete chamber about 5 m deep contains a vortex that slows water down and allows sediment to be collected in a trap that is regularly cleaned. This reduces turbidity in the receiving waters for the pipe.

Stream daylighting: In the past, streams and small waterways in natural areas were confined in culverts and covered with fill so development could occur overtop. More recently people have come to value these scarce open waterways in their community and look for opportunities to excavate the “lost streams” and daylight them again. There used to be six streams in this area of James Bay, one of which flowed under the playing field. The City of Victoria now plans to daylight this stream through the park. They will need to excavate down 5 m to the water so the banks of the stream will need to be very wide to avoid having a steep slope in the park. Along the road are several black locust trees. This tree is native to eastern Canada but it is not found naturally yet in the west. It is planted in cities because it is hardy and grows fast. Unfortunately, it is invasive and not very long-lived.

Dallas Road

Dallas Road: The Shoal Point condominium development has impressive landscaping. There is a rock face with a waterfall planted with many shrubs. In urban situations it is unusual to find running water on the surface, available to wildlife. Open water with shrubs supports many native bird species. James Bay is known for the Bewick’s Wren that sings often; its song is characteristic of a walk in the morning around the neighbourhood. More recently, though, a Winter Wren has also been in the area. Normally a woodland bird, it is at home in a landscape like that around Shoal Point.

Coast Guard: Across the street from Shoal Point are the offices of the Coast Guard. They also have a landscape planting that is valued by wildlife, in this case a large cluster of willow shrubs that are an attractive view for the people working in the building. Above the offices the roof of the Coast Guard building is planted with grasses and shrubs with a small plaza. This is in fact a green roof that helps to maintain water on the site rather than direct it into a stormdrain. On the road next to the Coast Guard are rows of street trees. These are primarily Wheatley elms. A large number of street trees in James Bay are elms that survived the Dutch elm disease that has laid waste to most elms in most other Canadian cities. The disease has not yet made it onto Vancouver Island. If and when it does it will devastate much of the urban forest of James Bay. The Wheatley elm is invasive and many of the rows of what appear to be shrubs along parking lots are actually the suckers of nearby elms.

Angler’s Boat Launch: The James Bay Anglers Association has a boat launch close to Ogden Point. Many nonprofit rod and gun clubs and other nongovernmental organizations such as environmental clubs like the Sooke Salmonid Enhancement Society play a major role in ecological restoration in urban areas. raising salmon fry or restoring stream habitat as an example. One of the largest organizations restoring wetlands in Canada and the United States is Ducks Unlimited. The Amalgamated Conservation Society of Victoria has a proposal to raise thousands of pink salmon fry in an open water pen next to Ogden point opposite the boat launch. This is not a fish farm though, it would be more like a pen in a salmon hatchery, providing protection for the fry as they grow larger before being released, hopefully to return in two years as adults.

Ogden Point

Ogden Point: Ogden Point extends about one kilometre out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Consisting of about 10,000 large granite blocks, it provides shelter for Victoria’s harbour. At the beginning of the breakwater is the Ogden Point Cafe with the dive shop underneath. In the parking lot next to the dive shop are several reef balls. These hollow domes of concrete about one metre in diameter will be part of a restoration effort that will see hundreds of these balls submerged in the subtidal zone next to the breakwater. This area is already a provincial underwater marine park rich with life and the reef balls will enhance this habitat. It is also part of a Victoria Harbour Bird Sanctuary, established in 1923, that extends along the shoreline all the way from Esquimalt to Ten Mile Point. In 2008, The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority installed an electronic noise device on the Ogden Point Pier Warehouse A roof to scare away gulls but was required by the Canadian Wildlife Service to remove it because it interfered with other birds protected by the sanctuary. The breakwater protects the harbour for Pilot Boats that move pilots as needed to and from ships passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Beach Front: Large sections of the banks along the beach are covered with Scotch broom, a troublesome invasive shrub that was brought here by settlers in the 1800s and has been a serious problem in local habitat of Garry Oak Ecosystems. The plant is a legume and can fix nitrogen, enabling it to colonize disturbed soils. Once established, it keeps out local native vegetation by greatly increasing the nitrogen content of the soil (a situation hostile to many native species) and produces a chemical that suppresses the growth of other species (an allelopath). Erosion of the banks is a serious problem and a great deal of effort has been made to stabilize the bluffs. They cannot simply be armoured with large boulders or cement walls because the sand eroding from these sites is carried to beaches further along the coast – without some erosion here these distant beaches would disappear. The foot of the bluffs is a common place for squatters to set up camp, some of whom have been known to excavate into the banks, accelerating natural erosion. The top of the bank at Holland Point shows outlines of raised earth mounds that are associated with previous settlements of First Nations at this location thousands of years earlier. Found here are some burial sites and many artefacts associated with the middens at the settlements.

Beacon Hill Park

Beacon Hill Park: Invasive species control is a big issue at Beacon Hill Park. English ivy has long been an issue and many volunteers have worked many hundreds of hours trying to control this vine that covers the forest floor and climbs trees. More recently, in the last few years carpet burweed arrived in the off-leash area of the park. It first appeared in British Columbia in Ruckle Park on Saltspring Island in 1997 and has spread to campgrounds and recreation sites in other parts of the province. For 27 years Beacon Hill Park was also home to a large colony of Great Blue Herons. Usually such colonies only last about 10 years before the guano from the birds kills the trees. Victoria Parks actively maintained the trees though, protecting them from the damaging impacts of the guano. However, in 2008 the colony was devastated by transient Bald Eagles. A nesting pair of Bald Eagles lived by the colony but the male died and left the territory vacant. The undefended territory was entered by many other eagles who ate all of the Great Blue Heron young from the 2007 nesting season. Also, a number of Lawson cypress trees in the colony died from an infection of Phytophthora fungus that managed to survive the winter (possibly due to climate change). The opened-up canopy created by these dead trees exposed the nests of the herons to predation. The heron colony has since dispersed with smaller groups of birds aqppearing in various locations around the Saanich Peninsula.


LifeCycles Garden: Straight up Menzies from Dallas Road and close to the parliament buildings is a small allotment garden in the corner of a parking lot. It is operated by the LifeCycles Project Society, founded in 1994. Allotment gardens play an interesting role in ecological restoration. They represent a form of ecological restoration known as the “working landscape.” This gained prominence in ecological restoration projects on pasture lands by various nature trusts – they worked with farmers to restore their land while at the same time retaining its role as pasture for livestock. An allotment garden in a city retains the people function while providing some wildlife habitat. The garden plots tend to be rich in flowers from ornamental plants and vegetables which support pollinators in the ecosystem. The healthy populations of pollinators such as butterflies, bees and hummingbirds benefit both native and non-native species. The LifeCycles Garden also contains a cob house made of mud that illustrates more eco-friendly building practices that may be appropriate in some situations.

People and Things at the Breakwater

The kilometre-long breakwater is a place people go to relax, explore, take in nature or to reconnect with themselves. The lighthouse at the end of the breakwater is a popular destination. People often stop to admire the little lamp that plays such an important role in keeping ships away. The lighthouse itself frequently sports a fresh coat of paint, mainly to hide the latest graffiti that seems to appear regularly.

On a sunny day or if there is a special event the causeway can be packed! It was standing room only during the mock cannon battle held off the point during the Tall Ships Festival in June 2008.

There is usually something going on at the edge of the water or in the water. Usually someone is trying their luck with their favourite lure to pull something edible from the water. However, they are mainly after the fish and wisely leave the divers to themselves.

The breakwater can also be a place for quiet reflection. Shown here is one of a number of chalk epitaphs written in tribute after the sudden death of a young person in Victoria.

Sometimes Ogden Point serves as a staging area for special events. The large parking area used to be used to store lumber for export and now receives imports of pleasure boats, cars and thousands of tourists from cruise ships. It’s also the daytime home of horses who pull carriages around James Bay (controversial to many who feel that horses and cars don’t mix) and is also a good place for organizers to assemble a parade. A particularly fun event is the Island Equipment Operators Christmas truck parade when owners of dozens of large rigs deck them with lights and drive off along Dallas Road into the city and beyond to Langford. Be warned that taking pictures of these beautifully adorned vehicles is very tricky, especially if you don’t know what you are doing, like we didn’t (see the rather abstract impression below). Better portraits of the ‘winners’ can be found at .

Trains and Boats and Planes

Victoria Harbour–including Ogden Point–is a busy place. During the summer season dozens of cruise ships visit, several a week and sometimes three at once. They’re on their way to or from Alaska.

The regular vessels, though, are the two pilot boats that go out and meet the large freighters travelling through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to and from a Canadian port. The Pacific Pilot 2, shown here with the Wave Venture that also used to be a regular for years, braved all types of weather in its efforts to ensure safe passage of vessels through the Strait. Just last year, it was joined by the more modern Pacific Scout and the Pacific Pilot 1 was retired. The Wave Venture left to work on the University of Victoria’s Neptune Project, helping to lay down the many kilometres of underwater cable that send images and other data from the ocean floor to labs at several universities for analysis.

Going by the tip of the breakwater each day are the MV Coho that connects Victoria to Port Angeles in Washington State, and the Victoria Clipper passenger catamaran that plies the waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Victoria and Seattle. The Coho is part of the Blackball Line, which makes it sound like a pirate ship and adds a little excitement to the experience. The Clipper travels very fast and the weather in the Strait can make the crossing somewhat bumpy. The Clipper is not without its romance: We know of a couple who actually met several years ago on the Clipper when each was travelling to and from Seattle and Victoria on a regular basis to visit relatives.

Canada’s Pacific Fleet is actually posted in Esquimalt, just around the tip of the peninsula across from Ogden Point to the west, so it’s not uncommon to see some of our naval vessels in the waters.

Many sailboats also pass by, usually on a sunny day with just the right amount of wind. This one with red sails caught our eye, as did this flotilla of small boats being towed by a motorboat.

Finally, you may see something totally unusual such as this oil rig that came by mysteriously one day heading east to who knows where…

The skies over Ogden Point are also busy, with helicopters taking off and landing from the Helijet Terminal almost every hour. Float planes also fly by as they take off and land on the water in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

Oh, and about those trains. The single-car Malahat (formerly known as E&N or Esquimalt and Nanaimo) train leaves Victoria every morning up-island for Courtenay first thing in the morning, and returns about suppertime every evening. It delights in making its presence known by generously sounding its horn as it leaves or arrives at the station in downtown Victoria. It is easily heard from the Ogden Point breakwater. The E&N is the only train to enter Victoria, in contrast to Greater Vancouver, which has both passenger trains and frequent freight train traffic.

Viewing Fish from the Top of the Breakwater

There’s no shortage of spectacular fish awaiting those lucky enough to SCUBA dive at Ogden Point. Wolf eels, kelp greenling and rockfish alone are some of the wonders waiting among the 10,000 granite blocks and forests of bull kelp. But even for those just walking out to the point, there is much to see.

Chinook salmon go by many names, including spring salmon, king salmon or tyee if the specimen is over 14 kg (30 lbs). In a saltwater twist on the hatchery concept, a local group has proposed pens to rear fry of the much smaller pink salmon, which would be released and hopefully return in two years.

Peering into the water you may also see schools of fish making their way around the breakwater. Herring are not uncommon. There are usually many hundreds of young herring (as shown below), readily identified by the flash of silver made when one or more suddenly changes direction in the group.

Other schools of fish you may see include the Bay pipefish, a long pencil-thin fish, and the three-spine stickleback, which is interesting as it’s also common in freshwater as well as along the shore in marine coastal habitats.

Seeing Seals..and other marine mammals at Ogden Point

You’re likely to see a harbour seal in the water any time you walk the Ogden Point breakwater. They are pretty tame and come close for a good look at you. The harbour seal is the common seal found around Victoria or Vancouver, the western counterpart to the harp seal in the east and the ringed seal in the north. They eat fish and cause some distress for people fishing for salmon from the breakwater. One time a seal was seen swimming along the harbour side of the breakwater with an octopus in its mouth. The pair in the photograph on the right were swirling around and chasing each other back and forth for several minutes – we supposed they were on a play date. At nearby Fisherman’s Wharf, seals will jump up to grab seafood scraps that one of the seafood stores sells, making for some interesting photos for tourists to take home.

California sea lions are also a common sight by the breakwater, especially in early spring when they are following the herring north. Sea lions expel air very loudly when they surface, like a whale, which is one way to distinguish their behaviour from that of a harp seal. Another difference is that harbour seals tend to bob in and out of the water, slipping inconspicuously below the surface of the water when they dive, whereas sea lions will arch into a dive so you can see the crest of their back. They’re also more likely to see a group of sea lions.

These handsome fellows were photographed from a boat on Steveston Jetty at the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver–they often hang out on the river in April and early May, following the herring and oolichans up towards New Westminster.

River otters create a lot of excitement when they show up. Many people think that they are sea otters because they are in the sea, but river otters will readily go into the ocean. Caught by surprise, visitors flip open their cell phones and try to catch a picture before the otter slips off the blocks into the water. There is often a group of river otters in the water off the point of Mayne Island that can be seen as the ferry to Vancouver from Victoria enters Active Pass.

On rare occasions people have seen whales from the tip of Ogden Point. Both killer whales and Minke whales have been observed. Usually, though, you just see the whale watching boats speed by during the tourist season on their way out to Haro Strait, Active Pass or wherever else the whales were known to be that day.