Bird watchers, plant lovers find peace at sanctuary in Greater Victoria city core

Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary is ‘a gem in the heart of the city’

Exploring the natural beauty and ecosystem of Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary during a nature walk in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

The bird watchers gather in the parking lot at the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, binoculars and cameras at their sides, chattering about their most recent siting of a tiny wren or a noisy warbler.

It’s a loosely knit group of die-hard locals and visitors from across Canada who will wander the trails of a wild West Coast oasis located in the heart of Greater Victoria’s urban landscape.

Take one or two steps onto a Swan Lake trail, amid the Garry Oak forest, the marshy lakeside bull rushes and the cries of an Osprey circling the water, and the noise of nearby traffic-snarled highway melts away.

“This is the unorganized bird watch group,” says Michael Webb to the dozen people who have arrived to participate in the sanctuary’s twice-weekly free bird watch tours. “We haven’t had a leader for a year, but we want to make sure nobody gets lost. This is a lovely little refuge in all of the noise.”

Once the home of sheep pastures, vegetable farms and a lakeside hotel dating back to the mid 1800s, Swan Lake officially became a nature sanctuary society in 1975 as local politicians, naturalists and area schools joined forces to protect the 65-hectare area from development. It is managed by the non-profit sanctuary society.

READ MORE: Climate change not major factor in Oak Bay’s rare bird sightings, prof says

Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary does not bill itself as a tourism destination hot spot, but it’s a scenic, restful and largely untouched area for those needing to press the pause button without travelling long distances or spending large amounts of money, says Kathleen Burton, Swan Lake’s executive director.

“Literally, this is a gem in the heart of the city,” says Burton, sitting on a wood bench overlooking the lake. “You just take a deep breath and you can release a lot of the tension of travelling and daily anxieties.”

The sanctuary comprises two physically and ecologically distinct areas, including the low wetland surrounding Swan Lake and the rocky, oak forest hilltop of Christmas Hill. The area was shaped by the last glacial period which formed Christmas Hill and the deep clay beds under Swan Lake.

There are up to four dozen native flower and plant species, including Nootka rose hip, western buttercup, pink fawn lily and red columbine at the sanctuary and more than 180 bird species. Red-winged blackbirds can be seen perched on bull rushes at the water’s edge while hawks and eagles hover high above the lake.

Night-vision cameras stationed in the forest reveal bears, raccoons and deer meandering through the bush and foraging for food. The video images are shown inside the sanctuary’s Nature House, which also includes a gift shop, classroom space and displays of animals and plants found in the area.

“There’s cool stuff that happens here,” says Burton, recalling watching a pair of squirrels sending out furious vocal warnings of a Barred owl about to launch its evening hunt over the forest and lake shore.

Bird watcher Norma Smith says she’s a sanctuary regular. Smith, who says she also acts as an unofficial guide, packs binoculars and a camera and her mobile phone includes recordings of bird calls to help her identify the many different ones she’s seen at Swan Lake.

She says she feels blessed to have a largely untouched refuge to visit within the urban boundary.

“Just walking among the trees and nature is relaxing and good for your soul,” she says.

RELATED: Social media, digital photography allow millennials to flock to birdwatching

If you go: The grounds, nature trails and parking lot are all open dawn to dusk every day at 3873 Swan Lake Rd, Saanich. Admission is by donation. The Nature House is open year-round, except for statutory holidays.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Union says mediated negotiation with WFP has been ‘disappointing’

Striking forestry workers have been on picket lines since Canada Day

The conflicting ideas of economy and ecology examined in Ellingsen’s work

Artist talk for photographic exhibition The Last Stand is part of this weekend’s Art & Earth Festival

PHOTOS: Storm split weekend effort at the Brindy

After home stand, Campbell River to head on the road Saturday

Global Climate Strike comes to Campbell River

Rally and march to be held at Spirit Square on Sept. 20

VIDEO: Drone footage documents work to free salmon at Big Bar landslide

Video shows crews working to remove rocks and wood, and transporting salmon by helicopter

Man who crushed Nanaimo RCMP cars with stolen truck gets more jail time

Majore Jackson, 34, sentenced to two more years in jail in provincial court in Nanaimo

Defense says burden of proof not met in double murder case against Victoria father

Closing statements begin in trial for man accused of killing daughters Christmas 2017

B.C. dog breeder banned again after 46 dogs seized

The SPCA seized the animals from Terry Baker, 66, in February 2018

Surrey mom allegedly paid $400,000 for son in U.S. college bribery scam

Xiaoning Sui, 48, was arrested in Spain on Monday night

Three dogs found shot dead in Prince George ditch

The three adult dogs appeared to be well cared for before being found with gunshot wounds, BC SPCA says

B.C. party bus company to be monitored after 40 intoxicated teens found onboard

Police received tip teens and young adults were drinking on party buses and limousines in Surrey

Rick Mercer calls out Conservative candidate in B.C. for fake meme

‘Not true. All fake. Please Stop,’ tweeted Rick Mercer in response

Bear killed in Kimberley after chasing girl, wreaking havoc on town

This particular brown-coloured bear has been the subject of many calls this summer; very food habituated, CO says

Most Read