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Rithet's Bog LogoA Secret Garden – Once drained for farming, Rithet’s Bog is returning to a state of natural beauty

Times Colonist - Sunday, July 14, 2002 – Heather Neal

It’s 6:30 in the morning and outside, the birds’ scattered songs declare they’ve already been busy for a couple of hours.

We rise out of bed, yawn and open a window. A light breeze whistles through clusters of hawthorn trees in the bog behind the house as if to let us know it’s time to go. Binoculars in hand, we slip into gumboots and step out the back door where good friend and lifelong naturalist Mary Haig-Brown awaits us.

The dew that coated the grass an hour ago has already dried, a solid indication that summer has arrived at Rithet’s Bog in Saanich, and birdwatchers, researchers and joggers alike appreciate the warmth and placidity of this patch of nature in the middle of suburbia.

Many people have had a hand in the re-creation if this little piece of wilderness, an area once drained for farming but now being carefully restored as an easily accessible wild area, filled with native plants and attracting native (and other) wildlife. Today, Haig-Brown is going to show it to us through her eyes.

At one time the bog was part of Broadmead Farms lands, owned by the Guinness family. Then in 1994, the land was donated to the municipality of Saanich for preservation as a nature sanctuary, in exchange for some concessions.

The deal was, if the family donated the land, they would have use of its periphery for further development.

Now Foxborough Hills Estates (a condominium complex with more that 100 units) lines one side of it, and houses and offices surround the rest. The fragile ecosystem is used for bird research, dog-walking, light weekend jogs and nature conservancy projects. Groups such as the Rithet’s Bog Conservation Society work to clean up the bog’s water systems and plant species being threatened by such suburban runoff as lawn fertilizer.

The organization attempts to provide native plants, animals and birds with a healthier environment. They are also responsible for planting new Garry oak trees and reducing the number of invasive species, such as the ubiquitous blackberry bush, which take up space where other native species could grow.

As we round the corner of the 2.6 kilometre circular trial, we spot two yellow birds perched atop a small Garry oak tree, a tree that is exclusive to the southern part of Vancouver Island and parts of Washington.

“Those are goldfinches,” says Haig-Brown. Her eyes light up and her weight shifts to her toes as she hands over the binoculars for a closer look. She explains goldfinches often are confused with canaries due to their similar colouring, but appearances are deceiving. They are not related.

“Look again with the binocs,” she says. “I can’t believe how beautiful he is.” The binoculars show off the neon yellow fluffy feathers; he is small and plump with a black marking on his face just above a parrot like beak.

Next we step in front of a bearberry bush so Haig-Brown can show us its leaves. Smooth along the outer edges and jagged along the bottom, the leaves really do look “like bear claws.” She laughs. Two joggers run by giving the silent nod of friendly acknowledgement.

It’s usually best to get out for bird watching a little earlier. First thing in the morning and early evening are perfect times to catch a glimpse, because by night time, the birds tend to hunker down in the trees, and during the day they stay out of the sun. Plus, by 8 a.m., joggers line the trails.

With wood chips good for sensitive knees, this trail, just off Quadra Street down Chatterton Way a few metres, is ideal for training. Even Olympic triathlete Simon Whitfield uses it for light runs.

The chip trail has not been around forever. Years ago, the bog was drained for use as farmland. The Guinness family leased it out to a farmer who lived in what is now the Bird of Paradise Pub on Glanford Avenue, which overlooked the entire expanse of land. Now that it is municipal property reserved exclusively for nature, its boggy tendencies are oozing back, soaking what were once carrot fields. Gumboots are key. The bog’s water levels are being monitored and plans are in the works to re-establish large open water areas for ducks and amphibians.

Now Haig-Brown points out an alder tree. The wood from these trees is ideal for carving, she says. First Nations people have produced intricately carved food bowls from it. It’s also a good colonizing tree. After a forest fire it is the first tree to grow back, creating the right conditions for evergreens to follow.

Just then a red-winged blackbird swoops down and lands on a bulrush nearby. A closer look reveals a long slender beak, good for catching bugs, and an iridescent red stripe across his wing. He sings us a song. The intoxicating smell of warm cottonwood trees nearby makes for a pleasant massaging of the senses.

Waterproof shoes, reliable binoculars, rain gear (at most times of year), a camera, and a field guide can mean the difference between a stimulating, educational experience at Rithet’s Bog, or a soggy bad time. Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide on birds is the best. But whatever you bring, and whether you go for bird watching or jogging, meditating or picnicking, the bog is welcoming. Plus, the Rithet’s Bog Conservation Society is always looking for more volunteers.

One look at a heron spreading his wings, or one of the many rabbits munching on leaves, and all that blackberry bush whacking, or water level measuring, will not have been for nothing.

Mary Haig-Brown went home that day happy to have taught us something. I went downtown in search of binoculars.

Heather Neale lives near Rithet’s Bog.

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