Discover Reifel Bird Sanctuary

Black-capped Chickadee

Windblown Black-capped Chickadee

On our trip to Vancouver last weekend to see the visiting Snowy Owls at Boundary Bay, we also took the opportunity to check out George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. They are both just a short drive from the ferry terminal, so combining the two made an easy day trip from Vancouver Island. The 300 hectare (740 acre) sanctuary is located on the outskirts of Vancouver, on Westham Island in Delta. It is part of the Fraser Valley Estuary, and consists of managed wetlands, marshes, and low dykes with established walking trails running through them. Even though it’s technically on an island, the sanctuary is easily accessible by a short bridge. Here’s a map of the area, for anyone who would like to plan an excursion.

The dykes and causeways that make up the sanctuary were constructed early in the 20th century to prevent the Fraser River and coastal tides from eroding the surrounding farmland. These waterways made an ideal wetland that provides habitat for many species of resident and migratory waterfowl. The Reifel family formally donated the land for the establishment of a wildlife sanctuary in 1972, and the site is currently home to the Pacific Region of the Canadian Wildlife Service. The sanctuary is open daily from 9-4, and there’s a $5 entry fee payable at a little visitor’s centre at the park entrance.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Being pretty new to the world of birding, I rely heavily on my more bird-savvy friends to help me spot and ID the little critters. Although I definitely need to work on my patience and observation skills (don’t we all!), Reifel was a great place to practice my new hobby. At this time of year the marshy sanctuary is full of winter ducks. Great for a beginning birder, ducks – even the crafty diving ones – are pretty stationary and large enough to make noting their identifying characteristics a little easier.

While we were there we saw plenty of American Wigeons, Northern Pintails, Hooded and Common Mergansers, Green-winged Teal, American Coots, Northern Shovelers, and Wood Ducks. We were also shadowed throughout the park by a not-so-stealthy Mallard army. Many visitors to the park offer them the duck food that is sold on-site, and the little guys are certainly not shy about asking for handouts. Check out the video clip below to witness their casual yet relentless onslaught!

Barred Owl

Barred Owl Snoozing in the Sun

We were also lucky enough to have spotted quite a few birds of prey. In addition to the spectacular snowy owls earlier in the day, we spotted mature and juvenile Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, a Red-tailed Hawk, a Rough-legged Hawk, and a very handsome Barred Owl. I love raptors, and it was amazing to see so many species in one trip. We kept a sharp eye out for any Northern Saw-whet Owls – one of the littlest owls in the region, they often tuck themselves right up against the trunk of an evergreen tree, blending in with the bark while sheltering themselves from avian predators who might be hunting from above. There had been recent sightings of at least one in the area, but we didn’t see any. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for next time, though!

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

One final unique feature of Reifel is the presence of quite a few Sandhill Crane families. I think I’ll save my stories of their antics for another post, because they deserve to have the spotlight all to themselves. You definitely can’t miss them at the sanctuary – they are about the same size as a Great Blue Heron and have a loud, distinctive honk. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself sharing the footpath with several of these birds. They seemed quite accustomed to people and strolled by us several times as we made our way along the marshy berms.

All in all, it was amazing afternoon of birding in a gorgeous location. There are views of the open ocean at the outer edge of the sanctuary, and the interlocking water bodies of the estuary and marshes provide plenty of scenic outlooks. There are also several blinds and an observation tower to provide visitors with additional views of the wildlife and surrounding landscape. If you get the chance, I’d definitely recommend a visit. Even if you’re not an expert birder, there’s still plenty of natural beauty to soak up at this easily accessible site. Check out my Flickr set if you’d like to see more photos!

The Mallard Army Escorts Us Through Reifel:

More Heart of the West Coast:

Encountering the Sandhill Crane

Arctic Visitors – Snowy Owls Head South

Hidden Gem: Shoal Harbour Bird Sanctuary

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