Walking Among the Flocks at Vancouver’s George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Birds of a feather flock to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary, and if you're into ornithology and wetlands walks, then you should too

Credit: Flickr / Roland Tanglao

The Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta is a bird watcher’s paradise any time of year

Visitors are flocking to the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary to get a peek at the million of feathered friends stopping by en-route to further climes

Crossing the 100-year-old single-lane wood-deck truss bridge onto Westham Island is like taking the first step into a secret community known only to those with a bird’s eye view of Metro Vancouver.

Located in Delta, west of Ladner and directly south of Richmond, the secluded island is home to millions of birds from among 280 species. The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a network of groomed trails, dykes, marshes and wetlands that span over 300 hectares, is a great place to get some exercise and try your hand at ornithology.

The picturesque sanctuary is open to the public, and you can walk the exterior ring of the park trail easily, in about an hour. The main trail branches off occasionally, bringing you into the marshy interior, but if you decide to stay on the dyke, as I usually do, you’ll have a near continuous view of the expansive estuary waters.

A Bird Watcher’s Paradise

The vista is lush and breathtaking, no matter the weather – with nothing but open skies, lots of birds and the rustling of reeds.

It’s a bird-watcher’s paradise, and throughout the walkways there are several “bird blinds” or “hides”, including one two-storey observation tower. These enclosed structures have slat-like windows that allow visitors to get close to the birds without disturbing them. The tower is located in the north-western corner, so it offers a stunning view of the Strait of Georgia that lies just beyond the intertidal marshes of the Fraser River estuary, and even beyond to Vancouver city landmarks if the weather’s clear.

The Seasons at Reifel

While I’m perfectly happy to have a trail of waddling Mallards follow me on my walks, more exotic birds are always nearby. During the winter months you can expect to see plenty of Black-capped Chickadees that are so friendly they’ll feed directly from your hands!

Also, keep your eyes peeled for birds of prey like owls, eagles and hawks, which find shelter over the winter in the sanctuary.
In the spring, you can see millions of Western Sandpipers feeding in the shallow ponds of the estuary. This is also a great time to watch out for eagles, seals, cormorants, ospreys and other fish-loving wildlife that follow migratory salmon and oolichan to the mouth of the river.

Summer is a great time to come and watch for baby birds. Chances are good that during your walk you’ll come across ducklings, goslings and little baby cranes all wandering the trails as they explore their surroundings.

And, of course, the migration period in the autumn is a wonderful time to witness massive flocks of ducks, geese and swans feeding and resting. Keep an eye out for the spectacular Lesser Snow Geese, whose population alone can reach as high as 100,000. They nest in Russia during the summer, arrive at the sanctuary in October and head back north around April.

While it sounds like a vibrant, robust ecosystem, keep in mind that the Reifel Bird Sanctuary is a protected area for wildlife and is actually quite fragile. As such, the park has strict rules about its use. In general: leave only footprints, take only photos.

The sanctuary is open daily from 9am – 4pm. Check the website for bird-watching conditions and exciting bird sightings.