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They are there when you first walk in, just a short distance down the path from the entrance building. Dozens of them. And they know from experience that you have food for them in a little brown paper bag. You sprinkle it on the ground and the stampede begins. At least it’s a stampede for the ducks, all doing the graceless waddle that is their version of running as fast as they can,

quacking and pushing and shoving, gobbling down the seeds. They are so driven, so focussed, so damn impolite! There are no table manners here. There’s only getting what you can get. They give a whole new meaning to the term boarding-house reach, or to the Aussie pre-meal grace: “Two four six eight, bog in don’t wait”. If you wait you’ll miss out!

They are mostly mallards, but there are some pintails

and mergansers from time to time.

This is the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island in Delta, about an hour south of Vancouver. The sanctuary consists of 850 acres of protected and managed wetlands, natural marshes, and low dykes in the heart of the Fraser River estuary. Millions of birds seek food and rest here on their annual migrations along the Pacific Coast as it is ideally situated next to miles of marshland and farmland. We go for a day out there at least once every year.

The Snow Geese also come every year, on their way south. They come from Wrangel Island, Russia, and spend the winter in the Fraser and Skagit River estuaries. Thousands of them! Twenty-five thousand geese use the sanctuary during their migrations, and most of them are Snow Geese. They land on the marshland, or farmland, or occasionally right in the sanctuary. Each time we’ve heard them as they squawk to each other, a continuous far-off chatter echoing over the land. They’re over there! we say pointing in the direction of the sound, hoping they’ll move closer, or take flight so we can see them. It’s luck really. One year they landed in a field right next to the road and we watched in awe as they chattered, and groomed, and gobbled up insects, and took off, and landed, the sound of their flapping wings constantly filling the air. Thousands of them all crowded together as if they are one being. It’s the only time we’ve seen them close. Just once in several visits.

On every visit though there is much to see, even if we only get to hear the sound of the snow geese. There’s always the mallard feeding frenzy, and over the years 290 species of birds have been recorded at Reifel.

We cross the small single-lane bridge that takes us from the mainland onto Westham Island in the estuary, passing the float homes reflected in the water on one side of the bridge,

and a working farm on the other.

We wander with friends along the low dykes that form the boundaries of the shallow ponds that make up the sanctuary.

Even if we see no birds (which never happens) the sheer beauty of the place is enough to make the trip worth it.

Every time, without fail, my favourites are the Wood Ducks. They are far too sophisticated thank you, and far too well-dressed, to participate in the duck dinner excitement by the entrance, but they are always there in the ponds, or on branches further away from all the fuss. The female has delicate purple and teal tail feathers. The male is dressed for New Year’s Eve – all year round.

Wood ducks nest in old woodpecker holes. The hen usually lays 12 to 14 eggs! Incubation of the eggs takes 28 to 32 days and they all hatch within a day of each other. Then the ducklings climb out and literally drop down to the hen waiting below. About three months later they can fly. So amazing. Counting the month of incubation it takes only four months from being a freshly laid egg to a free-flying grown bird.

There is a resident pair of Sandhill Cranes at Reifel that remind me so much of the Brolga, the native Australian crane. The only noticeable difference is in the amount of red colouring on the head. We see the Sandhill Cranes on almost every visit and they are another of my favourites. I’ve been within about three feet of them, walking very slowly and carefully by. People are warned that they can attack though I’ve not seen that. They are so elegant, tall with a wingspan of about six feet.

I’ve seen a second pair on one visit, and apparently others stay for the winter but every spring the resident pair chases out all other cranes, including their own young. Reifel is their territory!

Don holds his seed-filled hand out, waiting. A Black-capped Chickadee dives in first,

and then a bit later a Red-winged Blackbird

and on the far side of the sanctuary someone starts feeding the ducks in one of the ponds. Incoming!

We walk the perimeter path, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other, the views changing as we meander along.

Sometimes we branch off along the narrower inner winding paths,

and discover hidden in the bushes an American Bittern moving slowly at the edge of the water, waiting waiting waiting for the right moment, then with a lightening flash it will stab its prey of fish, or reptile, or frog, or mouse.

There are nesting boxes throughout the sanctuary just the right size for a Tree Swallow,

and of course the ubiquitous Great Blue Heron makes an appearance. There’s a whole huge colony of them that nest high in trees on the edge of Stanley Park right next to downtown Vancouver so they are seen all over this part of the world wherever there’s water that’s good for fishing.

It’s late autumn. The leaves are almost gone from the trees.

A few ducks glide slowly by, and closer to us we watch as a flock of Western Sandpipers feeds in the shallows,

when suddenly something makes up look up. It is a murmuration of starlings! We watch enchanted as they swirl back and forth, filling the sky, telling a story of unity. Like the Snow geese they seem as if they are one being, one mind, one heart.

High above us a Bald Eagle surveys the land.

We make our way back to the entrance having done a big clockwise loop. On one side, in the spring, daffodils line the path, and wild irises grow closer to the water where the Wood Ducks glide gracefully in the shade of trees overhanging the pond. On the other side there’s a view across to the north shore mountains.

I remember once we saw an owl, and we frequently see Widgeons and the aptly named Buffleheads, and of course Canada Geese, but we’ve not yet seen the river otters that live there. They can be seen on the paths in mid-winter when the ponds are frozen and there’s not much else happening. By spring the birds are on the move again with most of the ducks, the Snow Geese, and the Sandpipers moving north to their arctic breeding grounds.

And we are on the move again, back to the one-lane bridge that takes us to the mainland and so back to the city.

Click on the link for more information about Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. If you’re in the area I really recommend it for a day out. It’s best in spring and fall, but even in mid-summer there’s still plenty to see.

Next post: Last February 4th, almost a year ago now, Don and I flew to Paris for five days followed by four weeks in Rishikesh, India, and two weeks in Kyoto, Japan. So – Paris is next!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.