For a unique and intimate experience with waterfowl and other birds, visit George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary west of Ladner, British Columbia.
Reifel Refuge, as it’s called by many, is a 300-hectare (740-acre) plot of land on Westham Island on the Fraser River, about an hour’s drive from the metropolis of Vancouver. George Reifel bought the land in 1927 and established a family recreational retreat on it, creating waterfowl habitats as well as road access by a series of dikes and causeways.
In the 1960s, the Reifel family granted a lease to the British Columbia Waterfowl Society to create a bird sanctuary on the land. Helped by the management of Ducks Unlimited Canada, wildlife habitat was preserved and expanded with the provincial government establishing a game reserve on adjacent land. In 1972, the family further donated and sold the land to the federal government on the condition that it would be maintained as a sanctuary.
The government designated part of the sanctuary and the area adjacent to it, some 328 hectares, as the Alaksen National Wildlife Area. Some activities are permitted on this land but not the free access to the public that characterizes the sanctuary.
The sanctuary charges a nominal entrance fee and is open from 9 am to 4 pm every day. Sometimes it has quite large crowds, not a place to go if you want to get away from people for your nature experience. However, the high density of humans day after day is what has conditioned the birds to be as unafraid of us as they are.
The sanctuary was set up for waterfowl, and there is always a good representation of local waterfowl species, both dabbling and diving ducks. Large numbers of Snow Geese migrate through the adjacent wetlands, some of them remaining for the winter, and mostly those will be seen overhead moving between feeding areas. All the ducks present are somewhat used to people and will furnish close viewing and great photo opportunities.
Because of all the feeders and seeds, rats and mice and Eastern Gray Squirrels (including the black morph, established in the Vancouver area) are also attracted to the area, and the local owls know it. A pair of Great Horned Owls is regularly seen, and there are always Northern Saw-whet Owls present, if very hard to see in the dense foliage where they roost. Other species of owls are seen from time to time, and there are usually hawks and falcons about, interested in the songbirds as well as the rodents.
You can buy sunflower seeds at the office and carry them around to feed to whichever birds you like. You may give them all to chickadees, as there is something wonderful about one of these tiny birds landing on your hand. You may be attacked by Mallards before you barely get going onto the trail, and Mallards are the most abundant and insistent ducks in the place. But look closely, and among the Mallards there will be at least a few American Wigeons and a few Northern Pintails.
More than these, there are Wood Ducks scattered around the area, and they too are interested in handouts if they can get to them before the omnipresent Mallards. They are shy enough that you’ll have to seek them out, but one way to feed them is to put seeds on top of fence posts, which the Wood ducks—tree dwellers that they are—can easily get to. Of course they have to beat the chickadees and Song Sparrows to them.