Finding Fraser’s Femme Fatale – A Visit to British Columbia’s George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Although rain was pouring in Vancouver, the cheerful woman on the phone informed me that Delta, 50 miles south, was “just spittin’.” I had phoned for instructions to the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, where I had read that Northwestern Crows were as plentiful as eelgrass stalks.

I considered the word “water-resistant” as I drove down Highway 99 towards Westham Island in Canada’s Fraser River Delta, hoping the seals in my 44-year-old binoculars were up to the task.

The journey took far longer than the recommended 40 minutes in good weather. But, as promised, when I got to the Sanctuary, I was met with merely a little rain.

I was lost in avian reverie as I strolled across the parking lot towards the Sanctuary’s interpretive facilities when it became clear that I was on a collision course with a Sandhill Crane. I jumped out of the path as the crane raced passed me, heading for manager John Ireland’s front yard. I subsequently discovered that the bird is a pet and a femme fatale who has enticed at least five male strangers to the Sanctuary… and turned them all down.

The 850-acre Reifel Sanctuary (named for the area’s previous owner) is a tantalising and bittersweet relic of the area’s once-dominant Fraser estuary wetlands. Although there are 135-140 winter and 53 year-round inhabitants, it is a significant stopping place for thousands of migratory birds travelling through North America’s Pacific Flyway. Reifel has reported 265 species, including rare species like the Black-crowned Night Heron, Spotted Redshank, Harris’ Sparrow, and Temminck’s Stint.

The Sanctuary has a unique mix of wetlands, dikes, ditches, and nesting islands, as well as 2 miles of lilac-flanked pathways. Visitors may climb an observation tower for a magnificent view of the neighbouring Fraser River and Gulf of Georgia tidal mudflats.

Beginning in mid-August, significant numbers of shorebirds, including thousands of winter residents, begin to arrive at Reifel, followed by pintails and mallards. As autumn approaches, so do the quantity and variety of species. Many will stay till the end of March. In fact, the Sanctuary is home to Canada’s biggest wintering population of waterfowl.

The true show stopper, though, is the massive inflow of snow geese in October. Then, in November, hundreds of tourists go to the adjacent town of Ladner to enjoy the Ladner Snow Goose Festival, as the birds prepare to fly to their nesting grounds off the coast of Siberia.

My visit to the Sanctuary occurred in mid-May, when the pathways were densely packed with goslings, ducklings, and their wary moms. Despite the fact that it was a bad day for songbirds, I did spot the Northwestern Crow (a local “trash bird” that was a pleasant addition to my life list).

But let’s go back to the femme fatale. The narrative truly has a nice conclusion. I observed her last rejected boyfriend as I turned a curve in the path on my way back to the parking lot. He was just three feet away, grazing with his new sweetheart, a Lesser Sandhill. And, as I subsequently found, the two were responsible for the Sanctuary’s first successful crane hatch. They were the joyful parents of two 2-1/2-week-old chicks as of July 1.

Getting There:

Take Highway 99 south from Vancouver. At the junction of Highways 10 and 17, take Highway 10 (Ladner Trunk Road) west. Highway 10 becomes 47A Avenue and then River Road. Turn right on Westham Island Road (you’ll see the Sanctuary sign there) and cross the bridge. Follow the road to the Sanctuary entrance.

Visitor Hours:

9-4 daily. Sanctuary personnel encourages mid-week visits due to a large number of weekend guests.


Boats, bikes, recreational vehicles, camping, and pets (with the exception of seeing-eye dogs) are not allowed at the Sanctuary.

Contact Information:

The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary phone number is (604) 946-6980.

Brewster Moseley is the Editor of Western Birder and Naturalist.

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