By Mike Benbow Special to The Herald
The Reifel sanctuary just across the border in Canada is a bit like a giant zoo for birds.
There are no bars, cages or nets, but the 850-acre sanctuary on the Fraser River estuary manages to attract and hold an enormous number of birds, especially in winter.
There are some 250 species, with 40 or more moving through in the fall and spring.
Officially named the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, the area is on Westham Island at a former family retreat for the late Reifel, a real estate investor and brewer who purchased the land in 1927.
It’s now an area protected by the government and managed for migratory species like sandhill cranes, trumpeter Swans, snow geese, ducks and sandpipers. Like most areas along the coastal United States, Reifel gets a lot of bird visitors that fly south for the winter, then head back north in spring to breed.
It’s been designated an area of international significance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network because of the thousands of shorebirds wintering there.
What makes Reifel a little different from other sanctuaries — more zoolike, if you will — is that it offers handouts to the birds, either from the feeders located around the property or from visitors who buy food at the entrance.
That makes a lot of the birds you see more tolerant of people, again making the sanctuary more like a zoo than a wilderness.
The area is particularly family friendly, with an extensive system of easily walkable trails throughout the estuary. There are also a number of bird blinds and lookouts as well as a several-stories tower that provides special looks.
I visited the sanctuary in late February to see sandhill cranes, an endangered species in Washington state. I went last year to the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, but didn’t have a lot of success finding them. So I was attracted by the idea of going to Reifel, which is a shorter trip than central or Eastern Washington even though it’s in another country.
I’ve always been interested in sandhills because they’re the oldest known species of birds that are still surviving pretty much as they began. A fossil found in Nebraska that was estimated to be 10 million years old was structurally identical to modern sandhills, meaning they’re essentially a living dinosaur.
I heard them at Reifel before I saw them: trumpeting a stacotto har-r-r-r-o-o-o, har-r-r-o-o-o sound. Eventually a group of four greeted me on the path to the observation tower, posing for pictures closeby as they stabbed their substantial beaks into the ground searching for something to eat.
The cranes were a lot more friendly than I expected, and I soon found out why. When John and Margaret Vogt of New Westminster, B.C., arrived with a young daughter who was scattering birdseed, the cranes dropped me like a bad habit to go see their new BFFs.
There were a dozen or so cranes in the sanctuary, but there’s only one pair that stays year-round. They chase the other cranes away in spring when it’s time to breed again.
I didn’t see snow geese on the visit last month, although lots of them visit the area in winter, just as they do in Snohomish and Skagit counties. The geese in the Reifel area breed on Wrangel Island in Russia, just like the ones we see here. I don’t think the geese wintering around Reifel have left the area yet to head north, but they typically do in April.
That means if you want to see the geese, the swans, the cranes and other migratory species, you should plan a trip to Reifel pretty soon. An added bonus is that Reifel, which is about a two- to two-and-a-half-hour drive, is only a few minutes from Boundary Bay, an area where you can see snowy owls, a visitor from the Arctic that doesn’t regularly come this far south. The owls will also be leaving in April and may not come back again for years.
But even if you can’t make the trip to Reifel within the next few weeks, it’s a wonderful place to visit any time; there are plenty of birds there year-round.
Just remember that while it’s in a beautiful and important estuary, Reifel is not to be confused with a wilderness experience. That’s a good thing if you have kids or if you just want to go for an easy stroll and look at a lot of wildlife.
George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Cost: $5 for adults; $3 for children ages 2 to 14; $3 for seniors.
Location: West of Ladner, B.C., in the municipality of Delta.
Directions: Cross the border and follow Highway 10 to Highway 17. Turn off 17 at the Ladner Trunk Road and go into Ladner. In town, the trunk road turns into 47A Avenue, which turns into River Road outside the commercial area. Keep going west for less than 2 miles to the bridge to Westham Island (look for the sign to Reifel). Turn right onto the narrow bridge and follow the road to the end, which is the sanctuary’s parking lot.
Boundary Bay directions: If you want to add a visit to Boundary Bay after you’ve been to Reifel, go back to River Road and head back into the Ladner commercial area. Turn right onto 72nd Street and drive to the end of the road. Park and head to your right onto a dike.
Bring: Don’t forget your passport or enhanced driver’s license for the border crossing. If you want to stay at Reifel through lunch, bring it with you.