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Strictly for the Birds
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Strictly for the Birds
  Westham Island Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton . . .

A place designated "for the birds" once referred to an inferior place, one of small worth. But times they are a-changing. Now the term "for the birds" means protected paradise, such as found at the George C. Reifel Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island in Delta, British Columbia, twenty miles from the Canada/US border on Highway 99.

test_bird.jpg Six miles west of the Village of Ladner and only fifteen minutes from where we once lived, we used to go to Westham Island often when the kids were little. In the spring we'd go see the goslings and the ducklings (many of the birds live permanently at the refuge) and in the summer we'd pick strawberries in the surrounding farmland. Now my grandchildren are enjoying the same outings. Just last Sunday, I bundled them up (Westham Island is usually cold and windy in February) and rumbled across the one-lane bridge to the sanctuary. We weren't alone. The parking lot was full of visitors. A lot more than I remembered ten/twenty years ago. Some were from out of town, but mostly they were from Vancouver and Richmond less than an hour away.

Many of the visitors had binoculars and bird watching books. These people were serious observers, I concluded, here to study the habits of migratory birds. They weren't too interested in the Mallard ducks that were fluttering around our feet. They were probably hoping to get a glimpse of the more uncommon birds, such as the black- crowned night heron, the temminck's stint, the mockingbird or the palm warbler. I have to admit, I wouldn't know the difference between a warbler and a mockingbird even if I did spot one, and I never ever heard of a temminck's stint.

The ducks, expecting to get fed, practically knocked each other over in their rush to reach our outstretched hands. We could actually pet them as they hungrily pecked at the seeds right out of our palms. (Seeds are sold in the gift store. The staff caution not to feed the birds bread.) It's a strange sensation stroking feathers. I can understand why chickens and geese are sometimes kept as pets. They can be affectionate when they're not aggressively after food like the hand-raised sand crane that chased my granddaughter that afternoon.

Of the thousands of birds that flock to the sanctuary every winter, the Mallard Duck and the Canada Goose are the most common, outnumbering the over 240 species that have been seen. Dedicated bird watchers should be on the lookout for the snowy owl, the kingfisher, the gold finch and a variety of sparrows, blackbirds and teals. Rarer sightings of the spotted redshank, reeve, smew, brambling, rusty blackbird, grey-crowned rosy finch, and the gyr falcon also occur.

Waterfowl flocked to the Fraser River estuary long before the marshland was reserved as a bird retreat. The official reserve was established by Barry Leach, a college professor, and Fred Auger, a newspaper publisher, in 1961. The two men approached George H. Reifel (at the time, owner of most of the tiny Westham Island) who agreed to lease the land next to the crown tidal flats for a dollar a year. Eventually Reifel gifted a large portion of his family property to the Canadian Government on the condition that the land remains in his father's name and remains a bird sanctuary.

There are picnic tables and two miles of pathways that wind through the grassy wetlands and a small admission charge helps maintain BC Waterfowl Society, the nonprofit organization that operates this fine bird habitat.

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