The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is situated on Westham Island, just west of the community of Ladner in the Municipality of Delta, British Columbia, Canada. It consists of nearly 300 hectares (850 acres) of managed wetlands, natural marshes and low dykes in the heart of the Fraser River Estuary. For the millions of birds seeking feeding and resting areas during their annual migrations along the Pacific Coast, the Sanctuary is ideally located. It is a place where wildlife and their habitats are protected from harm, and it lies next to miles of flat marshland and the farmland of Westham Island. Over 280 species of birds have now been recorded at the Sanctuary, from the plentiful Mallard, Canada Goose and (in winter) Snow geese, to the more uncommon species such as Black-Crowned Night Heron and Gyrfalcon.
HISTORY AND MANAGEMENT OF THE GEORGE C, REIFEL MIGRATORY BIRD SANCTUARY
The Sanctuary is located on the outskirts of the Village of Ladner, in Delta, BC. By the turn of the century, protective dykes had been built along the Fraser River to protect Ladner’s thriving farming and fishing-based community from the Fraser River and the tidal waters of the Strait of Georgia. Nearby river islands were only partially dyked or left to flood each year naturally, and were often sites of fishing camps which supplied the numerous local salmon canneries. On Westham Island, Ewen Slough was the site of one of these camps, named after Alexander Ewen, a scotsman who owned several local canneries.
When George C. Reifel bought his property in 1927, it consisted of land isolated from the rest of Westham Island by Ewen, Robertson and Fuller Sloughs, natural river channels which dissected the island. Although all equipment and building materials needed to be barged in, by 1929, he had consolidated more land, and created a large recreational family retreat in this idyllic location. Dykes and causeways were constructed to create waterfowl habitats and road access connecting his land (“Reifel Island”) to the rest of Westham Island. Although the family ran successful real estate and brewery businesses, Reifel Farm, as it became known, was also very successful, and during WW2 was responsible for over one-third of the sugar beet seed production of Canada.
In the 1960’s, his son, George H. Reifel, granted the first lease to the British Columbia Waterfowl Society for a Bird Sanctuary to be named after his late father. Ducks Unlimited Canada was brought in to assist with the water management of the many wetland habitats on the site, and has continued to be an active partner in the management of the area. The provincial government supplemented this effort by establishing a game reserve on the adjacent intertidal foreshore.
By 1972, there was widespread recognition of both the real estate value and the wildlife habitat value of the Reifel homestead, waterways, farm fields, and Sanctuary area. To conserve the entire area, the Reifel family agreed to a combination of land sale and donation to the federal government on the condition that it would continue to be managed for the primary benefit of waterfowl and that the Sanctuary would continue to bear the name of George C. Reifel.
With this change in ownership, the federal government designated the farm site as the Alaksen National Wildlife Area and the provincial game reserve and the Sanctuary lease area were designated the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
The Reifel family home now serves as the regional headquarters of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) (part of Environment Canada).CWS administers these lands, with the Sanctuary managed by the British Columbia Waterfowl Society under a long-term lease. Under this kind of federal land ownership, activities are regulated through permits, and their wildlife and habitats are protected under the Canada Wildlife Act.
INTERNATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FRASER RIVER ESTUARY
THE LARGEST WINTERING CONCENTRATIONS OF WATERBIRDS AND RAPTORS IN CANADA
The climate is mild, and there are plentiful foods ranging from marine fish and invertebrates to grasses, rodents and amphibians. Millions of waterfowl and shorebirds, and over 20 species of birds of prey consequently all congregate at the mouth of this river, providing a wonderful wildlife viewing spectacle for the millions of people in the Vancouver area.
Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Lesser Snow Geese, Trumpeter Swans are the most commonly-observed waterfowl species seen inshore.
In deeper waters, large rafts of diving ducks such as Greater and Lesser Scaup and Surf Scoters congregate, along with Double-Crested Cormorants, Western Grebes and many species of gulls. Dunlin and Western Sandpipers feed in flocks of thousands on intertidal mudflats, marshes and lowland habitats inland of the dykes.
Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and Short-Eared Owls are just some of the birds of prey to be seen in the river delta. For some species such as the Barn Owl, the delta represents the only site in Canada with mild enough winters for the species to remain year-round.
THE LARGEST SALMON-PRODUCING RIVER ALONG THE PACIFIC COAST
The Fraser River is the largest producer of salmon on the entire Pacific Coast of North America. Annually, millions of anadromous (migratory) adult salmon migrate upstream to spawn along small streams along its length and up into the connected waterways of the Pitt, Lilloet, Chilliwack, Nechako, Chilkotin, Thompson, Stuart, Adams, and Quesnel Rivers. Millions of young fish hatching in these areas spend their early life cycle in these upper reaches, and eventually descend to the estuary on their way out to oceanic habitats.
Estuarine marshes, mudflats, floodplains, sloughs and river channels are all critical feeding and rearing areas for these and other fish during their transition between river and marine stages of their life cycle. Pacific Herring, Sturgeon, Eulachon, and Smelt are also abundant fisheries locally, as are Dungeness crab, Shrimp and other invertebrates.
WORLD RECOGNITION AS SHOREBIRD HABITAT
The Fraser delta is internationally significant to shorebird populations, and has been proposed as a WSHRN site. The abbreviation WSHRN stands for the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network, an international initiative to identify and protect habitats in key stopover points used by shorebirds during their long migrations across North and South America (the Western Hemisphere).
The Fraser delta ranks very highly, as nearly all of the world’s population of western sandpipers stop to rest and refuel during their massive migrations between Alaska nesting grounds and wintering sites from California to Peru. In addition, more than 35 other shorebird species rely on this estuary throughout the year.
THE PACIFIC ESTUARY CONSERVATION PROGRAM
There are many agencies collectively striving to preserve habitat along BC’s coast, but the cooperative efforts of specific local conservation agencies have won national and international awards. One of special note is the Pacific Estuary Conservation Program (PECP), a partnership program initiated in 1987 between private conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Nature Trust of BC, Wildlife Habitat Canada, and provincial and federal government environment and fisheries departments. Through this program, thousands of hectares of estuary habitat along the BC coast have been set aside through their collective efforts and funding for either land acquisition or other conservation designations.
In 1996, the PECP was honoured with a Canadian Council on Ecological Areas (CCEA) award for its regional contribution and partnership approach to the establishment of a Canada-wide network of protected areas. In 1999, the program was also chosen as a first recipient of the Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award for its conservation of the long-term sustainable use of estuarine habitat along the BC coast.
A PACIFIC ESTUARY, ONE OF THE RICHEST TYPES OF ECOSYSTEMS IN THE WORLD
British Columbia’s estuaries are among the richest in the world. The largest estuary is formed by the Fraser River and is home to over 400 species of vertebrates, thousands of plants and a myriad of small invertebrates.
The Fraser River forms the largest estuary along the Pacific Coast of North America and drains over 200,000 square kilometers of BC. River sediments meet the currents of the Strait of Georgia and are deposited onto the nearly 30,000 hectares of the estuary’s intertidal marshes and mudflats (Sturgeon Banks, Roberts Bank and Boundary Bay).
A CRITICAL CROSSROAD ALONG THE PACIFIC FLYWAY
Migration paths of many migrant birds converge at the Fraser River delta. Its location mid-way along the Pacific Coast makes it an international crossroad of bird migration routes from 20 countries and three continents. Waterfowl and shorebirds from breeding grounds in Siberia, Alaska, Yukon, and other arctic and prairie areas all stop to refuel in the Fraser River estuary on their way to wintering grounds in California, Mexico, Central and South America or the South Pacific.
Coastal lowlands and marshes of the estuary provide critical refuelling opportunities for long-distance migrants such as the Lesser Snow Goose, which nests in Wrangel Island (Russia) and sometimes makes non-stop flights of over 2500 km in its southward migration to wintering grounds.
GLOBAL RECOGNITION OF THE ESTUARY AS A WETLAND OF INTERNATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE
The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is part of a Ramsar site (the Alaksen National Wildlife Area), which was endorsed in 1982. The Ramsar Convention gets its name from the location of the International Conference on Wetlands held in Ramsar, Iran in 1971.
One hundred and twelve countries have agreed to a set of criteria for identifying wetlands of international significance. In terms of number of waterfowl, British Columbia’s Fraser River Delta exceeds the criteria by more than 30-fold. And its shorebird populations exceed the criteria 60 times over!
In recognition of its outstanding international significance, the Alaksen National Wildlife Area on the Fraser River Delta has been designated as a “Wetland of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat” under the Ramsar Convention, and is one of two Ramsar sites in British Columbia.
LOCAL RECOGNITION AND PROTECTION OF HABITATS
Local, regional, provincial, federal and international efforts have been underway for decades to recognize the environmental value of the Fraser River estuary. Apart from the RAMSAR and WSHRN initiatives which provide an international recognition of the habitats right under our feet, local efforts have also helped to formally set aside many areas, promote public awareness and land stewardship. Many have been purchased or established through land purchases and cabinet designations.
Example wildlife management holdings include: Alaksen (federal) National Wildlife Area; and Sturgeon Banks, Boundary Bay and South Arm Marshes (provincial) Wildlife Managements Areas. Examples of parks providing wildlife habitat include: Boundary Bay and Deas Island Regional District Parks and the (municipal) Delta Nature Reserve. Most larger natural areas of habitat have been set aside during the past two decades.
Since the early 1980’s, there has been a growing recognition of the value of coastal lowlands, the role of farmland habitats play in wildlife management, and the need to support and nurture the agricultural land base surrounding the estuary marshes. More information of farm & wildlife issues and related stewardship initiatives can be obtained from the Delta Farmland Wildlife Trust.
BRITISH COLUMBIA WATERFAWL SOCIETY
The British Columbia Waterfowl Society is a private non-profit conservation organization that was formed in 1961 to conserve and promote waterfowl and wetlands in British Columbia. For the past 40 years, the Society’s focus has been the stewardship of the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary which is located on Westham Island, just outside of the City of Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Society manages public use of the Sanctuary, provides interpretive programs for groups of all ages, and contributes to research and programs of like-minded waterfowl and conservation groups in the community. These activities are financed primarily with memberships, entrance fees, merchandise sales, charitable donations and bequests. The Society has approximately 2000 members, and a volunteer Board of Directors is elected annually to represent the founding organizations and the local community interests.
SANCTUARY LOCATION MAP
Driving Directions: The Sanctuary is 13 km west of Ladner in the Municipality of Delta. West of the intersection of Highways 10 and 17. From Ladner, follow Ladner Trunk Road (Highway 10) west to 47A Avenue and on to River Road. Follow River Road westward for 3 km and cross the bridge to Westham Island. Follow the main road to where it ends in front of large black gates. The driveway to the left leads to the Sanctuary’s parking lot.
HOURS: 9:00am to 4:00pm every day including holidays. The Sanctuary is closed in the evenings.
ADMISSIONS: Adults $5 / Children (2-14 yrs) $3 / Seniors (60 yrs+) $3 / If you buy an annual membership, admission is free for one year.
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