Birding at Reifel

If you’re a birder and in Vancouver, British Columbia, you will probably eventually end up at Reifel Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island. Reifel was one of my stops on a whirlwind birding trip to the Lower Mainland this past weekend and I have to admit that it was a bit of a love/hate experience.

Maybe that’s putting it a little too strongly.

On one hand, Reifel is an exceptionally good place to see a wide variety of birds and without trying too hard or staying too long I managed to see 30 different species – with a little extra effort and time it is definitely possible to see much more. Reifel is the only spot I know of in the Lower Mainland where Black-crowned Night Herons can be seen reliably.

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
The well trained Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) - what you don't see is the feeder 30cms to the right.

My mixed feelings toward Reifel are related to its “zoo-like” atmosphere. In some ways, Reifel’s success as a birding destination is also its downfall. It can be challenging to find places where you have more than 5 minutes of solitude in the sanctuary, especially during the weekend on a sunny day when everyone is out to enjoy and feed the birds. Exploring the further reaches of the dykes and sitting in one of the many bird blinds can give you a bit of a break from the crowds.

Reifel Bird Sanctuary Slough
A quiet slough from the vantage point of a bird blind at Reifel Bird Sanctuary.

The other aspect of birding at Reifel is what I like to call the “farm petting zoo” factor. Many people like to connect with nature by feeding birds and animals. At Reifel, bags of seed are available at the entrance for those wishing to feed birds and most of the songbirds and ducks are well “trained.” The result is that you can get amazingly close views of birds that you probably wouldn’t get in a more natural setting. Unfortunately, you can also get harassed by tough flocks of Mallards or American Coots if you don’t pony up the toll to pass through their section of the sanctuary.

Salt Marsh at Reifel Bird Sanctuary
Looking out over the salt marsh from the outer dyke at Reifel Bird Sanctuary - a great place to watch for Northern Harriers and other raptors.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d definitely recommend a visit to Reifel if you’re a birder visiting the Lower Mainland. However, try to time your visit for a weekday and as early as possible to avoid the late morning/afternoon crowds. Spending a little time to explore the outer reaches of the sanctuary that are off the main loops can be rewarding as well.

Getting There:

The Google map below shows the location of the main entrance to Reifel Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island, Delta, BC. From Ladner, drive west through the town center on River Road West. Turn right onto Westham Island Road and follow it through farm fields to Robertson Road. Follow the signs to the parking area.