Canada’s Reifel Bird Sanctuary is a haven for swans, cranes, owls and the people who love to gaze at them

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British Columbia’s George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is the best place on the West Coast to see some of the world’s most spectacular birds, including trumpeter swans, eagles, owls and sandhill cranes.

This pit stop for migratory birds is the perfect reason to linger in Canada’s Fraser River Valley. Bird enthusiasts flock to the area year-round. And the area’s flat, lightly traveled roads and bike trails also draw in cyclists. We decided to experience both. So we packed binoculars and our Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds and strapped our bicycles to the back of the car for the 140-mile trek from Seattle. 

Our weekend getaway accommodations were at the Canoe Pass Inn Bed & Breakfast, a cluster of rustic, cozy Fraser River boathouses hosted by Jackie and Colin Smith. From our boathouse deck we soaked in the afternoon sun and watched the rapid tidal currents. Noisy flocks of snow geese filed the skies, and pairs of swans floated by. At night, we gazed at a crisp clear sky lit up by a crescent moon.

Canoe Pass Inn is located about three miles from the bird sanctuary, making it an easy bicycle ride over a one-lane, wood-deck swing bridge and along a narrow farm road.

Our cycling destination was the 850-acre preserve on Westham Island, on the Fraser River delta near the fishing and farming town of Ladner. The bird sanctuary is a short distance from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, and Vancouver is 20 miles north. But as you walk the trails along the ponds and sloughs, you feel far removed from the big city.

Reifel is a protected oasis of fresh, brackish and salt marshes and also includes tidal mudflats, ponds and upland fields. The mouth of the Fraser River is the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast of North America, and it teems with salmon, shellfish, grasses, rodents and amphibians.

The perfect variety of habitats and an avian-friendly menu make the Fraser River delta a magnet for birds migrating between the Arctic and South America and the South Pacific.

By late March, most of the tundra and trumpeter swans have resumed their journey to northern nesting grounds. But we saw flocks of snow geese, as well nearly every species of water bird imaginable. Mallards were everywhere, of course. Joining the mallards were wood ducks, pintails, wigeons, buffleheads and coots.

We saw purple martins, eagles, hawks and owls, including a tiny Northern Saw-Whet Owl that seemed content to rest in a holly tree before taking flight to the mountains for the spring and summer. We also saw gangly, red-capped sandhill cranes, some still sporting their rusty juvenile feathers.

Reifel Bird Sanctuary is managed by the British Columbia Waterfowl Society. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and offers year-round opportunities to see an abundance of wild birds.

George C. Reifel Bird Sanctuary

The 850-acre George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is on Westham Island, on the Fraser River delta near the Delta, B.C., fishing and farming town of Ladner. (Click for interactive map.)