Trip Report by Janet Snell
On December 3, 2023, our first Welcome Walk led by Melissa Hafting took place at Reifel Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island. As part of our Diversity and Inclusion outreach initiative, this walk was by a special invitation to BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and women who may not have participated in our activities before. Over half the participants in the group of twenty, were non-members and many of the others were newer members. Melissa Hafting provided excellent leadership as we made our way through the rain showers to see bird species seldom spotted on sunny days. It was a truly memorable day.
We met at the entrance to Reifel and distributed binoculars to those who needed them, from our newly established Binocular Lending Library. A group of twelve Sandhill Cranes in the adjacent field entertained our group while we organized ourselves. We acknowledged the site as part of the Musqueam and Tsawwassen First Nations unceded and traditional territories. We also learned that the Musqueam word for the area is ʔəleqsən, the name also of the Alaksen Wildlife Area nearby. (Link to hear the name spoken: https://placenamemap.musqueam.bc.ca). This wetland area is hugely important for migratory and wintering birds, and other wildlife, as other areas have been taken over by urban development.
We headed off on the level pathway with our binoculars and three scopes, making our way through crowds of Mallards and American Wigeons. Happily, there weren’t crowds of people due to the wet weather. Black-capped Chickadees and Red-winged Blackbirds hung around, looking for seed handouts that we purchased from the gift shop. Our next highlight was to see a Black-crowned Night-Heron roosting in a tree near the entrance, part of the small group of these overwintering birds.
Melissa led us next to a bird-watching blind on the edge of the eastern slough where we all crammed into the darkened room. The slit windows provided an excellent view of a crowd of Long-billed Dowitchers perched on a couple of floating logs outside. A little Pied Grebe was seen diving and fishing nearby. Farther up the trail, a Barred Owl was spotted, sitting quietly in a tree while our group enjoyed the view.
The path led us to the marshy area at the north end of the site. A very high tide had filled the marsh leaving only clumpy islands of marsh grasses and water right up to the path. Melissa explained that these high winter King tides lead to the drowning deaths of many secretive marsh birds such as Virginia Rails, and as well as killing rodents such as voles. In no time at all, we heard Virginia Rails calling and then one flying briefly, nearby. Another shy wading bird, Sora, was seen amongst the rushes close by. We considered ourselves lucky to see such shy birds though it was a devastating day for the birds.
We walked further along the marshy slough to a more open view, where in the distance we could see an immense flock of Snow Geese and smaller waterfowl floating in the water. Raptors such as Northern Harriers and Bald Eagles patrolled overhead, plunging down in pursuit of prey in the submerged marsh. A Great Blue Heron was perched adjacent to the trail which suddenly darted its head downwards to emerge with a large vole wriggling in its open sharp bill. As we watched (in horror) it flipped its head back and swallowed the vole, still alive and whole. What a day!
Still to come was another unusual bird species, in the northern ponds. Four American Avocets were seen with their black and white winter plumage. These long-legged birds were in deeper water and looked like they were swimming as they walked along the bottom. Most avocets migrate further south but this group was hanging around.
Other migrating waterfowl such as Northern Shovelers, Pin-tailed Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks and two species of mergansers were seen in the ponds as well. By this time, our group was getting a little soggy as the rain showers had taken their toll after two hours. We headed south and ended up at the warming hut near the entrance. A last interesting sight was a Cackling goose, the pint-sized version of a Canada goose, resting at the shore.
And as our trip ended, we were treated to a brief sighting of blue skies in the distance, too late for our group. Many, many thanks to Melissa Hafting for leading this trip and sharing her immense knowledge of birds and their behaviour with us.
For a detailed look at the over 60 bird species seen, here is the link to the eBird list: https://ebird.org/checklist/S155688218
More Welcome Walks will be scheduled in the new year as the weather improves. More information on this initiative can be found on our Outreach webpage at https://naturevancouver.ca/outreach/.