Photos top to bottom: Female Mallard eyes birder; Wood Ducks display; Sandhill Crane seeks grain
As you drive south from Vancouver, BC, through its 2.4 million person metropolitan area, you pass by the airport. An hour further south, you come to another one, but this one serves only feathered aircraft. Located near suburban Ladner, BC, this bustling international airport is called George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
To get there, you drive west of Ladner, then cross a narrow wooden bridge over the south fork of the mighty Fraser River to Westham Island, situated in the mouth of the river, dividing the Fraser into northern and southern channels. Here you leave behind suburbia and re-enter the rich farmland that comprised much of this area before. In winter, you are likely to see Bald Eagles, Trumpeter Swans, and maybe a Peregrine Falcon along this stretch. Then after a few kilometers of 90-degree turns that trace property boundaries, you turn into the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
The first time I visited the 850-acre/300 hectare George C. Reifel Sanctuary on British Columbia’s Fraser River Delta in the late 1970s, I remarked to my college friends that it resembled a bird airport. A plethora of waterfowl were taking off and landing in the many ponds and channels that comprise this sanctuary, making loud and frequent splashing sounds as they skidded to their watery landings all around us. Buffleheads, Canvasbacks, Teal, Scaup, Wigeon and Mallards were among the thousands of ducks at this sanctuary. It was exhilarating being surrounded by so many multicolored flying, swimming waterfowl.
Each winter, I re-visit this marvelous place. Recently, my wife and I encountered a flock of 800-plus Snow Geese as we drove into the sanctuary entrance, close enough to take movies complete with their constant chatter as a sound track. This flock was actively feeding in preparation for its journey back to its Wrangel Island, Russia breeding grounds. When we opened the door of our car in the refuge parking lot, three Sandhill Cranes flew just 30 feet overhead, uttering their loud, resonant prehistoric rattling calls, reminding us that birds are indeed dinosaurs.
Within thirty minutes of walking through this sanctuary we saw four Black-crowned Night Heron, a Merlin, several Bald Eagles, and an uncountable numbers of Gadwall, Wigeon, Pintail and Mallard ducks. You know you are in a good bird refuge when you don’t know what to look at first, and, and where rare sightings occur along with the common. Our rarity was a female Northern Goshawk hunting in the Alder trees at the western edge of the sanctuary. We also enjoyed a rare look at a common species – the Great Blue Heron – in a cloud of 45 flocking together above us, creating blue-gray airborne spectacle. Neither of us had ever seen so many herons in flight together before. By the time we were done with our three-hour walk in 35-degree temperatures with snow flurries, we tallied 51 species of birds. More than 280 species total have been recorded at Reifel Sanctuary over the years.
Bird airports like Reifel Sanctuary exist because of people like the Reifel family who had foresight and conservation values. George C. Reifel purchased the property on an island in the Fraser River Delta in 1927 to make into a family retreat. It already had three natural sloughs traversing the island at the mouth of BC’s largest river. He constructed dykes and causeways to create waterfowl habitat. Eventually he granted a lease to the BC Waterfowl Society and involved Ducks Unlimited in the management of his property.
Years later, the Reifel family negotiated a combined sale and donation to the Canadian government to manage the site for its waterfowl and to keep George Reifel’s name. Located within an hour of the city of Vancouver, and close to the U.S. border, Reifel Sanctuary hosts 600,000-700,000 human visitors annually.
The sanctuary is strategically located at the mouth of the Fraser River, the largest estuary along the Pacific Coast of North America. It, along with the larger, adjacent Alaksen National Wildlife Refuge, is a crossroads for migratory birds that travel from 20 other countries and three continents. This is not just a bird airport; it is an international bird airport.
Among the many visitors are kids and families. Reifel Sanctuary, with its flat trails, numerous feeders and policy of selling bags of grain to feed birds, is an attractive outing for kids, families and tourists. This is a great way to connect people to nature in a close-up and personal way. Kids can have a “wow!” nature experience that will help develop an appreciation for birds and nature. One child we brought to this refuge has since become an ornithologist.
Thankfully, bird airports like Reifel Sanctuary exist throughout the U.S., Canada and other parts of the world. Originally established for hunting, these reserves now also cater to people who hunt with cameras, binoculars and their own two eyes. They provide strategic stopover, feeding, resting and staging areas for birds migrating along their flyways.
Wildlife Refuges, like parks and other nature preserves are testimony to the intelligence and compassion of the human species. They are a good investment because we rely upon the health of the planet as much as birds and other wildlife do. We also need inspiration and joy, which sanctuaries like Reifel provide in abundance.
Pacific Wren: Small bird, big song
Sometimes the finest singers can be heard free of charge in the deep moist woods. This is certainly true of the Pacific Wren. Formerly referred to as Winter Wrens, in 2010 the species were split into Pacific Wrens along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Northern California, east to Idaho, and Winter Wrens across central and eastern North America. Song differences between the two were part of the reason for the split.
Below the tall evergreen trees, along the stream banks, in and around the shrubs and woody debris, you will find them, singing their hearts out – especially when there is a glimmer of light. These little forest dwellers feed on a combination of insects, insect larvae, millipedes, spiders and the occasional berry.
After you hear their song, an elaborate combination of warbling trills that seems to go on forever, you feel like applauding. How can such a virtuoso singing performance come out of such a small bird?
At 3-4 oz in weight and 3-5 inches in length, you would not think that either Winter or Pacific Wrens could produce much of a song. In fact, Winter Wrens have the longest song of any North American bird species. The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website refers to Winter Wrens as “small in stature and incomparably energetic in voice.” Per unit weight, the Winter Wren’s song is ten times more powerful than a crowing rooster. Their vocalizations have been referred to as “the pinnacle of song complexity.” Each song contains about 40 notes and can last from 10-40 seconds. Pacific Wrens have even longer and more varied songs than Winter Wrens.
In eastern British Columbia, the two species ranges overlap. Here, by the Murray River, there is an annual spring “battle of the wrens” sing-off. Males of both species sing within earshot of one-another. Meanwhile the female wrens listen closely. Female songbirds, including wrens, generally are the ones who select their mates. Based on DNA sampling, the female Winter and Pacific Wrens do select mates who sing their song. Thus, inter-breeding between these two species seldom occurs.
The Winter and Pacific Wren songs are as beautiful as the forests they inhabit. They provide yet another reason to save the mature forests that still remain. Their song is not to be missed in this lifetime by anyone who appreciates music – whether performed by a human or a tiny bird.
Sources: All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology website; Cornell Lab Bird Biology Handbook; I-Bird. Pro App; Sibley Guide to Bird Behavior by David Sibley.
Top : Turkey Vulture; Bottom: Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Sometimes when people don't understand or appreciate living things, they want to destroy them. Often they do this without knowledge of the species' value to the environment. Consider vultures and sparrows.
Vultures are ugly. They eat dead things and they roost in groups that resemble scary Halloween displays. They look menacing, but looks can be deceiving.
Vultures are valuable scavengers that collectively form a global natural sanitation crew. By consuming dead animals, they keep the environment clean. If the mllions (billions?) of carcasses around the world were left to rot and fester, we would have far more serious disease problems than we do today. Vultures prevent the spread of dangerous diseases like Rabies and Anthrax by consuming the carcasses themselves, and by leading other wild animals to them, so the clean-up occurs quickly.
The ugly head of vultures is actually a smart adaptation to their lifestyle. Their naked heads remain cleaner than they would if they were covered with feathers when feeding inside of carcasses. It's similar to doctors wearing rubber gloves for sanitation purposes.
Through a combination of an excellent sense of smell (which most birds don't have) and keen eyesight, vultures find and clean up carcasses all over the earth. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "The Turkey Vulture's heightened ability to detect odors - it can detect just a few parts per trillion - allows it to find dead animals (even) below a forest canopy."
Once vultures find dead animals, they not only consume them, but they sanitize them so they are not a disease threat. How? Ornithologist Van Harris wrote about this in his excellent 2012 column in the Memphis Commercial Appeal Vultures are Scary but Beneficial to Environment. "In fact, the digestive juices of vultures are so powerful that most bacteria and viruses are killed before they pass out of the birds' digestive tracts. Vultures actually help control diseases in the environment by consuming animals that die of those diseases. Fortunately, Black and Turkey Vultures are now protected by law and allowed to help keep the countryside clean." What vultures do for us is actually a fabulous free service. We should be grateful!
Sparrows to the unaware are drab, common, unimportant and unremarkable. China's former dictator, Chairman Mao Zedong certainly did not care for them. According to John Platt, a writer about endangered species for Scientific American "One of Mao Zedong's first actions after collectivizing agriculture was intended to protect the farms. Sparrows, he was told, ate a lot of grain seeds, so Zedong ordered the people to go forth and kill all the sparrows. During the Great Sparrow Campaign, as it has been called, hundreds of millions of sparrows were killed.
The problem with the Great Sparrow Campaign became evident in 1960. The sparrows, it seemed, didn't only eat grain seeds. They also ate insects. With no birds to control them, insect populations boomed. Locusts, in particular swarmed over the country, eating everything they could find -- including crops intended for human food. People on the other hand, quickly ran out of things to eat, and millions starved. Numbers vary, of course, with the official number from the Chinese government placed at 15 million."
One of the hardest things for humans to grasp is ecology: the inter- relationship between living things and the environment. Animals and all species are here for a reason. They have important niches and belong to this planet as much as we do. In the words of William Kittredge in his powerful autobiography Hole in the Sky, "We must define a story which encourages us to make use of the place where we live without killing it, and we must understand that the living world cannot be replicated."
Top to bottom: Rainy, windy park dedication event, wildlife tree (snag) on trail, park sign that actually says "birding!"
Jackson Park, a 200-acre golf course in northeast Seattle just got a band of green. This park, one of the largest-remaining green spaces in Seattle, was previously dedicated to just one activity: golf. Now it has value added for walkers, hikers, runners, birders, nature appreciators and more. An attractive new 2.2-mile perimeter trail makes all of these activities possible.
It took six years for this to happen, which in Seattle is lightning-fast. In 2007, the Seattle Parks Foundation rolled out its Bands of Green plan, authored by Tom Byers of Cedar River Associates, to encourage the city to connect its parks with more trails and boulevards. Loop trails are compelling as demonstrated by the popularity of Seattle’s Green Lake, Seward and Discovery Park trails.
When I was the Parks Foundation’s Neighborhood Parks Director, I presented the updated Bands of Green plan at community centers, including at the North Seattle Community Center. At each meeting, I highlighted Bands of Green projects in the geographic area where I was speaking. When I spoke to the North Seattle group, one person took my suggestion and ran with it. Her name is Renee Staton.
Renee called me in the office the next day and said she wanted to pursue a Jackson Park loop trail. Since then, Renee and other neighbors formed the Friends of Jackson Park Trail and successfully urged the City to move forward on this project. Now, six years later, it has been built, thanks to the tireless efforts of community members in collaboration with Seattle Parks Department and Seattle Parks Foundation.
The resulting 2.2-mile trail winds through woodlands and wetlands with frequent views of the rolling terrain, ponds and coniferous trees of the golf course. At times the trail feels remote from the city, surrounded by large Douglas Fir and Hemlock trees. At other times it crosses streams and wetlands. When I walked the trail twice this week, I encountered joggers and walkers who now have a place to seek exercise and natural beauty in their neighborhood. Although the trail is over two miles long, it does not matter whether or not people walk the entire loop. Even walking a portion of it can bring joy, exercise, peace and beauty to their lives.
A dedication event was held recently despite driving winds and rain. Some 25 hearty souls attended, including Eric Friedli, acting deputy director of Seattle Parks Department, Thatcher Bailey, executive director of the Seattle Parks Foundation, Garrett Farrell, Seattle Parks' project manager, Celeste Cooning, the artist who created a beautiful sculpture “Bounty” that fits in organically with the park, and community activists, like Renee Staton and Ellen Hale whose diligent efforts helped facilitate these improvements.
A 2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial “City of Green” said “Connecting Seattle parks with more trails and boulevards would bring the city greater beauty, more usable open space and fulfillment of longstanding visions.” One of these trails is now on the ground for people to use and enjoy. May there be many more in Seattle and elsewhere.
1st photo: Hamming it up on a birding and natural history trip; 2cnd photo: Some birders pay no attention common birds like this Glaucous-winged Gull
“It’s just a (common) bird," or worse yet a “JUNK BIRD” or “TRASH BIRD”. Ever heard these irreverent remarks? They are typically made by droll, serious birders. These birders are so jaded that they sometimes fail to realize that they are in glorious places watching beautiful, athletic birds.
All birds are special, miraculous creatures, so why not show some respect for them? In addition, shouldn't we be encouraging other people to get excited when they see birds -- all types of birds -- so they become interested in them and in their conservation?
This raises an important issue in the world of birding, and one that does not get talked about often: snobbery. Some birders, bird organizations and even birding tours have found ways to be elitist, exclusive and snobbish. This is bad for birding, for birds themselves, and for conservation. We need more, not fewer people to care about birds, and a whole lot more people to care about conservation.
People often ask me when I’m out birding if I’ve seen any “good” birds lately. When I reply that all birds are good, they usually scowl or harrumph and then move on. Others demean birds by calling them junk birds, trash birds or even “Euro-trash.” The latter moniker is ironic because it could also refer to millions of human beings in North America including me. Bird bigotry like human bigotry is counter-productive.
And then there are the snooty birders who only care about rarities. For them, marveling at, or learning about the behavior of something like an American Robin or a Dark-eyed Junco, is a waste of time. Their cup is always more than half empty. It’s a hell of a way to live life, being disappointed most of the time.
Thankfully, not all birders are like this. Instead, many of us are appreciative, joyful, excited, and even have a sense of humor while birding. After all, these creatures are flying miracles that exhibit beauty and amazing behavior on a daily basis. Many migrate from far-away places. They sing incredible songs, eat prey ranging from seeds and fruits, to worms, fish, small mammals and copious quantities of bugs. Birds enrich our lives in countless ways. They inspire us. Shouldn’t we be reverent toward them? I think so.