In 1972, the Federal Government acquired the Reifel land holdings ( the area of the Alaksen National Wildlife Area), and the adjacent intertidal marshes and Sanctuary lease area the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. In 1982, the Alaksen NWA (which overlaps part of the Sanctuary) was given RAMSAR status. In 2012, in recognition of the many adjacent federal, provincial and regional protected areas in the Fraser Delta around this Ramsar site, the Ramsar site was renamed the Fraser River Delta Ramsar site, and expanded to include over 20,000 hecatres from the original 586 hectares. For review the major changes pertaining to this new RAMSAR site (# 243), visit https://rsis.ramsar.org/RISapp/files/RISrep/CA243RIS.pdf?language=en.
Management and funding
The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is managed by the British Columbia Waterfowl Society (BCWS), a private non-profit conservation organisation that was formed in 1961 to conserve and promote waterfowl and wetlands in British Columbia. It has managed the Sanctuary since 1963.
The BCWS manages public use and facilities of the Sanctuary, provides interpretative programmes for groups of all ages, and contributes to research and programmes 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 site is open all year, with annual visitor numbers between 80-86,000.
The BCWA manages the public use area of the Sanctuary under a long-term license agreement with Environment and Climate Change Canada, as it lies partly within the federal lands of the Alaksen National Wildlife Area and totally within the area designated as a Federal Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
Ducks Unlimited Canada maintains dykes and water control structures of wetlands within both of these areas under a long-term management agreement with Environment and Climate Change Canada. For more information about Ducks Unlimited Canada, visit http://www.ducks.ca
The Sanctuary was established in 1963, when Mr. George H. Reifel leased part of his extensive farm at the mouth of the river to the BCWS. The Sanctuary was named after his father, Mr. George C. Reifel, an avid sportsman and conservationist.
The BCWS’s charter members included a wide range of conservation and community interests, university academics, representatives from Federal and Provincial Governments, naturalists, rod and gun clubs. Development of the Sanctuary’s habitats was carried out with the assistance of Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Reifel family and many individual and corporate donors.
The Sanctuary has been open to the public since 1967, and has consistently been a popular destination for birdwatchers, school groups and families of the Vancouver area. It is now one of the top ten birdwatching sites in Canada.
In 1972, the Federal Government acquired the Reifel land holdings and the area the Alaksen National Wildlife Area, and the adjacent intertidal marshes and Sanctuary lease area the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. In 1982, the Alaksen NWA (which overlaps part of the Sanctuary) was given RAMSAR status. For more information about these Federal lands and RAMSAR, visit Environment Canada’s website at http://www.pyr.ec.gc.ca.
The Sanctuary is located on Westham Island, less than one hour’s drive from the metropolitan centre of Vancouver. The island is at sea level, and the visitor experience is enhanced by the scenic farmland surrounding the Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary itself consists of over 340 hectares (850 acres) of shallow managed wetlands, natural intertidal marshes and low dykes at the mouth of the Fraser River. The 7 km of dykes serve as walkways, and have bird blinds (hides), interpretative signs and viewing platforms.
A two-storey observation tower provides an excellent view of intertidal marshes, the Strait of Georgia and landmarks in the Vancouver area. Many dykes are rimmed with conifers and other shelter trees. A parking lot, small gift shop, warming hut (shelter), museum/lecture hall, picnic tables and public washrooms are all located at the entrance to the trails.
Extensive intertidal marshes of Typha, Scirpus and Carex spp. outside the dykes; water control structures which allow the circulation of tidal waters and the manipulation of water levels in internal shallow compartments; deeper water habitats in the form of old river channels; and a mix of trees and shrubs and wet meadow areas.
High diversity of recorded bird species (over 290), partly due to the habitat mix available in the Sanctuary, and partly due to the Fraser River estuary’s value as an international crossroad for bird migration routes between 20 countries and three continents.
Seasonal use of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl daily as part of the Fraser estuary, which supports Canada’s highest winter concentrations of waterbirds. Mallard, Northern Pintail, Wigeon, Gadwall, Shoveler and Gree,winged Teal, Bufflehead, Hooded Mergansers are common species to see within the dykes.
Spectacular opportunities to view the Lesser Snow Goose which nests in Wrangel Island, Russia, and spends the winter at the Sanctuary, in other parts of the estuary and in the nearby Skagit River Estuary in Washington, USA. Large flocks of up to 30,000 birds in fields and in the estuary draw thousands of visitors.
Seasonal use by over 35 shorebird species. Most of the world’s Western Sandpipers stop in the Fraser River estuary during their massive migrations, and this species often feeds in the Sanctuary’s shallow compartments.
A focal point for visitors to see the estuary’s seasonal (winter) concentrations of birds of prey ranging from Northern Saw-whet Owls to Bald Eagles.
For more details on the extent of the Fraser River estuary, the food available to winter migrants, and the biodiversity of the estuary in which the Sanctuary is centrally located, visit our website at www.reifelbirdsanctuary.com.
Education and interpretative programmes about wild Pacific Flyway birds in their natural environments. The BCWS initially sought to create a site similar to WWT Slimbridge in England, with managed water compartments and captive-bred wildfowl the primary displays.
Within a few years, however, the captive-breeding programme was disbanded in favour of the naturally occurring concentrations of waterbirds in the estuary and exploration of the scenic walkways became the focus of the site.
Access to trails of the site year-round and most visits are self-guided walks along the trails. A small entrance fee is charged, and BCWS members are granted free admission. A variety of requests for customised presentations are accommodated, from school groups to bus charters and birding groups.
Fostering of more widespreard public awareness and appreciation of waterfowl and their habitats, through signage, attendant volunteers and staff at the site and at local public events, and through the website.
The support of research and stewardship programmes of like-minded conservation organisations. The BCWS provides grant support to university studies, habitat stewardship programmes and research into farm and wildlife management techniques, particularly those that support landowners of adjacent agricultural lands which the migrant birds are often using.
Interpretation and exhibitry
For unscheduled visitors (the majority), pertinent information is displayed or conveyed to visitors at the gift shop or as they pass through the entrance gate (checklists, lists of birds seen in the past week, and an interpretative sign kiosk with several large panels).
Additional interpretative signs are located along major paths and at the observation tower. Small bags of bird seed are sold to visitors for informal feeding opportunities (primarily the Mallards).
The Museum is outside the entrance and features taxidermy displays of most of the native BC bird species plus natural history artifacts pertinent to the Fraser River estuary.
Formal (school and university) learning
The Sanctuary’s school programmes incorporate a Sanctuary nature walk and a visit to the Bird Museum with specific learning outcomes of the BC Curriculum for different grade levels (see Sanctuary website).
The development of the education programme is a partnership with Ducks Unlimited Canada, and some schools are sometimes able to access wetland lesson plans, field trips to the Sanctuary and other wetlands, and additional educational materials directly through this partner and other funding partners.
Informal (general public) learning
In addition to general public activities, the Sanctuary’s web site offers information on the Fraser River estuary, activity sheets for youths, links to many resources, and a brief summary of conservation efforts in the surrounding area.
The Sanctuary serves primarily as the public use area of the Environment and Climate Change Canada land holdings associated with the RAMSAR designation.
The Museum/lecture hall is regularly booked for workshops for teachers, natural history interpretation, conservation programme planning and meetings of partner organisations.
The BCWS is a member of local Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Delta, and has established many links with outdoor groups and family-oriented organisations.
The BCWS employs only a few regular staff members, and supplements this with individuals shared with other organisations under contractual arrangements, and a small team of volunteers to serve public visitors at the site and manage the facilities.
The BCWS’s Board of Directors governs these activities, conducts all official dealings with its partner organisations, and establishes policy.
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