One of the best introductions to nature is a visit to a local wildlife sanctuary or refuge. Typically, these protected areas provide vital habitat to a variety of bird and/or animal species that can easily number in the thousands. You can get a close-up look at the wildlife found in these areas, such as the sandhill crane pictured above. Many of these places have easy footpaths, hiking trails and auto tours that guide you through the area. To find a wildlife area near your home, start with a visit to your state's fish and wildlife department website or the national wildlife refuge system website. Both of these sites offer several ways to search for sanctuaries and refuges near your home. One of my favorites places for wildlife viewing near my home is just beyond the Canadian border in British Columbia. Read on for a story about this unique place...

On a map, the irregularly shaped dot of Westham Island, just south of Vancouver, British Columbia, seems somewhat small and insignificant. But situated near the tip is the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary and small though it may be, the 850 acres of open fields, tide flats, marshes and creeks attract thousands of migrating birds and is home to many mammals. A visit to this sanctuary is an excellent day trip any time of the year. 

Why should you take this particular field trip? For one, it offers you great views of wintering snow geese. An observation tower makes it easy and safe to watch these spectacular birds as they rest, feed and fly. And, the counts are huge, ranging from 30,000 to 80,000 birds each year.   

Snow geese are not the only reason to visit this place. You can see many birds and mammals along the refuge pathways. Just a few steps past the bungalow-style gatehouse and gift shop, dozens of mallards, Canada geese, wigeons and other ducks congregate along the walkways, scurrying, quacking, begging for a toss of birdseed. (You can buy birdseed for 50 cents a bag at the entrance.) Adult or child, if you walk, they will follow. Across Fuller’s Slough, you can make out the faint shapes of black-crowned night-herons sleeping in bordering brambles. Along the pond edge, you might see sandhill cranes preening and resting such as the one pictured above. Step into the warming hut that overlooks the pond, offering a wonderful respite from the cold.  Its over-sized tables, picture windows and wood burning stove make it the perfect place for a brown bag lunch. 

Several trails converge at this point. Due north is the perimeter trail. The other converging trails angle toward the center of the refuge, eventually linking with the perimeter trail. A map available at the entrance shows trails, viewing platforms, blinds and the observation tower. A well-thumbed book posted outside of the warming hut tells you where to look for recent sightings.  

For first-timers and children, the perimeter trail is best. Children can lead the way. Douglas firs, Western red cedars, red alders, brambles, grasses, pearly everlasting and cattails offer ample food and refuge to songbirds, owls, woodpeckers, pheasants, raccoons and weasels. A murky slough parallels this trail, harboring ducks, great blue herons and American bitterns. Walk slowly and look for songbirds such as black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, ruby-crowned kinglets, fox sparrows, savannah sparrows, spotted towhees and dark-eyed juncos darting through the brush. The chickadees are tame. Fill your hand with birdseed, extend it and hold very still. They will perch on and feed from your hand—a thrill for anyone. If you are lucky, you might spot a Northern Saw-Whet Owl hidden under a low hanging branch.

Each bend of this trail turns up something new. A hairy woodpecker drilling for bugs. A family of raccoons lumbering cautiously among the cattails. A weasel moving at lightning speed across the trail. If you see one, keep watching. Curious by nature, this tiny wheat-colored mammal will pop its head back out to peek at you. Mink, beavers and muskrats live in the refuge, as well.

Eventually you will end up at the observation tower. Climb the two-stories to see expansive views of the refuge, shorebirds, swans and snow geese. To those of us who visit often, the spectacular sight and sound of snow geese flocks landing or taking off is never repetitious. Moving as one, their white feathers steak the sky. Their calls create a disharmonic song.

The island seems a century away from the modern traffic-laden city of Vancouver. Linked to the mainland by a one-lane wooden bridge, the landscape is distinctively rural. Early 1900s-era dikes and reclamation projects are still evident. Farming is the main occupation and homes are scarce.

Originally, George C. Reifel owned the land as a recreational retreat. Conservationists Barry Leach and Fred Auger recognized the importance of the tiny island. In 1961, they leased the land from the Reifels and began establishing the area as a waterfowl sanctuary. The Reifels gave the sanctuary land to the government in 1973 and sold them an additional 600 acres of back-up land. Today, the British Columbia Waterfowl Society manages the refuge under a long-term lease from the government.

As you wander back to the entrance, make note of the refuge’s goal: to provide wetland habitat and to teach others that the Fraser estuary is essential to the survival of migratory birds. Have they succeeded? I think they have. You will leave knowing this tiny area’s importance. Without it, the birds may perish.