Making your way along the entrance path at the George Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island is like navigating a big, boisterous holiday party.
First you must sidestep the crowd of noisy mallard ducks that waddle toward you like Aunt Martha looking for her Christmas kiss. Then you’re obliged to tiptoe around dozens of sleeping ducks that have obviously overdosed on the avian hors d’oeuvres.
Finally, just when you think you are clear to explore this 850-acre sanctuary that plays host to over 260 species of birds, some fellow visitor scatters birdseed on the path and you’re enveloped in a duck stampede for the buffet.
At this time of the year it’s party central for the avian set on Westham Island, 26 miles south of downtown Vancouver, B.C., and in the neighboring town of Ladner. The town is situated on the south arm of the Fraser River, a 25-minute drive from the U.S.-Canada border.
The historic fishing and farming community lies on North America’s Pacific flyway, a path followed by thousands upon thousands of migratory birds each fall and spring. Ladner and its surroundings provide travelers, feathered and otherwise, opportunities to feed, preen and loaf.
The best bird viewing is at the Reifel Sanctuary, six miles from Ladner via country roads and a one-lane wooden bridge.
The first feathered visitors to arrive each fall are flocks of ducks, geese and swans. The guest list grows through November and December as shorebirds, warblers and an assortment of hawks join year-round residents.
American widgeons share ponds with wood ducks, Northern pintails and trumpeter swans. Sandhill cranes and Canada geese meander along grass and gravel paths that crisscross the marshlands and connect the sanctuary’s ponds, viewing blinds, platforms and a two-story-tall observation tower. The tower offers views of the intertidal marshes of the Fraser River estuary, the Strait of Georgia and Vancouver beyond.
The celebrity guests of this holiday party are the 20,000 to 50,000 lesser snow geese that drop in until late December on their way from their nesting grounds in Wrangel Island, Russia, to the Skagit Valley. Boasting snow-white bodies and black-tipped wings, these noisy geese dot the neighboring farmlands and marshlands like so many fluffy down pillows.
While the birds find food and accommodations in the great outdoors, you’ll find your creature comforts in Ladner. Enjoy a peaceful stay on the water’s edge as a guest of River Run Cottages.
Reserve their sweet float home, the Waterlily, and unwind in a cozy seating area that features handcrafted woodwork, a wee wood stove and views of the water and mountains. Every inch of the Waterlily is optimized, from the compact bathroom and claw-foot tub to the stereo (with Sinatra CD) tucked inside steep stairs that lead to a queen-size loft bed.
If you’d like more space to stretch out, choose one of the bed-and-breakfast’s other three suites. Each boasts a river view and a special something – a Japanese soaker tub in the Netloft, a river-rock double shower in the Northwestern room and a two-person Jacuzzi tub in the Keepers Quarters.
It’s an easy walk along the river dike and rural roads from River Run Cottages to Ladner’s village center. Here you’ll find some interesting shops as well as functional stores for groceries, liquor and so on.
There’s no need to venture out for morning sustenance if you’re staying at River Run Cottages. Hosts Will and Barb Watkins deliver beautiful breakfasts – a typical offering includes orange juice, French-pressed coffee, fresh fruit, cranberry-and-white-chocolate scones and smoked salmon eggs benedict – to your door or even to your bedside.
When you’re ready for some fresh air, borrow the Watkinses’ kayaks or bicycles and explore the area’s relaxing waterways and country roads. Or bundle up in warm clothes and relax in the Adirondack chairs on Waterlily’s front deck. Don’t be surprised when ducks, swans and geese paddle over to visit. It’s just the party coming to you.
Visit: George Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, 5191 Robertson Road, Westham Island. More info: 604-946-698; reifelbirdsanctuary.com.
Stay: River Run Cottages, 4551 River Road West, http://www.riverruncottages.com