George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary


George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is open to the public for day-use only. While most trails are open, some trails and visitor facilities may remain closed until such time that they can be safely re-opened.

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The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) is located on Westham Island, in British Columbia. This MBS provides very valuable habitat for amazing numbers of migratory and resident wildlife.

Importance of the sanctuary: migratory birds and other wildlife

George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is located 5 km south of Vancouver, along the northwestern end of Westham Island. It overlaps with the Alaksen National Wildlife Area (NWA). George.C. Reifel was a nature enthusiast and conservationist who, in the 1920s, bought land for a private hunting retreat. In the 1960s, the ownership of this land was transferred to the Crown for the creation of the Migratory Bird Sanctuary that now bears his name.

Amazing numbers of migratory birds use this sanctuary each year and the birds that you can expect to see vary by season. Lands inside the dike have changed drastically from “prairie grass and shrub” vegetation due to cultivation and a mixture of fast-growing trees and shrubs that have grown along dikes and internal sloughs. During the course of any given year, it is expected that approximately:

  • 200 000 ducks will use the delta during the winter. The most numerous species seen are the American wigeon, mallard, and northern pintail.
  • 25 000 geese will make use of the sanctuary. Most numerous of these are the snow geese, which will begin arriving from their northern breeding grounds in late September and can reach numbers of up to 20 000 birds by late October. A resident flock of approximately 600 Canada geese also use the fields to feed.
  • 1 000 000 shorebirds will use the sanctuary during their yearly migration. The most numerous of the species to be spotted are the black-bellied plover, killdeer, lesser yellowlegs, greater yellowlegs, dunlin, and long-billed dowitcher.
  • 70 000 gulls also use this sanctuary as a wintering ground.
  • The Delta is also an important wintering and migration habitat for loons, grebes, cormorants, alcids (sea birds), herons and passerines (songbirds).

Did you know?

Sometime between mid-August and September, the black-bellied plover moults, shedding its breeding plumage and distinctive black belly to become a much plainer looking grey coloured bird.

Depending on the time of year and how good you are at spotting birds, you can also catch a glimpse of:

  • Great blue heron, which use this site during winter. They can often be spotted hunting in the grass fields or along the ditches for Townsend’s voles. Green herons and American bitterns are also known to make an appearance in the tidal marshes from time to time.
  • Several species of owls including barn owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl, saw-whet owl and great horned owl.
  • Numerous raptors and bird eaters such as the marsh hawk, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, northern shrike, sharp-shinned hawk, cooper’s hawk, merlin and peregrine falcon. Bald eagles and turkey vulture can also sometimes be spotted as they scavenge in the area.
  • Passerines, commonly known as songbirds, which travel through the site in spring as well as in August through September. These include large numbers of warblers, swallows, robins, starlings and black-capped chickadees.
Rough-legged hawk
Rough-legged hawk. Photo: Dave Hughes

Many other species can be seen at the sanctuary including the common merganser, American coot, bufflehead, barrow's goldeneye, common goldeneye, scaups, canvasback, ruddy duck, green-winged teal, cinnamon teal, gadwall, pied-billed grebe, western grebe, common loon and double-crested cormorant. The belted kingfishers is known to patrol sloughs and ditches in the area, while ring-necked pheasants can be found in cultivated fields or blackberry bushes and sora or Virginia rails can be spotted in the cattail marshes in fall/winter.


This sanctuary contains very valuable habitat for both migratory and resident wildlife. One feature that makes this site so attractive, especially for shorebirds and waterfowl, is the tidal flats created by the splitting of the Fraser River. Where this river separates, large quantities of sediments carried in the water are deposited and distributed across the Fraser Delta in a branching network of tidal flats. While the outer edges of the tidal flats are bare, marshy vegetation grows at the higher elevations closer to the island. This particular landscape is an attractive one for many types of birds. From 1963 to 2015, approximately 290 species of birds have been sighted in this sanctuary.

George C. Reifel Landscape. Photo: Craig Elliott, Tjflex2- flickr

Map of the area

Map of George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary
  • Long description

    Map shows the zone around Westham Island, located at the mouth of the Fraser River's Delta in British Columbia. The boundaries of the George C. Reifle Migratory Bird Sanctuary and those of the Alaksen National Wildlife Area (NWA) are shown. The NWA is covering the north side of the Westham Island as well as a part of nearby waters, it covers approximatly a tird of the island. The MBS overlaps the western portion of the NWA and spreads west towards the strait of Georgia. The scale of the map is in kilometers. Permanent waters, roads and highways are shown on the map. An inset on the map shows the location of the shelter in Canada.

Planning your visit

The terrestrial portion on the sanctuary overlaps with Alaksen National Wildlife Area where a network of trails provides access for visitors to enjoy the variety and abundance of birds in both the sanctuary and the wildlife area. Walking, as well as wildlife and bird watching, are encouraged and the British Columbia Waterfowl Society offers interpretive programs for groups of all ages.

Note: Pets should not be brought to the sanctuary.

The Reifel Refuge portion of the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is managed by the British Columbia Waterfowl Society under agreement with Environment and Climate Change Canada, and welcomes the public daily from 9 until 4. The rest of the Alaksen National Wildlife Area is open from 8 until 4 Monday to Friday and activities in this area are permitted in accordance with the conservation objectives of the National Wildlife Area management plan. Public notices listing the authorized activities in the wildlife area are posted at access points.

Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, such as George C. Reifel, are established across the country to protect migratory birds during critical periods of their life cycle. Whether these areas are used for feeding, resting or nesting, they play an important role in the survival of many species. Access to each migratory bird sanctuary varies by site and is at the discretion of the landowner and land manager. Please ensure that you are aware of how you can help protect this sanctuary and please read the restrictions, including those on firearms and hunting, which are in place to conserve the wildlife that call it home.

If you would like further information on what is permitted in Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, please visit the Management and Activities section of the website. For more information on George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in particular, please contact our regional office.

Key facts about George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Protected Area designation Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Province or territory British Columbia
Latitude/longitude 49°05' N, 123°10' W
Size 648 hectares
Date created (Gazetted) 1967
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Management Category Strict Nature Reserve (Ia)
Additional designations
Main habitat type Tidal marshes (65%), tidal mud flats (1%), grasses and forbs (5%), trees and shrubs (5%) and cultivated (5%)
Key bird species American wigeon, mallard, northern pintail, common merganser, American coot, bufflehead, Barrow's goldeneye, common goldeneye, scaups, canvasback, ruddy duck, green-winged teal, cinnamon teal, gadwall, pied-billed grebe, western grebe, common loon, double-crested cormorant, lesser snow goose, Canada goose, great blue heron, barn owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl, northern saw-whet owl, great horned owl, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, northern shrike, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper's hawk, merlin, peregrine falcon, bald eagle, belted kingfisher, ring-necked pheasant, black-bellied plover, killdeer, lesser yellowlegs, greater yellowlegs, dunlin, long-billed dowitcher, sora, Virginia rail, green heron and American bittern
Other species Mammals: Townsend's Vole
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) Great blue heron, barn owl, short-eared owl and peregrine falcon
Management agency Canadian Wildlife Service, Pacific Region
Landowners Canadian Wildlife Service and Province of British Columbia

Related links

Contact information

Environment and Climate Change Canada – Pacific and Yukon Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Ecosystem Conservation
5421 Robertson Road
Delta, BC V4K 3N2

Toll Free: 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only)

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