Autumn is the season when the snow geese pass through the Fraser River Estuary. Over the course of one or two days in October wave after wave of the small white geese arrive - some 30,000 in all - in a spectacle that is sure to move even the thickest-skinned urbanite. The snow geese generally arrive in early October from Wrangel Island in the Aleutian Island chain and refuel by feasting on the buried stems of marsh plants.
Many will continue on to California much like the human variety of "snow bird" though large flocks will winter over in the Lower Mainland, moving on to the Skagit River delta in Washington state in January. By February the northward migration begins again with B.C. as the final staging area before the flight back to Siberia. With daily new arrivals the numbers gradually build up until the whole gaggle takes flight, en masse, every April, drawn northwards yet again by the urge to procreate. In spite of their impressive presence, the snow goose has experienced a drastic decline in its numbers since the 1960s when an estimated 400,000 snow geese made the annual migration to the Arctic. Though staging a comeback through efforts of conservationists, the population today hovers at just a quarter of its former glory.
Seizin’ Quackers: At least a gaggle and a half reaches for the sky in unison when a bald eagle drops by for lunch. Taking advantage of the chaos, the eagle plucks a duck from a nearby pond instead.
The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary located on Westham Island is the best place to view the snow geese. Time your visit to the wildlife sanctuary, admission $3.25, to coincide with high tide, preferably in the early afternoon. As the water rises giant flocks of the snow geese will be forced away from the distant water's edge to fields more readily visible from the dikes of the refuge.
The white-phase Lesser Snow Geese of the Fraser River Estuary are small by goose standards, weighing in at just 2½ kg. Typically, their black-tipped wings stretch a mere 90 cm. Though the plumage of adult snow geese is white note the rusty red colouring of their faces and heads, permanently stained from mucking about in iron-oxide rich soil after edible roots. Like most of their kind, snow geese are a gregarious, raucous lot with those on the ground imploring, with high-pitched honks, those swirling overhead to join them. From time to time, a marauding eagle may force the entire flock into the air in a cacophony of whistling wings and startled goose chatter. Be sure to be in prime goose-viewing position as day turns to dusk since the snow geese will take flight once again as they return to the sea for protection overnight.
Aerobatics: Incoming snow geese signal their approval of the landing zone with a synchronized roll. Consensus reached, the raucous lot on the ground directs their airborne cousins in.
November is officially Snow Goose Month at the bird sanctuary but, as an added bonus, mid-November happens to coincide with the return of trumpeter swans as well. Watch for these larger birds in smaller flocks. Though also white, they can be easily distinguished on the wing by longer necks, slimmer bodies and an absence of black wing tips. The world's largest concentrations of trumpeter swans will be found here. Numerous other species call Reifel refuge home as well. Blinds and viewing platforms have been erected to enhance the viewing experience while minimizing the impact of human presence on indigenous wildlife. On weekends, volunteers will scour the habitat for anomalous wildlife, setting up a spotting scope and providing interpretation to visitors whenever they encounter something of interest. Expect to see hunting hawks, roosting saw-whet owls in addition to the more pedestrian variety of waterfowl.
The George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary is unfortunately not serviced directly by TransLink. The #601 South Delta bus, operating on half-hour intervals, will deliver you to within 7 km of the wildlife refuge. The #601 South Delta originates adjacent to the Burrard Street SkyTrain Station in downtown Vancouver. Get off the bus at Ladner Exchange some 45 minutes later and, if feeling rich, grab a cab at the taxi stand or transfer to the #606 or #608 Ladner Ring bus to wheel a further 1½ km closer to your destination. The Ladner Ring bus operates only during peak hours Monday through Saturday. Disembark at the corner of River Road and 46A Street fully prepared to cover the final 5½ km to the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on foot. Given that the route cuts across the pleasant rural landscape of Westham Island, serious consideration should be given to hiking particularly for those looking for photo opportunities. Sunshine and pumpkins is one obvious subject which should present itself every autumn. After getting off the bus walk westward along River Road until Westham Island Road. Turn right and cross the one-lane Canoe Pass Bridge, following the road to its end at the bird sanctuary.
Taxis should be waiting at Ladner Exchange and should cost around $15, cost-effective if travelling in a group of four or five. Contact Delta Sunshine Taxi by phone at (604) 594-5444 or (604) 592-0111. Pay phones are available at both Ladner Exchange and the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Hitchhiking back to Translink territory is another alternative, keeping the usual safety caveats in mind.
For rare bird alerts and other bird watching info visit: Birding in British Columbia.