Beaks and Bills
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 145 articles for Whatcom Watch.
The concept of establishing refuges and sanctuaries for birds dates back to 1870, with the creation of the Lake Merritt Wild Duck Refuge. Originally a tidal lagoon on the east side of San Francisco Bay, the lagoon was surrounded by one thousand acres of wetlands where natives fished, hunted and gathered food along its shores. In a classic scenario that saw the California Gold Rush and the ensuing rush of settlers and land developers, the area was overlooked as a natural resource in favor of development.
After numerous land swaps and assorted dealings, the lagoon was incorporated as part of the city of Oakland in 1852 and naturally became the city’s sewer. As the city grew around it, the stench was unbearable to most of its citizens. The mayor of Oakland, Dr. Samuel Merritt, had the idea to clean up the lagoon and divert the sewage elsewhere. In 1868 he proposed a dam to control the tidal flow into the lagoon, which eventually became the lake that bears his name.
This new lake had dense wetlands that attracted migratory waterfowl in large numbers, which in turn attracted duck hunters. To make the lake more attractive, as well as to protect the ducks and reduce the noise and danger to citizens living nearby, Dr. Merritt proposed turning the lake into a wildlife refuge in 1869. The hunters’ guns would be silenced and only fishing would be allowed. The California State Legislature made it official in 1870 and the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge became the first official wildlife refuge in America.
Since this relatively modest beginning, a movement was shaped across North America to look to conservation and restoration of natural areas and to create what eventually became the National Wildlife Refuge System. With President Theodore Roosevelt and organizations like the National Audubon Society leading the way, the National Wildlife Refuge System was founded in 1903. Pelican Island in Florida was designated as the system’s first refuge that same year by President Roosevelt.
As the need to protect wildlife and essential habitat became imperative, more and more areas were set aside across the country for all wildlife — and specifically for migratory birds — in a system that now numbers over 560 refuges. The movement to establish more refuges for birds combined with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 to create safe havens where birds would be protected from the pressures of hunting, both in winter and during the breeding season. Birds find sanctuary in these refuges throughout the year, and birdwatchers benefit from them as well.
It goes without saying that the best opportunities to observe birds in their natural habitats come at those places where the birds find refuge and safety to forage and rest. Many refuges in the system are set up to allow for bird watching and educational programs to take place with a minimum of disturbance to the birds. Motor routes allow people to drive through refuges, walking trails abound to allow for exercise as well as viewing, blinds are set up in places to allow viewing where birds congregate, and observation towers are constructed to give broader views of the entire refuge. As well as serving the birds, refuges are birdwatcher-friendly, too.
Whenever die-hard birdwatchers gather in the off-season or between trips, the conversation often touches on past sightings and the good places to see birds. While some have the wherewithal to travel to wildlife refuges in faraway places, many of us choose to stay closer to home. Not to worry, however, because we have an abundant supply of great places to see birds. The northwest corner of Washington state and the lower mainland of southwestern British Columbia offer some of the best winter birding in both countries, and there is one place that offers year-round birding on a scale that rivals many of the more distant refuges.
Most of the local bird watching community is aware of this special place, but it seems that many other people have barely heard of it, making it a hidden gem of sorts. Just across the Canadian border and only 44 miles from downtown Bellingham is a bird watcher’s delight. If you’re willing to contend with the usual border crossing delays, you will be rewarded with fantastic sights and sounds. While there is nothing you can do about the congestion at the border on the return in the afternoon, the early morning crossing is always a relative piece of cake.
On a beautiful day in mid-November, I took a weather-delayed birthday visit to one of my favorite places to spend the day with birds. On this particular day, I drove right up to the customs agent at the Blaine Peach Arch border crossing, extended my passport, and was on my way to a great morning and afternoon of birding at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, better known as Reifel or the Reifel Refuge.
The layout at Reifel is perfect. From the parking lot at the main gate, you’re on your own to explore the refuge utilizing a myriad of easily-traversed trails. Trails crisscross the refuge and, as an added benefit, all are wheelchair accessible. There is also an observation tower that overlooks the West Marsh and the Strait of Georgia, all the way to Vancouver and the British Columbia Coastal Range. The view from the tower is often exhilarating and you could easily spend several hours there on a sunny day.
During the winter months, Reifel is the best place to see a number of birds that are usually hard to find during the rest of the year. Owls seem to be especially keen on the safety they find at the refuge. Saw-whet and long-eared owls often take up residence on the refuge grounds, along with great horned and short-eared owls. On occasion, rare northern hawk owls find their way to Reifel and vie for birdwatchers’ attention with the smaller boreal owls.
The Reifel Refuge is located on Westham Island, west of the town of Ladner. As you cross the bridge over the South Arm of the Fraser River, you begin to see the general makeup of the land surrounding Reifel. The neighboring agricultural fields annually host in excess of 20,000 snow geese and hundreds of trumpeter swans, as well as several species of raptors. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks are common sights above the open fields, along with peregrine falcons and merlins. You can get your fill of good birds before you ever reach the refuge gate.
Reifel is a restful place for humans, and a great place to take kids to expose them to the natural world and the wonder of birds. In children’s formative years, few things can compare with chickadees eating birdseed out of their hands. The refuge sells packets of birdseed at the gate just for this purpose. There is a nominal entry fee that is collected at the gate, but it’s a small price to pay for spending time in a well-managed wildlife sanctuary, surrounded by good birds. Add this refuge to your list of places to visit in 2015.
“How much more habitable a few birds make the fields!”
Henry David Thoreau