A record number of people (30) joined the Delta History Hunters’ trip to see migrant snow geese and learn about Alaksen National Wildlife Area on Westham Island. It was a beautiful day of autumnal colours and thick mist cloaking the delta. As we gathered in the visitor car park at Alaksen, we could hear geese calling all around us. Suddenly several large flocks flew over our heads, ghostly pale in the mist, calling plaintively. We estimated there were several thousand geese in the circling flocks. The photographers were not able to get the blue sky shots that they hoped for, however, as the mist remained thickly around us all morning.
We were met at the car park by Brett Marchant, the Protected Areas and Stewardship Land Manager for the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada. Brett explained that he had been at Alaksen for just a few years but was very happy to show us around and explain about the work of the Pacific Wildlife Research Centre that is located at Alaksen. The National Wildlife Area (NWA) encompasses 299 hectares on Westham Island, at the mouth of the Fraser River. Some of the site overlaps with the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, which is also federal property. Both are included in the designations Ramsar wetland of international importance, Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network site, and Important Bird Area, a BirdLife International program.
We walked together through an avenue of old cedars to the main building. Built of solid logs and with a quaint little tower, where hunters could watch for geese, it was once a country residence and hunting lodge of George C. Reifel. He is renowned for giving his name to the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. A businessman, brewer and even a rum runner during the prohibition era, Reifel was also a keen outdoorsman and conservationist. His grandson, George Reifel, has carried on the conservation tradition, and is President of the BC Waterfowl Society which operates Reifel Sanctuary. He had hoped to join us for the DHH trip but was not available this time. The log building and adjacent wing now houses offices and workshops for Environment Canada staff. One large office is in the former bedroom of the lodge. The Centre is a closed facility, so unfortunately we were not able to go inside. However, Brett took us into the brand new wing, “the Reifel Roost”, which has been built to high LEED design standards as a conference and meeting area, with offices for technical staff.
Gathered in the warmth of one of the rooms, the group was able to learn more about Alaksen from Courtney Albert, Environment Canada’s manager responsible for NWAs and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in B.C.. Alaksen was purchased in 1972 as a NWA for the purpose of providing secure habitat in perpetuity for the lesser snow geese that visit every winter from their breeding grounds on Wrangel Island, Russia. The geese travel 5000 km from the Arctic and winter in the Fraser and Skagit estuaries. Some fly on further to California where they feed in iron-rich mud. As a result their faces are often stained reddish when they return on a spring stop-over on their way back north. The number of geese vary from year to year, depending on the recruitment numbers, i.e. how many young ones survive and make the journey. The last couple of years have been good survival years and an estimated 70,000 geese have come south each year. These numbers change if there is bad weather or other factors effecting gosling survival. There are not “too many” snow geese in the Fraser delta, despite reports, as there is plenty of forage for them. Of course, availability of farm fields is an important factor. Courtney explained how they have an agreement with local farmers who plant Alaksen fields with both cash crops and, in lieu of rent, with crops suitable for the foraging geese. Many other birds benefit from the habitat at Alaksen too. Farmer cooperative programs of the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust also provide waterfowl forage on fields elsewhere in Delta.
There was quite a question and answer session, as people were interested to know about the distinction between federal land and provincial land (Boundary Bay, for example, is a provincial Wildlife Management Area), the effect of port and road developments on the geese, where the great blue herons of Alaksen nested (probably at the Tsawwassen ferry causeway rookery) and what the word Alaksen means (someone will have to research that!)
After the talk, some people headed home, but most went for a lovely stroll along the wooded paths of the NWA. A twenty minute loop took us to the shores of the Fraser River, still wreathed in fog, and then back along a grassy trail under overhanging trees. These paths are open to the public during weekdays (not Saturday and Sunday), but visitors need to check in at the Pacific Wildlife Research Centre by ringing the doorbell and letting staff know you are there.
Before leaving Westham Island, a few car loads of us checked out a huge flock of geese feeding in a field beyond the slough. The bridge onto the island was opening as we headed home, giving us an opportunity to watch it in operation as it swung aside to allow a boat through Canoe Pass. Several of us finished up the morning in convivial conversations at Localz coffee shop on Delta St. Ladner. While some people were probably disappointed in the limited views of the geese, it was once again a very enjoyable trip, to a little known area of the delta. Thanks everyone for coming!
It was a pleasure to see so many people out for this, the last trip of the year for the Delta History Hunters. In the slight confusion of such a big group, I unfortunately omitted the opportunity to give Brett and Courtney our usual show of appreciation and thanks: a round of applause. However, I am sure I speak for the group in saying how much we enjoyed our visit and appreciated the time they took to give us insights into the work done at Alaksen to protect Delta’s wintering snow geese.
Written by: Anne Murray, Board Member of the Delta Museum and Archives Society