Where on Earth?! Reifel Island

Careening along like light aircraft tipping wings at the mercy of erratic winds, two large black eagles appeared in a head on profile.  But these two were in complete control as they broke away from each other for their varied pursuits in the brushy, tree lined shore.  Within seconds, the leading bird rebounded from the vegetation with a large, yellow-green branch dangling from its talons.  With the mass of foliage fully twice its length, the eagle landed with ease on an aged pier post jutting from the waters edge and began sorting through its prize.

Without any apparent nest building sites nearby, “sci-fly” expert Kim Middleton surmised that “there must be some prey tangled in the sapling that has this eagle’s attention.”  The group of wildlife artists guided by Kim, an accomplished artist and ornithologist, had just traversed fields turned white with multitudes of snow geese and trumpeter swans, and were crossing a waterway bridge by van when the bald eagles appeared.  After this encounter, the van slowly rolled into the migratory bird estuary which was the field study destination.

Herons in Myrtlewood, © Terry Woodall

From the waterways transecting the thick marsh grass to a distant sandy shoreline and up to the foggy mass called the sky, a cloak of gray shrouded the tidal delta.  One could call it mist, or heavy fog, or drizzle, or rain—precipitation is an apt description—but it is all the same thing, a steady permeation of moisture settling over the northwest that birds and mammals weave through for at least 90 days of the year.

Spilling out of the van and into this scenario, the nature artists began their exploration of this reserve rich with waterfowl.  Hundreds of various types of ducks led to stimulant overload in all directions, with a selection of trails following the numerous canals and ponds, and as I began to meander here and there, Andrea Rich’s husband pointed out roosting Black Crowned Night Herons tucked back into some tree branches.  Further along the trail, dozens of ducks crowded together in comical line ups on single floating logs extending far out into the ponds, with the occasional Blue Heron on the fringes.

As I set out with a map and focused on a loop trail, I found Artist Kelly Dodge on the same trail and offered to take photos of her as she was hand feeding a cluster of American Coots, a dark waterfowl with very unusual green-yellow legs and feet. Kelly has an affinity with living nature like no other, as evidenced by her 40 days and 40 nights Artists for Conservation flag expedition to the Galapagos Islands, where she studied virtually anything that moved.

As Kelly continued to attract an ever growing lunch time crowd, I stalked a blue heron in a nearby open, grassy area.   This was a curious challenge since the bird’s approach zone was about twenty feet, at which point he simply strode a few steps away rather than escaping through flight.  I see herons every other day, but they will fly at the slightest movement of a person on foot within 100 feet or more. Obviously, this one was completely comfortable with people.

As we rounded a corner of the trail, barely ten feet away a Northern Harrier hawk perched on a fence post bolted in a panicky crescendo of flying feathers.   After this jolt of adrenaline, the long, straight trail opened up to a wide vista of marshes stretching all the way to the distant shores of the sea.  With harriers fluttering and hovering about on the left, a cornucopia of waterfowl in ponds to the right, and songbirds and flickers scattered in the brush lines in between, our  eyes strained to absorb everything this symphony of wild nature offered.

After this long stretch of trail and around the next corner came another surprise as Kelly made one of the more exciting observations of the birding day.  A Northern Shrike had caught a chickadee and flew with it into some low lying shrubs.  And in one of the more peculiar events of nature that must relate back to the bird’s lineage with the dinosaurs, the shrike impaled the luckless song bird on a thorn, and commenced to pluck and peel away the skin before devouring it.  Such is a common practice of the Shrike, the only predatory songbird.

By this time, the entire group had reached this far end of the reserve, and by calling out, everyone had the opportunity to view this avian action since the Shrike was taking its time and too busy to worry about bystanders.

On the return loop of the trail, our “sci-fly” expert Kim Middleton identified fresh owl activity under the occasional thick, blocky fir trees with foliage so constricted that spotting the roosting owls wasn’t going to happen.   A pair of Sandhill Cranes with their young offspring were easy to observe, however, as they wandered about seeking handouts from the artists.

Well dampened physically from the day’s prevailing drizzle, but not with dampened spirits, the jolly Pierre Pepin, his fine artist wife Patricia, and all the others bid the delta adieu. Upon leaving the reserve, the van stirred up flocks of Snow Geese that rippled from pasture floor to sky and back down again, keeping time with the passing vehicle like notes on a musical scale.

Where on Earth?!   Reifel Island, British Columbia, Canada

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