Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reifel offers sanctuary for birds - and people looking to escape the city




No, those aren't new sound effects for comics that feature waterfowl as superheroes. Although they could be, I guess...(Darkwing Duck, move over!)

Those are the sounds that constantly surround you when you visit the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary just outside Ladner, B.C. Just take a half-hour's drive from the Vancouver International Airport, and you'll find yourself in a wetland paradise full of ducks, geese, cranes, and herons - not to mention songbirds like red-winged blackbirds or raptors like bald eagles or marsh hawks (a.k.a. northern harriers).

Bald eagle soars over our heads.
I won't go into too much detail about the sanctuary itself, its history and its functions; that can all be gleaned from the sanctuary website .

I will say that although it is a stopping place for birds migrating north and south in the spring and fall, respectively - an avian "motel" of sorts - it is also a year-round home for many other birds.

Reifel is one of those rare spots you can visit again and again, and never tire of going there. It's a special place where you can get close to nature without having to drive too far from your front step, if you live in the Greater Vancouver area. The experiences there are pretty much the same every time, but for me, there's always one gem of an experience I have that's a bit different each time, something that sets that visit apart from others.

For example, when I was there last Monday, I saw a great blue heron fly across a pond and alight on a log right in front of me. It then proceeded to spend several minutes grooming itself while I shot videos and images of the bird.

Another time, I was able to watch and record a pair of sandhill cranes strolling along the edge of the marsh. You won't see these large, rare and beautiful birds every time you go to Reifel, but I have seen them on more than one occasion.

Of course, you'll never lack company if you take the time to spend a few toonies and purchase the bags of seed ($1 each) they sell at the admission gate for people to feed the ducks and geese in the sanctuary. (That's the only food people are allowed to feed them, so be forewarned). Be prepared for a stampede, though - if you start sprinkling too close to where you're sitting or standing, you'll quickly be swamped by ducks (no pun intended, but if it works, hey...).

A quick word of caution: remember, these are wild animals - they're not pets, nor is this a zoo, so if you do go and you do feed them, keep that in mind, also.

Great blue heron gets ready to groom.

As I sit there on a bench, emptying the last few bits of seed from my paper bag, I look out at the various marshes and ponds, separated by the earthen dikes that form the trail system within the sanctuary and wistfully wish I could hop in a canoe and go paddling through the area's waterways.

Alas, that's not one of the activities visitors are allowed to participate in.
So as much as I'd love to hear the sound of a paddle dipping into Reifel's waters, I guess I'll just have to settle for walking the trails and hearing the sounds of "Quack-Honk-Oka-dee!"

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Not ALL denizens of the deep are 'river monsters'

I admit it, freely; I kind of like watching River Monsters, that TV program that's part fishing show/part adventure travel show/part biology documentary.

For those unfamiliar with the program, the host, Jeremy Wade, travels the world in search of monstrous river creatures that have killed or at least viciously attacked humans.

The most recent episode I watched involved him trying to track down a giant sting ray that had allegedly killed some people in the Parana River, the largest river in Argentina.

As I'm watching it, I'm thinking to myself (not for the first time, either) how much the writers and producers of these shows over-dramatize everything. I know, I know, it's good TV. Who wants to watch it, if it's boring? This program - essentially another outdoor fishing show - has come up with a unique new hook to lure viewers in (no pun intended, but hey, if it works...). But like other shows before it, (The Crocodile Hunter comes to mind) the actual dangers are often over exaggerated.

A bit gruesome looking? Perhaps.
Deadly dangerous? Not likely.

Now pay attention here, because this is important: I'm not about to say there is no risk involved in dealing with the creatures featured in the show. But life itself is full of risks, with no guarantees.

The fact is, yes, you can be injured, sometimes fatally, by a stingray, or a pirhana or many of the other denizens of the deep, whether they are freshwater or saltwater inhabitants. But there's probably a much better chance of getting killed in a car accident on a freeway in North America than being chewed to death by river monsters.

Think about it: Hundreds of tourists go out to Stingray City off Grand Cayman Island every day to snorkel with stingrays and feed them. I've been there, done that, got the ball cap. You don't very often hear about mishaps there. And if there was a high risk, they probably wouldn't do it.

There are other examples; I've enjoyed many experiences with wildife both in the water and on the land that prove the point further.

Another example of something I've done in the water that some people might consider dangerous: I've gone diving with sharks. (Got a hat and a T-shirt for that, too!)

That took place in a closed aquarium in the Maui Ocean Center in Hawaii. We were diving in about 25 feet of water, swimming around with several black tipped and white tipped reef sharks, a couple of hammerheads, and a baby tiger shark (only about six feet long). There were also a couple of large stingrays as well as a smaller spotted eagle ray that we actually took turns feeding. I didn't feel frightened or intimidated at all.

The biggest annoyance were the little fish that kept nipping my fingers every time I got some "chum" from the dive master to feed the ray, "Hihimanu." My fingers were covered with tiny cuts by the time we were done.

Now mind you, these are well-fed sharks, used to seeing divers; still, they are wild animals essentially, and not always predictable. And this particular dive took place about a week after Steve Irwin was killed by a bull ray while he was diving. (I should point out, he was always showboating a bit, taking what I often felt were some unnecessary risks just to get good footage for the TV program, so it's not surprising that's how he bought it). Besides, the ray that killed him in a freak accident was not among the species of rays that live in the Maui tank.

Where's that bat-spray?

Again, though, when all is said and done, it's all about risk management. The aquarium in Maui would not run programs like this if too many visitors were being eaten.

The next day, while diving in the ocean, I saw a gigantic sting ray about 20 feet away. Again, all I felt was a sense of awe and wonder. I never felt threatened or in danger.

So, enjoy the dramatic shows like River Monsters, shudder at the thought of blood and guts and gore and unseen monsters lurking in the waters below; but remember life is rarely as risky or dramatic as TV shows make it out to be - so don't let it stop you from enjoying adventures in the water, whether you're diving or snorkelling under the surface or paddling on top of it. For that matter, don't let fear stop you on land, either.

Just make sure that if you do dive in shark-infested waters, carry your shark-repellent bat-spray with you at all times ...

(Just kidding!)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Pisco Sour: Peruvian - or Chilean?

Well I've never been to Spain, but I kinda like the music - hey, wait a minute - I have been to Spain. Doh! It's Chile I haven't been to. Spanish-speaking country, yes - but it's not Spain.

The Esmeralda
Not that I've actually been to Chile, mind you. My travels have taken me to three different South American countries: Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The closest I've come to being in Chile was aboard the tall ship Esmeralda, which was docked in North Vancouver, Monday. I was there by invitation of the Chile Board of Tourism to experience the event, "Flavors of Chile." 

There were certainly some good flavors aboard the tall ship ... asparagus spears wrapped in smoked salmon, salmon ceviche, some mini-pastry meat pies, empanadas and plenty of sweets for desert. Oh, I mustn't forget about the good cross-section of Chilean wines available for sampling.

But for me, when you're talking about Chile and alcohol, it all goes sour - Pisco Sour, that is.

Pisco Sours are considered by many to be the national drink of Chile. That's very interesting, because many Peruvians also call it their national drink.

When I visited Peru in 2008, I was told there is a big debate between the two countries as to which country actually invented the drink.

For those unfamiliar with the drink, it's a cocktail containing pisco, lemon lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and bitters. When I was in Peru, I had it made for me at Lucma Lodge, part of the Mountain Lodges of Peru. In Peru, they actually call limes "lemons," at least they look like what we call lemons in North America. Regardless, the Pisco sours there were the best I've had anywhere. And I've had them in restaurants in Lima, Cuzco and even Vancouver. And of course, on the Esmeralda in North Van.  

A Pisco Sour

I have to say, if taste is any indication, Peru would get my vote. Now I'm not sure if the ones we had on the Esmeralda used local Pisco or if it was brought all the way from South America. I do know that the quality of Pisco you can purchase at BCLC stores is not as good quality as the stuff you get in Peru, or probably, in Chile.

I guess the only way to settle this, at least in my mind, is to go to Chile and sample the local Pisco Sours there and then draw my conclusion by comparing them with what I had in Peru in 2008.

Of course, while I'm there, I'll probably manage to work in an excursion or two to see Patagonian conures in the wild, as there are some of those birds (also known as burrowing parrots) in that country. I've seen them in captivity here in North America, actually handled one quite regularly at the old facility for the Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary in Surrey, B.C. - Spook was a real sweetie! - but nothing beats seeing them in the wild.

And with the combination of parrots and Pisco, you really can't go wrong.

For more photos from this event, visit my photo album on Facebook:

Friday, August 5, 2011

I went to a sumo match, and a festival broke out...

Well, the headline may be a l-i-t-t-l-e misleading.

True, I did go to see sumo wrestling this past Sunday; and it was part of Vancouver's Powell Street Festival - the 35th annual festival, as it turns out. But it wasn't a sumo match, per se. There was a sumo wrestling tournament as part of the festival; however, that was only a small part of the two-day celebration of Japanese culture, food, song, dance, music and martial arts in Oppenheimer Park.

Truth is, I've always wanted to attend a real sumo match, with all the pomp and tradition and ceremony associated with the sport. If you've ever watched the sumo scene in the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, you'll get an idea of what it is I'm longing to see. It's on my bucket list.
Let's get ready to SU-MO!
However, that wasn't about to happen here. It was kind of cool watching them practise, but I didn't get to see the actual tournament (which was open to anyone who wanted to sign up) and sponsored by Vancouver's Sumo Fun Club. It was running a bit late, and I really wanted to go to the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony (more on that later).

I did get to see some good martial arts demos by another group, Shorinji Kempo. Their members ranged in ages from seven to 77, and although this martial art originated in Japan 60 years ago, the martial artists in this group consisted of people from a wide variety of ethnic groups.

Music usually plays a large part of any festival and the Powell Street Festival is no different. Between noon and 4 p.m., I saw three different musical presentations. When I arrived, the Chibi Taiko, a group of youngsters (actually,the first children's taiko ensemble in Canada) were finishing their drum performance on the park's Main Stage. Before going on, I should mention "taiko" refers to "drum" in Japanese, although there is a cultural significance to the term that makes it more than just a word to describe a type of instrument. 

That was followed by traditional Ainu music. The Ainu are the aboriginal people of Japan and northeastern Russia. They told stories and sang while dressed in traditional clothing.

Members of the Yuaikai Ryukyu Taiko perform
at the Powell Street Festival.

For me though, the highlight of the day came courtesy of the Okinawan-based group, Yuaikai Ryukyu Taiko. Lots of energy, and you see many of the movements the drummers make while playing come from traditional martial arts forms. Very inspiring!

Of course, no festival would be worth going to without food, and there were plenty of food booths serving traditional Japanese foods. I sampled bits of many different foods, my favorites being the teriyaki chicken skewers and okonomayaki (Japanese pancake made with cabbage and pork stuffed inside). I did draw the line at Spam sushi, however. Not that I have anything against Spam ... but I can't get past the seaweed taste of any sushi. Just after going to the festival, a friend told me I can get sushi made with rice paper wrapping rather than seaweed. I plan to give it a try ...

After eating, came tea, in the traditional Japanese style. I guess I should rephrase that to "tea ceremony." Also known as the "Way of Tea," it involves much more than just sipping some tea and dunking some crumpets (if you like crumpets). There are several traditions and rituals that form a part of the ceremony, including eating sweet sesame wafers before taking tea, having a hostess prepare the tea or "matcha," drinking it, returning the cup and bowing many, many times.

Would you like one wafer or two with
your matcha?
 I should point out, the tea itself is unlike any tea I've ever consumed. I detected a slightly fishy odor to the tea in the cup, although there was no fishy taste. It tasted something like a bitter, slightly thicker green tea. It is full of antioxidants, though, therefore ultra healthy.

Attending the ceremony is really cool; if you ever get a chance to experience it, go for it.

If you're in Vancouver, there are plenty of places to experience it; just spend a bit of time surfing the web to find them. If you already live in Vancouver, it's a great opportunity for you to play tourist in your own town.

That's kind of what the Powell Street Festival allowed me to do: as a hometown tourist, I could get a taste of Japan without having to fly halfway around the world. It did whet my appetite for a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun...because after all, how else will I get to see real, traditional sumo wrestling?

Want to see a photo album of images from this event? Visit