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The Festival Phenomenon

Kilted birders take the stage at last week's Rio Grande festival (note ABA prez Jeff Gordon, far right).

Kilted birders take the stage at last week’s Rio Grande festival (note ABA prez Jeff Gordon, far right).

My flight home from Harlingen, Texas, last Monday—after a wonderful week at the Lower Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival—marked the end of an exhilarating and maybe unprecedented streak: This year, I participated in 15 separate birding festivals in 10 U.S. states. All but two of those were crammed in a five-month window, from February to June.

Of course, that’s just a fraction of the current North American bird festival circuit. By my count, there are now more than 90 multi-day, annual birding events in the U.S. alone, with an increasing number abroad. New ones pop up constantly, and it’s hard to keep track of all this festivity (for starters, check out the ABA’s Birding Festivals Directory). I’d never been much of a festivalgoer, but that changed this year. When my new book was released in March, I hit the road to give talks, lead field trips, see some new places, and meet a lot of friends, both new and old—and festivals, it turns out, are incredibly fun!

Eco-gatherings in general are a relatively recent phenomenon. As far as I can tell, two bird festivals call themselves the oldest in the U.S.: The Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, Oregon (which held its 35th event in 2014) and the Cape May Autumn Birding Festival (which claims to have been going for 68 years). Most events are much younger. When I looked at 82 American bird festivals, it’s obvious that something happened about 20 years ago; few events are older than that, but multiple festivals have started every year since. The average age of today’s birding festival is 11.3 years (see chart below).

Age of 82 American bird festivals with available data. Average festival age in this group is 11.3 years. The Cape May Autumn Birding Festival, which claims to be 68 years old, is excluded from this graph.

Age of 82 American bird festivals with available data. Average festival age in this group is 11.3 years. The Cape May Autumn Birding Festival, which claims to be 68 years old, is excluded from this graph.

Some festivals are small, some are huge. Last week’s Rio Grande festival attracted several hundred birders, most of them traveling from other areas. Florida’s Space Coast Birding Festival (which I have not attended) may be the largest, with up to 1,500 registered birders each January. Most events are scheduled for a weekend, but some occupy a week or more; the Biggest Week in American Birding, held each May in Ohio, lasts a full 10 days. Many events are held in spring, but a surprising number are staged in fall or winter. Summer is wide open. California has the most bird festivals, followed by Florida, but there are similar events practically everywhere. Sandhill Crane and Snow Goose festivals seem to be popular, and there is even a one-day Turkey Vulture festival in the Kern River Valley, California.

Birders at West Virginia's New River Birding and Nature Festival do the "lifer dance" to celebrate the day's haul.

Birders at West Virginia’s New River Birding and Nature Festival do the “lifer dance” to celebrate the day’s haul.

A typical birding festival incorporates field trips, workshops, keynotes, meals, exhibits, and vendors, but each one is unique. Some give you a tote bag of swag, stuffed with leaflets and aluminum water bottles. Some host lavish evening receptions at art galleries. Some focus on die-hard, crack-of-dawn birding trips, while others advertise things like “The International Bird Beer Label Association.” In North Carolina, at the Wings Over Water festival on the Outer Banks, a guy in a pickup slowly dragged me around a local refuge while I sat in a covered trailer—a birding hay ride without the hay. In Homer, Alaska, I helped judge a bird-calling contest at a brewery (the “fake birds” category attracted the most enthusiasm). In West Virginia, in the spirit of fundraising, a hundred of us watched a man shave “BIRD NURD” into his chest hair one night while, weirdly, an opera singer in the audience riffed at full volume. In California, a bus broke down; in Texas, a bus backed into a solid object. Carloads of birders got stuck in mud and sand and snow in various places. A freak ice storm hit Virginia Beach, a freak rainstorm hit Laredo, and freakily good weather hit Wrangell Island. At every festival, lifers rained down on every field trip, every day, and, every afternoon, birders pestered each other with a question that never gets old: “What did you see today?”

I am reminded that birding is more social than we often think. Sure, there are a few loners out there—binoc-slinging rangers who spot rarities and then slink away—but most of us, like the rest of humanity, enjoy some companionship in the field. “It’s intoxicating,” said a friend of mine at the Rio Grande festival this week, “to be surrounded by so many like-minded people.” That’s the real draw for all these birding festivals: The birding is good, but the company is even better.

Noah gives a talk at Oregon's John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival in April.

Noah gives a talk at Oregon’s John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival in April.

And festivals help birders make a collective impact. Even the smaller events are estimated to pump millions of dollars into local economies, often in places that could use it. Some festivals go further toward conservation; the up-and-coming Colombia Birdfair, for instance, with its inaugural event scheduled for February, will direct all of the festival’s proceeds toward habitat acquisition near Cali, Colombia.

What’s not to love? Experienced birders sometimes ignore festivals because these events tend to be geared toward beginners, but that’s a plus, too: Festivals are a great way for veterans to pass on their interest. It’s great to go birding with people who are delighted by common species. Such raw enthusiasm is infectious, and a little inspiration goes a long way. So, if you haven’t already joined the action, why not volunteer to give a talk, lead a field trip, or help organize one of your local events? The buzz should last a while—just enough time for that festival to come around again next year.

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Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker, Associate Editor of Birding magazine, is author of Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica (2011) and The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human (2014). In 2015, Noah completed the ultimate big year, traveling through 41 countries to see 6,042 species of birds between January and December.
Noah Strycker

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  • Ted Floyd

    Nice write-up, Noah. Say, the number 90 seems low to me. Okay, “more than 90,” but still.

    Does anybody know? I suppose it might depend on the definition of “festival.” Some of the “conferences,” “symposiums,” and “state ornithological society meetings” I’ve attended are just what Noah describes above. A multi-day meeting of the West Virginia-based Brooks Bird Club was one of the best festival-type experiences I’ve ever had.

    I would have guessed the number is well into the hundreds.

    • Jeff Sundberg

      Ted, I did some work this summer with a couple of college students and they found a total of 230 bird festivals, broadly defined. Some of these are just one-day events.
      Jeff Sundberg

  • Tom Wilberding

    To Noah and ABA leaders,
    Thanks for the festival news, Noah, very interesting. Suggestion: in addition to publishing a list of bird events/festivals, would ABA please publish a list of keynote speakers for them, a sort of clearing house? List name, email, and phone of available speakers so event organizers can easily find them. Maybe require these speakers to be members of ABA. Maybe make available a sample contract, too. Thanks!

    • Carl Bendorf

      Tom, great suggestion. The idea of an ABA speaker’s bureau has come up in recent board discussions. Your suggestion of a sample contract is something we hadn’t thought about yet but it excellent. Thanks!

  • Susan Patla

    One event that is quite old is the return of the Turkey Vultures to Hinkley, Ohio (south of Clevleand) on March 5, celebrated with a pancake breakfast as I recall. Even years ago this was very popular in the Cleveland area and got wide publicity.

  • Susan Patla

    Oops I meant March 15 not 5.

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