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It’s not just about birds

Annual festival features fun, science of birding

Posted: May 7, 2014 - 3:16pm  |  Updated: May 7, 2014 - 3:19pm
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Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Already the shorebirds have arrived. Dunlins, dowitchers, surfbirds, sandpipers, yellowlegs, in ones and twos and hundreds they’ve been swooping in on Mud Bay and Beluga Slough, taking a fast-food rest stop on their way north. Local birders have been giddy with excitement, but today starts the big migration.

Birders, of course.

The 22nd annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival started this morning and continues through Sunday night with dozens of field trips, talks, lectures, workshops, music and — the reason for the show — the daily shorebird viewing stations. 

About 550 people have registered early, said shorebird coordinator Robbi Mixon. Last year, 900 registered, with about a third from Homer. Registration can be done online at kachemakshorebird.org or in person from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. today-Saturday at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. 

While many events are free, there is a $19.95 fee to attend the festival, with $5 each for up to four family members.

“It’s a way to show you support the festival and keeps it sustainable year to year,” Mixon said.

Part jump-start and warm-up for the tourist season, part a rite of spring, at its core the shorebird festival is just a real fun way to learn about birding.

“It’s a great opportunity. It becomes this kind of Woodstock for bird watchers where you can get connected to a lot of things,” said author Bill Thompson III of birding festivals. The editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, Thompson is this year’s keynote speaker.

Many popular events return this year, like Shorebird Sing at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Homer Brewery, the annual bird calling competition. Buzz Scher, who describes himself as “an experienced birder,” but not an expert, has been doing a talk on shorebird identification since the first year of the festival. He’ll do it again at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.

The daily shorebird viewing stations at Mud Bay and Lighthouse Village bracket the high tide — fortunately, at mid-day this year. Today’s station starts at 10 a.m., and begins about 30 minutes later each day.

Back this year after a hiatus is the Birder’s Beer Bash at 6 p.m. Friday at Land’s End Resort. The official meeting of the International Bird Beer Label Association, it combines birding with beer tasting as members try to find beer labels with bird images. Organizer Carmen Field said the current list is up to 476 species with 281 members — people who have spotted new bird beer labels. Want to join? A few new bird labels will be auctioned off.

There’s a new twist on the annual shorebird art, featured on T-shirts and other gear. Featured Eagle River artist Amanda Brannon painted this year’s shorebird, the bristle-thighed curlew, the star of the 2013 festival with a rare appearance. Brannon painted two versions, one as traditional wildlife art and a whimsical “bird nerd” of the curlew wearing XtraTufs and toting a birding bag that says “AK” and “HI” on it — stickers from its voyage from Hawaii to Alaska.

Brannon creates her art using the clayboard etching technique, where images are scratched into a masonite board coated with white clay and black ink. She then does a color wash over the etching. She’ll be demonstrating the technique in a workshop from 9-11 a.m. Saturday at Islands and Ocean. From 5-7 p.m. Saturday, Brannon has an art show and reception at the Fresh Sourdough Express Bakery. A bird nerd herself, Brannon takes a naturalist’s approach to painting birds like ravens, chickadees and — her favorite — the sandhill crane.

“I always research the bird first,” she said. “I want to make sure I get it right and make it more relatable to its environment.”

Talk to any birder and you’ll get a story about how they got started in birding. Thompson speaks of his “spark” bird, a snowy owl he saw that inspired him to start birding when he was a boy living in Pella, Iowa. He was out raking the yard on Thanksgiving weekend to beat a looming snowfall. There were huge oak trees in the yard.

“I looked up and this big white bird flew into this U-shaped arm of the oak tree,” he said. “I was like, ‘Mom, what’s that?’”

Thompson got an old bird book from the 1920s, the Chester Reed Guide, and identified the bird. He later talked to a neighbor who said the snowy owl would come every year.

“It was cool to make this connection that this bird had been here before,” he said.

Years later, Thompson thought of how clunky that bird guide had been. He pitched the idea of a birding guide for kids to his publisher.

“All I know is I wish I had a good field guide when I was a kid that’s not too heavy and complicated. I think it would be cool to have a welcome mat for young birders,” he said.

Using his daughter Phoebe’s elementary school class as his focus group, Thompson wrote “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.” He’s followed that up with the just-released “New Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America.”

An Alaskan since 1979, Scher, 59, has been visiting Homer to watch shorebirds since the 1980s. He and his wife, Kerry Reardon, look forward to the trip every year.

“It’s another reason to go to Homer,” he said.

In his talk, Scher discusses tips for identifying shorebirds — not an easy thing to do when a western sandpiper is the size of a tennis ball and you’re looking at it into the sun from a quarter-mile away.

“It’s windy right in your face and you’re looking at features millimeters in dimension,” he said. “Really, it’s birder gone wild.”

He advises people to look at things like how shorebirds move.

“Plovers run, others probe like little sewing machines,” he said. “You start to pick up behavior, their posture, their proportions.”

People might think looking through binoculars is a solitary hobby, but Thompson says birding is a social thing. Birders love to talk about birds they’ve seen, and when it’s a bit of a mob scene at the shorebird viewing, with dozens of birders trying to identify thousands of flittery birds, people talk a lot. Don’t know a bird? Ask around and you’ll get an answer or a good guess.

“I always suggest to people to connect as soon as you can with other birders,” Thompson said. “Really, I love the social things. This is my third week straight of guiding and being at a festival. I really enjoy it. I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Scher said he’s been going to the shorebird festival so long he’s hardly noticed the changes from year to year, but since the start?

“It’s gotten bigger and better and more organized,” he said. “It’s this ball that started rolling and kept on rolling and got bigger and bigger.” 

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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