Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:32 PM on Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Homer celebrates 20 years of shorebirding

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Michael Craig looks for shorebirds last Friday at the Mariner Park lagoon. Wagner was part of a group doing shorebird monitoring in advance of this weekend's Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.

"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose," the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote in his famous epigram. "The more it changes, the more it's the same thing."

Sort of like the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.

The 20th festival schedule started Wednesday with Junior Birder events, but really kicks into full steam today with bird viewing walks, a birding boat tour and a shorebird viewing station before and after the high tide. Looking back to 1993's schedule for the first shorebird festival, it started with bird viewing walks, a birding boat tour and a shorebird viewing station.

And just as he did in 1993, birder Buzz Scher still does his Saturday morning "Shorebird Identification" workshop.

While the festival has changed a lot, growing from a three-day long weekend to five days of events, at its core the festival remains true to its roots: celebrating the migration of tens of thousands — and dozens of species — of shorebirds that pass through Kachemak Bay in late April and early May. Around that natural wonder 118 events have been created, including Saturday's popular Arts, Crafts and Education Fair — another 1993 classic event.

Before the shorebird festival got started, only dedicated birders like George West, who literally wrote the book on bird watching in Kachemak Bay, looked for shorebirds at Mud Bay, the Homer Spit, Mariner Park Lagoon and other birding hotspots.

"I'd go there and look at the shorebirds. I was the only person out there," birder Willy Dunne remembers of birding then. "Nowadays, I'll see early birders with their spotting scopes, which I never noticed in the early 1990s."

The idea of a festival began in 1992 with Poppy Benson, an environmental educator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who sat on a tourism committee at the Homer Chamber of Commerce. Members of the tourism committee, including John "Johnny B" Bushell, kicked around ideas about how to increase tourism to Homer.

"We were looking to protect the migration of the birds," Benson said. "They were looking to expand their season. It was a case of both working together."

Based then in the Homer Insurance building next to the Best Western, Fish and Wildlife already had plans to build a new refuge headquarters and visitor center. Benson had been to a training session on festivals.

At the same time, the city had proposed filling in wetlands on the south side of the base of the Homer Spit between Mariner Park and Lighthouse Village for a motorhome park. West and biologists Susan Matthews and Jack Lentfer wrote a report showing how filling in those wetlands would destroy habitat for migrating shorebirds and other waterfowl.

"I thought, 'We should do a festival,'" Benson said. "It would make the shorebirds famous and we would have all this talk about filling in wetlands."

She suggested doing the festival when what would become the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center was built.

"I didn't mean 'like now.' I meant the future," Benson said. "But Johnny B jumped on that. 'We're going to do that now. We're going to do that next year.' ... There was no stopping him. It was going to happen, no matter what."


A page for the May 13, 1993, Homer News shows some of the activities from the first Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.

Bushell didn't remember that, but agreed he would have acted that way, he said.

"That would have been my reaction. Why wait? Let's give this a try," Bushell said.

What no one knew was the Benson was pregnant with her son, Cedar, and didn't look forward to planning and running a festival pregnant and with a newborn baby. Fortunately, Benson had a seasonal worker, Dunne, who could help her.

"Poppy just said, 'Guess what? Here's another duty for you.' And I said, 'Sounds like fun,'" Dunne said.

Sally Oberstein wound up being the first festival coordinator, the job later held by Dorle Harness and now Whiting. Having a coordinator helped, Benson said.

"We thought, great, someone who knows what they're dong who isn't pregnant — and off we went," she said.

By a fluke, Benson wound up being the first keynote speaker. A professional storyteller had been scheduled to give the keynote talk at the Sunday Mother's Day coffee, but through a misunderstanding he only did one story, about 5 minutes. Then a new mother, Benson stepped into the breach with her talk, "Relating Motherhood to Bird Migration."

That's one of the big changes that's come with the festival. As the festival's reputation grew in American and international birding circles, soon it could attract world-class birders like authors Pete Dunne and Scott Weidensaul and experts like Carl Safina and, for this year, Dr. George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation.

"These guys have said they've heard in the birding world this is one of the top festivals to go to," Whiting said of speakers who get invited. "They're always consistently impressed how big an event a small community can put on."

Back in 1993, Dunne said no one knew if the festival would last beyond its trial run.

"We had no idea if it was going to be a success or a flop," he said. "We'd thought we'd give it a go."

Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival

Then and now

Days of festival:

3 days, 1993; 5 days, 2012

Number of events:

39 events, 1993; 118 events, 2012

Size of program

2 pages, 1993; 24 pages, 2012

Booths at Arts, Crafts and Education Fair:

20 booths, 1993; 70, 2012

Classic events still going on:

Beginners Bird Walk, Beluga Lake and Beluga Slough

Shorebird viewing stations

Birders Coffee

Keynote address

Kachemak Bay boat tour

Bird drawing

Shorebird identification with Buzz Scher

Arts, Crafts and Education Fair

Photography and drawing workshops

Events in 1993 no longer going on:

KBBI Puffin Race

Wooden Boat Society Exhibits

Kite flying contests

A go it got.

Over 20 years, the shorebird festival has grown to attract birders from around Alaska, the Lower 48 and the world. Benson said she sees a lot of the same "shorebird festival junkies" year after year. Whiting said some people come down from Anchorage just for Mr. Whitekey's annual Shorebird Follies — even though they can catch him in Anchorage.

"Some people sign up for the same event every year," Whiting said. "I think that's curious and wonderful."

The festival also has accomplished what that tourism committee sought to do in 1993: increase tourism. Many businesses on the Homer Spit now open early for shorebird weekend instead of Memorial Day weekend — and the visitors come. Other businesses go to summer hours early.

"They rave and they rave. The seats are full," Whiting said restaurant and B & B owners tell her. "I get feedback from the community saying that."

From an environmental perspective of increasing awareness about bird habitat, the shorebird festival also has been a success. Birder George Matz has revived West's early shorebird monitoring efforts. The city filled in part of the wetlands for Mariner Park, but most of it was saved. Other areas were rezoned for conservation. Birding trails were built, like in Beluga Slough and the upper part of the lake. Protecting shorebird habitat has come to be seen as part of what brings tourists — and new residents — to Homer.

"The whole thing has grown," Benson said. "We've gotten the reputation as a birdy place, a bird friendly place."

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