The Welcome Back Buzzards birding festival in Superior, Arizona, welcomes back turkey vultures.
It’s coming on to spring. Fairbanks will see spring three months from now, Brooklyn two months, Austin one month. But, wherever you are, spring is a fine time to check out birding festivals.
Put the gun down, Hoss. Take a breath, delete the words “birding” and “festival” from your mind. Now, go to that happy place and think, Promenading amidst flora and fauna. That’s not quite right, is it? Okay, think, Promenading amidst flora and fauna, whiskey, football, ’65 Pontiac GTO, naked cheerleaders. Better?
Hey, it’s spring. You could be standing at the base of a for-real mountain looking at waterfalls and the whole deal. Or maybe you’re the only one camping on the shore of an alpine lake. You could drive over to Joshua Tree National Park and catch wildflowers blooming.
The morning smells sweet and young. A coyote watches from a nearby ridgeline. Two rabbits pop up from underneath a creosote bush. Up ahead, perched on a weirdly magnificent Joshua tree, are birds. Big ones. Nice feathers.
That’s a good way to begin promenading amidst flora and fauna. But, if you want to go a little faster, sign up for a birding festival.
Most birding festivals are held in small towns, which is a bonus, at least for me. There’ll be a check-in place, typically a hall, tent, warehouse, or school. Volunteers sit behind high school cafeteria tables, take names, answer questions, preside over maps and schedules. This is usually the same place where festival field trips begin.
There are always workshops, although I must own I’ve never attended one. Bird pros take groups of all sizes out on field trips. Hook up with one. Guides know all the bird stories and bios, but what they do best is spot birds you’d never notice on your own. Some hikes are free, some cost money, but not much money.
A week from Saturday is California Duck Days, a festival worth the trip just for its name. You can find the event in Davis. For people who lust after rural county fairs, arrive Friday night for the Duck Days Wildlife Art Show. You can hobnob at the Davis Art Center and art it up in front of artwork created by Yolo County high school students.
Saturday is bird day. I have a program at hand and see there is a field trip titled “Central Valley Raptors.” It’s a three-hour morning hike around back roads gawking at Bald Eagles, Coopers Hawks, Falcons, Kestrels, and more. Here’s a hike for the committed, “East Delta Birding,” 1:15 to 7:00 p.m. Near six hours of schlepping the Delta. Starts from the West Sacramento ship channel, thence downriver to Clarksburg to Walnut Grove to Staten Island, finishing at the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve for a nightcap of Sandhill Cranes.
As dorky as it sounds to anyone under the age of 40, looking at birds can be flat-out thrilling. Imagine a fresh spring afternoon in the Delta. A stunning orange-turning-to-pink sunset is happening underneath thick, gray, puffy clouds. Now comes a flock of Sandhill Cranes. The flying pterodactyls make a big circle over the marsh, legs dropping straight down, wings stretched. They glide downwards, setting up a ballet of landing on water while a curtain of purple sweeps over the valley. Twilight’s last gleaming. And here comes Canada Geese and more cranes, everyone coming home, everyone getting tucked in for the night, beating pitch dark by a honk. The sight will take your heart.
Back to Duck Days. Of course they have workshops. The Bat Workshop is tempting, not to overlook the must-do Duck Calling workshop. Hie thee to yolobasin.org/events.cfm#Event_CaliforniaDuckDays and register. Tickets are 20 to 25 bucks. Cheap.
If you don’t want to travel, two weeks from now (March 3–6) is a big one, the 15th Annual San Diego Bird Festival, headquartered in Marina Village on Mission Bay. Field trips range from an overnight outing to Baja estuaries and lagoons, to biking around Mission Bay, to birding Lake Hodges, Palomar Mountain, Lake Henshaw, Anza-Borrego, Islas Coronado, Julian, Camp Pendleton, Ramona, and Tecate. Basically, you can go everywhere and see everything accompanied by a guide who will point out birds you don’t see, then identify what you are seeing and tell you a story about that bird for dessert. Throw in dinners, lunches, happy hours, workshops, vendors begging for money, and the event becomes mandatory. Go to sandiegoaudubon.org/birdfest.htm for particulars.
On March 19 we can attend Welcome Back Buzzards, another festival worth the drive just for its name. It’s held at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Arizona, and celebrates the Arboretum’s migratory flock of Turkey Vultures. God speed Arboretum Turkey Vultures!
For a complete list of California Bird Festivals go to natureali.org/nature_festivals.htm.