Birders scan the horizon for migrating raptors during the Bridger Raptor Festival in Montana. Photo: Max Lowe

Travel

Bald Eagles to Bluegrass: Birding Celebrations Happening This Fall

Novice and experienced birders alike will find food, music, community, and plenty of birds at meetings and festivals around the country.

Fall migration is here, bringing with it an abundance of opportunities to spot and celebrate North American birds with others. Community and conservation groups have organized meetings, festivals, and conferences to take advantage of this peak season. Some events are species-specific, honoring birds like the Bald Eagle or the Sandhill Crane. Others combine birding with bluegrass music, children’s crafts, square dancing, wine tasting, photography, expert seminars, and more to create weekend-long events for the whole family. We talked to organizers around the country about their upcoming festivals. Here’s what you can expect. 

Wings Over Willapa Festival

September 2728 in Ocean Park, Washington

Returning for a second year after a successful inauguration, the Wings over Willapa Festival devotes a weekend to nature and birding at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. Because the refuge borders the second-largest estuary on the West Coast and provides critical bird habitat along the Pacific Flyway, the area is inundated with birds during migration season. The festival’s many tours take visitors into areas of the refuge normally inaccessible to the public, including habitat for the endangered Snowy Plover. In addition to venturing out by foot, boat, or trolley, attendees can enjoy a lecture series on local ecology and a program of family-friendly events. One workshop encourages kids to think about pollution by making art out of items found by Willapa volunteers during beach cleanups.

Registration: Free; certain events require paid tickets.  

More information here. 

Bridger Raptor Festival

Ecologist Charles Post releases a Sharp-shinned Hawk during the Bridger Raptor Festival. Photo: Forest Woodward

October 46 in Bozeman, Montana

Hosted by a menagerie of conservation groups including the Sacagawea Audubon Society, the Bridger Raptor Festival offers attendees a close-up view of one of the largest Golden Eagle migrations in the United States. The Bridger flyway has long served as a migration route for as many as 18 different species of raptors. This year’s festival kicks off with a screening of the documentary film Sky Migrations, followed by a discussion with the film’s directors. Offering everything from a children’s birdhouse-building workshop to live bird presentations to a talk on raptor identification, this free festival is intended for those at any level of birding experience. 

Registration: Free

More information here. 

Ridgefield BirdFest & Bluegrass

October 45 in Ridgefield, Washington

Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2019, the Ridgefield BirdFest & Bluegrass event combines a full day of birding excursions, informational workshops, and guided hikes with a community-wide bluegrass music festival. The weekend’s most sought-after event is its Sandhill Crane Tours, which depart at 5 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. These special excursions visit an area of the refuge usually closed to the public to view Sandhill Cranes as they wake up and take off for the day or return to roost in the evening. Saturday also features kids’ crafts, a birders’ marketplace, watercolor and photography workshops, story time at the library, a talk on crow behavior, and an evening salmon bake.

Registration: Payment and registration are needed for some events; the rest are free and open to the public.

More information here. 

Canon + Audubon: Birds in Focus

Young birders at the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon

October 5 & 6 in Audubon, Pennsylvania

Led by an Audubon naturalist and a Canon photography professional, this guided bird walk offers guests a chance to try out the latest cameras, lenses, and binoculars while birding. The Audubon Center at Mill Grove is an ideal setting for this 45-minute walk, as more than 175 different species of birds frequent the area. A cross between a photography class and a guided birding trip, this event will leave you with new camera skills and, hopefully, some excellent pictures of the birds you encountered along the way. Walks occur throughout the morning and midday on Saturday and Sunday.

Registration: $15

More information here. 

Cape May Fall Festival

October 17–20 in Cape May, New Jersey

Hosted by New Jersey Audubon, the Cape May Fall Festival is one of the longest-running bird festivals in the country. Now in its 73rd year, the festival brings thousands of visitors to an area that National Geographic has called one of the world’s top 10 best spots for birding. Fall migration will be in full swing, and bird-counting volunteers will be on hand to help attendees spot birds in the wild. The weekend also features a number of free events at the Cape May Convention Hall, including a monarch butterfly-tagging demonstration and a family-friendly live bird show. The festival has scheduled trolley, boat, and walking tours for birders of all experience levels—and there’s even a beach nearby for those who prefer to sit back and watch the birds as they fly by.

Registration: $185 before October 1; $225 after October 1. Convention center events are free.

More information here. 

Florida Birding & Nature Festival

October 1720 in Tampa, Florida

The autumn months bring birds from up and down the Atlantic Flyway to the western coast of Florida, where they pause to rest in and around bodies of water like Tampa Bay. The surrounding Hillsborough County takes full advantage of fall migration season with its three-day festival of seminars, field trips, and social events. This year’s 22 scheduled field trips include several boat rides to islands rich with shorebirds, birding excursions by canoe on three different rivers, and walking tours of protected land usually closed to the public. Non-birders can enjoy morning seminars on Florida’s bears, reptiles, butterflies, and other fauna while the field trips are in session, and birders seeking more in-depth knowledge will find plenty of expertise at the bird-focused afternoon seminars. The festival culminates in a keynote speech by legendary bird expert (and Audubon field editor) Kenn Kaufman, as well as other expert talks on owl research and Florida’s historical role in the land-conservation movement. 

Registration: $45 for all 3 days, field trip tickets are extra 

More information here. 

Sandhill Crane Festival

Sandhill Cranes in the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, Lodi, California. Photo: Becky Matsubara/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

November 1–3 in Lodi, California

Winery tours, kayaking trips, early-morning hikes, and river cruises abound in this three-day celebration of the Sandhill Crane. Each day features a plethora of workshops and presentations like paper-crane folding, owl pellet dissection, taiko drumming, and nature talks with live animal guests. The festival includes an art show featuring the work of nature photographer Leslie Morris and others. Of course, the stars of the festival are the cranes, which flock to nearby marshes to roost by the thousands. Several group tours to the best observation points will be led each evening to get a glimpse of these impressive birds.

Registration: Free for festival activities; tour prices vary.

More information here. 

Kelleys Island Owl Festival

November 1–3 in Kelleys Island, Ohio

The Kelleys Island Owl Festival gives attendees up-close access to wild Saw-whet Owls with master bander Tom Bartlett. The festival begins at 8 p.m. on Friday at North Pond with a guided owl prowl and continues over the weekend on the island’s Jones and Scheele Preserves with daytime songbird banding and nighttime Saw-whet Owl banding. Free and open to the public, these events feature a warm, communal atmosphere celebrating the yearly autumn owl migration—157 owls were banded on the island between October and November of last year! Dress warm and bring a flashlight; if you are lucky, you may get the chance to meet these birds up close.    

Registration: Free

More information here.

Alaska Bald Eagle Festival

Rehabilitated juvenile Bald Eagle is released in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve during the Bald Eagle Festival in Haines, Alaska. Photo: Ray Bulson/Alamy

November 6–9 in Haines, Alaska

Tucked in a scenic valley a five-hour ferry ride north of Juneau is the small town of Haines, whose annual Bald Eagle Festival celebrates the area’s ecosystem. Underwater aquifers feed the valley’s rivers with a supply of water that doesn’t freeze—a rare commodity during frigid Alaskan winters. Every autumn, when their other sources of food are frozen over, Bald Eagles descend on Haines to pluck salmon out of its flowing waters. In past years, Alaska Bald Eagle Festival attendees from around the world have counted as many as 50 bald eagles in a single tree. This year, organizers have planned a number of programs to highlight the warm, communal spirit of Haines as well as celebrate its heritage. Events include brewery visits by local “ambassador” birds, square dancing after the Saturday night banquet dinner, and an eagle release ceremony co-hosted by the local indigenous Tlingit community.

Registration: $175; ticket prices vary for individual events without a registration

More information here.

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

November 6–10 in Harlingen, Texas

The Rio Grande Valley is a haven for birds migrating south for the winter and also those venturing up from Mexico. It was one of the first U.S. regions to host birds like the Green Jay and the Clay-colored Thrush, whose ranges have since expanded. The valley is home to a wide-variety of birdlife, from a flock of Red-crowned Parrots displaced from Mexico by habitat destruction to Amazon Kingfishers spotted by previous years’ festival attendees. This year’s Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival features speakers like headliner Pete Dunne as well as a variety of seminars and guided tours. It’s also one of the only events of its type which offers a fully wheelchair-accessible outdoor birding excursion. The tour will be led by a wheelchair-using guide, and any wheelchair users and their companions are welcome.

Registration: $25, plus additional fees for some individual events and field trips.

More information here. 

Central Valley Birding Symposium

November 21–24 in Stockton, California

The Central Valley Bird Club’s annual symposium is a veritable who’s who of the nation’s leading birders. More akin to a conference than to a festival, this three-day event draws experienced birders from around the country to reconnect with old friends and discuss hot topics in the birding world, from climate change to the origins of avian taxonomy. Events this year include birding trips guided by celebrity figures like Jon Dunn, as well as talks by top experts like bird-call specialist Nathan Pieplow and science writer Jennifer Ackerman, author of The Genius of Birds. The registration price covers all events including field trips, as well as a one-year membership to the CVBC. While not recommended for those with no birding experience, this symposium will give novice and seasoned birders alike a chance to rub elbows with some of the leading figures in the field. 

Registration: $125 for adults, cheaper for life members and students

More information here. 

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