Traditional fall celebrations—apple picking, hayrides, pumpkin spice lattes—are fun and all, but they’re missing an important ingredient: birds. Thankfully, all over the country, festivals celebrate our feathered friends as they pass through on their fall migrations and return to their winter homes. Whether you’re just curious about a new hobby or serious about bulking up your life list, chances are there’s an event worth checking out near you. Here’s a selection of standouts from the season ahead.
American Birding Expo
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; September 29–October 1
The American Birding Expo may be in just its third year, but this is no fledgling affair: With more than 100 exhibitors lined up, its organizers call it “the largest and most diverse shopping experience available to birdwatchers in North America.” Ten bucks will get you all-weekend access to book signings, keynote talks, and more. A silent auction and raffles will support the Expo Conservation Fund, which in its first two years raised about $20,000 for projects and organizations that benefit birds. More info here.
BirdFest and Bluegrass
Ridgefield, Washington; October 6–8
Like birders, bluegrass fans are big on festivals. And pairing the two works pretty nicely—mandolin master John Reischman’s instrumental “Little Pine Siskin,” for example, is as lovely as its titular finch, and the old-time tune “Turkey in the Straw” is a bluegrass-jam standard. The Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife refuge know a killer combo when they hear one. Their annual BirdFest and Bluegrass event features kayaking, guided walks, arts and crafts, an Audubon live bird show, and much more—all on the bird-rich banks of the Columbia River. And, of course, bluegrass pickers will jam in parks, businesses, and venues in the town of Ridgefield. More info here.
Birdland and the Anthropocene Exhibition
Baltimore, Maryland; October 6–29; see website for hours
The Anthropocene is the term some scientists and environmental advocates use to describe our current geologic epoch—one defined by mankind’s imprint on the planet and its atmosphere. In the Birdland and the Anthropocene Exhibition, curator (and birder) Lynne Parks explores the relationship between people and birds in this complicated age. Painters, photographers, sound artists, and others will address themes like endangered species and extinction. Parks also has planned community outreach events. It won’t all be gloomy: “Given the seriousness of the show, we offer moments of levity,” she writes on a fundraising page for the exhibition. “Some of it might have something to do with bird poop.” More info here.
Meadowlands Birding Festival
Lyndhurst, New Jersey; October 7
New Jersey’s Meadowlands District sits just a few miles from Manhattan, within the country’s most populated metro region. Yet it’s a designated Important Bird Area home to marshes, mudflats, grasslands, and other habitat that make it a fall hotspot for spotting species like Lincoln's Sparrow, Merlin, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and the occasional rail and bittern. Highlights of the family-friendly Meadowlands Birding Festival include pontoon-boat excursions, kids’ crafts, a live raptor demonstration, and a presentation and book signing with guidebook author Richard Crossley, who also will lead a bird walk. More info here.
Florida Birding and Nature Festival
Ruskin, Florida; October 13–15
The Florida Birding and Nature Festival, held in the Tampa area, coincides with the area’s peak migration, with more than 180 species passing through. As its name implies, though, this event’s about more than just birds: tarpon, terrapins, manatees, and more get their due in a diverse roster of seminars, presentations, and field trips. If you’re bird-obsessed, there’s plenty to keep you busy, including field trips to hotspots for Reddish Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and threatened Florida Scrub-Jays. More info here.
Bellevue, Michigan; October 14–15
Michigan Audubon’s Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary, an Important Bird Area, was North America’s first sanctuary dedicated to protecting Sandhill Cranes and boasts the state’s largest gathering of the birds each fall. Visitors gather around the 200-acre Big Marsh Lake to greet thousands of cranes stopping at the marsh during migration. More formally known as the Sandhill Crane and Art Festival, this partnership between Michigan Audubon and a local Kiwanis Club features wildlife art, nature hikes, educational programs, and more. More info here.
Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival
Outer Banks, North Carolina; October 17–22, December 8–10
The Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival raises money to support National Wildlife Refuges along North Carolina’s Outer Banks coastline, where more than 400 bird species live or pass through during migration. In addition to the main October session, this year the festival includes a December encore; combine them and you’re looking at more than 90 wildlife-viewing outings and educational programs spread across six refuges. A highlight of this 21st annual event will be the keynote address from Noah Strycker, whose Birding Without Borders adventure made him the first person to see more than half the world’s bird species in a single year, and became the basis for a book that hits shelves October 10. More info here.
Cape May Fall Festival
Cape May, New Jersey; October 19–22
Now in its 71st year, New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Fall Festival is the longest-running birding festival in the country. It’s a welcoming, well-run event with opportunities to see outrageous numbers of birds. Learn birding basics with noted expert and author Pete Dunne, sign up for one of several guided walks, or brush up on your hawk- and seabird-ID skills. You can also leave terra firma on a boat trip through harbors and backwaters in search of waterfowl and marsh birds. Another boat is bound for the Cape May Rips, an upwelling in Delaware Bay frequented by Northern Gannets and occasionally visited by Sooty Shearwaters. You might even see a whale! More info here.
Yellow Rails and Rice Festival
Jennings, Louisiana; November 1–5
Chances to see Yellow Rails are rare. These super-secretive marsh birds mostly avoid flying during the day with one exception: the year’s mid-fall second harvest in Louisiana’s rice-growing country. The Yellow Rails and Rice Festival, now in its ninth year, gives birders the opportunity to visit cooperating farms and see rails take flight as farmers’ combine harvesters rumble nearby. Participants can also explore other nearby birding options and soak up the region’s Cajun culture and cuisine. More info here.
Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival
Harlingen, Texas; November 8–12
You might never have heard of Harlingen, Texas before, but if you’re looking to add to your life list, this border town is where you want to be. The city sits in the Rio Grande Valley, which funnels migrating birds between the Gulf Coast to the east and the desert to the west, and the Rio Grande Birding Festival puts you right in the middle of it all. Field trips at the 24th annual event might give you a glimpse of southern specialties and rarities, including Crested Caracara, Green Jay, Groove-billed Ani, Painted Bunting, and Red-crowned Parrot. More info here.
Festival of the Cranes
San Antonio, New Mexico; November 14–19
Upstream from Harlingen, the Rio Grande winds through the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Wetlands along this willow- and cottonwood-lined stretch of river provide the winter home for thousands of Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Sandhill Cranes. Festival of the Cranes, put on by Friends of the Bosque Del Apache, celebrates the birds’ return each autumn. The schedule for this event’s 30th edition is positively packed with hikes, horseback adventures, and educational programming. (“Duck Butts Intensive Workshop,” anyone?) More info here.