The first bird festival I ever attended was possibly the largest one in the United States: the Biggest Week in American Birding. And I’ll admit, the only image I could picture beforehand was hundreds of super serious birders wearing khaki vests. But once there, looking around at all the other festivalgoers, I realized the crowd wasn’t exactly as I’d imagined. I saw a lot of beginning birders, from 10-year-olds with binoculars dangling from their necks to excited retirees eagerly flipping through field guides. Whether they were first-timers like me or Biggest Week veterans, birders of all skill levels gathered together with their birding gear, enthusiastically bonding over a Blackburnian warbler flitting from branch to branch nearby.
It turns out, there’s no typical birder, because birding is for everyone. And there’s no better way to experience that joy than by going to a bird festival. Pick the one that’s right for you and join one of the most welcoming communities around.
For the Newbie:
Biggest Week in American Birding
Oak Harbor, Ohio
As soon as you step onto the Magee Marsh boardwalk, you’ll realize why this 10-day May festival is called Biggest Week. Thousands of birders flock to this town to see the roughly 36 warbler species that visit during spring migration and a dazzling variety of other birds. The rare Kirtland’s warbler has been known to pass through the area and was spotted last year. (It’s difficult for most birders to find because it nests only in Michigan’s jack pines.)
The festival, organized by Black Swamp Bird Observatory, is an ideal choice for beginning birders new to the scene, because most of the birding is fairly easy. Many of the warblers are at or near eye level, and waterbirds stay at close range. Plus, plenty of enthusiastic guides and experts are stationed on the boardwalk, ready to help spot and point out colorful warblers as well as answer questions. Head to bsbo.org for more information.
For the Hummingbird Fan:
Sedona Hummingbird Festival
If you want to get close enough to hummingbirds that you can count their feathers or hear the magical hum of tiny wings beating so fast they’re a blur, the Sedona Hummingbird Festival is the place for you. From presentations on conservation efforts to tips on capturing these sprightly little birds in a photo, experts deliver plenty of programming for every hummingbird enthusiast. “This isn’t like any other festival you’ve been to before,” says Ross Hawkins, founder of the nonprofit The Hummingbird Society. “And the friendships you make here, connecting with other hummingbird lovers, can last decades.”
Once your head is filled with enough hummingbird facts, you can tour private gardens specially designed to attract loads of species, like calliope, Anna’s, rufous, broad-tailed and black-chinned. Or check out banding stations, where you can see these beautiful birds up close as licensed pros attach mini numbered bands to bird legs to track their movement with the Bird Banding Lab.
The festival is always held at peak hummingbird time, either the last weekend of July or the first weekend of August. (Mark your 2017 calendar for July 28-30.) If you’re sweating the idea of visiting Arizona in high summer, you’ll be in for a cool surprise: Sedona is in the mountains, so it’s less sweltering than the rest of Arizona. Ross says, “The festival tagline is ‘the most beautiful place in America to see hummingbirds,’ and that’s no exaggeration.” Check out hummingbirdsociety.org to learn more about the festival.
For the Migration Maniac:
Cape May Fall Festival
Cape May, New Jersey
Get your binoculars ready and look up! Cape May is a superhighway for migrating birds, especially in October, when thousands of hawk species—like American kestrels, peregrine falcons, merlins, Cooper’s and sharp-shinneds—travel to their southern hunting grounds. Visit the cape during the Cape May Fall Festival near the end of October. Last year’s festival offered guided walks for beginners and advanced birders, an overnight pelagic trip, and a convention hall open to the public and packed
Many other birds join the raptors in the Cape May skies, though. Migrating songbirds such as blackpolls, red-eyed vireos, and yellow-rumped and palm warblers make the trip, too. (Here’s a secret: Go to Higbee Beach at dawn and you may witness tens of thousands of migrating songbirds bursting into the sky.) The tally at the end of the festival usually edges up to 200 species seen in total. Go online at njaudubon,org.
For the Life Lister:
Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival
There’s nothing like a well-organized life list, the ongoing tally of different bird species a birder has ever seen. But as you spot more and more species, it becomes harder to find new-to-you birds. The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is the perfect place to beef up your list. The valley sits close to Mexico, so birds uncommon in the U.S., like green jays and great kiskadees, often move back and forth across the border here.
Birders at all skill levels are welcome, and the festival, usually held in early November, is particularly known for having small guided tours led by experts in the field. If you prefer a fast pace, check out some of the “big day” tours, where festivalgoers ride in separate vans along different routes to see who can spot the most bird species. Visit the festival’s official website at rgvbf.org and keep your life list growing!
Grab your favorite suitcase and get geared up for a great birding adventure!
- Field guide
- Gloves or hand warmers
- Lightweight hiking boots
- Rain jacket
- Warm layers of clothing
- Water bottle
- Weatherproof notebook