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Family Friendly Bird Festivals in Spring

by Bryony Angell

Ask a bird-crazed kid how they first got into birding, and chances are it was through a family outing (see our earlier blog post about next generation birders). Family time in nature has a way of imprinting on a kid in especially memorable ways. And if local conservation organizations can further add to that family interconnectedness, the combination is winning in creating both excitement in the field and a future conservation mindset. Consider a bird festival as a place to start.

An organized bird festival can be a transformative experience, bringing family to a new environment within a structured, curated approach that both gets you someplace new and takes the mystery out of figuring it out yourself (ideal conditions if you’re with kids). Washington state features over a dozen bird festivals throughout the year, hosted by Audubon chapters, US Fish and Wildlife, The US Bureau of Reclamation, and other agencies and communities. Not all of them are family-friendly, but those that are, are golden.

 

Making memories

My first experience taking family to a bird festival was a dozen years ago, when my twin sister Gilia and I hosted our two younger sisters Gavia and Larka, both tweens at the time, on an overnight to the Sandhill Crane Festival in Othello, Washington. Set in a farming community east of the Cascades in the Columbia River reclamation area--a vast landscape of scrub and big sky--the festival is a three day long celebration every March of the cranes’ month long visit to the waste-grain fields surrounding the town.

We had our pick of walking or boat tours to see birds, lectures on the flora and fauna of the region, or perusing the educational and vendor stalls in the high school’s gym, which included meeting live birds from the Washington State University Raptor rehabilitation lab. We chose the popular guided school bus ride past fields with nesting burrowing owls. Everyone from retired camp hosts to parents with infants crammed the bus to ooh and ahh at the winsome owls which scurried from their burrows to pose as if on cue at our passing.

And funny enough, “Where are the cranes?!” was the joke missive of the weekend. Imagine trying to spot a 5-foot tall Sandhill crane to point out to an 12-year old about the same height. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? But the cranes, despite their size and numbers, were maddeningly hard to find. Luckily, we were directed to the right field that evening from the maps and itinerary provided by the festival organizers. 

Cars, school buses and the ensuing camp chairs, spotting scopes and long lenses lined the side of the gravel road parallel to the field where cranes and geese foraged in the thousands. A pinkish blue twilight colored the nearby hills along Crab Creek, and the dominating sound of the evening was the chatter of the birds. Among the humans, excitement crackled, as if the birds were dining celebrities, and I could tell my kid sisters were thrilled.

What sticks

Years later, Gavia recalls not the birds, but the setting: “I remember how special it was to experience such a drastically different landscape to the greenery of Seattle. It was my first experience of what I considered a "desert;” dry, open, flat, and bushes as far as the eye could see.”

Do I mind that it’s not the birds that stick with her? Of course not. It’s the time with her sisters in a beautiful place, appreciating the whole. But it’s the birds that got us there in the first place, and one day she’ll remember that piece of it.

 

A round-up of family friendly spring bird festivals

Many partner organizations around the region host bird festivals, and Audubon Washington supplies this helpful year-round bird festival list for the state. I’ve scrubbed this list for spring festivals which include programming for families and kids ages pre-K to teen, specifically. Below are the best options for getting out soon, starting this month.

March

  • The Wings Over Water Festival, covering birding spots in Blaine, Semiahmoo and Birch Bay, is March 10-12. The family-friendly portion starts on Saturday with a pancake breakfast at the Blaine Middle School along with an all-day bird expo featuring arts and crafts, bird box building, speakers and live raptor presentations from Sardis Raptor Center. You can also sign up for field trips at this location, some of which welcome families and are either free or low cost to participate. Check the website for times and locations, and be sure to bring your Discovery Pass.
  • Othello Crane Festival. In my experience, the most inclusive of all the festivals I have ever attended, for all ages, interests, economic situations and levels of fitness. Othello’s location smack dab in the center of the state makes it accessible from all directions, accommodations in town are affordable, and the activities offered are varied and numerous. Very few of the field trips specify age minimum (most are all ages) and even a guided school bus ride will take you beyond what you could find on your own. Once you’re done with the tours and events, the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is a mere five minutes from town, where the quiet will engulf your ears and the moderate hiking trails, ravines and rock formations feel like a mini Grand Canyon amid agricultural land.

April/May

  • The Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival is timed for the maximum density of shorebird migration along this part of Washington’s coast. While the modest-in-appearance shorebirds themselves may not thrill kids, the sheer number of them will, especially if you catch them in flight or being pursued by a raptor. Last year’s festival hosted a family fun fair at the Hoquiam High School with natural history craft activities and shuttle bus to the nearby Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge (modest donation for shuttle bus), where docents with spotting scopes are stationed to share information with visitors. Field trips to the coast start at about $25 per person, so might be more appropriate for older kids, though age minimums are not called out.
  • For a warm weather bird fest, consider the Leavenworth Spring Bird Fest in later May. The festival bases out of the Bavarian-themed town surrounded by mountains, but offers field trips to nearby agricultural areas closer to Wenatchee, as well as in-town activities along the two riparian natural areas of Icicle Creek and the Wenatchee River. Age minimum is specified for some tours (starting at age 8), and last year’s schedule included two Spanish/English bilingual events. Many events are drop-in and free, but paid registration allows access to coveted tours such as birding by pontoon boat (open to kids 8 and older). Check the website for this year’s schedule to see what’s on offer to give your family a memorable weekend of outdoor immersive adventure that includes birds.

Lastly, why not get kids into birds on a more regular, local basis? Seattle Audubon offers many family-friendly walks, events, classes and camps. We welcome your participation right here at home!

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