Birds, birders flock to festival

The shorebirds are back, heralds of the northern spring and inspiration for the 2016 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival that begins today. These extraordinary travelers remind us of renewal and nature’s miraculous beauty and ingenuity.

Their amazing navigation, sophisticated adaptations and intricate relations with nature’s communities make them particularly rewarding to study. Some fly for days and nights over the Pacific to get here. Many stream north from South America to breed on Alaska’s arctic tundra, and plovers and godwits come from as far away as Australia.

 The festival, now in its 24th year, helps humans understand these annual visitors and the critical role that Kachemak Bay plays in their global ecology.  It’s a way for people of all ages and levels of birding knowledge to learn more, meet like-minded people, and enjoy Alaska’s awesome natural gifts.

This year, the humans who migrate to Homer to celebrate the birds have an extra cause for jubilation.  Large areas of the Kachemak Bay tide flats used by birds are being added to the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

George Matz, who teaches a birding class at the local college and organizes the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project, explained that although the designation has no funding or regulatory effects, the recognition is important because it documents the high value of Kachemak Bay and connects to an international network of habitat projects extending all the way to Chile.

He described the shorebirds as “international ambassadors” and noted that the shorebird festival’s enduring success inspires others.  Birding activists as far away as South America are looking to Kachemak Bay for models of ways to manage habitat and engage public awareness, he said.

Mud Bay and Mariner Park, at the base of the Homer Spit, were put into the network in 1994 through the efforts of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and former resident George West.

 The current additions began with a discussion between the Kachemak Bay Birders group 

and the City of Homer’s Parks and Recreation department about putting parts of Beluga Slough into the reserve network. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns another part of the slough by the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center; staffers at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge there wanted to include their land, too.  Soon the project grew to include state land around the bay.  The Kachemak Bay Birders and the land owners submitted the application, Matz said.

  On Friday, Matz got the call that the application was unanimously approved and fast-tracked so the certificate can be presented at the festival. Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten is coming to the festival to speak at the official designation signing ceremony, which will be 6 p.m. Saturday, in conjunction with the keynote addresses.

Three distinguished national birders will present those keynote addresses and share their expertise at festival events through Sunday.

Sharon Stiteler travels the world as a full-time birder, known for her combination of fun communication and technical expertise.  A self-described “bird chick,” she has been on television and radio and maintains an online presence at the site 

Her books include “1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know,” the inspiration for her keynote address here, described by festival organizers as “humorous and engaging stories about the crazy things birders will do to see their target birds.” She also will give a talk Sunday morning at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center titled “Adventures in Bird Banding,” and teach two workshops on using state-of-the-art digital photography tools in the field: “Smartphone Digiscoping” on Friday and “Smartphone Birding” on Saturday.

The married team of Kevin Karlson and Dale Rosselet are the other keynote speakers. Both have had long careers in birding and environmental education. Their most recent book, written jointly and published last year, is “Birding by Impression: A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds.” That is the topic of a talk they will give Sunday morning at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Saturday evening, at the Mariner Theatre, they will give a keynote address, “Birds on the Wind,” that focuses on the feats that birds perform during their migratory treks, illustrated with superb photos. 

Karlson and Rosselet will teach two workshops: “Shorebirds by Impression” this afternoon, and “Indoor Photography” on Friday morning.

This year’s featured artist is Ram Papish, who also is a field biologist and author of children’s books. His work will be displayed in the auditorium at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center throughout the festival, and on Sunday morning he will be available to sell and autograph books and festival prints. Papish will conduct a bird drawing workshop on Saturday afternoon and also lead two special activities for children, new this year: “Pre-K Puffins Story Time” this morning and “Fantastic Feeding Shorebird, Kids Art” on Saturday afternoon.

Papish’s activities are only a few of the fun family-friendly activities geared to the next generation of birders. The festival continues its Junior Birder Program, for ages 5 to 10, sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Maritime NWR and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. In addition to the arts events, there will be family bird walks and workshops for the young at both the Islands and Ocean site and the CACS. Prizes will be offered for returning junior birders from prior years and participants will be honored at a badge award ceremony Sunday afternoon.

Other new items at this year’s festival include the screening of a documentary film, “The Messenger,” about the importance and beauty of imperiled songbirds; a breakfast Sunday morning hosted by the Friends of Alaska Wildlife Refuges; a “Birders and Beer” social on Friday evening after the opening reception; and outdoor trips involving fat bikes or stand-up paddle boards. Behind the scenes, a major change has been the addition of the Friends as a co-sponsor of the festival along with the long-time organizers from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Coordinator Robbi Mixon reported that more people have been signing up than last year, and she expects almost 1,000 participants. By Monday, some of the boat trips and outdoor birding tours had sold out. An array of activities remain available.

The birds have already shown up. Despite the weather anomalies of recent years, their schedule is similar to years past. Matz reported that last weekend the flocks were “spectacular.”

Participants should remember to dress for weather contingencies, bring their festival registration badges, and sign up in advance for activities with limited space.

Shana Losbaugh is a freelance writer who lives on the Kenai Peninsula.

24th annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival

When: May 11-15

Registration: $20 a person, $5 for each additional family member; proceeds support the festival. Register at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center at 95 Sterling Highway or online at 

some highlights

Welcome reception for speakers Kevin Karlson, Dale Rosselet, Sharon Stiteler and featured artist Ram Papish

  When & where:
4-6 p.m. Friday,
Pratt Museum
Free for registrants

Sharon Stiteler’s address: “1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know”

   When & where:
6-7:15 p.m. Saturday, Mariner Theatre, $10

Kevin Karlson and Dale Rosselet’s address: “Birds on the Wind”

   When & where:
7:45-9 p.m. Saturday, Mariner Theatre, $10

Ram Papish’s festival prints and book signing, along with the Birders’ Coffee time

   When & where:
9-11 a.m. Sunday,
Islands & Ocean Visitor Center

Sharon Stiteler’s talk: “Adventures in Bird Banding”

   When & where:
9:30-10:30 a.m. Sunday, Islands & Ocean Visitor Center, $5

Kevin Karlson and Dale Rosselet’s talk: “Birding by Impression: A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds”

   When & where:
11 a.m.-noon Sunday, Islands & Ocean Visitor Center, $5

Many more events are available. Preregistration required.