Bird watchers use binoculars at a BWD Reader Rendezvous. Photo by Bill Thompson, III

Choosing a Birding Festival: Tips for Joining the Flock

Saturday afternoon, late January, 2010. Titusville, Florida. I’m standing on the tradeshow floor at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. Although central Florida is well known as the home of Disney World, birders here have erected a temporary amusement park of their very own in the cavernous gymnatorium of the local community college.

Around me are representatives from all the top-tier manufacturers of binoculars and spotting scopes for bird watching. I mean all of them. If one were so inclined, one could look through $100,000 worth of optics without traveling 100 feet.

Just down the way, Kenn Kaufman and Pete Dunne are comparing notes and signing copies of their books. In between are displays featuring dozens of bird tour companies, photographers, environmental groups, and other organizations with an interest in birds and bird watchers. Dozens of festival participants stream up and down the aisles of this bazaar, while Jonathan Woods’ raptors wheel overhead as part of his frequent educational programs.

The conversations on the floor range from prices and features of various bird-watching products and services to questions about what species were seen on today’s field trips. (The field trip I helped lead this morning featured several purple gallinules and a decently cooperative Bachman’s sparrow.) There is also talk of the birds we saw yesterday, and which might be seen tomorrow. Conversations also feature tips on the best local restaurants, reviews of seminars covering seemingly every possible bird-related topic, and high hopes for tonight’s keynote speaker, David Sibley.

If you’re into birding, clearly, this is a Magic Kingdom made just for you.

As fabulous as it is, however, the annual Space Coast festival is far from the only event of its kind. The past 30 years have seen an explosion of birding festivals in North America. So how is a birder with limited time and a finite travel budget to choose among this embarrassment of riches?

The first question I would ask a prospective birding-festival participant is this: How do you feel about people? Because if you prefer to bird alone, or nearly so, and if being in anything resembling a crowd makes you bristle, festivals may not be your cup of tea.

That’s not to say that, in attending a festival, you’re signing up to be an extra in a mob scene. In fact, the best events go to great lengths to keep groups in the field to a manageable size and to make sure everyone has a good chance of seeing and enjoying the birds, people, and events for which they came. But a festival is inherently a social event and is best enjoyed when approached on those terms.

Realize from the outset that events of many different types all go under the banner of birding festival. One key variable is length. If it’s a one-day event, it’s likely that the organizers are expecting mostly local folks to show up and return home that same day. Attending these shorter festivals is usually relatively easy and inexpensive, and can be a good way to test if a larger festival experience is something you want to pursue.

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