- Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival will be held May 10-13, 2012, in Homer. Click here for more information.
- Kenai Birding Festival will be held May 17-20, 2012 in the Kenai area. Visit the Kenai Watershed Forum for more information.
By Naomi Klouda
When the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival was conceived, Homer was only a few seasons outside the doldrums of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.
It was a time of concern about the future of Mariner Park, the habitat where shorebirds rested and ate. Locals talked about filling it in for a park.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service occupied offices in the small mall by the Bidarka Inn — it lacked the presence of the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center that later, once constructed in 2004, would combine many federal agencies under one scientific roof. It lacked an auditorium for the big-name featured speakers.
But that didn’t much matter at the time. They had the millions of shorebirds, said Poppy Benson, one of the festival’s originators.
“I was at a training session, and I remember someone was talking about putting on a festival — a carp festival. And I thought, ‘Really? A carp festival?’” Benson recalled.
Kachemak Bay filled with surfbirds, seabirds and shorebirds in the early spring. Biologists knew this to be a rich area of nutrients where birds bulk up en route to distant locales way up north and points in between.
“I thought, we should have a shorebird festival to celebrate this,” she said.
A Homer Chamber of Commerce tourism committee bandied about ideas for bringing in more visitors. At that same meeting, Benson mentioned a shorebird festival — but she foresaw starting in the future. Not that same year. Only John Bushell, himself the chairman of the committee, grabbed hold of the idea and liked it.
“In that next year I was expecting a baby with a March due date — that was the year Cedar was going to be born. I thought we could have it sometime in the future when I had time,” Benson said. “But by then there was no stopping Johnny.”
Bushell said that the committee had been puzzling over how to find more events for visitors as a way to draw them to Homer. It needed the shoulder-season economic development.
“Poppy’s idea was an enlightenment to me at the time. Local people who knew the birds were involved — I was in on the art gallery migration.
One reason I got so involved is I had a bed and breakfast,” Bushnell said. “The chamber at that time received so many letters — not emails in those days — from people interested in what could you do in Homer. And nobody was doing anything with those.”
Before long, an art walk was organized as one of the first Shorebird Festival events. A bus took visitors from gallery to gallery where they could look at art. There were bird-viewing opportunities, and informative talks.
Then they needed a keynote speaker. A professional storyteller came but didn’t fill the entire allotted time. Since it was a Mother’s Day brunch, Benson reasoned, there were some thematic opportunities in the topic. “We were new in the festival business. He told one story and went back and sat down. So now I needed to expand my talk,” Benson said. “I spun philosophical stuff about motherhood — I was in a glowy new-mother period when Cedar was 6 weeks old. I talked about the future and children and birds coming back for our children and the children’s children. We were homegrown but, boy, did that take off.”
The challenge for the future is to keep young people involved. In Homer, the attendance from locals has never been real high, she said.
The event has evolved from a one-sheet schedule to a small booklet of detailed events numbering close to 100. Certain trips to the head of the bay and to the Barren Islands are offered at no other time of the year, offering rare opportunities for visitors and locals alike, Benson said.
What it takes
Christina Whiting, now in her eighth year of organizing the event, said it takes a full nine months to plan out the annual festival.
“That’s like giving birth and the same amount of time,” she noted.
It also takes more than 100 volunteers.
Enrollment is slightly up this year over last. The core audience is from Anchorage, with about 20 percent from the Lower 48. In previous years, people came from Europe and Asia, but not so many in recent years.
It’s organized for fish and wildlife experts to coordinate educational events. Local operators are coordinated with, as well, in order to supply visitors with transportation. Van tours are offered also by other agencies, such as the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, to show areas designated for conservation. And there are the nonprofits and art galleries that get involved, also to provide entertainment opportunities in concerts, art shows, bird calls and poetry events linked into the bird migration.
“The events, if you notice, are organized around the tides. That’s the first thing we do when we’re getting ready to schedule events,” Whiting said. “And it’s timed around the peak migration of birds arriving on May 9.”
Benson explains the best time to view birds is at high tide, generally speaking. This year, the coast is experiencing the largest tide in 80 years, which should bode exceptionally well for bird viewing.
“You can see birds easiest at high tide, and Mud Bay is one of the best places. That’s when people can see the most birds, about a half hour after high tide exposes clams and invertebrates, and they feed following the tide out,” Benson said.
Low tide is sometimes good for viewing birds at Beluga Slough and below Lighthouse Village. But, essentially, you need to be there at high tide.
“You don’t want to put the keynote speaker at high tide, because then we’re drawing people away from the birds and that’s what they are here to see,” she said.
Since the mission is educating the public about these fragile, athletic birds and the many challenges they face in a changing climate, much of the festival focus is on raising funds to pay for the education events, Whiting said.
“Every year we have collectible T-shirts, mugs, fundraising events, such as Carla Stanley’s 20 Birds for 20 years,” Whiting said. In addition to the $10 posters of Stanley’s work, the T-shirts, hoodies, hats and cups, there also is a silent and live auction that culminates Friday night at the Homer Council on the Arts.
A quilt raffle this year features 20 years of T-shirts sewn into a quilt by Donna Hinkle. All these funds help support the festival, bring up keynote speakers like the internationally famous George Archibald and the bestselling writer Mark Obmascik, author of “The Big Year.”
Attendance has grown to match the ambitions of the festival. From a few dozen that first year, 1992, to well over 1,500 attendees, the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival has become the largest single Homer event.
“When you have something good, and if you have people who care, it is going to keep growing,” Bushell said. “It has grown to such a wonderful place, thanks to fantastic coordinators. As long as the chamber gets funds to fund a coordinator, that’s what it takes. It will be growing as long as the birds keep coming back.”