The birding world turns its attention to southern West Virginia next week.
The 10th annual New River Birding and Nature Festival kicks off on Monday. Over the course of six days, 250 to 300 birders from as far away as Michigan, Washington, Arizona, California and Canada come to West Virginia just to see birds.
In doing so, they pump more than $120,000 into the local economy, according to co-founder Dave Pollard.
"And that's just what the festival generates directly through registration fees, meals and lodging," Pollard explains. "I have no way of knowing how much visitors spend otherwise."
Regardless, it's safe to say the New River Birding Festival jolts the local economy.
The festival began 10 years ago behind the vision and energy of Pollard and co-founder Geoff Heater. I've been a presenter and field trip leader since the beginning, and that first year was an intimate affair.
I remember meeting a small group of birders early that first morning in 2003. There were about 15 of us, most from West Virginia. But thanks to the tireless leadership of Pollard and Heater, the festival has gotten bigger and better every year.
"Ours may not be the biggest birding festival in the country," Pollard once told me, "but we like it that way. We get to know every visitor personally, and I think that's why many people come back year after year."
The best way for birders to take advantage of spring migration is to go where the birds are. That's why the New River Gorge is one of country's best spring birding hot spots.
Over the course of the six-day event, birders flock to southern West Virginia. Some stay for a week, some for a few days, and some locals pop in and out for a particular field trip or just to meet old friends.
While Pollard appreciates the festival's impact on the local economy, to him, "It's all about the people. I enjoy meeting people and putting names to faces. When I see smiles on their faces, I know we've been successful."
"After the first three years, word got out about birding in West Virginia," Pollard explains. Thanks largely to word of mouth among birders and a few strategically placed ads in BirdWatcher's Digest, West Virginia has joined New Jersey, Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Texas as states known as birding destinations.
Pollard also notes with pride that any profits generated by the festival are plowed back into environmental education programs in local schools. He wants to ensure that local children appreciate the New River's natural heritage.
The appeal of the New River Birding and Nature Festival is three-fold: The New River Gorge is absolutely beautiful in May. Spectacular migratory birds, including warblers, vireos, and tanagers, are abundant. And the logistics of the event are informal and friendly. Pollard and Heater work hard to make the event as hospitable as it is rewarding for participants. For example, no one works harder than Heater to find birds for participants, especially beginners. I've seen him gather a small group for an impromptu field trip to see a single species.
A typical day begins with an early morning breakfast, followed by a full a day of birding. Some vans stay within the gorge, where scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, cerulean warblers, and worm-eating warblers are abundant. Lucky birders might even get to see a Swainson's warbler, a species that reaches the northern edge of its breeding range in southern West Virginia.
Other groups pile into vans for trips to Cranberry Glades, Babcock State Park, the Sugar Creek/Gauley River area and the High Country, where trees leaf out later than at lower elevations, so birds such as Golden-winged, Canada, and Black-throated Green Warblers are easier to see.
Adding to the festival experience are field trip leaders such as BirdWatcher's Digest editor Bill Thompson III, wildlife artist Julie Zickefoose, naturalist Jim McCormac, Cerulean Blues author Katie Fallon, bird bander Bill Hilton Jr. and photographer Connie Toops. And in the evening after dinner, these same people present entertaining indoor programs.
For more information, visit www.birding-wv.com.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, scottshalaway.googlepages.com.