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Becker County Bird Fest ready to fly high

AN EXPERIENCED BIRDER, CENTER, points out the spot where a LeConte's Sparrow is perched. Individualized help from field trip leaders who know birds by sound and sight is a big bonus for attendees at the Festival of Birds.

Whether you're a diehard birder or just getting started, the 14th annual Festival of Birds in Detroit Lakes has something for everyone.

Slated for May 19-22, the event draws participants from all over the United States and Canada.

In fact, the first registrant for this year is from New Mexico. So far, eight states and Canada will be represented, but Detroit Lakes Tourism Director Cleone Stewart said in the past they've had 28 states represented at one birding festival -- in part due to advertising in national magazines and online.

Participants may attend every event the four days have to offer, or they may pick and choose what they wish to sit in on and learn about.

Stewart said the field trips are categorized according to what types of birds will be seen -- shoreline, prairie and woods.

That is what makes the Detroit Lakes and surrounding area an excellent place for birding, she added.

With the convergence of three major biomes -- coniferous forest, deciduous forest and tallgrass prairie -- there is a vast variety of birds to be seen.

Skilled tour guides will scout out nesting areas ahead of time and are well versed in where to see birds, depending on the field trip participants choose.

"We have the best birders in the state leading the trips," said Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge Ranger Kelly Blackledge.

Each trip will have about four leaders and one naturalist on the bus to answer questions and highlight any changing surroundings as they pass through it.

People from all over the United States and Canada will converge in May for the birding festival, just waiting to see what Becker County residents so often don't realize is in their own backyard.

"Residents take our resources for granted," Blackledge said.

They too can join the Festival of Birds trips, workshops and outings to either remember or learn for the first time what this area has to offer. There will be multiple trips to see various types of birds, several guest speakers to entertain and informational booths to educate.

Thursday, May 19

"Thursday is a good option for people to attend, especially if they're not heavy into birding and just want to see what it's about," Stewart said.

With Minnesota State Community and Technical College serving as headquarters for the event, Thursday begins with registration from noon to 5 p.m., and offers the workshops Beginning Birding in the Field and The Social Network of Birding.

That afternoon offers something new this year -- a wine tasting at Richwood Winery.

"Do some sampling, buy it and bring it along," Stewart said of the next event of the evening, dinner at Maplelag Resort.

Speaking during the pan-fried walleye dinner at Maplelag is Al Batt, with Bird Stories from the Batt Cave.

A native of Hartland, Minn., Batt has spoken at the Festival of Birds in the past.

"He is very funny. He talks about life in the country, not just birds," Stewart said. "You don't need to be a birder to enjoy him. It's for someone who just wants to have fun."

"He sheds a fun light on birding," Blackledge added.

Friday, May 20

Friday kicks off the field trip portion of the festival. There is a trip to Fargo and one to Felton Prairie. Both leave at 5:30 in the morning, and both are new trip locations.

"If you want to see the birds, that's when they'll be out there," Stewart said of the early hours.

The Fargo trip will include possible sightings of golden-winged warblers, indigo buntings, peregrin falcons, bald eagle, black-billed cuckoo, least sandpiper and more species.

Birders on the Felton Prairie trip, which includes the Landfield family land, could see up to 110 species of birds on one trip alone.

Possible sightings include loggerhead shrike, Sprague's pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, marbled godwit and more.

Back at the Student Life Center in M State, that afternoon will consist of a free Understanding Optics session with Eagle Optics. Find out what binoculars are best for you and your birding needs. Tom Kuenzli will also discuss new digital camera adapters.

Friday night's main speaker -- hosted at The Lodge on Lake Detroit -- is return speaker Carrol Henderson, who will talk about migration in Costa Rica.

"The whole theme is about migration and this will highlight where birds are going in the winter," Blackledge said.

Henderson and his wife have been leading trips to Costa Rica for over 30 years, and he will talk about forest layers and the variety of food available to migrating birds.

Also new this year, and free, is a chimney swift sit. Participants are invited to enjoy "birds and beers" with a drink at Lakeside and Zorbaz before heading down to Bergen's Greenhouse and its chimney.

Built in the 1930s, the chimney was struck by lightening in the 1970s and retired in the 1980s when Bergen's expanded. Since then, chimney swifts have taken over nesting in the chimney, a rare sight nowadays since chimneys are built to prevent birds and other animals from entering them.

"They only come out at night, so we'll be there to see them off," Blackledge said.

After seeing the "flying cigars" that night, attend the free workshop Saturday with Ron Windingstad, who will talk about chimney swifts.

Saturday, May 21

Bright and early on Saturday again, there will be a few field trips offered. The repeat sites include Hamden Slough and Tamarac national wildlife refuges.

In the past, Hamden Slough birders have seen over 100 species at a time, including American bittern, Wilson's phalarope, upland sandpiper and 20 waterfowl and 20 shorebirds species.

At Tamarac, look for American woodcock, rose-breasted grosbeak, 25 species of warblers, trumpeter swans and more.

New this year is also a trip to Smoky Hills Forest. Located along the Lake Country Scenic Byway, the forest has many varieties of birds to offer including black-backed woodpecker, least flycatcher, winter wren and a variety of woodland warblers.

At M State, there will be several free events, including Birders' Bazaar, Ducks on a Stick challenge and a silent auction. There will also be mini-workshops on the chimney swift and sandhill cranes.

"They've made a comeback," Stewart said of the sandhill cranes. "Last year they actually opened a hunting season on them."

Saturday night will feature Drew Wheelan, speaking on the perils of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf.

"It will help people understand where the birds are going and how their nesting grounds effects them," Blackledge said.

"He'll have pictures and video of what it was actually like for the wildlife, birds, habitat" after the oil spill, Stewart added.

She said that in Minnesota, people are so far removed from the Gulf of Mexico that this presentation will give them a link to that area, seeing what the Minnesota birds have lived through during the oil spill.

During the week, Wheelan will also visit with middle school students about his birding career.

"It's one of our goals is to get students exposed to birds and instill some interest," Stewart said.

Sunday, May 22

A shorter day, Sunday offers two last field trips, one to the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge and Agassiz Dunes and Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.

Possible sightings at Glacial Ridge include prairie chickens, bobolink, black-billed magpie, short-eared owl, sparrows and more.

Sightings at Agassiz Refuge include Nelson's sharp-tailed and swamp sparrows, ruddy duck, cape may and Canada warblers.

To register for the Festival of Birds, visit or contact the chamber at 847-9202 and have a brochure sent to you.