Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Inaugural Indiana Dunes Birding Festival

By Alexandra Forsythe
Since it was the first year for the Dunes Birding Festival, I am sure people expected a lot of hiccups, low attendance and holes in the schedule. However, Brad Bumgardner was the Festival Chair, and he had assembled a fantastic group of people to help him organize the Festival, so it was fantastic! More people than anticipated signed up for the festival, with more streaming in every day hoping to squeeze in to sold-out events.
From the moment I arrived, there was a sense of excitement. Big, beautiful banners were everywhere greeting the birders. The welcome station was staffed during the entire Festival by friendly, helpful people, and the goody bag had so many wonderful things including a really cool bird whistle. The Program Guide looked professional and contained a lot of information in a neat package.
There was a full slate of events Thursday through Sunday: field trips, talks, activities and social events. There was something for everyone from beginning birder hikes to advanced instructions on the identification of difficult birds. You would have to attend the Festival several years to see and do everything!
The night before the Festival began, I was given the job of running the Festival’s official live Twitter feed to report on interesting sightings, let people know about upcoming talks and activities, post photos of birds and the presenters, and tell people when and where events were occurring. Although I could not always stay for the entire activity (I had to drive back and forth to different events which were often scheduled at the same time, sometimes a half hour away), I had the unique opportunity to catch pieces of almost all of the Festival. It gave me a wonderful overview of the depth of activities provided. The variety was astounding, and I was impressed at the amount of thought the organizers put in to plan the Festival.
Each field trip was unique. The Dunes area has one of the most diverse collections of habitat in the country, so it attracts an incredible variety of birds from Whooping Crane to Mourning Warbler. You want warblers? We had places dripping with them! You want a Black Vulture? We’ve got that! How about ducks? No problem! No matter what field trip you went on, you were sure to see something you hadn’t seen before. Better yet, every morning before the field trip you were greeted with coffee, pastries and smiling faces. 
I was lucky to both lead and attend field trips, and I was thrilled with each group! The other people leading the field trips were excellent! They were able to find rarities for the experts in the group, and help beginners feel more confident. On the tour I led, I had a mixture of beginners, experts and photographers. It was wonderful! We connected over the birds in a way that felt as though we had known each other for a long time. We spotted some good birds (Sora walking along the road, Golden-winged Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Sandhill Cranes and more), and several members of the group got lifers! 
The presentations were all professionally done by some of the most respected people in birding. We heard about conservation and restoration projects, Sandhills, migrant traps, the use of radar to track bird movements, the unique geology of the area, the importance of right-of-ways to birds, big years, Brazilian flora and fauna, Gene Stratton-Porter, feeding and attracting birds, and birdscaping. We learned how to identify difficult birds like warblers and gulls. I got to combine two of my favorite subjects - birds and technology - and speak about them. 
There were workshops for bird photography, wildflower photography and Flying WILD. The younger attendees had special programming sponsored by the Indiana Young Birders Club, from bilingual hikes to building Bluebird boxes. 
Birds of prey were in abundance and up close thanks to several organizations, and visitors had the chance to see songbirds closely at banding programs. The Whip Walk was heart-stopping, with Whip-poor-wills flying close to our heads and landing in the walkway a few feet in front of us.
Incredibly, almost all of the talks, field trips and activities were free with a one-time reasonable admission charge. Since we had to pay so little for admission, we had plenty to spend on specially priced items from optics to bird supplies. Plus, we could bid on wonderful silent auction items including signed Peterson prints, optics, gift baskets, bird houses, sculptures, and even a refrigerator! The money raised by the auction went to a good cause: half of the proceeds were given to the Indiana Young Birders Club.
The evening social events were cleverly designed to force everyone to get to know one another in easy conversation starters. There was no way to attend the event without getting to know someone new! Plus, there were a multitude of prizes, so you gained a new friend and a gift each night.
The keynote speech was one of the best I have ever heard. James Currie, author and star of Nikon’s Birding Adventures, was an incredible story teller! He made everyone in the room alternately laugh, gasp and sigh. The food at the keynote dinner was like something from a 4-star restaurant, with prime rib cut to order and luscious, chocolate-covered strawberries.
Every venue was very nice, both inside and out. Birds surrounded each building and once you stepped inside, you were sure to learn quite a bit just by looking at the exhibits in the lobbies.
I’ve been to several birding conferences, and there is no question that the Dunes Birding Festival was one of the best. I cannot wait until next year!