Fans flock to BirdFest

Annual Ridgefield event offers music, intimate look at wildlife

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



If you go

What: BirdFest and Bluegrass, a celebration of wildlife, Native American culture and bluegrass music.

Where: Music downtown at the Old Liberty Theater, 115 N. Main Ave., and the Pickled Heron Gallery, 418 Pioneer St.; Birder’s Marketplace at the intersection of Mill Street and Main Avenue; Wildlife tours, with buses to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, leave from the Community United Methodist Church, 1410 S. Hillhurst.

When: Oct. 7-9.

Information:Friends of Ridgefield refuge.

You can hear more than a tinge of admiration in Eric Anderson’s voice when he talks about sandhill cranes.

As a specialist with the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Anderson has fallen in love with the site’s unusual seasonal inhabitant, he said.

“They’re particularly large, they’re vocal, they’re amazing parents — they rear their young for almost a year,” Anderson said. “They’re charismatic, and they’re also very localized around Ridgefield, Vancouver, Southwest Washington.”

The annual migration of the cranes through the refuge was one of the main reasons that Anderson and others first launched the annual BirdFest and Bluegrass event in Ridgefield 12 years ago.

It takes a special sort of dedication to watch the illusive creatures, Anderson said.

“By nature, they’re very secretive and aloof to people,” Anderson said. “You can see them flying over area — but to really see them, we had to make special tours.”

The cranes fly into an isolated mud flat area of the refuge in the evenings during their seasonal migration. To watch them, tour participants spend hours quietly hidden nearby, waiting for the birds to return.

“In the evening, the cranes all fly in,” Anderson said. “It gets very noisy, and they all come together and sort of dance together.”

The festival provides more than just an opportunity to see the rare cranes, though. Early fall is also a good time to catch white-fronted geese, small cackling geese, Canada geese, herons, ducks, hawks, eagles and kestrels, to name a few, Anderson said.

“Actually, we also have a fair number of shore birds right now,” he said. “It’s a quick thing, but it happens around this time of the season.”

BirdFest and Bluegrass has several opportunities for visitors to learn more about bird-watching, including beginning classes. Visitors can also pick up some supplies at the Birder’s Marketplace and listen to bluegrass music on two stages in downtown Ridgefield, said Julie Almquist, a coordinator of the event with the Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge group.

“We have lots of tours, photography walks, a lot of things are free but some include a small fee,” Almquist said. “We have all sorts of games and crafts for kids to come learn about birds.”

The festival initially started out only focused on birds, but about nine years ago the organizers decided to add bluegrass bands to the mix because it just seemed like a good fit, Almquist said.

“The jamming, the bluegrass bands that come out for the weekend, it’s great,” she said.

At least 13 bands said they were planning to participate in the event.

“Of course, BirdFest usually draws a lot of birders, but it also now draws a lot of bluegrass folks,” Almquist said.

With good weather, organizers anticipate up to 5,000 people could attend this year. Even in last year’s pouring rain, it still brought in 3,000 visitors, she said.

“Most of the activities are indoors, actually,” Almquist said. “We’ve tried to weatherproof the festival as much as we can, but, of course, you can’t weatherproof a hike. This is the Pacific Northwest, though. People are used to that.”

Any proceeds from the events will go to the friends of the refuge organization to pay for educational programs for schools, teacher training and habitat protection efforts.

Anderson said he’d encourage people who don’t understand the draw of bird-watching to come check out the festival and learn more.

“It’s a huge leisure activity, and it’s generally not expensive to pick up,” Anderson said. “It takes you to interesting places. You can start off with a backyard bird feeder, and then you start listing birds you haven’t seen before. Then you just sort of get hooked.”

Birders often keep “life lists” of birds they’ve seen. Sometimes, when a birder reports spotting something rare, it will trigger a massive influx of other birders to the area, he added.

“Within the year, we’ve had a rare sighting, which went out on someone’s iPhone and then out on the Web,” Anderson said. “Within about a half hour, we had a bunch of local birders driving on the refuge. I think the bird was a black swan, but I’m not sure.”

Part of the thrill is finding new things, or learning about some of the behavior of different birds and how they interact with one another, he said.

“I’m just enthralled by it,” Anderson said. “I can’t say what exactly I like. There’s always something new to find. Sometimes, you see birds where they just don’t belong, like that black swan, and it’s a huge mystery.”