BirdFest sings different tune

Bluegrass scaled back, but sandhill cranes still main event

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



If you go

What: BirdFest, a celebration of wildlife and Native American culture, with a special bluegrass performance.

Where: Ridgefield. Birder's Marketplace at Mill Street and Main Avenue. Bird demonstrations and children's activities at Davis Park, 212 N. Main Ave. Wildlife tours, with buses to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, leave from the Community United Methodist Church, 1401 S. Hillhurst. Mandolin Band performance at the Old Liberty Theater, 115 N. Main Ave.

When: Oct. 12-14.

Information:Schedule of events. Tickets for sandhill crane tours ($25 per person).

photoVisitors to BirdFest can see live demonstrations with a wide range of birds from the Oregon Zoo and Audubon Society.


The 13th annual BirdFest celebration won't be as musical as it has been in past years, but the sandhill cranes' annual migration through the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge will still fill the air with rhythm.

The festival, which has had a strong bluegrass component for the past 10 years, will only have one group performing this year: Mandolin Band, which will play at the Old Liberty Theater. The theater is encouraging bluegrass players to come to town anyway and set up their own impromptu jam sessions around town.

"There are several spots around town available for that," said Julie Almquist, a spokeswoman for the festival.

The Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, which helps organize the event, ran into some issues with Broadcast Music Inc., an agency that collects licensing fees, when it started putting together the music component of this year's BirdFest.

"Initially, they pretty much told us, 'You don't have a license, and we're going to sue you,'" said Russ Roseberry, past president of the friends group and a festival coordinator. "So that was it for us. The theater has a license, though, so they're going to do the matinee show on Saturday."

The minimum BMI license fee for a festival like BirdFest is about $225.

BMI officials declined to comment specifically, but the nonprofit agency released this blanket statement about its fees: "The company's goal is to educate business owners in order to broaden awareness of copyright, music licensing and songwriter music compensation rights. BMI only takes legal action as a last resort, following notifications and considerable periods of time, when a business refuses to purchase a license for the music being used."

Roseberry said BirdFest might rethink the decision to pay the fee in the future, but for now they just don't have the money. The friends group, which has two employees, had to lay off its executive director in January due to a lack of funding.

"The BMI issue was just a part of it — and I have no problem paying the musicians and writers," Roseberry said. "The other part is we had expanded to the point where we needed a lot of volunteers, and we weren't getting them."

The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge has also suffered budget cutbacks and has had a hard time supplying rangers to help, he said.

"Grants have become scarce in this economy," Roseberry said.

That aside, though, the festival still has plenty of interesting nature, history and science to offer. And the organizers said they hope the circumstances won't keep people away.

"We don't want (the situation) to be a focus of the festival," Almquist said. "We hope people will still play music in the streets. It's a great town, but we had to make some changes."

The central focus of BirdFest has always been the seasonal migration of sandhill cranes through the refuge.

The birds fly into an isolated mud flat in the evenings and fly out together in the mornings. During BirdFest, visitors can sign up for special tours to watch them from a hidden nearby spot.

"They're really a charismatic bird," said Eric Anderson, a specialist with the refuge. "They're lifetime breeders, and they're very secretive and secluded, but they're also very vocal. They can be surprisingly loud."

The birds breed on coastal islands in British Columbia, then migrate to a fairly small and specific area around Clark County where they stay for about a month, and then most of them continue on to Northern California, Anderson said.

"When I started here back in 1994 occasionally we'd see cranes in the dead of winter," Anderson said. "Now there are actually a few hundred that stay between here and Sauvie Island."

He's not sure exactly why that is happening, although he has his suspicions, Anderson said.

"As much as I'd like to say it's climate change, it's bad science to just say that's why without studying it," Anderson said. "I think it would make a very interesting research project."

Cranes aren't the only draw for birders and other nature enthusiasts during the BirdFest weekend. Early fall is a great time to look for white-fronted geese, small cackling geese, Canada geese, herons, wood ducks, hawks, eagles and kestrels, among a wide variety of other things, he said.

"As nice as it's been, I think this is a BirdFest where we'll also regularly see turtles, unless a front comes through," Anderson said. "I've seen a lot of turtles on logs recently. River otters are also possible. I see about one a week, usually."

Other activities at the festival include nature walks, live bird displays by the Oregon Zoo and The Audubon Society, a birders' marketplace and food vendors. There will also be lectures about the lives of Chinookan peoples in the area and a traditional salmon bake at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse.

New events this year will be an ethnobotany hike, a lecture about aquatic insects in the area and an English ivy basketry workshop.

"They'll pull the invasive ivy on Saturday, and then make hanging baskets with it all day," Almquist said.

Last year, somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 people turned out for the three-day event. If the weather holds, organizers still hope to see a similar turnout this year.

"It was the most we've ever had," Almquist said.

Roseberry said he especially hopes people will get out to see the cranes this year, because they're his favorite part of the festival.

"It's just a real experience to see them in large groups," Roseberry said. "Watching them, hearing the sounds that they make, it's just sort of spiritual."