April 2021

Virtual Birding Festivals

The technologies used for streaming, video-conferencing, and the recording and playback of such events are so disparate that not all links below will work on all systems or browsers. See specific notes below.

UPDATE 5/6/21: The Hawai'i Islands Festival of Birding 2021 hybrid/live events have been cancelled, but the 2020 archives will be maintained online.

The effects of the pandemic social restrictions on birders and birdwatching activities have been enormous. Regular bird club meetings, identification classes, and organized field trips have been severely curtailed. But it is perhaps the annual circuit of birding festivals which has been most profoundly impacted. Traveling to a region away from home, joining with other birders from far-flung areas, celebrating a local collection of potentially unique sightings, these have all been brought to a full stop. For some of us, these events punctuated the seasonal cycles of migration and breeding, mirroring in a human way the avian flights. Covid-19 has seemingly ended that. But the virtual world has come to the rescue, as it has with online monthly meetings and participatory webinars, and many favorite festivals have migrated to cyberspace.

This article features two annual events which your reviewer has attended in person in the past, and would hope to again some day. Meanwhile, their virtual versions are presented here purely as exemplars of what is available online to folks who are missing their accustomed events. These are presented in the chronologic order in which they have traditionally occurred, with the suggestion that the reader follow-up on finding out what their favorite festival is offering this year.

Starting in the Northern Hemisphere spring is Godwit Days[1] in Humboldt County, California, to be held in 2021 from April 16 to 18. As its name suggests, it has been focused on migratory shorebirds heading north for breeding, and the 2021 Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival is both virtual and free, consisting of 13 sessions spread over three days. Sign up to access the entire festival via Zoom[2], which works well cross-platform. Always a well-organized festival, this year's hybrid live/virtual version can even add its sessions to your calendar app automatically! This reviewer's Spotted Owl lifer from the 2019 festival might not count had it been a virtual sighting, but that's the kind of experiences on offer, even through the medium of a screen. The schedule[3] of sessions (some to be live-streamed from the field, some pre-recorded) is impressive, and real-time expansion of the program is anticipated.

Next, scheduled May 6-9, 2021, comes the Kachemak Bay Festival[4] (a Favorite) in Homer, Alaska, which is, of course, along the path the shorebirds typically fly on their way to the arctic and sub-arctic breeding grounds following the break-up of winter ice along the coastal waterways. Highlights from the 2020 Virtual Festival[5] (best on Chrome browser) are online, and details for this year's gigantic virtual/in-person "hybrid" festival have now been posted[6]. Online virtual registration through the WHOVA[7] app costs $20, with most non-tour presentations having no additional charge, as explained in the schedule. The Birdability workshop (see our Jan 2021 article), with Freya McGregor, for example, can be accessed online free with a basic pass.

A cautionary tale comes from New Mexico. For many, the Festival of Cranes[8] at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico has been a late fall pilgrimage, offering spectacular views of fly-ins and fly-outs not only of Sandhill Cranes but Snow Geese as well. While offered in virtual form in 2020 as a "Fiesta", unfortunately there will be no organized group activities on-land or online in 2021. Recordings[9] from the 2020 event are hard to find on the website, and even then playback through Facebook can be unpredictable. Running a virtual event takes a different set of skills than a live one!

The silver lining to the pandemic cloud is that virtual festivals allow us to attend ones we might have not been able to enjoy previously in person. Also, festival organizers have a new method of promoting their events, with relatively minor costs involved. Your reviewer has birded Maui (oh, that I'iwi!), but not the Big Island. The Hawai'i Island Festival of Birds[10] is an excellent example of the present opportunities. Being offered in 2021 as a hybrid event like 2021 Godwit Days, those who cannot come to experience it on-island are welcome to join online free. The 2020 presentations[11] remain available as videos (Chrome, of course). Joining other birders in seeking out the Mōlī (Laysan Albatross) and 'Akiapōlā'au (no common name) may be in the distant future, but for now it's as close as the screen on which these words are being written!

Hoping for a warbler fallout this year? Somewhere, there will be streaming cameras aimed skyward, with knowledgeable festival leaders waiting to show you and others. Or a hummingbird convocation? Seek them out - they'll likely be available, and even for free! Birding festivals are an economic, fund-raising mainstay for many locations and institutions. They need to maintain their brand and our loyalties just as we need the opportunities to adventure beyond our local patches. Let's support each other - donations to festival organizations are always welcome, for example.

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