BirdFest to Take Flight
From the June 28, 2004 Baldwin Register. Used by permission, Mobile (AL) Register. All rights reserved."

BirdFest to take flight
By LESLEY FARREY PACEY Correspondent

Glance toward the skies in the spring or fall and you are likely to glimpse some of the millions of migrating birds that come to, or pass through, coastal Alabama. This October, hundreds of bird watchers are expected to get a bird's-eye view of some of these fine-feathered travelers at the first Alabama Coastal BirdFest.

The three-day event to be held Oct. 14 through 17 will be centered in Fairhope and feature displays, exhibits, children's activities, workshops, guest speakers and more, according to event organizers who gathered last week in Fairhope to release information about the festival. Birding experts will conduct guided tours around Mobile Bay along the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, a 240-mile route known for its diversity of natural habitats.

"We want people to be able to experience in October this beautiful season of the year and experience some of these creatures that share the world with us," said John Borom, director of Faulkner State Community College in Fairhope and president of the Mobile Bay Audubon Society, two sponsors of the event. The festival is for veteran bird watchers and novices alike, he added. "We will have both paid and free events and activities, and there will be opportunities for adults and children to learn about the amazing array of wild birds that migrate through our area every year," he said.

The sponsors of the festival have an ulterior motive for showing people the beautiful birds, Borom said. The number of birds making the flight through coastal Alabama declines every year in part because there are fewer and fewer places for the birds to land, he said. Organizers of the festival hope to reverse that trend by using the funds raised in the event to save and create stopover habitat for these birds, said Borom. Stopover habitat are feeding, resting and nesting places for birds to land on their migration to and from Central and South America.

"What we are trying to do is to educate people about the plight of birds while also trying to stimulate a little eco-tourism in the process," Borom said. "All the proceeds from the fest we will give away to buy or improve native plant and vegetation and create habitat. When someone goes to the fest, they can not only enjoy watching birds but they can also be aware that the funds they are paying to go and see birds with guides is going to a good cause: keeping coastal areas natural for future generations."

Baldwin County is the second-fastest growing county in the state and a lot of natural treasures are being displaced as a result of this rapid growth and development, Borom said. "If people realize the value of what we have, they are more likely to preserve it," he said. "We want to create an awareness from children on up to senior citizens because there is something we can do. Coastal Alabama is a biodiversity hotspot. We live in a great place and have a great lifestyle and sometimes we tend to take things for granted. When we do that and do it for own selfish needs, it causes problems for our children and grandchildren." Funds from the festival will be used to replenish and restore stopover habitat mainly at Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island, he said.

Stopover habitat for migrating birds is in critical need for a variety of reasons, according to David Yeager, director of Mobile Bay National Estuary Program. Coastal habitat is being lost as lands are converted to agricultural use, beaches and dunes are lost to erosion and as homes and condominiums are built, he said. "Saving stopover habitat on the northern Gulf Coast for neotropical migrants has often been a neglected part of avian conservation," Yeager said. The large number of diverse groups that are sponsoring the festival has amazed Yeager.
The sponsors of the event include the city of Fairhope, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, Alabama Power Foundation, Baldwin County Commission, Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries, Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant, Mobile Bay Audubon Society, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, Mobile Convention and Visitors Corp., The Forum, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Faulkner State Community College and the Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation.

"There is a tremendous local partnership that has sprung up to put this BirdFest on," said Yeager. "Not all of us necessarily are birders. We look forward to this becoming an annual event that will bring national attention to the natural resources of coastal Alabama and help promote eco-tourism."

Billions of birds : No one has ever been able to accurately estimate the number of migrating shore birds, waterfowl and other birds that fly over the 600-mile wide Gulf of Mexico each autumn and spring, Borom said. "Biologists estimate that the number could run as high as 6 billion," he said. "They have documented more than 200 species of birds that use the land around the Gulf as a way station and launch pad for their trip. The BirdFest will be an incredible opportunity to see not just native species but migrating birds from all over North America." "We have resident birds that are here all year, such as bluejays in your yard and sea gulls and crows," Borom said. "But we also have a lot of birds that come through in certain times of the year." In mid April, a flood of neotropical migrant birds departs from Central and South America for North America, he said.

"The birds that are in the tropics in the rainforests of Central and South America in the winter spend their spring and summer here to breed," Borom said. In the fall, those same birds fly back down across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in the tropics, he said. Also in the fall, a large variety of birds and waterfowl from the northern United States, Canada and Alaska pass through the area or stay for the winter. Tours will bring birders to various destinations along the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail that starts at the Florida line and continues through Baldwin County to the Eastern Shore up to Alabama 225, on into the Tensaw Delta, to Mobile County and into Dauphin Island.

Tours this fall will go to Dauphin Island, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Weeks Bay National Estuarine Reserve, Mobile Causeway and Battleship Park, Fort Morgan peninsula, Bayou La Batre, Forever Wild Grand Bay Savanna, Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Point aux Pins, Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, Historic Blakeley State Park, Sand Island, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Blakeley Island Ponds, Polecat Bay, State Docks Mud Lake, Pinto Pass and south Baldwin County.

Cost for tours in October will range from $20 to $50 and charter bus transportation will be provided as part of the cost. Borom encourages anyone interested in taking a tour to register early. "We will have limited space on the tours," he said. "There will, of course, be many people from out of town taking the tours, but this is a wonderful chance for locals to visit places in our area that we might not otherwise take the time to see." All tours will leave from the James P. Nix Center in Fairhope. People interesting in learning more don't have to sign up for the tours or donate money, Borom said.

On Oct. 16, a Saturday, there will be several free activities on the Faulkner State campus, he said. "Every hour on the hour there will be videos about birds," Borom said. "We will be giving away free bird seed, teaching people how to build their own bird houses and there will be people giving workshops on how to landscape your yard to attract birds."

Other events during the festival will include a reception on board the historic World War II battleship, the USS Alabama on Mobile Bay, a Natural Wonders art exhibit at the Eastern Shore Art Center and a barbecue and seafood social with silent auction and special guest speaker, J.V. Remsen, curator of birds at the LSU Museum of Natural Science in Baton Rouge, La.

An event takes flight : BirdFest organizers expect that the event will help local tourism dollars soar. "It will stimulate the economy, put people in hotels and restaurants and shops," Borom said. And in Alabama, bird watching is big. In fact, more money is spent on watching birds than on hunting in Alabama, according to an economic analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bird watchers in Alabama spent $626 million on their hobby in 2001, which is almost $25 million more than what was spent on hunting in the state.

"We want people to realize that birding is a huge industry and preserving the stopover habitat on the northern Gulf Coast is important," Borom said. According to Borom, bird watchers can expect to see birds of all sizes, ranging from the tiny piping plover to the American white pelican. "The piping plover is a shorebird that weighs less than 2 ounces," Borom said. "It returns year after year between July and March to winter on Dauphin Island, Little Lagoon Pass and Mobile Point. At the opposite end of the scale is the 16-pound American white pelican that soars into Mobile Bay each fall from British Columbia, Wyoming and North Dakota. These pelicans have a 9-foot wingspan, the largest of any bird in North America except the California condor."

Such bird diversity is a big attraction to bird watchers, said Kathy Barton, communications director for the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce. "What's great is that people can come here and see not only birds that are year-round residents to our area but also migratory species from all over North America," she said. "This is such a wonderful opportunity for our entire area. Eco-tourism is very popular now, and we hope that this event will encourage people to come and explore everything that we have to offer."

For more information or to register for any of the tours, call 929-0922, 990-0423 or 928-9792 or visit www.alabamacoastalbirdfest.com.

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