By Vanessa Kauffman, FWS.gov
National wildlife refuges are home to more than 700 species of birds. More than 200 national wildlife refuges were established especially to protect, manage and restore habitat for migratory birds.
So what better place than a national wildlife refuge to find some of the nation’s best birding and outstanding birding festivals? The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
“Millions of acres of wetlands, forests, grasslands, deserts and swamps — professionally managed to conserve birds and wildlife — make national wildlife refuges wonderful places for birding,” notes Visitor Services Specialist Mike Carlo. “We work hard to create birder-friendly national wildlife refuges, offering facilities, activities, information and other amenities that help people enjoy connecting with natural areas and wild birds.”
You can find a birding festival in almost any month of 2018. The festivals are hugely popular so advance registration is suggested. Some festivals charge a registration or activity fee. Find one to see and learn about your favorite species — or pick one that introduces you to a species you know too little.
Note that North Carolina events are scheduled later in the year.
Festival of the Cranes
See thousands of wintering sandhill cranes plus whooping cranes and white pelicans at Wheeler National Wildlife. The easternmost refuge in the Mississippi Flyway, Wheeler Refuge boasts Alabama’s largest population of wintering ducks. Enjoy workshops, nature walks, live raptors and kids’ activities.
Wings of Winter
Based at Paris Landing State Park, the festival will include field trips to Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge and Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge. You can participate in workshops on wildlife photography, beginning birding and journaling/poetry writing about birding.
Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival
Discover why Florida’s Space Coast offers incredible nature-based experiences. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a field trip destination for this year’s 21st annual bird festival, billed as one of the country’s largest.
Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway
See thousands of birds silhouetted against the sunset sky as they leave Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge and Delevan National Wildlife Refuge in their spectacular fly-off. This year offers a first-time guided field trip to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge.
Winter Wildlife Festival
Virginia Beach, VA
Follow bird activity, explore natural areas and hear the sounds of harbor seals. You can view and photograph migrating birds at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge during the three days of guided tours and renowned speakers.
Marble Falls, TX
The best time and place to see America’s native sparrows is the central Texas Hill Country in late winter. Here’s your chance at the 14th annual Sparrow Fest, hosted by the Friends of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The identification workshop will focus on the 20-plus naïve species regularly seen in central Texas and take you to Balcones Canyonlands Refuge tracts beyond the trails, where “the little brown birds” play.
Winter Wings Bird Festival
Klamath Falls, OR
The four-day festival offers visitors the chance to visit nearby Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Crater Lake National Park and other Klamath Basin birding hotspots.
Eagle Watching Day
Learn about bald eagles at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge. Take a self-paced auto birding/eagle tour along Gilbert Lake. Staff will lead auto eagle tours of Swan Lake and Calhoun Wetlands. Experienced eagle watchers will be set up with viewing scopes at various locations at the wildlife refuge.
Florida Scrub-Jay Festival
Lyonia Environmental Center
The festival celebrates the only bird species unique to the Sunshine State. Florida scrub-jays are found at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Enjoy live music, guided nature walks, live animal displays, children’s crafts and environmental exhibits. Stay tuned to the festival’s Facebook page.
San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival
Mare Island Preserve Visitor Center
The 22nd annual festival celebrates the more than one million shorebirds and hundreds of thousands of ducks plus hawks and other wildlife that pass through the Bay area. The festival includes field trips to San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Whooping Crane Festival
Port Aransas, TX
The festival is on thanks to recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey! Port Aransas, two hours from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, bills itself as “America’s Birdiest Small Coastal City.” Festival-goers have a chance to see cranes in their winter habitat. Information will be posted on the festival’s Facebook page.
San Diego Bird Festival
Marina Village Park
San Diego, CA
With the slogan, “Where Every Day is a Big Day,” the festival offers some 40 field trips, including four to San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Also featured: workshops, sea bird trips and cultural activities.
Monte Vista Crane Festival
Monte Vista, CO
See thousands of cranes, ducks and geese flying against a backdrop of mountain scenery. Raptors often adorn the power poles and owls are frequently seen with their young. All events are free except the photography workshop. The 35th annual festival includes a tour to Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. The Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges participates in the festival’s planning.
Othello Sandhill Crane Festival
Experience the beauty and wonder of the natural world, highlighted by the return of sandhill cranes to the Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington. Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is one of many field trip destinations. The community event includes wildlife tours, lectures on the area’s natural and cultural heritage, an art contest and children’s activities.
Harney County Migratory Bird Festival
Wildlife art shows, kids’ nature fairs including a chance to learn about wild birds, music and book signings are among the highlights. This is a chance to visit the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Pete French Round Barn, built by frontier cattle baron Pete French around 1880.
Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken Festival
Eagle Lake, TX
See the courtship dance of the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken in coastal prairie habitat at this annual celebration at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. Early morning van tours will take participants up to one of the booming grounds to watch the male prairie-chicken’s famous courtship dance. Other events include wildflower and native plant guided tours, bird walks and birding van tours with experienced birders, refuge tours and a booth sponsored by the Friends of Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge.
Celebrate the marbled godwit at the 23rd annual festival! Field trip destinations for this festival along the northern California coast include Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The event also includes scores of eco-tours and workshops, an art show and live birds of prey.
Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival
Here’s the first Great Dismal Swamp Migration Celebration in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is a birder’s paradise with more than 200 types of birds either residing here or just passing through. The festival will feature guided bird walks each morning; guided refuge bus tours and refuge boat tours on Thursday and Friday afternoon.
Balcones Songbird Festival
Lago Vista, TX
Enjoy guided birding and nature tours of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, which boasts some of the finest birding habitat in the state.
Birding and Blues Festival
Pacific City, OR
Celebrate the spring migration of birds and the natural resources of South Tillamook County and Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The festival provides educational, cultural, recreational and economic opportunities to the residents and businesses of Pacific City and attracts visitors of all ages and skill levels.
Grays Harbor Shorebird and Nature Festival
Each spring, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds stop to rest and feed along the Washington Coast and in the Grays Harbor estuary during their migration northward. Coming from as far south as Argentina, these Arctic-bound shorebirds are among the world’s greatest migrants. Field trips to birding hotspots, lectures, vendors, exhibitors and great shorebird viewing take place at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge and in other parts of the county.
International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) is the only international education program that highlights and celebrates the migration of nearly 350 species of migratory birds between nesting habitats in North America and non-breeding grounds in Latin America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Each year IMBD explores a different aspect of migratory birds and their conservation. This year, many events will take place May 12-13. Many wildlife refuges take part in IMBD celebrations. As the date approaches, check the Refuge System special events calendar for more IMBD event listings.
The Biggest Week in American Birding
This major bird festival, organized by Black Swamp Bird Observatory, takes place at the peak of spring bird migration in the Lake Erie Marsh region of the state. The festival features field trips to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
Horicon Marsh Bird Festival
Marsh Haven Nature Center, WI
Experience Horicon Marsh, one of America’s great natural treasures. One highlight: dusk-into-dark tour of critters that sing, call and dance as the sun sets and night falls on Horicon Marsh, led by staff from Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.
Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival
For 25 years running, the festival has offered great birds, excellent guiding, educational seminars and workshops, and children’s activities to thousands of birders of all ages and all skill levels. The festival includes field trips to Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Wings Over Muscatatuck Bird Festival
The festival at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge includes guided bird van tours, bird and nature walks, kids’ activities, live birds of prey programs, birdhouse building and bird-calling contest.
Chequamegon Bay Birding & Nature Festival
The 12th annual festival offers three days of birding and nature activities on Wisconsin’s south shore of Lake Superior at the peak of spring migration. Among the 100-plus field trips, Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge, guided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff. Birding by bicycle, kayaking trips, Apostle Islands cruises, loon pontoon, live bats and birds, mammal tracking, geocaching and more. Registration opens in March.
Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds
Detroit Lakes, MN
Tours of Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge will be part of this year’s 21th annual festival. The 21st annual festival will feature Noah Strycker as keynote speaker. He traveled 41 countries and all seven continents in 2015, setting a world record by seeing 6,042 birds, more than half the birds on earth.
Tualatin River Bird Festival
The Friends of the Refuge in partnership with Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge have created a one-day wonder for the 22nd annual free festival, including early morning guided bird walks, live bird show, plenty of activities for kids and Conestoga-style wagon rides around the refuge.
Kenai Peninsula Birding Festival
Celebrating peninsula birds, the festival is great for the beginner or advanced birder. It includes field trips to Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, workshops, kids’ activities and a Kenai River float with local birding experts.
Down East Spring Birding Festival
The annual festival includes guided hikes, boat tours and expert presentations. It also features field trips to Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, one of the event sponsors.
Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival
Field trips to Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge and Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge are highlights of this festival celebrating remote prairie, wetland and meadow birding hot spots.
John L. Borom Alabama Coastal BirdFest
Spanish Fort, AL
This annual event with guided trips, speakers, dinners and free activities takes place on the beautiful Alabama Gulf Coast, including prime birding tours at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge and Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Ridgefield Birdfest and Bluegrass
Join Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and Friends of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to celebrate the coming of fall and the wildlife that make the refuge their home. The annual festival, along the lower Columbia River, offers Audubon bird shows, live music, arts and crafts and activities at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse, a full-scale replica of a Native American structure found in the old town of Cathlapotle.
Eastern Shore Birding & Wildlife Festival
Kiptopeke State Park
Cape Charles, VA
Each year, Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge offers guided, interpreted tours during the festival, which is the biggest tourism draw to Northampton County on the off season. The refuge and the state park host Family Exploration Day, including a chance for kids and families to build and decorate 60 bird boxes and to meet Puddles the Blue Goose, the mascot of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Guided kayak tours of Raccoon Island and Smith/Mockhorn Island and Magothy Bay.
Wings over Water Festival
The festival features more than 90 trips and programs involving birding, paddling, photography, art and natural history. Activities take place in six northeastern North Carolina counties and six national wildlife refuges. Noah Strycker is the keynote speaker.
Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival
Field trip destinations include Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Buses and minivans at the South Texas Refuge Complex will support festival-goers.
Fall Flight Festival
November 4, 11, 18 and 25
Las Vegas, NM
Take a 4.5-mile drive through the back fields and past ponds at Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge to observe migrating waterfowl — sandhill cranes, ducks of all variety, snow geese, coots, grebes, mergansers and bald eagles looking for their next meal. Interpretive programs to help visitors identify waterfowl.
Festival of the Cranes
See thousands of wintering sandhill cranes and snow geese at the spectacular Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge just outside of the City of Socorro, about an hour’s drive from Albuquerque. Enjoy workshops, tours, great photographic opportunities and other events at one of the most celebrated birding festivals in the country.
Forest City, MO
Celebrate the 40th annual Eagles Days at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge! Learn all about the national bird on guided bus tour or drive the auto tour yourself. See eagles, ducks and trumpeter swans. Live eagle show. Kids can make birdseed feeder.
Swan Days Festival
This annual event celebrates the return of the Alaskan tundra swan to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge as well as the historic heritage of the Mattamuskeet Lodge. Learn about the history of Lake Mattamuskeet and the Native Americans of the area; get up close to birds of prey, courtesy of EarthQuest. Nature exhibits, educational activities, food vendors, craftspeople, local artists. Tram tours require reservations: 252-926-4021.
Wings Over Water Encore
WOW Encore is great for birders and photographers interested in seeing large flocks of migratory birds and waterfowl, with trips that include five national wildlife refuges: Pea Island, Alligator River, Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes and Mackay Island.