Festival draws birdwatchers to Fayette County

By By Marta Tankersley Hays
Staff writer
At the banding table, educator and naturalist Bill Hilton Jr. demonstrates the scientific process involved in documenting and banding birds to a group of about 20 during last year’s New River Birding and Nature Festival workshop, “Birding by Butt.”
A ruby-throated hummingbird briefly captured, documented, banded and released by Hilton at last year’s New River Birding and Nature Festival, is one of the more than 100 species that travel through West Virginia’s hardwood forests during migration.
Rolled up in a paper cylinder in anticipation of placing an identification band on its tiny leg, a ruby-throated hummingbird weighs in at only 0.1 to 0.2 ounces and is between 2.8 and 3.5 inches in length.
The banding process requires skill, precision and incredibly good eyesight.
Numbered bands of varying sizes attached to the legs of captured birds are a means of scientific study.
Hilton prepares to band a white-throated sparrow, a bird which is common across the United States.
Getting practice in identifying species at the bird festival, “Birding by Butt” workshop participants note the white throat, yellow lores (the area between the eyes and nostrils) and striped head of the white-throated sparrow which winters across eastern and southern North America and California.

Seeing a red-breasted robin hop across a rain-soaked back yard may serve as the first sign of spring in the Mountain State, but it’s really just the beginning of a great migration featuring nearly 150 species of our feathered friends, both those who call West Virginia home as well as those on their annual journey north from the warmer neotropical climates of South America.

Dozens of birding enthusiasts will have a front-row seat for the annual migration starting Monday at the New River Birding and Nature Festival, which takes place in Fayette County and runs through May 2.

“The Appalachians are really one of the most biologically diverse areas of the whole country,” said Bill Hilton Jr., a well-known educator and naturalist. “It’s primarily because you’ve got all these hills and valleys, you’ve got a lot of rainfall, and you’ve got really moderate temperatures. It’s not super, super cold or super, super hot.

“As a result of that, there is a tremendous plant diversity, many kinds of wildflowers and trees and shrubs. There’s also the subsequent diversity of bird life.”

So much so that Cornell University Lab of Ornithology identified the hardwood forests of West Virginia as a “critical stopover habitat” for neotropical species, according to Dave Pollard, co-founder of festival.

The week-long event, now in its 13th year, attracts birdwatchers and nature lovers from all across the country and, this year, as far away as Washington state.

About 185 registered participants can expect to receive field experience and take part in educational workshops from some of the world’s “best guides,” festival representative and local guide Rachel Davis said.

Hilton, an active field researcher who returns to the festival again this year, is one of only about 150 naturalists authorized to capture and band wild hummingbirds in order to study their migratory habits.

“I’m authorized by the federal government to put up what we call mist nets — they look like giant hair nets about 42 feet long and 8 feet tall,” he said. “When you put them up against vegetation, they kind of blend into the mist. That’s why they’re called mist nets.”

He said the birds get caught in the nets, are carefully removed, then taken to a banding table where they are examined, documented and banded.

Hilton also travels to Central America in the winter months to band hummingbirds there.

“Those hummingbirds may come back to the U.S.,” Hilton said. “In fact we had one we banded in Costa Rica show up in Savannah, Georgia.”

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species that breeds in North America. It’s most recognizable by its tiny green wings and brilliant red throat and chest. Attracted to red and orange, it’s fairly easy to create a friendly habitat for them in your garden or on your porch with commercially available feeders.

Many festival-goers make the trek to West Virginia almost as regularly as the migrating birds. Kathy Pardee, a state native, for instance, has attended each and every one, and Mary and Gary Wolf, of Wellesley, Massachusetts, have attended five consecutive years.

“I cannot imagine spring any longer without spending our time here in the New River Gorge,” Mary Wolf said.

Headquartered at Opossum Creek Retreat, in Lansing, Fayette County, the festival hosts a unique selection of activities including “Birding by Butt,” designed for beginners; half-day and full-day excursions to places like Babcock State Park and Cranberry Glades; as well as nature photography tours.

Each promises a wide variety of bird life, specifically many varieties of warblers, Louisiana water thrush, bald eagles, horned lark, grasshopper sparrow, pectoral sandpiper, scarlet tanager, ladder-back woodpeckers, Baltimore orioles, a variety of waterfowl and more — much more.

Participants can pick and choose their activities and pay an average of $50 for each, with proceeds — an estimated $30,000 this year — going to the Fayette County Education Fund, which supports youth education, offers leadership scholarships and hosts environmental workshops at Wolf Creek Park.

“The festival is put on by a group of people who care,” Davis said. “We care about the environment and educating our community and youth about how to care for the environment.”

The festival is all booked up for this year, and registration closed April 20, she said. But there are other opportunities to “share our back yard” with people from across the country at the Hummingbird Festival in the summer, where you’ll get hands-on experience with ruby-throated hummingbirds and learn how to design your own hummingbird habitat, as well as the Fall Birding Weekend where participants can enhance birding skills with the help of experts in the field.

For more information or to register for upcoming events, visit birding-wv.com or share in the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/NewRiver BirdingNatureFestival?fref=ts.

Reach Marta Tankersley Hays at marta.tankersley@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1249 or follow @MartaRee on Twitter.

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