Several hundred people are expected to descend on the central Kenai Peninsula to try and catch a glimpse of some of the Peninsula’s 275 bird species, today through Sunday for the seventh annual Kenai Birding Festival.
The four-day festival, which follows closely behind Homer’s Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, has events designed to attract novice and expert birdwatchers to Kenai and the surrounding communities for nature walks, art shows, barbecue and more.
“What sets us apart from the Kachemak shore festival is that their festival tailors a little bit more towards the advanced birder where ours has a big, wide spectrum,” said Josselyn O’Connor, development director for the Kenai Watershed Forum, one of the four main festival sponsors. “If you’ve never birded before you could come and show up and have a really good time or if you’re an expert you could come and be with others like yourself.”
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Kenai Visitors Center and Keen Eye Bird Club all help to organize the festivals, although O’Connor said there are plenty of community donors as well.
“The majority of the budget sort of comes from the Kenai Watershed Forum and we raise money here and there to put on this event,” O’Connor said. “It is a shoestring budget, we’re talking about a $3,000 event.”
Several organizations pitched in to raise money including the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, which planned six blue-bird festivals which feature specials at six restaurants in Kenai and Soldotna.
Proceeds from those sales will help the festival as well, O’Connor said.
Another draw for this year’s events are two outside speakers, Bill Thompson III and Julie Zickefoose, who have been drawing national attention to Kenai’s growing festival.
“We’ve really relied heavily on the local birding experts,” O’Connor said. “This is the first time we’ve actually brought in someone from the outside to participate. We’ve gotten calls from all over the country for this event.”
The festival began, as O’Connor described it, with a few people getting together to do some afternoon birding.
“It has just grown steadily over the last couple of years,” she said.
The festival is heavily “field-based” as well with excursions scheduled Friday in Sterling and Kenai and Saturday in Soldotna.
“We have a wildlife viewing platform that will be open, feathers and fitness walks and a really big kids program as well,” O’Connor said.
For almost as many years as the festival has been bringing visitors to Kenai, the Peeps Art and Photo Exhibit, a Keen Eye Birding Club sponsored art show, has been drawing artwork in from 18-and-under youth from Kenai and the surrounding communities.
Connie Tarbox, who has been organizing the show for five years, said she had more than 50 pieces ready for the 2012 festival.
“It’s a wide variety from crayon to pen and ink to wood burning, pencil and Crayola, we have a hand-carved and painted book inset,” Tarbox said. “They’re very creative in the way they frame the pieces too, that’s been really fun.”
This year’s theme focuses on birds of the Peninsula and Tarbox said the idea was to connect children with nature.
“Art kind of makes you see things with new eyes,” Tarbox said. “The idea is just to get kids looking at birds and making art, combine the two and they’re getting outside and looking at what’s around them.”
Wednesday afternoon, as Tarbox arranged the show, she said she didn’t have all of the categories sorted out yet, but they’re along the lines of “best use of color,” “most playful,” “best eco-story” and “technical excellence.”
She said what stood out to her this year was the detail in several of the pieces.
“One has a shrike and a chickadee. The shrike is on a post, the chickadee is hanging on barb wire. They’ve captured some part of the natural world in a different way than just a picture of a bird,” she said. “Another is a grouping of cedar wax wings and that’s a really fun piece.”
The artwork will be on display May 18-25 at the Refuge headquarters in Soldotna with an artist reception at noon on Saturday.
Tarbox said she hoped the process of encouraging children to produce art had a wider impact on the community.
“The more we can get people looking at the wildlife, the more they’ll respect and value the habitat and our environment, she said.
The true highlight of the long weekend, according to O’Connor, happens on Sunday at Marlow’s on the Kenai in Sterling when a birding, barbecue and jam session will mark the end of the festival.
O’Connor said she expects close to 400 people for festival.
“We have a phenomenal opportunity to showcase this area and I think it’s catching on,” O’Connor said.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.