Birding festival flies into town

It’s the seasons for tweeters, warblers, coo-ers, whistlers, trillers, chirpers, and peepers on the Kenai Peninsula to become the focus of hundreds of birders, amateurs and seasoned veterans alike, who visit for annual birding festival.


As the festival grows, so do the activities. This year a guided tour on horseback and a performance by members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe join the growing list of local birders and businesses eager to show off the area’s winged wonders at the Kenai Peninsula Birding Festival.

The festival begins Thursday with a float trip down the middle Kenai River for those who registered. Five drift boats, each with a local birder on board, will guide festival-goers down the river.

“They get to see the Kenai River when it’s not crowded,” said president of the Keen Eye Bird Club Ken Tarbox.

The warm weather may be a boon as well because several varieties of songbird are showing up earlier than they did last year, he said.

“It ranges from things like Arctic tern feeding on salmon smolt that are going out, to boreal species like some of the warblers that are nesting now. They may see some common mergansers and at the mouth of Slikok Creek they may see American dippers. So it’s a whole range of species,” he said.

Another bird that may be a draw for birders can be found on the Kenai Wildlife Refuge at Refuge Lake in Soldotna where Aleutian terns are breeding.

“It’s one of the birds that out of state birders really like to see,” Tarbox said. “It’s a sought after bird, but this is about the only place on the road system you can see it.”

In the evening, a reception for the student art show PEEPs, a live bird show and a “plan your festival” activity at the Kenai Visitors Center run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Kenai.

The student art show saw an influx of pieces this year, nearly double what is typically submitted, Tarbox said.

Kids from 2-17 years of age submitted pieces and 14 of them will be recognized for their work during Thursday’s ceremony.

“What was outstanding was that we had really good technical excellence in some of the pieces and we had good ecological stories in some of the pieces, we had fun artistic expression with color in some of the other pieces and so, overall, it’s a really good show,” Tarbox said.

The PEEPs show along with another, “Flight,” will be on display at the Kenai Fine Arts Center, 816 Cook Drive in Kenai, until the end of May.

On Friday, another five drift boats will float down the lower Kenai River as a hot spot tour takes off from the Kenai Visitors Center, 11471 Kenai Spur Highway, at 10 a.m. Visitors should bring gear and lunch for the day, maps and binoculars will be available at the Info Nest in the visitors center.

Tarbox said local birders would be on hand to carpool with visitors to the area.

The hotspot tour will focus on shorebirds.

“It’s really good for beginner birders because we have the time throughout the day to really look at the birds closely and help people identify them, teach people how to use their binoculars and things of that nature,” Tarbox said.

The free tour helps to connect expert birders with amateur counterparts, a key point of the festival, Tarbox said.

“We really want to cater to people who are new birders or novice birders. So we really enjoy families and their kids,” Tarbox said. “One of the main reasons for birding festivals is not for birders to go look at birds, they do that year round. One of the main reasons for birders to get together is to socialize.”

A no-host dinner from 4-6 p.m. at Paradiso’s Restaurant, 811 Main Street in Kenai, is one of several opportunities to socialize, sprinkled throughout the festival.

“The nice thing about a festival is that people come together and they may not have seen each other for a year. They share their experiences and stories and help other birders,” Tarbox said. “People should not be intimidated with the idea that they don’t know a lot about birding. Most birders don’t know a lot about birding.”

At 6 p.m. a group from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe will celebrate the connection between the tribe and local birds with storytelling, music and dance at the Kenai Visitors Center.

Saturday is by far the busiest day of the festival with a birders breakfast, big sit, horseback birding ride and several presentations and walks scheduled throughout the day.

Beginning at 6 a.m. a 24-hour Midnight Sun Big Sit will kick off at the Kenai Viewing Platform while a birder’s breakfast starts at the same time at the Caribou Family Restaurant, 45015 Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Tarbox said the big sit is a rare event for birding festivals.

During a big sit, birders sit at one location and count as many birds as they can over a certain time period.

“What shocked everybody last year was, I think they ended up counting over 70 species of birds from the birding platform by the boat launch,” Tarbox said. “So, in 24 hours ... you can do really well.”

A local birder will be on hand for the full 24 hours to help people with identification questions.

At 8 a.m., a Birding 101 presentation will be given at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center, 44790 Sterling Highway. Then, a walk starts at 9 a.m. just down the road at Centennial Park. Anchorage Audubon Society’s Beth Peluso will meet birders at the visitors center and take them for a walk along the Kenai River.

From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Home Depot in Kenai, 10480 Kenai Spur Highway, will host a kid’s birdhouse workshop while a children’s program with the Kenai Watershed Forum’s Dan Pascucci runs from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Members of the Keen Eye Bird Club, George and Bev Kirsch, will take birders on a hike near Slikok Creek beginning at 11 a.m. Birders who don’t have gear can meet on the Kenai Flats at Port of Kenai Road, and learn with local experts using gear donated from Sportsman’s Warehouse.

Tarbox said he was looking forward to a 4 p.m. talk from the Central Peninsula Garden Club. Nancy Casey will talk at the Kenai Visitors Center about building a rain garden to attract birds. Also at the Kenai Visitors Center, a free comedy movie about birding, “The Big Year,” will start at 7 p.m.

As the last of the hardcore birders leave the big sit at 6 a.m. others will be readying from a 9 a.m. walk near the Kenai River that starts and the Soldotna Visitor Center.

A walk along the Moose River in Sterling will start at Moosequito’s Bar, Sterling Highway Mile 82, at 11 a.m. while the festival’s final event begins at noon with the kickoff of the Backyard Birding Barbecue at Marlow’s on Kenai, 36370 Stephens Drive in Soldotna.

Tarbox said the barbecue was a good time to make friends with other avian enthusiasts.

The meal with be potluck-style, though Tarbox said visitors to the area shouldn’t worry about providing food for everyone.

“Just bring a bag of chips,” he said. “You don’t have to go to the deli and bring 18 pounds of salad. Bring a bag of chips and let the locals take care of most of it.”

For a full schedule of events:

Rashah McChesney can be reached at