I speak and give workshops at all sorts of bird festivals and I've noticed that each have their own vibe. Many people haven't been to a bird festival before or may not know what they're about. I'm going to try and categorize them here and link to posts to give you an idea. Everyone should go to a bird festival at least once. It's a great way to meet other kindred spirits and find new birds. This page is a work in progress and I will add to it as I travel.
For those who have never been to a bird festival before, they are generally events that highlight an area's birds and habitat. Generally there are field trips in the morning, field technique workshops in the afternoon and a keynote or entertainment in the evening.
Large Birding Festivals and Events
These are large events with over a thousand people. If you are someone who is thinking of working in the birding industry or if you are someone developing birding product, these are events you want to attend.
1. Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival: I think this may be my absolute favorite bird festival. It's located in Harlingen, Texas. You are right on the Mexican border and so you never know what will pop up and the regulars are fabulously colorful species like green jay, great kiskadee and green kingfisher. Accommodations are inexpensive (I personally love Alamo Inn) and the Mexican and barbecue in south Texas is fabulous. I've lost count of the number of times I have attended and I make room in my work and budget to attend it. Heck, I go to great lengths like writing web series just to go birding in the Valley. If you have never been to the Valley or to the festival, put it on your bucket list. It's the best. There are a lot of great places to visit, but my favorites are Estero Llano Grande, Laguna Atascosa, South Padre Island and Frontera Audubon. Here are many posts of my South Texas adventures. Oh an pro tip: The best breakfast and lunch is at Alicia's in Harlingen near the convention center. If you make it up to Corpus Christi, TX...Joe Cottons--a must for barbecue. I literally salivated after typing those two sentences.
2. Biggest Week In North American Birding: Frequently referred to as simply "Biggest Week" this is a behemoth of a festival that attracts thousands of visitors the first two weekends in May to a little under 1 mile long boardwalk at Magee Marsh in northern Ohio. It's as much much about running into birders as it is about seeing warblers. If you are someone who enjoys a quiet walk or small group to see spring warblers...this may not be for you. But if you like being shoulder to shoulder to see woodcocks five feet away or be surrounded by parulas, magnolia warblers, warbling vireos, golden-winged warbler, scarlet tangers and orioles all while noted field guide authors help you out--this is for you. Kirtland's warblers are a possibility. I've had them at this fest twice. This is what it looks like when a Kirtland's shows up. You can sign up for field trips, but most people just hang on the boardwalk or in the parking lot and wait for the warblers while chatting. If you are claustrophobic like I am, birding in the parking lot is a good option, especially since quite a few photographers set up fruit stations to bring in birds. Unlike most other festivals, this one is spread out as far as where birds are watched and where speakers and vendors are located. You will need a car...or a friend with a car. Here are all of my Biggest Week posts.
3. Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival: OK, Titusville, Florida in January. What other excuse do you need? This is also a photographer's dream, especially Viera Wetlands aka Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands where you can wander the roads, look at the water being treated and find bitterns, limpkin, herons, egrets, anhingas, sora all wandering around. I don't know what it is about Florida but birds that are hinky everywhere else North America, is very mellow. Are they all retirees? Even the sandhill cranes--they are practically yard birds. Field trips can also get you wood storks, Florida scrub-jay and red-cockaded woodpeckers--so many endangered species. I highly recommend making a stop at Dixie Crossroads for their rock shrimp. You can stay in many hotels in the area or if you are going with a small group, check into renting a condo for a week. Here are all of my Florida posts.
Small But Fun
These are smaller events and perfect for someone who isn't into crowds. Some of these events even put a cap on the number of attendees.
1. Horicon Marsh Bird Festival: Horicon, Wisconsin attracts all kinds of birders, I think this small festival is great for casual birders or beginning birders who would like to go out and learn their warblers with experts. Horicon is huge wetlands complex in Wisconsin and the festival will show you sandhill cranes, purple martins, rails, shorebirds and lots of warblers. It has a friendly, warm low-key atmosphere and the huge marsh has to be seen to be believed. Photographers and digiscopers have ample opportunities to get great shots of marsh birds. Horicon is an easy drive highway drive from many points in the Midwest. Here are my Horicon Marsh Bird Festival posts.
2. The Acadia Bird Festival: First of all, Maine is gorgeous with it's rocky coasts chock full of seabird and woods full of warblers and thrushes. The festival isn't one of the huge affairs like you'd see at in South Texas or Florida but the intimate atmosphere gives you some good times with field trip leaders. This is not just birds, you'll see all sorts of wildflowers and fungus too. And no trip to Maine is complete without blueberry pancakes for breakfast or fresh from the sea lobster dinner. If you go, make sure to schedule some time on a boat--it's a unique way to see the park but it is also your best chance for close looks for Atlantic puffin. Read up on different ways to avoid seasickness and using binoculars. Make sure to get a national park pass to make your parking easier. You can read my post about the Acadia Bird Festival here.
3. Laredo Bird Festival: Laredo, Texas is the place to go if you have always wanted to bird the Rio Grande Valley and you either don't want to go to a large event or you just want to go to the festival less travelled. This festival will get you green jays and kiskadees but this is THE spot if you wanted to get white-collared seedeater in the United States. What is especially cool about this festival is how the town gets involved. It incorporates an art contest with the local schools--you even have a chance to buy some of the kids' art. But it's really amazing to see the town turn out for the art contest at the end of the evening before the keynote.
Worth The Travel
These are events that aren't near major airports, might have extreme weather or just require a bit of extra effort but are so, so worth it. These are especially nice if you are one who tends to shy away from crowds. Many of these target birds that you cannot get in other parts of the United States.
1. Winter Wings Bird Festival: Klamath Falls, Oregon is not the warmest place to go to in February but it sure beats Minnesota. This festival is great for someone looking to hone raptor identification, photography, rugged landscape, really into to waterfowl ( you can get that Barrow's goldeneye) or just needs to rack up a bunch of western species. You have the opportunity to see bald and golden eagles side by side or see ferruginous hawks and dark morph buteos. There are some National Park sites nearby if you want to get some passport stamps too--make time for Crater Lake and Lava Beds--I especially enjoyed birding around the petroglyphs at Lava Beds. As a bonus you may even catch sight of a leucistic bald eagle that hangs around the area.
2. Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival: Homer Alaska may take a bit more work to get to but wow, you cannot beat the scenery. And while you are wandering around in a Bob Ross-like painting you can bet Pacific wren, moose, jaegers, moose, eagles, more moose, scoters, moose, murres and maybe a few more moose. It's a lovely small town with a welcoming bird community.
3. Leks, Treks, and More: Woodward, Oklahoma may not be the easiest place to get to or sound as exciting as southern Florida, but they have something other places don't: lesser prairie chickens. Some people may have seen other species lek, quite a few get greater prairie-chickens, but their smaller cousins sound like they've swallowed helium and are tons of fun to watch. What I especially loved were some of the conservation projects you could help out with while at the festival and meeting some of the private land owners who have an interest in this unique species. Also one of the most beautiful areas in the United States.