A group of on-looking birders observe a sandpiper flock during an organized birding outing at high tide at Hartney Bay during the Shorebird Festival on May 4, 2024. Photo by Shane Balian

By Shane Balian 

Any attendees who were lucky enough to witness the shorebird migration this year were treated to dancing sandpiper flocks numbering in the thousands. The 34th annual Shorebird Festival, which lasted from May 2 to May 5, provided locals and visitors with artistic events, insightful presentations, and, of course, plenty of birding opportunities.  

This once-a-year celebration marked the migration of millions of shorebirds that flocked to the 50-mile-wide Copper River Delta from as far south as Argentina, attracting birders from around the world. From painting classes to rainy-day birding to palm frond weaving, there was something for everyone. The Shorebird Festival celebrates one of nature’s many wonders, and if attendees were willing to brave the spring weather, which many were, they had the opportunity to witness something extraordinary. 

In a festival full of art, birds and combinations of the two, there was no better way to kick it off than with a colorful and talent-filled gallery opening featuring bird-focused art from local and Alaskan artists. Locals and visitors came together to appreciate the crossroads of birds, art and science, a theme that would permeate the rest of the festival. One of the highlights was the “birds by hand” project curated by Dotty Widman, owner of The Net Loft, which featured handmade birds from around the world. This was not the last of the artistic events, as a variety of art classes including nature journaling and needle felting were offered through The Net Loft. 

It was no surprise that shorebird outings were plentiful at the festival. Each morning, groups of birders would venture out to Hartney Bay or Alaganik Slough in search of sandpiper flocks and other more elusive shorebird species. Experienced birders and locals acted as guides, helping to identify some of the more difficult species. 

The variety of shorebirds and waterfowl attracted hundreds of birders each day. The road was lined with vehicles during high tides, as birders trudged around the mud flats with binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras. In many cases, binoculars were not necessary, as hungry sandpipers, focused on their migratory mission, would walk or fly within a few feet of birders. 

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After long birding days, the Cordova Center hosted captivating speakers, including Subhankar Banerjee, professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico, and this year’s keynote speaker. Banerjee’s energy was contagious and his passion undeniable as he spoke about the threats shorebirds face, the connection between art and science in the context of shorebirds and the importance of shorebird festivals.  

In between birding and talks, food and treats were plentiful. The Pioneers of Alaska organized the Pioneer Pie Sale and Social, an annual favorite, which offered an assortment of fantastic homemade pies and a rare opportunity to sit down amidst the busy birding schedule. Locals had a chance to catch up with one another and visitors could trade birding stories over a slice of sweet, buttery pie. A salmon-tasting event was also available for a few attendees who indulged in king salmon and other savory treats. 

At the intersection of art, science and birding was the presenting artist, Kim McNett. Her nature journaling workshops took place all over Cordova and had participants listening, observing, sketching and writing about their surroundings. In many ways, these sessions acted as the perfect symbol for the Shorebird Festival as they allowed Cordovans and visitors of varying backgrounds to connect over something universal — a love for birds.  

Shane Balian is a media intern at the U.S. Forest Service based in Cordova. 

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