The faces of the Estuary Restoration Project team! From the left: Gary Slater, Leah Rensel and Tom Virzi.

In Washington, the stretch of I-5 freeway between Seattle and Bellingham has a few major metropolises. Most people won’t stop on their way between these two cities, particularly when many of the smaller historic towns are several miles off the beaten path. But I’m here to tell you about what these people are missing when they go speeding by.

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Snow geese at our study site, Leque Island, next to the town of Stanwood. Flocks of these birds come off the bay in the mid-morning and forage on the empty winter agricultural lands.

The Port Susan-Stanwood area is famous for its’ snow geese, which winter here in flocks numbering tens of thousands. Much of Skagit and Snohomish county was historically miles of farmland, some of which are still active while others are held by local organizations for conservation. The result is miles of agricultural fields left bare in the winter and situated close to the open bay. This is perfect for snow geese and for other species like swans, shorebirds and waterfowl.

Naturally, this biodiversity attracts bird watchers and converts even the idlest observer into a diehard fan if they live here long enough. The result is the Port Susan Snow Goose Festival, an annual event that celebrates avian conservation and recreation. I’ve never seen such concentrated enthusiasm for our winged friends in one location. There are booths dedicated to information about various bird-related organizations, tours to see the snow geese and other species up close, and amazing decorative avian-themed art. Lunch is homemade and delicious.

Enthusiastic visitors and volunteers discuss the unique birding opportunities in Skagit and Snohomish County.

Enthusiastic visitors and volunteers discuss the unique birding opportunities in Skagit and Snohomish County.

 

Many organizations focused on public outreach to invite people to participate in avian conservation in their own backyards.

Many organizations focused on public outreach to invite people to participate in avian conservation in their own backyards.

My job was to man the Ecostudies Institute booth and explain our mission and projects to other organizations and members of the public. It was a blast! I find that most people I meet on a daily basis aren’t interested in talking about wading through mud with binoculars swinging from your neck. Here, however, I had the opportunity to discuss topics of conservation with Audubon societies, compare favorite birding spots with locals, and explain the importance of estuaries to curious small children. Many people were intimately familiar with the Estuary Restoration project’s study sites and it was fascinating to hear about their experiences there. Tom Virzi and Gary Slater even traveled here for the weekend to participate in a presentation about shorebird identification with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Ruth Milner. It was a great success and talked about for the rest of the weekend.

The faces of the Estuary Restoration Project team! From the left: Gary Slater, Leah Rensel and Tom Virzi.

The faces of the Estuary Restoration Project team! From the left: Gary Slater, Leah Rensel and Tom Virzi.

This year wasn’t my first snow goose festival. As a much younger Snohomish County native, I have vivid memories of wandering around, wondering about the fuss over a big white bird. As an adult, a biologist and a conservationist, I can now recognize the importance of these types of events in our communities. As a scientist, I sometimes find myself forgetting the human aspect of conservation. It’s easy to look at the data and forget the human element that drives change in our world.

Birds can provide inspiration for the most creative artistic designs!

Birds can provide inspiration for the most creative artistic designs!

But here, at the Port Susan Snow Goose festival, I found that birding draws people of all purposes. Some want to watch the changing of the seasons reflected in their bird feeders. Some want to save the earth. Others want to immortalize evolutionary diversity in shapes and colors. Whatever our goals or backgrounds, we are united in our admiration of feathery creatures and our desire to see them continue to fly here. Change doesn’t come from journal articles and pamphlets alone; it comes from the spark of ideas that ignite when people talk about the things they really, really love.