Eagle showtime

Bald eagles, which congregate in the Skagit Valley in large numbers each winter, are often the focus of bird watchers along the upper Skagit River.

The period between the winter holidays and the start of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is a down time for local tourism, said Andrew Miller, director of business retention and expansion at the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County.

It’s a time the alliance and local organizations aimed to fill this year with the first Birds of Winter festival that supported events related to birds.

Organizers are now considering the successes and failures of the event, including concerns from the agriculture community, to plan for next winter’s festival.

The biggest takeaway from the first festival is that it has potential, Miller said.

“We proved there’s an interest in it,” Miller said.

The festival was a way to encourage and promote events that were already happening, Miller said.

To participate, La Conner hosted its first ever birding expo in January.

The event resulted in the best weekend of sales at local restaurants, shops and hotels on record for the month of January, said La Conner Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Heather Carter. There were about 500 participants, and ticket sales showed about 65 percent were from out of town.

Other events included a bird-themed art walk in downtown Mount Vernon, photography workshops and educational opportunities.

The festival is an opportunity for collaboration between the conservation, agriculture and business sectors of Skagit County, Miller said.

“The dairies, they plant the corn, they cut the corn and a lot of it ends up in the field, and that’s what fueled the recovery of the trumpeter swan population I think in the 60s,” festival organizer Jedidiah Holmes said.

In turn, visiting birdwatchers support the local economy.

For future festivals, Miller said organizers plan to discuss how to mitigate the negative impact winter birds can have on farms.

“We want the farmers to know that we’re looking toward solutions and we’re not trying to make their problems worse,” Holmes said.

At a festival meeting in early January, farmers expressed concern about birdwatchers parking in their driveways or blocking equipment when trying to observe birds in their fields.

Those concerns went largely unaddressed in the first festival, Skagit County potato farmer Darrin Morrison said.

“There’s also a concern that the birds have a negative impact on ecology and on farms because they come and they eat cover crops,” Miller said, referencing the crops that farmers plant in order to protect and enrich soil.

Morrison said there’s work to be done incorporating farmers’ interests.

“A lot of these crops are not just a habitat for birds, but someone’s livelihood,” Morrison said. “The farmers are kind of concerned (the festival) shines light on the birds that are here as a good thing, when the birds are out there chomping on all this grain and grass.”

While the festival depends on farmers’ land to attract the birds, Burlington dairy farmer Charlie Dykstra said farmers saw no benefits from the festival.

“The farmers want to work with the festival to find a solution that benefits both sides,” Dykstra said in an email. “But if there isn’t a solution that protects farmers, then the question should be asked if we really need it.”

He’d also like to see the educational components of the festival include information on the environmental and economic impact of the birds, such as water pollution and crop damage.

In the future, Carter said she wants to include farmers in the planning process.

“I would love to be more involved with the dairy and crop farmers so they can tell their story about the birds as well,” she said.

With an earlier start to planning for next year, Miller said organizers will have more time to hear from the different sectors involved in the festival.

— Reporter Julia-Grace Sanders: 360-416-2145,

jsanders@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @JuliaGrace_SVH



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