Shorebird Superstars

“In birding parlance, a “spark bird” is the species that mutates one’s benign regard for nature into a seething, immoderate interest in avifauna.

Mike Corey

If the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival has a spark bird, it must be the Western Sandpiper. Long before the festival started, thousands of the tiny peeps made Homer their hotspot for resting and refueling on the long migratory journey. They take advantage of real estate that has little value for humans – muddy flats washed by the tide.

Thirty years ago some folks thought that the highest use for those “worthless” tidelands was to fill them in and build on them. That’s when an unlikely partnership was born to simultaneously celebrate a wildlife spectacle and bring economic benefit to Homer. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the Homer Chamber of Commerce celebrated that first shorebird festival in 1993. Twenty eight years later we’re still going strong, thanks to a community of superstars that donate their time and expertise as ambassadors for the birds.

Betty Siegel is one of those superstars, and her spark bird was a shorebird. But not one you’ll find in Kachemak Bay. While vacationing on Prince Edward Island, in eastern Canada, she went on a guided nature walk with a small group of birders from all over the world. It turned into a transformational experience when the group spied a rare Piping Plover.

Betty describes how their enthusiasm and love of the birds was so contagious that it infected her. It was a different kind of viral transmission than the one that’s putting the brakes on this year’s in-person festival.

Since retiring and moving to Homer in 2002, Betty has tirelessly donated her expertise and tens of thousands of hours of her time to the Homer community. She has served on the festival planning committee since 2003, guiding various parts of the festival over the years from shorebird viewing stations to the care and feeding of volunteers. She’s also a year-round volunteer at the refuge visitor center and a founding member of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, the festival’s co-sponsor. If you’ve been to past festivals, you’ve probably been to one of Betty’s talks where she’s shared stories and photos from one of her latest birding adventures in far off places, like Madagascar or Bhutan. Ever modest, Betty says that she loves to learn from better birders, and she likes that the festival offers something for every level of birder.

Aaron Lang caught his spark bird in Minnesota at the age of 10. He saw a really colorful bird hopping on the ground and went to his only resource to figure out what it was – a 1950’s-era encyclopedia with three pages of color plates.

Miraculously, one of those plates showed an illustration of a Flicker, and young Aaron thought it was pretty cool that a book could help you identify a bird.

From then on he was hooked. His mom bought him a Golden Guide to Birds, and he saved up money from his job mowing lawns to purchase a $19 pair of Tasco binoculars. He became a regular at bird walks at a local nature center, standing out in a group of retirees.

Alaska called Aaron in 1998, when he came to work at the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova. He met his wife Robin there, and when she got a job in Homer in 2008, they jumped at the chance to move here. Since moving to Homer, Aaron has become a vital part of the festival. At past festivals you may have been lucky enough to join him on the Birding Hotspots Tour or a Morning at the Marsh.

Aaron describes Homer as a crossroads for birds during the first week of May. Pacific Golden Plovers winging in from the Hawaiian Islands, Bar-tailed Godwits on a marathon from New Zealand, American Golden Plovers from Argentina, and the big flocks of Western Sandpipers that from as far away as Florida. While Aaron calls Homer home, he and his wife own Wilderness Birding Adventures, offering guided tours to remote corners of the state. His favorite place to bird in Alaska is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’s led fifty different trips up there, but says that each time feels like you’re the first person to be there.

Some of our festival superstars were in Homer a long time before the festival started. Dave Erikson moved here with his parents in 1950, when he was just two years old. His father served in the 10th Mountain Division in WWII, and his mom was a nurse. They moved back to Minnesota after the war. And then, headed north to the Greatland to try homesteading.

As a youngster, Dave was into nature appreciation. But, like a lot of young men (including John James Audubon), he did most of his birding with a shotgun. He can’t remember having a spark bird, but Dave was fascinated by the Goshawks that he saw locally. He thought at one point he might try falconry, but went another route, studying ornithology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with Professor Brina Kessel, and at the University of Nevada, Reno. He still finds birds one of the most fascinating groups of animals on Earth because they’ve survived for millions of years, are incredibly diverse, and have compelling stories of survival connecting tropics to tundra.

Dave has been part of the festival for 27 years, so it’s fitting that we include him here as an example of the people that have made the festival a success. Before there was a festival, he was one of just a couple of folks in the 1970s out watching the wildlife spectacle unfold each spring with the return of the shorebirds to Kachemak Bay. He wanted to share that backyard miracle with others so he started teaching classes on shorebird and waterfowl identification through the community schools program. Dave is still teaching others. In the winter he teaches winter bird identification classes, and during the festival, he teaches birding by ear and guides field trips.

Dave remembers that first festival well. The event was small enough that the keynote could take place at the Bunnell Street Arts Center. He recalls a mix up with the keynote and Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge ranger Poppy Benson jumping up to deliver a keynote address on the fly. She was a new mom and connected the birth of the festival with Mother’s Day.

We look forward to seeing you and Dave Erikson, in person, at the 29th annual Festival in 2021. We hope you’ll join us in thanking him and the many volunteer superstars that have made this small-town festival a very big deal for 28 years.

Join us at the 29th annual Festival, May 6-8, 2021 to take a walk with one of our Shorebird Superheros. Photo courtesy of Carla Stanley