Camera-toting birders flock to field

Weekend-long festival celebrates migratory birds

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2008

FAIRBANKS - For most of the year, Fairbanks' waterfowl refuge offers visitors, among other things, a few minutes of quiet.

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

In late August, though, it got downright crowded. Hundreds of camera-wielding birders showed up, preceded by the thousands of birds they came to watch.

It happens across much of Alaska in the late summer: Simple agricultural fields attract thousands of migratory birds preparing to fly to places like Texas, Mexico or Oregon for the winter.

"If you're there at the right time, you can see 100,000 cranes in Delta (Junction)," said John Wright, a former state fish and game worker and current volunteer with the nonprofit Friends of Creamer's Field, prior to a tour of the bird habitat in Fairbanks on Saturday.

For 11 years, Creamer's Field has organized the late-summer, weekend-long Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival to celebrate the area's sandhill cranes and other migratory birds.

The group hosts the celebration from Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, which extends from College Road to Farmers Loop just north of the city.

The Tanana Valley falls along the migration corridor for hundreds of thousands of cranes and other migratory birds. On Sunday, those birds - mostly cranes and geese - paced the field and munched on winter wheat. People ambled along the refuge's trails, listened to guest speakers, read interesting facts about migratory birds - juvenile cranes are called "colts" - or participated in kids' workshops.

At 18 minutes before two o'clock, a deep rustle of cackles and wings splashed the refuge's 1,800 acres as a flock of hundreds of frightened birds hit the air at once.

Things were calm again a couple of minutes later. Ray Hadley, a volunteer manning an information booth a few yards away from the field, didn't know what caused the scare.

"Something struck the alarm. They all listened," he said.

Hadley said the birds roaming Creamer's during the weekend included Canada geese, white-fronted geese and mallard ducks. And sandhill cranes, which, unlike some other cranes, enjoy healthy populations, far stronger than when federal lawmakers enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act nine decades ago, according to the federal Division of Migratory Bird Management.

As Fairbanks' crane festival brings far more people to the refuge - which will also host a Sept. 4 party to dedicate its Boreal Forest Trail - the organization expands its outreach to teach even more visitors its natural history lessons.

Last year's three-day festival brought around 1,500 people to the refuge. The crew was still counting this year's showing late Sunday afternoon, but Melissa Sikes, a co-director at the refuge, said a combination of extra promotion and sunny weather made this year's event a success.

"Our craft tables were overflowing with people," she said. "We've just been busy, busy, busy."

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