I returned home from the New River Birding and Nature Festival 3 days ago, but I'm still adjusting my brain and my internal clock to "the real world." Over the next week or so I'll roll out posts that detail what kinds of things I saw and heard there, but right now I have to try to put into words the essence of the festival before it all slips away and seems like a dream.
At the encouragement of my friend Nina, I signed up for the full week-long deluxe package, which included lodging in a wonderful little cabin in the woods at Opossum Creak Retreat, 3 meals a day, birding by day and presentations each evening after dinner. That week was total immersion in birds, botany and natural history. Put another way, as quoted on the New River Festival website, it's a week of "birding, ecology, friendship and fun."
I've never been to a birding festival before, but I think the bar has now been set pretty high for any future bird outings that I might go to. They really take care of you at the New River Festival. For one thing, having your meals provided for you is a huge convenience that I didn't appreciate until I came home and realized that I had to go back to fixing my own meals. This may sound silly, but it's just part of what lets you devote ALL of your attention to birding - someone else worries about all of the logistics for you (a HUGE thanks goes out to Dave Pollard for that - thanks, Dave!), while you just sit back and enjoy the birds. A bus drives you to the designated trip locations, lunch comes with you, and you have access to the guides basically from dawn till dusk. Groups are kept small, with a ratio of approximately 10 guests per guide, for maximum learning potential. Have a target bird in mind? Let the guides know, and they will do their best to get it for you.
Morning comes early, with communal breakfast at 6:00, and then you're on the road by 6:45. I had to laugh some mornings when I would look at my watch to see it was only 10:00 or so, thinking to myself, "Wow, I've been birding for 3 hours already!" Most trips would return by 2:00, giving you a few hours of down time in the afternoon, but there were a few day-long trips available that kept participants out until 8:00 or 9:00 at night (including dinner, of course). It was intense, to say the least. We were all a little loopy by the end of the week, I think, due to lack of sleep, but the intensity was worth it. I was speaking to someone on one of the trips about time I spent in France as a college student, where I was immersed in the language and the culture for a handful of months. This birding trip was not terribly unlike my time in Paris. It was full-on immersion into the world of bird behavior and bird song, and it give me such a better understanding of the habitat requirements of all the birds I saw (a diverse mix of habitats are covered over the course of the week if you pick the right trips). I left for this festival with a desire to get to know my warblers better, and I feel like that goal was reached. I knew that all the learning had paid off when, during the return trip home, I was able to easily recognize some birds that were still relatively new to me during a quick stop to do some road-side birding 30 minutes away from my house.
In addition to the immersive nature of the festival, there was also an insular feel to the event, which was not something that I expected going into it. It was as if we were in our own little birding heaven, giving thought to little else. Not much news from the outside world reached me during the week. I heard about the killing of bin Laden on Monday morning, but other than that, I was removed from news. Nothing about the royal couple, nothing about this reality personality or that movie star or this million-dollar company buying out some other company. I chose not to watch television or listen to the radio. This was my first true vacation from news media in quite some time, and it was refreshing! Even my social media contacts were limited mostly to other folks who were making Facebook posts about the festival. Yes, we were all right there together, talking face to face, but also communicating via Facebook. While social media (including the good ol' telephone!) kept me somewhat tethered to the outside world, mostly I felt like I was on a very special little birding island, where all I wanted to do was learn about and observe birds as much as possible, and that was okay with everyone around me.
As much as I birded, I didn't get many bird photos due to the constraints of my equipment. And while I birded hard, I also took time to appreciate some other aspects of my surroundings. I'll tell you more about that in upcoming posts.