Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Festival of Owls 2007

Photo (c) Houston Banner
Left to right: Denver Holt, Mary Bethe Wright, Owly the Short-eared Owl, Laura Erickson, Dorothy Purge, Tony Warburton, Clive Mojonnier, Karla Kinstler, Alice the Great Horned Owl

Photo (c) Alan Stankevitz,
Denver Holt, Karla Kinstler, and Alice the Great Horned Owl's back

The weather was looking pretty hairy in the days leading up to the Festival of Owls. I figured the weather would be OK by the weekend, but I started to sweat bullets when our first flight in was canceled.

The Festival of Owls may not be the hugest event in Houston, but it sure does draw people (presenters, award winners, and participants) from all over Timbuktu. Flights were due in from England, Alaska, Jamaica, and Montana. I myself have only flown once in the last 15 years, but I figured out how to set up e-mail notifications from the airlines if our expected flights were delayed or canceled. Those notifications only worked all too well.

The guys from England had their flight to La Crosse from Chicago canceled, but were thankfully able to catch a flight later that evening. The flight from Alaska was canceled 24 hours in advance, but was rescheduled to come in Friday morning (and thankfully made it only an hour or two late.) The Jamaican flight got the same treatment in Chicago as the English flight: the flight to La Crosse was canceled, but a later flight was possible. The one that really had me sweating was the one from Montana carrying our keynote speaker, Denver Holt, President of the Owl Research Institute.

Denver called just before his flight left to say that the flight was leaving, but they were making no guarantees about landing in Minneapolis. His connecting flight to La Crosse was already canceled. To make a long story short, his flight miraculously landed on time in Minneapolis and Laura Erickson, another of our wonderful speakers, swooped in to pick him up at the airport and deliver him safely to Houston...after driving 30 mph all the way from Duluth. Thank you Laura!
With everyone here safe and sound, we started to get cancellations for the banquet. But the caterer could make it, and since rescheduling would have been virtually impossible, the show went on with about 75% of the people attending. Their trek through bad weather was well worth it.

Not only is Denver Holt incredibly knowledgeable, but he is a very animated, passionate speaker with a great sense of humor. I figured he must get a good aerobic workout with every presentation he gives, and someone else commented that he must be a good dancer given his moves up on stage. We all had a great time learning about the Snowy Owls breeding in Alaska, and are probably happy NOT to be the researchers trekking 12-15 miles per day surveying these birds.

Then came the World Owl Hall of Fame award presentations. Last year these awards were just North American in scope, but this year they were expanded to the global level. We were very blessed to have both Tony Warburton, Honorary President of the World Owl Trust and Owly the Short-eared Owl from the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Alaska in the audience to receive their respective awards in person.

Tony has done so much for owls over the past 40 years that he is considered the forefather of owl conservation in the UK. He even wore a tie when receiving his award, which his friend and colleague who came with him, Clive Mojonnier, said NEVER happens! (Sounds about like me wearing a dress....) I don't think anyone who met Tony and Clive will forget their accents and fun-loving attitudes. Despite being colder than they've ever been in their lives on the Saturday evening adult owl prowl, both pronounced the Festival of Owls “brilliant.”

Owly the Short-eared Owl was accompanied by one of his handlers, Mary Bethe Wright from the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, Alaska. His main handler, Barbara Doak, didn't feel up to the flight as she is an octogenarian. Owly received the Lady Gray'l Award for his work teaching humans that there is more to an owl's health than just the physical; that a visually impaired owl can forge incredible connections with blind and visually impaired humans; and for inspiring an autistic child to being speaking for the first time in his life. Both Mary Bethe and Owly were a delight to be around all weekend, and made appearances at storytime, the live owl programs, and at Alice's hatch-day party. Pretty good for an owl of advanced age!

Friday evening finished off with our first ever LIVE auction. Top items were going up with Alice in an airplane for her very first flight ($260) and a set of days-of-the-week owl dish towels that went for $160. (My Grandma made them and my Dad bought them for me!) All in all the live auction over doubled the proceeds from last year's silent auction.

Saturday was the big family day, and thankfully the weather had mostly abated as crews worked diligently to clear the latest snow from our streets (and around our festival signs!) Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group drove down from Antigo, Wisconsin that morning after much snow. Despite going in the ditch less than a mile from her house, having to use 4-wheel drive most of the way, and getting up at 4 AM, she arrived with her assistant Steve and owls in one piece with time to spare. Marge's programs are always something special, and this was no exception. Mary Bethe and Owly were neatly woven into the programs along with Alice, to make for a whopping SEVEN different species of owls!

Thanks to some of our board members, there were all kinds of new kids activities. There were a variety of owl crafts plus a station where kids could get banded after having some measurements taken, just like owls. And of course kids could get their faces painted like an owl and make origami owls as in years past. There was also an owl bake sale, and almost nothing remained by the end of the day Saturday!

Laura Erickson again led her famous pellet dissections. I don't think anyone could give more information about owl digestion than Laura! As author of “101 Ways to Help Birds”, Laura also gave a marvelous presentation about what WE can do to help owls specifically, and specially adapted it to highlight the organizations participating in the Festival of Owls.

Our frozen English guests as well as everyone else were quite thankful for the hot chocolate and other treats following the Saturday night owl prowls. While the first two groups didn't hear owls, the adult group mustered a few Barred Owl hoots. Who can blame the owls for not saying much after probably not eating for several days during the winter storm that had just finished? But as a special treat, the moon was full and going through an eclipse during the prowls!
For the folks that came out on Sunday, there were some very special programs. Dorothy Purge from Jamaica gave a program about owls and Jamaica, and even got the Elderhostel folks attending to join in on a traditional dance at the end. Woodsy Owl, with much help from Forester Jon Sobiech, gave an excellent program for kids about planting trees and what kids can do to help the environment. All attending went home with a bag of Woodsy goodies (shoelaces, magnets, pencils, bookmarks, etc.) and a burr oak tree or two to plant. They also had tummies full of owl-shaped pizza.
Houston's wonderful German restaurant hosted Carrol Henderson's great Central American Owls program. It may have been a small crowd, but they got a great program and Rosie's sumptuous food. Previous to this Carrol had led an owl nest box building class at the gym. Who better to teach such a class than the man who wrote the book “Woodworking for Wildlife”?
With blue sunny skies on Sunday, it was a bit strange to have Alice's first flight (in an airplane) canceled. But apparently no one had bothered to plow out the tiny little county airport we were to fly out of yet, so the flight didn't happen. It has been rescheduled for Sunday, March 11 at 1:00 PM.
It's impossible to give a rundown of all Festival details in any kind of space short of writing a book. If you want to know more, talk to one of the 350-400 people who attended, and plan to attend yourself next year!
While I tend to get credit for this event, it's important for everyone to know that it would not be possible to pull off such an event without a huge number of volunteers, many of whom put in untold hours of planning and preparation. I don't dare to even begin to mention names because I probably don't even know everyone who helped! You know who you are, from the landowners who made arrangements for owl prowls to our dedicated Friends of the Houston Nature Center board, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for making this a successful event that is helping to put Houston on the global map!
And I would like to extend a very special thank you to all of our presenters who drove and flew into a blizzard to make this event happen. What dedication!
The 2008 Festival of Owls will be held February 29 through March 2, with C. Stuart Houston, a man who has banded over 7,000 Great Horned Owls (and has half a million other credits to his name) as keynote speaker. Just remember "Houston in Houston 2008"!

(c) Alan Stankevitz,

Mary Bethe Wright, Owly the Short-eared Owl with the Lady Gray'l award, and Karla Kinstler

(c) Alan Stankevitz,

Tony Warburton with the Champion of Owl award and Karla Kinstler

(c)Alan Stankevitz,

Marge Gibson and Little Bit the Northern Saw-whet Owl

(c)Alan Stankevitz,

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