Sunday, March 09, 2008

2008 International Festival of Owls

"Hooston", our new owl mascot having fun with some kids.

World Bird Sanctuary staff doing a flying demonstration with a Barn Owl.
Photos (c) Alan Stankevitz

Despite the long, cold, snowy winter, Mother Nature offered up some excellent Minnesota March weather for the 6th Annual International Festival of Owls. There was minimal snow leading up to the festival, none during it, and the temperatures hit around 50 F on Sunday!

The festival really got started for me late Wednesday evening, February 27, when Johan de Jong and Hein Bloem arrived from The Netherlands. They were organizers of the World Owl Conference last November, so I already knew these two wonderful fellows, and was thrilled to be able to see them again so soon. As expected, Hein was wearing his signature red scarf.

Thursday saw the arrival of Eastern Screech-Owl researcher and photographer Christian Artuso from Winnipeg (whom I had ironically first met in Holland last fall), Lisa Wadley from California (her second festival), and Dorothy Purge from Jamaica (also her second festival.) My dear friend David Johnson, Director of the Global Owl Project, met us all that evening for supper at Ron and Rae Evenson's home, where the Evensons had concocted a veritable feast for us all.

Friday our biologist guests scouted for roosting owls and owl nests. And I got a call for an on-air interview with BBC Radio in England, believe it or not!! Charlotte Kerrigan, volunteering to man the phones that afternoon, had trouble with the accent, but thankfully I've spent enough time visiting with Tony Warburton, founder of the World Owl Trust in England, to have no troubles understanding a word that was said.

The banquet was delicious, and folks from five different countries attended (U.S., Canada, Jamaica, The Netherlands, and Ethiopia.) Dr. C. Stuart Houston's keynote address was delightful. Can you imagine climbing a huge, metal electric tower to band young owls, jumping into ice cold water to save an owl, or climbing trees at age 78? Uff da...what a man.

My favorite part of the festival is always the World Owl Hall of Fame award presentation. Since we had so many incredible nominations from around the globe this year, the Global Owl Project instituted a new Special Achievement Award in addition to our Champion of Owls and Lady Gray'l Awards. Johan de Jong received a Special Achievement Award for his work restoring the Barn Owl population in The Netherlands and gave a short presentation on his work. It was extra fun to be able to surprise Dr. Houston with his Champion of Owls award since he was coming anyway! Five other awards were also announced (see for details.)

Saturday was a fun-filled family day, with 400-500 people attending. “Hooston”, our new owl mascot costume, made his debut to the delight of many kids and adults who got big, fuzzy hugs. The World Bird Sanctuary's flying Barn Owl stole the show as it repeatedly skimmed the heads of those in the crowd. But the massive Eurasian Eagle Owl was impressive, and where else can you see Tawny and Spectacled Owls??

The live native owls from the Raptor Education Group are always great, and Little Bit the Northern Saw-whet Owl is always a star. His baby picture was featured on the festival button. A whopping 37 kids participated in the owl calling contest, and everywhere you looked kids (and adults!) had their faces painted like owls.

Since the whole festival started as a hatch-day party for Alice the Great Horned Owl, we all sang a round of “Happy Hatch-Day to You” and ate owl cake.

A boatload of boy scouts from the area participated in a special program by Jen Lilla of Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge to earn their owl belt loop. Then kids and adults headed out in buses to call in wild owls. The first bus got skunked, the second got a screech-owl, and the third, led by David Johnson, called in two Barred Owls and three screeches!

Sunday offered up perfect sunlight for the outdoor owl photography sessions and birding bus trip. If you know naturalist and author Stan Tekiela, ask him how he liked his “Stanwich.” With so many important owl folks in one place, the Houston Nature Center also hosted a planning meeting to develop a World Working Group on Owls for the IUCN. Just goes to show the caliber of people who speak at our festivals!

We're already scheming for next year with plans for Norman Smith, Snowy Owl researcher from Boston, to be our keynote speaker as well as adding a medallion hunt. There seems to be no end to the kinds of owl activities and events we can dream up!

Me cheezing it, and David Johnson reading Johan de Jong's award to him.

C. Stuart Houston and his Champion of Owls Award
Photos (c) Alan Stankevitz

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