Friday, March 13, 2009

Holy Cow! What a Festival!

I think pretty much everyone agrees that this was by far the best International Festival of Owls ever! We had great weather on Friday and Saturday (50 F and sunny), and attendance was in the ballpark of 900 people, up from 500 last year!

The main festival programs were moved to the Elementary School this year. This meant that all of our festival street corner signs had to be repainted, but we had a nice setup at the school. The school classes had the building decorated to the hilt with owls, and Principal Rick Bartz bent over backwards to do everything he possibly could to help the festival.

Tobin, the World Bird Sanctuary’s European Barn Owl who flies over and skims the crowd’s heads, is always a smashing hit with everyone. He performed both Friday evening and Saturday morning for over 500 people.

Little Bit, the Raptor Education Group’s Northern Saw-whet Owl who stands a whopping six inches tall, was the hit of the Saturday afternoon live owl program and also of the Sunday photo session.

The owl prowls were both successful, with Larry Dolphin and Alex Watson from the Hormel Nature Center in Austin, MN calling in two Barred Owls for the family owl prowl, and champion owl caller Steve Weston from Eagan, MN calling in a BOATLOAD of owls: two pairs of Great Horneds, a Saw-whet, and three Long-eared Owls!!! Needless to say I’m going to pay this man a visit in the near future to learn his secrets to success.

Both the pellet dissection and nest box building programs sold out. They were led by Nova Mackentley and Chris Neri from Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Michigan. Chris and Nova also gave a program on their work at Whitefish Point, and the room was overflowing with people who wanted to hear about it.

With record attendance, everyone was kept hopping in the kids’ activity area. And the kids turned out in force for the owl calling contest with over 30 participants. We even had to have a hoot-off for third place. Little do the kids know they were being judged by Great Gray Owl researcher Jim Duncan, Snowy Owl researcher Norm Smith, and expert owl caller Steve Weston.

As always, the owl bake sale was a huge hit, bringing in over $500 this year, thanks to a LOT of people baking a ton of creative owl-themed goodies. And as always, we go through a lot of cake for Alice’s hatch-day party. The owl face pancake breakfast at the Lutheran Church took in over $1,000 too.

This year we added a few more adult programs, so in addition to the Whitefish Point program, I gave a program on my Great Horned Owl vocal study, and retired art professor Les Crocker did a program on owls in art throughout history. Both were very well received.

We had our first ever medallion hunt this year. It was found early Saturday afternoon down at the Houston sign in Trailhead Park by Kirsten Zoellner and her kids from Rushford, MN.

Saturday evening’s banquet was wonderful. We had great food, and the Houston boy scout troop got a standing ovation for doing such an excellent job serving the tables. Then Jim Beckman did a great job with the live auction, especially since he filled in at the last minute! Thanks to everyone who donated and bought items.

It was wonderful to have two of the three World Owl Hall of Fame award recipients attend: Jim Duncan from Winnipeg (he was our 2005 keynote speaker) received the Champion of Owls Award, and Maryann Duke from Shoreview, MN and Lisa Duke from Seattle, Washington came to receive the Special Achievement Award for husband/father Gary Duke, who passed away in 2006. Only Tony Warburton from England was unable to attend to receive the Lady Gray’l Award for his beloved Barn Owl Georgie, who passed away in 2003. (Tony was here in 2007.)

Norman Smith from Boston, MA gave a phenomenal keynote presentation. His slides were wonderful (yes, the man still uses slides…someone please donate a laptop and projector to Blue Hills Trailside Museum and get his slides scanned for him---airport security messed with his slides saying they could contain plastic explosives!!) His message about everyone one of us needing to care for our environment and the need to involve kids from an early age came through loud and clear. And earned him a standing ovation.

Despite freezing rain on Sunday (hey, this is Minnesota, and the weather can change at the drop of a hat), the photo session at Valley High Golf Club went well. Alan Stankevitz, the photo shoot coordinator, had wonderful perches lined up (the Saw-whet perch was contributed by author/naturalist/photographer Stan Tekiela), and despite the weather, the photographers were able to get good shots of the birds. Birds and handlers had to be rotated inside to stay thawed out.

And the birding and natural history bus trip went out Sunday morning despite the weather. Since there are two topics to cover, if the trip is light on birds, it can be heavier on natural history thanks to our two guides, Fred Lesher and Brian Lee. And it always ends on a great note with lunch at Houston’s own wonderful German restaurant.

The bottom line is always important too, since this is a fundraiser for the Houston Nature Center. The festival netted approximately $8,500, with another $1,000 or so in net merchandise sales and $840 raised through the raffle for the Global Owl Project. And the lodging and eating establishments around town also were kept busy.

The festival planning committee is already working on making things better for next year. With attendance so high, we need to address all kinds of logistics. So if you have suggestions for improvement, now’s the time to let us know so we can make next year even better.

Here are a couple of video links…one before and one during the owl festival (including Alice hooting in the WXOW clip):

Thanks to the nearly 100 volunteers it takes to put on this festival, the sponsors, the donors, and everyone who attends. All are essential to make this festival so successful.

And it’s not too early to put next year’s festival on your calendar: March 5-7, 2010!