Amanda Weisbrod

Bird lovers of all ages will gather for the 14th annual Ladd Marsh Bird Festival this weekend to spend some time outdoors and hopefully spot a rare species along the way.

Although field trips begin at 6 a.m. Friday, the festival officially kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday at the Union County Senior Center, 1504 N. Albany St. in La Grande, with a special presentation from keynote speaker Rob Taylor, who once worked with the Nature Conservancy in Wallowa County.

Workshops, guided bird walks, field trips and kids’ activities are all facets of the festival, said Cathy Nowak, wildlife biologist at the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area and the event’s primary organizer.

“One of the things that makes our festival unique is the staffed stations at Ladd Marsh on Saturday morning,” she said. “A lot of people, particularly novice birders, like to go to those stations that have volunteers who can help identify birds and talk about them a bit.”

The festival, which began as an Eastern Oregon University biology club outing, eventually morphed into the large gathering it is today. Each year, the festival attracts about 350 registered individuals to the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area, some of whom have traveled from as far as Alaska, according to Nowak.

Nowak said many fes tival-goers look forward to the field trips the most, adding that there’s a specific bird that draws people to Northeast Oregon.

“People come from all over to see their very first great gray owl because they’re rare to see in other places,” she said. “We have a very high nesting density in the Spring Creek area compared to other areas.”

The National Audubon Society gave this description of the great gray owl on its website: “A big nightbird, haunting woods of the far north and certain high mountains of the west. Its great size is partly illusion: it has very thick fluffy plumage, and its body size is smaller than it would appear.”

Trent Bray, owner of The Bobolink, a birding and outdoors supply store in La Grande, will be leading two Sunday field trips out to Rhinehart Canyon, about 18 miles north of La Grande. He said the Rhinehart Canyon outings fill up quickly because of the number of bird species that can be found there.

“Our (field trips) typically see the most species,” Bray said, adding this will be his 13th year volunteering at the festival. “The location at Rhinehart has documented over 140 species of birds and we could easily see 60 on Sunday, maybe more with both trips.”

Bray said his love of bird watching began with visits to his grandparents’ house when he was a boy. His grandfather, a hobbyist woodworker, was always building feeders and houses for the birds. Binoculars and bird books sat at every window, where Bray would spend his time looking out, waiting for something to flash by.

“I just remember that being kind of like a fish tank but open in the back and anything could arrive,” he said. “It was always exciting.”

Nowak said one of the festival’s goals is to get the next generation of birders interested in the environment, so that’s why there are so many great kids’ activities. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, volunteers will be available to help children build a birdhouse, color a canvas tote bag and earn a Junior Birder Patch, all of which they are welcome to take home.

“This is how we create conservationists,” she said. “We get children excited about the natural world and they’ll grow up to protect it.”

See complete story in Friday's Observer