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Festival of Birds in Detroit Lakes on May 14-17

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Amongst Detroit Lakes' lengthy list of attributes is location. Besides being nestled amongst a multitude of sparkling lakes and picturesque beaches, three major biomes meet surrounding our fair city, making it the ideal spot for hosting the Festival of Birds.

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Sitting where coniferous forest, deciduous forest, and tallgrass prairie all meet has made Detroit Lakes the obvious choice as host city for the event, which will hold its 12th annual four-day spread of workshops, speakers, and birding field trips this May.

"It's really the perfect site to have the festival," said Kelly Blackledge of Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge's visitor services. "This is really the only place in the world that these three major biomes come together. It makes Detroit Lakes very unique."

With hundreds of people attending yearly, Minnesota's first birding festival has grown to where it is well-known and highly thought of across the United States.

"Birders are very well-connected. They blog, they Twitter, they see something and are on their phones right away telling others about it," said Blackledge. Because of the network the birding community has formed, the festival's prominence has increased easily and rapidly.

Each year brings new workshops, speakers and field trips to the festival, even while holding on to the usual offerings that birders come back to experience each year.

New this year are three field trips, which will show off new bird species.

"We try to find new areas to capture [sightings of] unique birds within all the biomes," said Blackledge.

This year's events will focus on shorebirds, which are very difficult to distinguish between, being quite similar in appearance. There will be a special emphasis on technology, specifically a GPS workshop.

Additionally, the festival will be contributing to Minnesota's Breeding Bird Atlas, a project the state is currently kicking off, as a sort of citizen science project. GPS and other technology will be used throughout the festival to document the breeding birds in the area. This information will be sent in and used in the atlas being constructed.

"We want to emphasize that [the festival] caters to all levels [of birder]," said Chamber of Commerce tourism director Cleone Stewart.

In fact, the first night of events includes opportunities to freshen up on birding skills, ideal for beginners and experts alike before venturing out on one of the event's field trips. Even those who arrive with merely a pair of binoculars need not fear: there will be experts on the bus.

"It's a sharing experience," added Blackledge. "That's how you get started."

"If you're wondering 'What on earth is a life list, and how do I get one?' then we can help," said Stewart with a smile.

A life list, it turns out, is a checklist of species that birders seek to view over the course of their birding adventures.

"Some people travel the world to check them off. We have a lot checked off during [the festival's] trips," said Stewart.

Over 200 species can be -- and have been -- spotted during festivals, adding to the area's appeal for birders.

"We get to see the birds in their breeding plumage. They're so beautiful," said Blackledge.

"We schedule the birds to come at this time of year," she added with a smile.

The festival will be held May 14-17.

After Thursday's initial workshops and events, the field trips begin. The coach buses leave at 5:15 a.m., and the field trips continue "for a good part of the day," said Stewart, though it varies depending on the trip being taken. Lunch is provided.

On Friday night, Bob Russell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will speak on "Shorebird Migrations: Saving the Stopovers."

"He's an outstanding speaker and birder," said Blackledge, "and a specialist in everything -- especially shorebird habitat and species."

Saturday houses many of the festival's highlights, including free workshops on monarch migration and documenting birdsightings, as well as exhibitors and a silent auction. Items up for bid include plants and nature-themed artwork.

Also, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, in the Minnesota State Community & Technical College (M-State) conference center, Carrol Henderson of the Department of Natural Resources and Glen Suggett of Manitoba Conservation will introduce North America's first official international birding trail.

The Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, Minnesota's first, will continue on into Canada, adding new sites for birdwatching. Henderson and Suggett were instrumental in the cooperative effort to connect Minnesota and Manitoba through the trail. Henderson also worked on the initial creation of the Pine to Prairie Trail.

Saturday evening will bring Richard Crossley to the M-State conference center. The author and photographer of "The Shorebird Guide" will be available for book signings beginning at 5:30 p.m., and he will speak at 6:30. The Tamarac Interpretive Association made the event possible. A meal is included.

Many find that the environmental aspect of the festival is as important as the birds.

"People on the field trips ask about landscape management, and how to maintain the habitat so that they can come back and see the birds again year after year," said Blackledge.

For more information, visit the Chamber of Commerce, or go online at www.visitdetroitlakes.com. Registration for events can be done on the Web site, or through the form in the programs that can be found throughout town. Rapid registration is recommended, as events, especially field trips, fill fast. The sign-up deadline is May 8th, but there will be a drawing from amongst those who register before April 24th for a free pair of binoculars.

For birders, environmentalists, and all those who enjoy outdoor Minnesota, the Festival of Birds is an opportunity like no other.

"We usually see something rare," said Blackledge. "People get very excited."

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