For the second consecutive year, the Grays Harbor Shorebird and Nature Festival will be a virtual-only event because of Covid-19. That won’t, however, keep the migratory visitors from heading this way in droves! The 27th annual festival is set for April 29 – May 1. It’s that last week of April and first week of May when hundreds of thousands of plovers, dowitchers, turnstones, sandpipers, dunlin, red knots and others are expected to rest and feed in the Harbor, on the Central Washington coast and in the rich estuary at Hoquiam’s Bowerman Basin on their migrations north. While the largest concentration of shorebirds on the West Coast will return this spring like clockwork, many of the popular festival attractions will have to wait for another year.

Arnie Martin, Grays Harbor Audubon Society vice president and the chief organizer of the event, says the public portion of the festival (including its workshops, field trips, vendor booths, lectures and shuttle buses) has been canceled for 2022. “With what’s been going on, it’s been virtually impossible to plan. And, we can’t be carting buses around to sites like we used to,” says Martin who has volunteered with each Shorebird Festival for the past decade, helping it grow to about 2,000 registered participants. “In 2020 we had to cancel the Shorebird Festival entirely,” notes Glynnis Nakai, who manages the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of the Nisqually National Refuge Complex north of Olympia. “Then last year, we made it into a self-guided festival.” “Wildlife migration is one of nature’s most amazing spectacles,” says Davy Clark, education program manager for the refuge, featured in a video made for last year’s event.

“Whether it’s elephants in Africa, gray whales, penguins in Antarctica or monarch butterflies, migrating wildlife are traveling thousands of miles every year. For a short period of time every single year an incredible group of wildlife called shorebirds visit Grays Harbor National Wildlife here in Hoquiam. “They are truly amazing because even though they are traveling 5,000 to 6,000 miles, some of them up to 10,000 miles every year, they may be as small as one ounce,” Clark says.

Photo courtesy of Art Wolfe

Traditionally, the festival has been a key fundraiser for the Grays Harbor Audubon Society and a popular attraction for birdwatchers, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts worldwide. The intent of the virtual festival this year is to encourage people to return to nature, while considering human safety. “Nature is on a cycle that is not altered by Covid,” says Seattle-based photographer and author Art Wolfe, renowned for his portraits of wildlife and landscapes.

Wolfe recalls first photographing the migratory birds some 50 years ago, lugging his big lens, cameras and gear through the mudflats. “As a photographer who makes a living documenting the natural world, it’s really a treasure to have this in my own backyard,” Wolfe says. His work has been featured in magazines such as National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon, and GEO, and his art has been featured on three USPS stamps. In addition to several traveling exhibitions, Wolfe has also had four major exhibitions at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, including One World, One Vision.

“On any given year, I might be on five or six different continents working on various projects, but the very fact I still live where I grew up speaks volumes for the spectacular nature of this region where we live,” Wolfe says. One part of the 2022 festival that won’t be canceled is the annual shorebird art contest for local elementary school students. The contest, in which the top entry is featured in the next year’s festival publicity campaign, is a tradition that dates back 15 years. This year Mason Craig, of Simpson Elementary School in Montesano, was awarded top honors for his depiction of a Pacific golden plover.

The best way to experience the Shorebird Festival virtually is to start at the website Shorebirdfestival.com, says Nakai. The website will have links to live virtual presentations and guide visitors “with directions to go along the coast, near Westport, Ocean Shores, and of course we highlight the Sandpiper Trail at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge,” she says. “We really want to emphasize all the things the public and the visitors can do on their own and still experience the amazing sight of the shorebirds,” Nakai says.

Photo courtesy of Tom Rowley

The Sandpiper Trail, Nakai notes, is a “key spot for migratory birds, primarily shorebirds” and offers the easiest public access to get near the mudflats where the shorebirds normally feed and rest. The last week of April and first week of May are the key dates. “That’s when the shorebirds are really moving in big numbers, and you see different species. They are coming from as far as South America and migrating north into the Tundra of Alaska for nesting,” Nakai says. The best viewing times are usually three hours before high tide to three hours after high tide during daylight hours. “Bowerman Basin is the last area to get flooded by high tide, and it’s the first area to get exposed as the tide recedes. Shorebirds are shallow-water, mudflat-type inhabitants. That’s where they are foraging and feeding,” Nakai says.

The Sandpiper Trail, which offers the best viewing areas, extends into the salt marsh area. The trail begins near the end of Bowerman airport in Hoquiam. “It gets closer to the mudflats,” Nakai says. As the tide comes up, it pushes birds closer to the trail. “So, if you’re out there on the Sandpiper Trail, you’re watching birds just 40 feet away in some places. Excellent viewing, excellent opportunities for photography.” Tom Rowley, a retired physician who has become an avid bird photographer, walks along the Wildlife Refuge daily. His photographs of the shorebirds have been used by the Wildlife Refuge to showcase information about the basin. Timing is everything when it comes to viewing or photographing the shorebirds. “If you go out right at high tide, sometimes the whole basin gets covered in water and all the shorebirds disappear. But they come back,” Rowley says.

While the Sandpiper Trail provides “a good spot for an overview and to get some distance photos of the shorebird flocks. It’s not a great place for closeups,” he adds. For close up shots, Rowley recommends Bottle Beach State Park between Aberdeen and Westport. “As the tide comes in, the shorebirds get pushed in toward the shore. Shorebirds actually are pretty easy to photograph because they are more concerned about eating. If you just stand there, the shorebirds will approach you.”

At 76, Rowley admits he doesn’t cart his camera around as much as he once did, but in recent years he has been able to accompany a state Fish and Wildlife biologist surveying red knots.  The survey has found that the red knots that stop here come from as far as Russia. “They really are very remarkable animals in that they can fly the distances they do, and sometimes it’s over the open ocean,” Rowley says. “It seems amazing. How can they do that?”

Photographer Art Wolfe also expresses that this year in particular, having that wonder awakened by the beauty of nature is comforting. “The cycle of these birds coming back through Grays Harbor every year – in an era where we have had nothing but two years of Covid changing our lives – I think it brings comfort to people,” Wolfe says. “People just want something familiar or something that’s evergreen, and those birds coming back every year provide that. Even though the balance of nature is fragile, those birds will be there in April. “People need that grounding connection to nature. Do it for yourself. Get out there and reconnect with nature and see what’s in your own backyard,” Wolfe urges.

Nakai would agree with such advice: “The main message we want to promote – visiting the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge is free and open from sunrise to sunset.  We want to see our communities on the trail exploring the wonders of shorebirds and celebrate their annual migration through Grays Harbor.”

Photo Tips from Top Wildlife Photographer

World-renowned wildlife photographer Art Wolfe has photographed wildlife and natural environments on every continent of the world. The Seattle resident has photographed the shorebirds many times over the years and offered some advice on how to best capture their images during their annual stop in Grays Harbor.

He suggests the following:

  • “The first thing, when you get out there on that boardwalk, just watch. There is a rhythm to the birds flying back and forth. Though they may be a mile away from you at one moment, they could be right in front of you the next.”
  • “At high tide, the birds come in close. Out of sheer need, they have to rest, and when the tide is high it brings them closer to the shore where people can get their photos. At low tide, they are way out and are just tiny, tiny dots.”
  • “On your camera, bounce up your ISO setting, because most people have digital cameras these days. Don’t be afraid of using ISOs of 1,000 or 2,000, or even 4,000 depending on the quality of camera you have. You need that speed to get that sharp shot.”(CC note: If you boost the ISO it will increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light on your camera. This will allow you to have a high shutter speed for quick birds, but gain the light sensitivity you need to get a good exposure.)
  • “You don’t need a heavy tripod. If you have digital camera, the lenses are smaller these days and they are good. The ability to pan left and right as the birds are flying by is critical.” Art Wolfe’s work can be seen online at www.artwolfe.com and at the Carnevale Gallery in Las Vegas.