Shorebird festival boosts shoulder season traffic

Copper Shorebird photo contest remains open for entries through June 1 - By Cathy Long For The Cordova Times

Erica Clark and her daughter Hazel watching the sandpipers on the mudflats at Hartney Bay during the 2017 Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. Participation in the 27th annual festival was up double over last year. Photo by Erin Cooper / US Forest Service

Shorebird aficionados armed with backpacks, binoculars and cameras descended on Cordova for the 27th annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, to witness and photograph the annual migration of millions of birds headed north for the summer.

The migration of the birds came in on schedule, and if the town seemed busier this year than in years past, that’s because it was.

All that flapping can make a bird tired. Here, a Dunlin, mirrored by a Black-bellied Plover in the background, waits out the storm.
Photo by Milo Burcham / For The Cordova Times

Festival registration was up two-fold, from 89 to 198.

An additional 55 people came to only the Friday night speaking event (up from 25 last year), and many more attended only third party festival events, like Net Loft workshops and Shorebird airboat tours.

This year’s keynote speaker was renowned birding author and illustrator David Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds.

Festival attendees were excited to meet and hear him speak about the psychology of bird identification. Other festival speakers, including Joan Walsh, Lisa Kennedy and Kate McLaughlin, also attracted a crowd large enough to fill the North Start Theater.

Artist David Sibley meets Maya the Western Sandpiper during the 2017 Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. Sibley’s work is on display at the Birds of Paradise exhibit at the Copper River Galley through June.
Photo by Erin Cooper / US Forest Service

Festival guides Aaron Bowman, Pete Mickelson, Milo Burcham and Thea Thomas led the way to see flocks of up to 30,000 birds at a time flying in unison over the mudflats. Western sandpipers, dunlin, whimbrels, black bellied plovers, least sandpipers and more were observed from easily accessible areas along the roadside at Hartney Bay and the boardwalk at Alaganik Slough.

The festivities included several activities outside of bird viewing, from free events for children and art workshops at The Net Loft and Ilanka Cultural Center, to a cocktail hour cruise with Major Marine Tours around Orca Inlet.

Additionally, there were many opportunities for Shorebird Festival guests to sample local fare while supporting local entities.

The annual Birder’s Breakfast at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the 4H Music Camp fundraiser dinner, and a wine and cheese mixer were some of the epicurean events.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the Great Cordova Birding Challenge, where teams of all levels of birders competed to see how many species they could identify within an eight hour time period. The winning team consisted of Trae Lohse, Aaron Bowman, Sonja Limn and David Sibley himself; noting a total of 75 species and even spotting a type never before seen in this part of the world — an Iceland Gull.

Birders enjoying the view on the Cocktail Hour Cruise with Major Marine Tours during the 2017 Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival.
Photo by Erin Cooper / US Forest Service

While birders enjoyed the sight of millions of birds on their way north, local businesses were enjoying a boost in shoulder season traffic.

“Whatever the Chamber did, it worked; we definitely had more business because of the festival,” said Andra Doll of Baja Taco. One reason for the uptick in sales may have been a new promotion by the Cordova Chamber called Birder’s Bucks, a new promotional item for the 2017 festival.

Stacks of the vouchers the size of board game Monopoly money were distributed to merchants days before the festival. For every $20 a festival attendee spent in town, they were given one Birder’s Buck by the business. Each Birder’s Buck served as a festival raffle ticket, with the grand prize being a pair of fancy new Vortex Binoculars.

“The birders sure seemed excited to get them; it was a cool program,” said Lindsay Butters from Harborside Pizza, adding that Birder’s Bucks gave her a way to start conversations with the birders and welcome them to town.

Although it wasn’t possible to capture every purchase made in town with a Birder’s Buck, almost 500 of them were turned in for a raffle ticket, meaning that at the very least, nearly $10,000 was generated by Shorebird Festival for local merchants, and that didn’t include lodging or travel purchases.

So Birder’s Bucks worked well as an incentive to get birders into stores to spend money at local businesses, and help businesses and festival organizers calculate the economy impact of the festival, in a way the proved entertaining for the visitors too.

Birders celebrating an exciting sighting at 27th annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival.
Photo by Erin Cooper / US Forest Service

The only problem was that we didn’t print enough Birder’s Bucks. It just goes to show, there are always ways to improve, and the Shorebird Committee wants to hear your feedback. If you attended the festival and want to give input, stop by the Chamber and fill out a Shorebird Festival Exit Survey.

Even though the festival is over, there is still more Shorebird fun to be had. Enter the Copper Shorebird Photo Contest happening from now until June 1st on the festival’s Facebook page, and you could win your own pair of Vortex Binos! Just visit for details.

By the numbers, this was the most successful Shorebird Festival ever.

Many people learned more about the significance of the Copper River Delta as an integral stopover for migrating shorebirds, educated, and were encouraged to be good stewards of this important natural resource.

The Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival is brought to you by the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Forest Service-Cordova Ranger District, Prince William Sound Science Center and The Net Loft traditional handcrafts with support from Alyeska Pipeline Services, BP, Alaska Airlines, Ravn Alaska, Vortex Optics, local volunteers, and numerous local businesses & organizations. For more information, visit and

Cathy Long is the executive director of the Cordova Chamber of Commerce