Get ready for Birding Festival 2016

HARLINGEN — Polish the glass in your binoculars and camera lenses, because the 23rd Annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival will be on us quicker than black-bellied whistling ducks on a June bug.

The festival this year begins Nov. 2 and extends for five days, through Nov. 6.

The festival draws birders from across the world, a testament to the ridiculously rich avian fauna found in the Rio Grande Valley. Each year, about 600 birders register with the festival, but thousands more attend seminars, talks and participate in professionally-led field trips.

The annual economic impact of the festival for the Valley is around $300,000.

“We had 590 last year that pre-registered, but thousands more come for the festival,” said Sue Griffin, chair of the festival. “What they do is, there are so many guides here, like we have over 80 guides locally and from other parts of the country, and the guides will take so many people out … we find birds that may not be typically sighted.

“So people come for the festival, and then they go out on their own,” she said.

This year’s festival offers more than 80 field trips ranging from right here in Harlingen to the Upper Valley and to the Gulf of Mexico. Special trips will take birders up to Rockport for whooping crane observations, and another trip will travel to Laredo to spot the relatively rare white-collared seedeater among other birds.

Some of the trips and seminars are free, but others which include photography lessons can run up to $250. Most of the field trips run between $60 and $95 apiece and are in addition to the registration fee.

The number of birders on individual field trips is limited, so Griffin advises anyone who intends to go on the trips log onto the RGV Birding Festival website and determine which field trips they want.

Then, on Aug. 22 at noon Central time, the website will go live for registration. The field trips fill up on a first-come, first-served basis, and Griffin said pre-registering can ensure a birder that he or she gets the trips they want.

Some of the more popular field trips sell out within hours.

“And so people are waiting for the registration to open and that’s why we give them plenty of time and announce exactly the minute it’s going to open so the people who are wanting those special fields trips can get in there and get them quickly,” Griffin said.

“I would advise that they have their first choice and a backup plan just in case what they’re wanting is full, so they don’t have to come back and look again,” Griffin said.

If you lack access to the Internet, Griffin said you can register post-noon on Aug. 22 by calling 956-423-5565.

One of the concerns of the festival’s organizers has been the demographics of the festival. Griffin and others have said they want to motivate younger people to participate, and she says they think they’ve found a way.

Instead of trying to bring kids to the festival, the festival is going to the kids.

The birding fest went to ANCA, the Association of Nature Center Administrators, for help.

“There is someone from every one of the Rio Grande Valley nature sites who attends that meeting,” Griffin said.

“I approached them, and they all decided that on the Saturday of our festival, they would offer a family program locally in their community, so people who didn’t want to travel all the way to Harlingen could go there” for birding and nature talks and field training, she said.

RGV Birding Fest 2016

To view complete field trips and registration information, go to the birding festival’s website at

Bios of the experts

Neil Hayward is the author of “Lost Among the Birds” (Bloomsbury, June 2016), a memoir of his accidental big year.

Stephen Shunk has spent the past 19 years studying woodpeckers, and his long-awaited “Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America” hit the shelves this past May.

Erik Bruhnke has taught field ornithology at Northland College. His wildlife photography has won national awards, and his writings have been featured in Birder’s Guide via the American Birding Association, BirdWatching and Birdwatcher’s Digest

Ian Davies works at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as project coordinator for eBird (, a free global database of bird sightings that is used by birdwatchers, researchers and conservationists worldwide.

Cullen Hanks is a Texas Nature Tracker Biologist in the Wildlife Diversity Program at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He has extensive experience with the collection and management of data on rare and threatened species.

Homer Hansen is a regular field trip leader for several festivals and served as chairman of the Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival for 17 years.

Kevin Karlson is an accomplished birder, professional tour leader and wildlife photographer. He is a regular presence at bird and nature festivals in North America, where he conducts workshops on bird identification and bird photography.