I love the birds of the Grand Traverse region. From the bald eagles and orioles that hang out near our house to the beautiful tanagers and indigo buntings I see over at Sleeping Bear Dunes, they're fascinating and lovely to watch. Lots of people apparently feel the same way; each year hundreds of birdwatchers migrate to the dunelands of Northwestern Michigan with their binoculars and notebooks to enjoy our many birding opportunities. This spring they'll get a little extra help from their fellow birders on the Leelanau Peninsula, who are organizing a four-day "festival" of lectures and guided excursions to some of the area's birding hotspots. The inaugural Leelanau Peninsula BirdFest is scheduled for June 1-4, and is sponsored by a coalition of local community groups who want to draw more attention to the area's wealth of bird species. "We think this will be a uniquely conservation-themed festival," said BirdFest organizer Dave Barrons. "We have some great trips planned, and our focus is going to be on what we can do to help reverse the decline of some of these species." A broad wedge of glacier-carved land northwest of Traverse City, the Leelanau Peninsula is a popular resting spot for migratory birds and an important refuge for one endangered shorebird: the tiny piping plover, which nests on open beaches. But the same natural features that attract avian migrants to Traverse City's beaches, lakes and forests also make it a favorite destination for the humans who follow them. The local tourism industry is belatedly taking notice of the phenomenon -- and rightly so, since birding is now the country's number-one outdoor sport. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are currently 51.3 million birders, and the number is still growing. Several local resorts and lodges list nearby birding areas in their promotional literature, and a few even arrange guided outings on request. The Leelanau Peninsula is also home to the 44-acre Charter Sanctuary, established by veteran birders Jim and Kay Charter as a safe haven for over 130 species of migrating, nesting and resident birds - including black-billed cuckoos, grasshopper sparrows and bobolinks. Next door to the sanctuary is the Charters' educational center, Saving Birds thru Habitat, which teaches private landowners how to adapt backyards, woodlots and vacant property as bird habitat. But the peninsula's greatest asset is the diversity of its terrain, and the fact that much of it is in public hands and is accessible to birders at no cost. "We don't really have what you'd consider world-class birding here, but we have almost unlimited access to over 80,000 acres of public land, with a tremendous variety of habitat and more than 300 bird species, " said Barrons. "Some festivals have to make to with a single small private preserve, but we can provide a very diverse birding experience." The festival's menu of excursions includes 12 guided trips to such popular birding spots as the Leelanau State Park at the peninsula's tip (known for scarlet tanagers and Blackburnian warblers), Good Harbor Bay (prime habitat for prairie warblers) and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, home to one-third of the surviving piping plovers in the Great Lakes region. Organizers also plan to offer three "premium" excursions at an added charge, including a pontoon-boat trip to the Cedar River Preserve near Lake Leelanau, an expedition to the Arcadia Dunes Prairie Installation to spot upland nesting birds and a voyage by two-masted schooner to Gull Island near Northport to view the nesting grounds of Caspian terns, gulls and cormorants. The BirdFest will operate out of Fountain Point, a classic "Up North" resort near the village of Lake Leelanau, where participants will gather each evening after their excursions to listen to presentations on such subjects as climate change, North American swallow species, and a historical survey of the birding movement by Birding editor and Bird Watcher's Digest columnist Paul Baicich. The festival schedule also includes a number of seminars, a traditional Great Lakes Fish Boil dinner and -- since the Leelanau Peninsula is one of the Midwest's premiere wine-growing areas -- a series of wine & cheese receptions. Like most birding festivals, the Leelanau Peninsula BirdFest requires participants to pre-register for almost all events and functions. Participants can register for all four days of activities for a fee of $75, or pick and choose among various talks and excursions, but several of the excursions are offered free of charge to the public. A detailed schedule and registration form can be found on line at http://lee.timberlakepublishing.com/content.asp?admin=Y&contentid=91
- A great blue heron, one of the region's most majestic wading birds.