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A pair of male prairie chickens fight with each other for a prime position on their mating “lek,” in an attempt to impress the female chickens on the Bluestem Prairie near Glyndon Friday morning. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

Doing the prairie chicken strut

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Get ready for a blind date, spotting a life bird and being amazed with the travel patterns of a one-ounce bird and you’ll be set for the Festival of Birds.

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Set for May 15-18, the festival will feature prairie chickens, shorebirds, passenger pigeons, the bobolink and more. Rosalind Renfrew is the keynote speaker, and there will be a variety of events and destinations throughout the festival.

“What sets our festival apart is we have so many experts on each bus that you get that one-on-one experience,” organizer Kelly Blackledge said.

Each bus for each field trip has four to five experts on board, available to give “tips and tricks to identifying birds,” she added.

This year’s Festival of Birds’ featured activity consists of a “blind date.” Participants will be heading out early in the morning to get in place to watch prairie chickens perform their annual mating ritual.

“We’re trying to fill every blind available,” organizer John Voz said.

There are 11 blinds in four locations with room for 44 people total. They are located at Hamden Slough, Twin Valley-Syre, Bluestem Prairie and Glacial Ridge.

Voz said the trips are unique because of the “five different habitats up and down the glacial ridge.”

If you plan to take part in one of the prairie chicken trips, make sure to set your alarm clock early. They leave between 3:30 and 5:15 a.m., depending on the destination, so that participants can be in their blinds before sunrise.

“All the blinds are next to a working lek,” Voz said, which is where the males meet to dance for the females.

After the males clear out for the morning, the birders will go out for breakfast at a local restaurant.

“It’s a local café so they can get the local experience,” tourism director and festival organizer Cleone Stewart said.

Voz said the Festival of Birds organizers have “always kicked around the idea of having a prairie chicken tour.” This area’s prairie chicken population is stable, and most aren’t, so studies have actually been done to see why this area’s population is so stable compared to others.

While prairie chickens may be a new item for this year’s festival, there are several days filled with other speakers, field trips and events — some new and some tried and true.

Thursday, May 15

There will be two workshops Thursday afternoon, both taking place at Maplelag Resort. One will be on birding basics, and one will be on wildlife photography with Carrol Henderson.

Later that afternoon, there will be a book signing with Joel Greenberg at Richwood Winery, and that evening Greenberg will be speaking on passenger pigeons.

In the 1800s, there were billions of passenger pigeons. But 100 years ago, the last one alive, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Greenberg has studied the birds and will discuss their story and highlight the important lessons it presents to the 21st century. He has published a book on the passenger pigeon and helped produce a documentary. 

Friday, May 16

Friday starts bright and early with the prairie chicken field trips. There is also a field trip to Hamden Slough, which is celebrating 25 years this year. A field trip for youth ages 12-18 is that morning as well.

Presenter Sue Leaf will be having a book singing at Seven Sisters Spirits that afternoon and then a dinner and program, “A Love Affair with Birds,” that evening. That night, there will be s’mores, stories, music and fun around the campfire at Meadows on Lind.

“People need to get outdoors in the great Minnesota,” Stewart said.

Saturday, May 17

Three field trips are scheduled for Saturday morning including destinations Tamarac Wildlife Refuge, Rainbow Resort-Mahnomen Forest and Callaway-Ogema Springs.

Blackledge said that during the field trip to Tamarac, where she also works, participants will have a “demonstration on how we use dogs on bird research, and in this case, woodcocks.”

Voz said the field trip to Callaway-Ogema will also take a look at the topography of the land. There are natural springs around there.

“It’s not just birding but natural features in the area, too,” he said of the field trip. “We also have a naturalist (on the bus) to talk more about the flora.”

After lunch that day, there will be a workshop on shorebirds and a book signing with Leaf and Henderson.

That evening is keynote speaker Rosalind Renfrew on the “Double Life of Bobolink.”

“Bobolinks winter in South America and are considered pests because they feed on the rice fields,” Stewart said.

During the summer, they are residents of the Detroit Lakes area.

Renfrew has banded more than 400 bobolinks to study their travels more closely. Since 1966, bobolinks have declined by 50 percent.

“The grassland species are some of the most fragile,” Blackledge said. “We can still see them in our neck of the woods — or our neck of the grass, rather.”

Sunday, May 18

The festival is capped off with two last field trips — one to Agassiz Valley Project Impoundment and one to Syre and Felton prairies.

The Agassiz trip should yield a significant number of shorebird sightings.

Those on the Felton Prairie trip may spot a chestnut-collared longspur, “which is a life bird for many people,” Stewart said.

“One of the goals is education and the festival brings in a lot of people,” Voz said. “There are several other (bird festivals) popping up around Minnesota because of the success of this one.”

The festival averages people from 14 states and Canada each year, though it varies with the program and presenter each year. Stewart said people who travel for the bird festival usually come early or stay late after the festival and either revisit the sites or just explore the Detroit Lakes area.

While there are fees for the field trips and evening speakers, several of the workshops and book signings are free of charge.

Early deadline to register is May 2 for a chance at a pair of free binoculars.

For more information on the 17th annual Festival of Birds, visit www.visitdetroitlakes.com, or call the chamber at 218-847-9202.

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