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Birders hope Hamden office does not close

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office at Hamden Slough is slated to be closed and its staff consolidated with the Detroit Lakes office, and that has bird lovers worried.

The Festival of Birds in Detroit Lakes is the oldest and largest bird-watching festival in the state, and Hamden Slough is one of the most important birding sites in Minnesota, so losing staff at Hamden will be a big blow to the area, said Cleone Stewart, bird festival organizer and tourism director at the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"We need someone on-site at the refuge who knows where the birds are," she said. "Mike (Murphy, refuge manager) and Mary (Hendrickson, staff person) do an excellent job at that now -- you can call out there and they can tell you where the birds are ... Mike has told me there are birds out there you can't find anywhere else in the county."

Murphy also leads tours of Hamden during the bird festival, which is now in its 10th year and attracts several hundred people.

Because of budget pressures, the Fish and Wildlife Service has had to leave 35 unfilled positions in the Midwest Region, according to Acting Regional Director Charles M. Wooley.

"Based on future budget projections, we anticipate downsizing by an additional 36 positions on refuges in the Midwest region over the next three years," he wrote in a letter to Sen. Mark Dayton.

"While the office at Hamden Slough will be closed and staff relocated to the Detroit Lakes WMD (Wetlands Management District) office, Hamden Slough National Wildlife refuge will continue to be open for public use activities, and the day-to-day activities at Hamden Slough NWR will be under the oversight of staff at our Detroit Lakes WMD office," Wooley wrote.

People concerned about the move can contact refuge manager Jim Leach at 612-713-5406.

Hamden Slough is considered one of the top birding sites in Minnesota because it's located in the prairie-hardwood transition zone.

It is one of 45 stops on the Pine to Prairie birding trail that stretches from Fergus Falls to Warroad, and a number of bird-watchers have checked birds off their "life birds" viewing list after a trip out to Hamden, Stewart said.

Having staff on site at Hamden is important to the success of the birding trail -- which may become an international trail, pending discussions with Canadian officials -- and to the local birding festival, she added.

"While they (Hamden staff) are out and about, they see what's out there -- when people call, they can tell you exactly where the birds are ... we really depend on them scoping out that ground, letting us know what's going on," she said.

During one festival, a group of warblers arrived at Hamden, and birders were able to get out there to see them because staff was on site, Stewart said.

"Hamden staff has helped birders find everything from the LeConte sparrow to the yellow-headed blackbird," Stewart said. "They had people out looking for that, they thought that was fantastic," she added. "They've specifically done things at Hamden to attract different species of birds."

Students at Lake Park-Audubon schools also use the refuge frequently, and the loss of staff could put a damper on that, Stewart said.

Birding is one of the fastest-growing national pastimes, and the close cooperation with Hamden is one reason the Festival of Birds has grown so popular, she said.

"There usually are about 200 who attend the Festival of Birds," she said. "Other festivals (in the state) will generally see 25 to 50," people attending.

The festival is four days this year, Thursday afternoon to Sunday noon, May 17-20, at the community and technical college in Detroit Lakes.