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At Bird Fest May 17-20, talk is cheep

This year's 10th annual Festival of Birds marks the largest yet.

With the extra appeal of birding favorite David Allen Sibley, more than 250 people have already signed up for the May 17-20 event, representing 20 states.

Detroit Lakes seems to be the right place to see many different species of birds. The area marks the spot where three transition zones -- prairie, hardwood and conifer forest -- come together. Mike Murphy, manager of Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge until its recent office closing, said the three major biomes coming together is quite rare.

Hamden hosts many species of shorebirds thanks to the many lakes and wetlands on the 3,200 acres, and prairie grass birds -- "We've got piles of them."

Birds, he says, are the "world's vacuum cleaners," turning over every leaf to eat the insects or seeds, depending on the bird and ecosystem they live in.

Those attending the festival will have a chance to see many of those birds. In 1990, birders saw 145 species. Now, they are seeing around 225 species.

"We're located in a habitat transition zone. People realize that and are coming from all over the U.S.," Cleone Stewart, co-organizer of the festival, said.

Each year, besides birds, organizers are bringing other interests to the festival, like dragonflies and wildflowers this year.

"Others have described us as not only the best in the state, but best in the nation," Murphy said of the festival.

"Bird watching has become a big hobby in the U.S.," he added.

During the festival, each tour will have one naturalist and three to six bird experts to answer questions.

"It's very good individual attention," Stewart said.

And for those who decide not to take the tours, there will be a silent auction, activities and exhibitors at the headquarters -- Minnesota State Community and Technical College, Detroit Lakes -- on Saturday, May 19.

"It's a good opportunity to get involved," Stewart said.

Besides the birds, one major draw to the festival this year is Sibley. He will be the keynote speaker Saturday evening and will hold a book signing as well.

Sibley is known nationally for his illustrations and bird guidebooks.

Here's the schedule of events:

Thursday, May 17

The day begins at 3 p.m. with registration at the Minnesota Community and Technical College, Detroit Lakes.

Beginning Birding field trip is from 5:30 to 7 p.m., and costs $10. Stationed in Dunton Locks County Park, birders will learn, or get a refresher course in, bird identification skills and binocular handling. The new bird jam will be demonstrated, in which area bird songs are recorded on an iPod that can be accessed with a touch of a finger.

Friday, May 18

A field trip to Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge gives birders the opportunity to see a variety of birds, including unusual species. Leaving from the technical college at 5:45 am, the prairie chickens will likely still be booming on the prairie as the bus arrives. This trip is one of the best to learn about the area's unique ecosystems and bird habitat from retired manager Mike Murphy. Cost is $25.

Saturday, May 19

Saturday is a day to check out the birding festival at no cost. The Birder's Bazaar from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. offers a range of nature products from nearly 20 exhibitors. Local handcrafted items will be available at the silent auction during the same Saturday hours.

Free one-hour workshops that day are Optic Secrets Revealed from 1 to 2 p.m. that discusses the use of binoculars. Common Loon: Is it still Common? begins at 2:45 p.m. and concentrates on loon populations in Minnesota. Sibley book signing begins at 3:45 p.m., with books available for purchase or bring your own.

Some tickets remain for the Sibley Social at 6:30 p.m. Cost is $25, which includes hors d'oeuvres and beverages, as well as the 7:30 keynote presentation. During "The Art of Watching Birds," Sibley will tell how he became interested in birds and developed his guidebook.

Sibley has traveled the continent watching birds since 1969. He lives in Concord, Mass.

The festival concludes on Sunday with two morning field trips that are filled to capacity.

Birders can visit for more information or call the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce at 847-9202 or 800-542-3992.