The birding world turns its attention to Southern West Virginia this week. The 10th annual New River Birding and Nature Festival kicks off on Monday. Over the course of six days, 250 to 300 birders from as far away as Michigan, Washington, Arizona, California and Canada come to West Virginia just to see birds.
In doing so, they pump more than $120,000 into the local economy, according to co-founder Dave Pollard.
"And that's just what the festival generates directly through registration fees, meals, and lodging," Pollard said. "I have no way of knowing how much visitors spend otherwise." Regardless, it's safe to say the New River Birding Festival jolts the local economy.
The festival began 10 years ago behind the vision and energy of Pollard and co-founder Geoff Heater. I've been a presenter and field trip leader since the beginning, and that first year was an intimate affair.
I remember meeting a small group of birders early that first morning in 2003. There were about 15 of us, most from West Virginia. But thanks to the tireless leadership of Pollard and Heater, the Festival has gotten bigger and better every year.
"Ours may not be the biggest birding festival in the country," Pollard once told me, "but we like it that way. We get to know every visitor personally, and I think that's why many people come back year after year."
The best way for birders to take advantage of spring migration is to go where the birds are. That's why the New River Gorge is one of country's best spring birding hotspots.
Over the course of the six-day event, birders flock to Southern West Virginia. Some stay for a week, some for a few days, and some locals pop in and out for a particular field trip or just to meet old friends.
While Pollard appreciates the festival's impact on the local economy, to him, "It's all about the people. I enjoy meeting people and putting names to faces. When I see smiles on their faces, I know we've been successful."