A chance to learn about birds, nature

Bird-watching is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the United States. According to a 2011 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 48 million Americans reported watching birds and 17 million say they took trips to observe birds.

If you haven’t noticed, we live amid and near some world-class birding festivals. Birding festivals plan tours and events that cater to those new to observing wild birds as well as those who are experienced at birding. Tours are usually led by local birding experts who volunteer their time.

The tours are usually limited in size and require online registration. Some trips involve carpooling; check each site for details. Here’s a look at upcoming birding festivals.

Monterey Birding Festival

What: 10th annual festival dazzles outdoor lovers with a variety of half-day and full-day field trips to some of the most scenic parts of California’s Central Coast. Look for condors in Big Sur. Take a ride in Elkhorn Slough by kayak, pontoon or silent electric boat as wintering shorebirds and waterfowl arrive en masse and see how many of the more than 340 species you can identify that visit or take refuge in this watershed.

Head to Coyote Valley in Santa Clara County to spot as many as 12 different migratory and resident raptor species, including bald and golden eagles. Take a night trip to hear – you probably won’t see them – up to six different kinds of owl species in Robinson Canyon, one of the state’s most productive owl sites.

Workshops throughout the day cater to expert as well as new birders. Learn to identify native birds and plants or what to look for in buying your first pair of binoculars. The festival also features evening presentations by national birding experts.

Many trips and some workshops sell out as soon as tickets go on sale in June. However, a full refund on tickets is good until Sept. 1, so check www.montereybaybirding.org to see what trips may have opened up.

When: Sept. 25-28

Who runs this: The Monterey Bay Birding Festival Association Inc. is a nonprofit, voluntary group interested in educating the public on habitat, birding and wildlife in Santa Cruz County, the Monterey Bay region and California.

How much: $75 for full-event registration, $40 for one-day registration. Student one-day registration is $20. Children 12 and younger accompanied by an adult are free.

Some trips require additional fees, $15 to $55, and all trips, workshops and presentations must be registered for online since each has limits on number of people.

To register for tours or more info: www.montereybaybirding.org or call (888) 909-7829.

What else should you know: If you can’t make the festival, the Monterey Peninsula offers great birding opportunities and tours year-round: fall migration, winter visitors, spring migration, spring and summer nesting and summer residents. Call Monterey Birding Adventures at (831) 632-2473 or email at rimbirding@aol.com to arrange a custom tour based on time of year, locations you want to visit and/or the species of bird you are most interested in.

Elkhorn Slough Safari, (831) 633-5555, takes visitors on a 27-foot pontoon boat over calm waters. In addition to a variety of bird species, the boat tour offers the chance for up-close views of sea otters, harbor seals and sea lions. Take a kayak tour or rent one from Monterey Bay Kayaks, www.montereybaykayaks.com, or Kayak Connection, www.kayakconnection.com. Both companies have multiple locations in the Monterey area and offer guided tours. If you want to rent a kayak and paddle on your own, both companies will suggest areas to kayak based on your level of kayaking experience – from first-timer to expert.

Sandhill Crane Festival

What: The 18th annual weekend-long festival celebrates and welcomes the return of sandhill cranes, which for centuries have wintered in Sacramento Valley freshwater wetlands and marshes. In California, two species of sandhill cranes can be found, the lesser and greater sandhill crane. Both species are famous for their courtship dance and long necks.

The greater sandhill crane, which is a state-listed threatened species, is 5 feet tall with a wingspan that can reach 7 feet. The lesser sandhill crane, which has a more stable population, is about a foot shorter with a wingspan of about 5 feet. The main threat to the cranes is a loss of habitat due to development.

Workshops, presentations, exhibitions, an art show, music and children’s activities are among the free attractions. Guided wildlife tours are offered, too, including kayak trips, with space limited and online registration required.

When: Nov. 7-9

Where: Hutchins Street Square, 125 S. Hutchins St., Lodi

Who runs this: Lodi Sandhill Crane Association, a nonprofit, volunteer group interested in educating the public on sandhill cranes and preserving their habitat in the Central Valley.

How much: Free admission. Tours require registration and range from $5 to $60.

To register for tours or more info: www.cranefestival.com or call (800) 581-6150.

What else should you know: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife also provides tours of sandhill cranes in the Lodi area from October to February. The tours are free, but availability is limited. Go to www.wildlife.ca.gov/regions/3/crane-tour for more information or to register for a tour.

Also, Ken Nieland, president of the Lodi Sandhill Crane Association, told The Bee last year that the festival attracts a number of tourists from the Bay Area who often add wine-tasting to their visit to Lodi. There are about 70 wine tasting rooms in the Lodi area.

California Swan Festival

What: The second annual festival honors the tundra swans, which each fall for millennia have arrived by the thousands to spend winters on Sacramento Valley wetlands. The majestic snow-white birds travel thousands of miles along the Pacific Flyway from their summer breeding grounds in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic.

Some 30 tours and educational programs are offered, including hikes in the Sutter Buttes and Sierra foothills, activities for children, birding basics, photography techniques, an evening owl tour and olive oil and wine tasting in Yuba County. In winter, swans can be seen wheeling over wetlands and rice fields with the scenic backdrop of the Sutter Buttes. During the festival, Yuba County donates use of a large building to serve as the host site for the festival, dubbed “Swan Central.”

When: Nov. 8-9

Where: Swan Central Expo, 720 Yuba St., Marysville

Who runs this: Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce, with help from the Audubon Society, California Waterfowl Association and Ducks Unlimited.

How much: Free admission. Tours require online registration to ensure space and range from free to $45.

To register for tours or more info: www.yubasutterchamber.com, click “Calendar of events” tab and then “Swan Festival” tab. (530) 743-6501 or (530) 741-8645.

What else should you know: The California Department of Fish and Game offers free tours on most weekends from November through January to view tundra swans and many other bird species in area just north of Marysville.

Tours are limited to 30 people, and groups will caravan to specific sites to view the birds. Online registration is required for the two-hour tour, www.dfg.ca.gov/regions/2/swantours. Call (916) 358-2912 for more information.

2015 birding festivals

The following festivals will release more details later this year:

Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway

Jan. 21-25 in Chico

www.snowgoosefestival.org or (530) 345-1865

Galt Winter Bird Festival

Late January/early February in Galt

Check the city of Galt’s website for updates.

San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival

Early February at 500 Connolly St., Mare Island

www.sfbayflywayfestival.com or (707) 249-9633 or (425) 279-3502

California Duck Days

Feb. 21 at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, Davis


Point Reyes Birding & Nature Festival

April 24-26 in Point Reyes

www.pointreyesbirdingfestival.org or (415) 663-9312