In full flight
Snow Goose Festival sticks to plan for 20th anniversary
Dan Efseaff has many fond memories of the Snow Goose Festival. For all but three years scattered throughout the event’s two decades, he’s guided bird watchers and nature seekers on treks through some of the North State’s most breathtaking areas.
Last week, gearing up for an excursion he’ll lead through the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve, he was reminded of a particularly personal moment. Carly, one of his triplet daughters, mentioned a photograph showing her holding a hummingbird in a fine-weave net. She was 5, maybe 6, at the time. The bird had been caught as part of a species survey, and just before its release, Carly got the chance to examine the elusive avian.
“It’s hard to see a hummingbird,” Efseaff noted. “To have one that close to you is really pretty special.”
She’s 18 now, in her first year at Butte College, interested in environmental studies and biology.
“It wasn’t just that one event, of course,” her father said, “but I think she has an appreciation for nature—and it doesn’t hurt to have a bird in your hand.”
Jennifer Patten, one of the festival’s co-founders, has heard countless such stories. They fuel her. Reflecting just ahead of the 20th installment, which started Wednesday and goes through Sunday, she said her goal has remained to “educate the youth, get the youth excited about what they have outside their door” in and around Butte County.
“I feel fortunate to live in such a wonderful, rich birdlife area,” Patten added. “That I’ve actually helped educate thousands of people about wintering waterfowl, in all the hard work I’ve done over 20 years, actually gives me goosebumps.”
Last year was a record-setter for the Snow Goose Festival with 2,000 attendees. That’s a significant leap from the inaugural event, which drew 150 for a weekend of 12 field trips and six workshops. This year’s encompasses 83 field trips, 13 workshops, three art exhibits and dozens of youth activities.
“We started small and grew a little every year,” said Patten, who felt inspired to start a local festival after attending several major bird watches with her friend Debbie Chakarun.
Chakarun worked as a naturalist at the Grey Lodge Wildlife Area in Gridley. Patten volunteered there as a bird guide, plus participated with the Altacal Audubon Society chapter. Once Chakarun secured seed money from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, they partnered with local environmentalists John Merz, Susan Mason and Marilyn Gamette to establish the Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway, as it’s formally titled.
Efseaff, working at the time as a restoration ecologist for Chico-based nonprofit River Partners, got recruited to guide a walk along the Sacramento River.
“The first year was, ‘Golly, gee-whiz, they need help with field trips,’” he recalled. “We didn’t have a sense of what it could become.”
After all the expansion, organizers strongly considered contraction for the 20th festival. The Camp Fire struck several areas where they’d planned excursions: Butte Creek Canyon and lower Paradise. That seemingly eliminated two treks in the ecological preserve, two by Lime Saddle Marina and a pontoon-boat ride in Lake Oroville launching from Lime Saddle.
“After three or four weeks, we started talking to the leaders of these trips, and they said, ‘No, no—we’re going to take people on the route we intended and show them the burned areas,’” Patten said. “‘Let’s see what birds have taken up residence … let’s see what plants have come back just a few months later.’
“So we’re going to Paradise.”
She and Kathy Trevino, registration coordinator for the festival, stressed that the routes head into wild areas. “The places they’re going are not where the structures were burned,” said Trevino, a Paradise resident.
Efseaff, too, attested to the terrain. He’s director of the Paradise Recreation and Park District, where he’s worked since July 2017, following his departure as Chico’s parks and natural resources director. His field trip Saturday morning—“Explore the Wild Side of Butte Creek”—will spotlight resilience.
“Nature has responded,” he said. “There’s an abundance of grasses that have sprung up. In the spring, all of these species by the creek, they’re made for sprouting. They’re used to being buried or torn up in a flood event, and from the roots they’ll resprout. Same thing happens after a fire.”
Bird watchers can check for a wide variety flying overhead and flitting among the trees. His list includes swans, geese, ducks, quail, pigeons, doves, hawks, eagles, herons, vultures—and that’s just in the canyon.
Snow Goose Festival excursions extend to Vina, Corning, Lassen Volcanic National Park and Yuba County. Plenty of sites are close: “There are many back roads where you just drive and see 10,000 snow geese in a field,” Patten said, “just 10 minutes out of Chico.”
Some field trips’ entryways are, in fact, back roads—susceptible to damage from mass traffic, especially with wet weather. Patten said organizers “very much encourage carpooling … some leaders stress it’s mandatory.” They arrange ride-shares when each trip departs.
Preserving their access to farms, ranches and reserves is crucial to providing a wide-ranging festival.
“We feel like we’re one of the least-explored areas [of the Pacific Flyway],” she said. “People should be aware that our winter birdlife here is incredibly healthy.”