Look! Up in the sky!
It’s a bird! It’s … the ninth annual Snow Goose Festival, bringing nature and art together
“We list-chasing birders, at our best, could be like knights seeking the Holy Grail—except that the birds are real, and we birders were rewarded at every turn.”
—Kenn Kaufman, “Close to the End”
Gray Lodge is known to have beautiful sunsets. In the distance to the east, one can see the Sutter Buttes reflected purple in ponds. In the other direction, the setting sun paints the water pink. Black ripples disrupt the glassy surface in widening V’s made by a Tundra Swan.
At dusk, hundreds of snow geese lift into the air in a tempest of wings—so many geese that they cast a shadow over the wetlands.
The sky thunders with flapping wings and honking.
“I love that sound,” said Jennifer Patten as she looked up at the avian underbellies.
This is one of the wondrous sights people can see during the ninth annual Snow Goose Festival. The event is multi-faceted, to catch the eyes of a wide variety of people. The weekend will include an art reception, a banquet and silent auction, free exhibits at the Family Masonic Center, as well as workshops and field trips.
The popularity of the festival has grown steadily since it started in 1999, with the amount of offerings almost quadrupling, said Patten, vice-president of the local chapter of the Audubon society and one of the six founders of the event. It is the only wintering waterfowl festival in Northern California, and the art shows have grown into their own entity.
“It’s catching,” Patten said. “Maybe I caught it from someone, too.”
To prove how infectious bird-watching can be, Patten took me to a couple of popular sites that will be included in the field trips.
Correction: It isn’t called “bird-watching.” Patten said the term makes it sound like a bunch of old ladies going into the woods with their walkers. It’s called “birding” now, which makes it sound more sporty.
Birders have a passion for what they do, much in the way sports fans have a passion for teams and statistics. They know their subject down to seasonal plumage, social behaviors and favorite diets. Even while driving, Patten was able to name the species of the bird whose song floated in through the car window.
Patten says humans have a natural desire to want to know about the world around them. But one doesn’t have to be a bird expert to appreciate feathered fauna.
I, for one, never really noticed birds. I always thought of them in generic terms—brown bird, black bird, Big Bird—but after only an afternoon, I started looking for differences in color patterns and beak sizes, and could name at least 10 different kinds of birds.
“Your senses come to life,” Patten said.
Patten was first introduced to birding on a fourth-grade field trip, and it has since become her passion. She likes that it gets her outside and that it opens up an entire new world in her backyard: “You go out with binoculars and a book, and that’s all you need.”
Patten finds it aweinspiring that birds, like the snow geese, fly thousands of miles twice a year just to settle here, “right in our back yard.” Many non-birders can’t believe there’s such ecological diversity just 10 minutes out of Chico.
The true goal of the Snow Goose Festival is to raise public awareness and encourage conservation. The keynote speaker at the auction (Jan. 26) is Kenn Kaufman, an international legend in the birding community.
When he was 16, Kaufman dropped out of high school to hitchhike cross-country, aiming to break the record for the most avian sightings in one year. His book Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand documents his adventures. He has also written several guidebooks and is the field editor for Audubon Magazine. Kaufman will give several workshops and lead some of the field trips during the festival.
Local art galleries have extended their Snow Goose exhibits from one weekend to two weeks through Feb. 5. The art show has become a big part of the festival in recent years, especially the Uptown-Downtown Wildlife Art reception. This year’s reception will be Friday (Jan. 25) and is hosted by Avenue 9 Gallery and the All Fired Up! Gallery and Ceramics Art Center. A free trolley will run between the venues.
Maria Phillips, an Avenue 9 co-owner, went on her first birding expedition the weekend of the big storm that knocked out Chico’s power. It was freezing. Phillips was out there with little opera glasses but said she was still amazed. She is excited that the art galleries get to be a part of the festival.
“Artists and conservation projects work very well together,” Phillips said. If someone is moved to appreciate the beauty of nature, that person may also be moved to help preserve that beauty.
“Sometimes people come in loving art and they leave loving birds, or vice versa.”
Most of the artists contributing to Snow Goose Festival are wildlife specialists or naturalists, so “they know their subjects intimately,” said Dolores Mitchell, another owner at Avenue 9.
These aren’t the sort of drawings one would see in a birding field manual, but legitimate art that covers sculpture, photography and paintings. Mitchell described some of the paintings as very impressionistic—the personality of the artist really comes through. Phillips said the exhibits are the perfect marriage of subject matter, art and community.