Thousands of bird watchers from all over the world arrive at Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Westport and Ocean Shores to walk along giant marshes, wetlands and beaches and see giant flocks of swirling, diving shorebirds – and maybe the rare bird of a lifetime.
The Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival – April 24 through 26 – is the best way for veteran and newbie birders to take in this grand spectacle, which occurs over hundreds of square miles.
Obscure Rural County is Shorebird Central
Grays Harbor County, located about an hour’s drive west of Washington’s state Capitol city of Olympia, once was a thriving logging and fishing area. The glory days of logging and lumbermills are long gone, but Grays Harbor County’s giant saltwater bay, marshes and beaches remain a main feeding stop for one of the largest bird migrations on the planet.
Millions of Shorebirds
Birders lug costly spotting scopes, binoculars and cameras outfitted with telephoto lenses on field trips to legendary birding spots, such as the Sandpiper Trail Boardwalk at the Bowerman Basin section of the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge.
Happy birders spot killdeer, plovers, marbled godwits, ruddy turnstones, sandpipers, dunlins, dowitchers and many other species of shorebirds. And the birds swarm in flocks of thousands of swirling bodies and beating wings.
Flocks of thousands of shorebirds often take off and fly in unison – turning and diving in perfectly choreographed flying – when eagles and falcons dive into the marsh to snag a meal.
Sandpiper Trail Birding
The Sandpiper Trail is a highlight of the festival field trips, as a wooden boardwalk takes birders out into a giant marsh that swarms with shorebirds busily poking their beaks into muck for meals of crab, shrimp and marine worms.
The birds are flying to the Arctic from winter homes in Central America, Mexico and the Pacific Coast of the United States, and they must feed hard at Grays Harbor. Grays Harbor, a huge saltwater bay, has one of the biggest marshes on the West Coast and the little birds dig up plenty of food to fuel the long flight, which is up to 15,000 miles long.
High tide is the best time to visit the Sandpiper Trail, as the rising water pushes thousands of shorebirds up the marsh and close to the boardwalk. Festival volunteers are always on hand with spotting scopes, and a free shuttle bus runs from festival headquarters to the trail.
Many festival visitors take field trips and then revisit favorite areas on their own during and after the festival.
Visiting the Shorebird Festival
Shorebird festival volunteers create a wide variety of field trips, classes, seminars and social events for thousands of birders. Some of the field trips, such as to the Sandpiper Trail are free, while others, such as a trip to nearby beaches at Westport or Ocean Shores, cost from $15 to $35.
Newbie birders can take classes and field trips designed to introduce bird watching in a painless, fun way.
Birders should register for the festival by April 18. Hotel and motel rooms can be found through the Grays Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
Many birders make new, lifelong friends at the festival, and it is very common to meet people from Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Japan, Taiwan and other countries from around the world.
For many birders, there is no better place to see massive flocks of shorebirds – and the odd rare bird – than at the Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival.