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Festival of Birds to take wing in Detroit Lakes May 17-20

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of when trumpeter swans were restored in Minnesota -- the first one from the restoration project was released at the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

So it seems only fitting that the bird be honored during the 15th annual Festival of Birds celebration next month.

With a steady decline in trumpeter swans due to hunting in the 1800s and early 1900s, by the 1930s, there were only 69 trumpeter swans left in the lower 48 states.

In the 1960s, trumpeter swans started nesting in Minnesota for the first time in 80 years.

In the late '80s, eggs were collected and raised as part of the restoration project, and in May of 1987, twenty-one 2-year-old trumpeter swans were released in Tamarac.

As of 2004, the Minnesota flock of swans has swelled to more than 2,000.

It's these facts and others that will be highlighted during the annual Festival of Birds on May 17-20 in Detroit Lakes.

While the headquarters is in Detroit Lakes, fieldtrips and speakers' stories will take participants beyond the boundaries of Becker County -- even of the United States.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources supervisor Carrol Henderson, who released the first swans in Tamarac 25 years ago, will be speaking about trumpeter swans at this year's festival.

In 1977, taking on a new position with the DNR, Henderson said he can still remember the response he got when asking about reintroducing trumpeter swans.

"The response I got was not very encouraging because they had been written off as 'extirpated' since the 1880s, and early efforts to reintroduce the swans in the 1960s had not been very successful," he said.

"But this was a new program with new opportunities, and I was an optimistic Norwegian by nature and not to be dissuaded by such pessimism," he added.

With some financial help from the Nongame Wildlife Checkoff fund (the law was passed in 1980) Henderson started working together with others interested in swam restoration, and by 1982, he had drafted a plan.

"We selected the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Becker County and the nearby White Earth Indian Reservation as the core area for swan releases," he said. "The Minto Flats wetlands west of Fairbanks, Alaska, were selected for collection of swan eggs that were in mid to late stages of incubation for return to Minnesota and subsequent hatching, rearing for two years, and release in the Tamarac area."

He collected eggs for the next three years, helped hatch the eggs, and raised the birds until they were nearly 2 years old before releasing them over a four-year period.

"A total of 326 swans have been released to re-establish this species in Minnesota at a 20-year restoration cost of approximately $514,000," he said.

The restoration project was a success.

"In 2011, a winter swan count in Minnesota resulted in an estimate of 5,500 swans that included over 500 breeding pairs," he said.

Henderson received a national award -- the Gary T. Myers Bird Conservation Award -- last month for his work with trumpeter swans.

"He was also instrumental in the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail," Tourism Director Cleone Stewart said, and getting the trail connected with Manitoba, Canada, to make it an international trail.

The second bird of focus for the Festival of Birds this year is the crow.

The keynote speaker at the festival will be Professor John Marzluff, who specializes in crows and ravens.

"They're remarkable birds, really," John Voz, Festival of Birds committee member, said. "He's been studying them his whole career."

While most people pigeonhole crows as annoying and loud, Marzluff has performed studies that prove the intelligence of crows. He has published books on crows and ravens, and a documentary on his work with facial recognition recently aired on PBS.

A professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, Marzluff says the corvid family of birds act like humans, and their brains function much like human brains, which suggests human emotions and cognitive abilities are shared with crows, ravens and other corvid birds.

During his time in Detroit Lakes, Marzluff will also be speaking to middle school students about his birding.

"We have a goal of instructing students," Stewart said. "Part of their (featured speaker each year) contract is they go to a school and give a presentation."

Voz said when they are looking for someone to speak at the Festival of Birds each year, they look for "someone doing cutting edge (work and research) that would be of interest to birders."

Field trip destinations

Friday's early morning field trips kick off with a new one to Seven Sisters Prairie, a nature conservancy on the edge of Lake Christina in Otter Tail County near Ashby.

The second stop on the field trip is at Glacial Lakes State Park near Starbuck.

The second field trip Friday is to the Balmoral Golf Course, where the red-headed woodpecker dominates, and then on to Glendalough State Park near Battle Lake.

That evening, participants can enjoy a wine tasting at Richwood Winery.

Saturday's morning field trips begin with a trip to Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge, checking out the prairie chicken booms. There will be several stops around the 3,400-acre refuge, listening and watching for various bird species.

Another field trip will explore Tamarac Wildlife National Refuge, with Henderson on the trip to talk about the trumpeter swan release he was involved with 25 years ago.

A new field trip destination this year is the Frazee School District's forest, which is made up of 240 acres along the Otter Tail River. This trip will also make a stop at Sucker Creek Preserve in Detroit Lakes.

Stewart said while there have been small events at Sucker Creek in the past, "we haven't really done a field trip there."

Saturday also includes several free mini workshops at M State, the bird festival headquarters. There will be workshops on the purple martin, prairie chickens and the trumpeter swan.

The festival is rounded out Sunday with a field trip to Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and another trip to Ulen Prairie and White Wind Preserve, privately-owned land in Mahnomen County.

Four leaders and one naturalist are on each field trip bus so there is plenty of opportunity for questions and information along the way.

Oak Hammock Marsh

A few years ago, Stewart and several others took a trip to the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre in Canada. They were so impressed with the interpretive centre that naturalist Paula Grieef will be at the Festival of Birds Friday evening to speak about it.

A resident naturalist at Oak Hammock Marsh, located 20 miles north of Winnipeg, Grieef and those at the marsh see 400,000 waterfowl a day there.

According to the interpretive center's website, "this 36 km2 (more than 22 miles squared) Wildlife Management Area features a restored prairie marsh, aspen-oak bluff, waterfowl lure crops, artesian springs, some of Manitoba's last remaining patches of tall-grass prairie and 30 kilometers of trails for you to explore.

"Oak Hammock Marsh is home to 25 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, numerous amphibians, reptiles, and fish and countless invertebrates."

Grieef will be speaking at Maplelag Resort Friday, complete with a pan-fried walleye meal, about the award-winning interpretive center that sees more than 200,000 visitors each year. She will also highlight the international Pine to Prairie Birding Trail.

Registration for the festival can be done at the Detroit Lakes Chamber or online at There are various costs, depending on the event. In keeping with trying to get youth excited about birding the event fee for students is waived. The cost per activity for students and adults is the same.

"We're trying to make it easier for families to come," Stewart added.

Early bird registrations by May 4 will be entered into a drawing for a pair of binoculars, and May 11 at 4 p.m. is the final deadline for registration.