When I first approached my family about driving to the small town of Homer to attend a birding festival, I received a look of incredulous trepidation followed by a solid minute of silence.
"Birds?" my son asked. "Why can't we just go to Homer and do the stuff we always do?"
"We can," I replied.
Homer hosts the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, and, like most things in this funky Kenai Peninsula town, the event doesn't conform to a traditional framework. This festival is a long weekend of beaches, potlucks, music and hikes that focuses on birds returning to Alaska after a winter away. But the festival also makes a concerted effort to draw young people and their families into the, er, nest of birding fans. The 2016 festival runs May 12-15, and the town is abuzz with preparations for celebrating its 24th year welcoming birds back to the sandy, muddy shorelines of Southcentral.
Located 225 miles south of Anchorage at the end of the Sterling Highway, Homer's population of nearly 5,000 swells each spring to include avid birders who flock there to see oystercatchers, plovers and sandpipers signal the beginning of summer. The Kachemak Shorebird Festival has morphed from a grown-up affair to one that embraces young visitors who show up with their parents or grandparents to explore one of the few beachside towns within striking distance of Anchorage.
Junior Birder program
Beth Trowbridge of the festival planning committee, and executive director of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, said the committee decided about nine years ago to promote a family friendly focus. Hoping to attract children to birding in the hope an interest might grow into a lifelong endeavor, Trowbridge and team developed a series of activities that would appeal to kids and their sense of adventure and constant movement.
"Many of the people on the committee are leaders in environmental or science education in the Homer community, so creating awesome programs came naturally," Trowbridge said. "We also recognized the Homer area has a lot to offer — it is a beautiful location with lots of access to places to observe wildlife and birds, so while the focus is to celebrate the return of shorebirds, it is also a great opportunity to be involved with other families enjoying the outdoors."
Marshaling the community was pretty easy, Trowbridge said, especially in mid-May, when many businesses are preparing for a busy summer. Balancing adults' desire to fulfill birding lists with kids' need for a more active day spent investigating the back story of Alaska's birds was a challenge, so the committee came up with a Junior Birder Program for kids ages 5-10. It's hard work, but worth the effort, as kids can progress each year to reach the coveted "seventh-year" status, meaning they've pretty much dedicated May to attending the festival. Junior Birder hopefuls attend a "birding basics" lab the first day of the event, then move on to bird walks and workshops that give them a solid understanding of which birds show up in Homer each spring, why and how.
Lest any kid reading this think the Junior Birder program sounds too much like a science field trip without the homework, let me assure him or her that a multitude of activities exist to make bird-watching not just appealing, but on the cusp of awesome.
How about looking for shorebirds from a kayak? True North Kayak Adventures is offering day trips around Kachemak Bay to spy not just on birds but such other ocean wildlife as otters, seals and whales. The four-hour paddle is a great deal as well; $95/adults, $85/kids 12 and under. The company is also offering SUP (stand up paddleboard) excursions. (www.truenorthkayak.com)
Or perhaps your family would rather hike the coastal trails and beaches ringing Homer, including Homer Spit, the five-mile checkmark of sand jutting out from town. Whether you're traveling to the festival with toddlers or teenagers, beach time is perfect for spotting not just birds, but also rocks, shells, otters and various ocean-themed flotsam and jetsam washed up by our high Alaska tides. Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival guides offer daily walks and hikes with families, a great way to introduce kids to birding. Trowbridge says the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies is also offering its famous "Creatures of the Dock" tours, taking visitors on a trip to view intertidal life living under your feet at Homer Harbor's docks.
The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival website publishes a full schedule of daily events, some requiring advance registration and payment, some free. The Homer Chamber of Commerce and local visitor information center are rolling out the red carpet as well, with festival rates and special deals available to make a trip south worth it for families looking to get a jump on spring road trips.
Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival: If you go
• Festival information: www.kachemakshorebird.org. Look for the family friendly icons designating activities aimed at kids and families.
• Getting there: Driving from Anchorage to Homer takes about five hours. Ravn Alaska offers four daily flights to Homer from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
• Accommodations: Homer Bed and Breakfast Association has a wide range of listings — from cabins to full-service bed-and-breakfast lodgings. (www.homerbedbreakfast.com). Home Away Vacation Rentals is also a solid choice for families looking to travel more independently (www.homeaway.com).
• Feeding the kids: Two Sisters Bakery is truly my go-to site for coffee and baked goods in Homer. With a play space out back and a lovely porch upon which to sit and savor the beachy scene. We frequent this small and popular location on every trip (www.twosistersbakery.net).
Another family favorite is Fat Olive's Restaurant, located near Homer's Old Town area. Wood-fired pizza and excellent pasta is a blessing on a cold spring day. (907) 235-8488.
We also like Duncan House Diner for breakfast. Traditional, hearty and fun, Duncan's fuels us up for a busy day outside (www.duncanhousediner.com)
• Family fun: In addition to the shorebird festival schedule, don't miss the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center (www.islandsandocean.org); Pratt Museum (www.prattmuseum.org) and Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and their multiple-site locations (www.akcoastalstudies.org). Bring bikes to ride the Homer Spit, rubber boots for wading in the water and rain gear simply because this is an Alaska coastal town. Don't forget a pair of binoculars to spot the birds, either.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska's family travel resource. Her second book, about traveling the Alaska Marine Highway with kids, is due out in 2017.