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Birding festival on horizon

Whether your favorite bird is the woodpecker or the warbler, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge has a range of activities, tours and workshops set for bird enthusiasts this weekend.

The refuge’s Birding Festival, held in conjunction with International Migratory Bird Day, will be celebrated Friday through Sunday. Before it even starts, however, the event has already garnered a sustainable eco-tourism award from the Virginia Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus.

The festival celebrates more than 220 species of birds that either reside in or migrate through the swamp’s 112,000 acres of wild land. It also seeks to attract more people during the annual birding season.

“For years, we’ve noticed a stream of the real serious birders come about this time of the year,” said Deloras Freeman, a visitor services specialist at the refuge. “We created the festival around this time, when we knew people were already coming, so we could give them an organized event and share with them our story about everything we do as a refuge.”

This is the fourth year of the festival at the refuge, and already this week’s tours and workshops are nearly full. However, plenty of activities still are available that do not require reservations, especially Saturday’s events. The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge provides the perfect environment for observing such birds as the red-cockaded woodpecker, the hooded warbler and others.

The festival begins Thursday at 7 a.m. with guided tours of the swamp. At 10:30 a.m., a ribbon cutting for the new Washington Ditch boardwalk trail will occur, along with city and state officials in attendance.

Thursday night also will feature the “Sounds of the Night” tour, in which participants will ride to the middle of the swamp in a bus, get out and “see what’s going on out there,” Freeman said.

Friday will bring guided walks at two of the refuge’s most popular trail heads, along with bus tours and the “owl prowl,” which could give attendees an up-close-and-personal experience with one of the thousands of owls that call the refuge home.

On Saturday, the festival kicks into high gear with guided walks and bus tours beginning at 7 a.m., along with exhibitors, food, music and children’s and family activities. Families can build bluebird houses together to take home and place in their yard, and children can create nature-inspired crafts to take home.

In addition, both adults and children will have the chance to get a close-up look at owl poop.

“We’re going to bring the microscopes out and dissect owl pellets,” Freeman said. “We started that as something for the kids to do, but we have as many adults doing it as we do kids.”

The birding festival received the Virgo Travel and Tourism Award for sustainable eco-tourism from the Virginia Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, an award that pays tribute to individuals, groups, businesses and destination marketing organizations that significantly contribute to the state’s economy through tourism promotion and development.

Saturday’s activities will be held at the field station, 3216 Desert Road. Call 986-3705 for more information or to make reservations for tours. For a full schedule, visit www.fws.gov/northeast/greatdismalswamp/.