Godwit Days reminiscences in this silver anniversary year

WAY BACK WHEN Some of the Godwit Days Board members in 2005 were, from left, Rob Hewitt, Sue Leskiw, Mary Severdia, Gretchen O’Brien and Gary Bloomfield. The latter four contributed to this article. Photo by Tom Leskiw

Sue Leskiw
Special to the Union

ARCATA – Milestones often propel us into looking-back mode. And 25 years is a biggie, which is what the Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival is celebrating April 15-21.

To aid me in this historical view, I called on several people who have been – and still are – involved in the festival in some capacity. Seven responded. I asked them about when they started their association with Godwit Days, what roles they have played, why they continue to participate, and what they believe the event has contributed to making Humboldt County a better place.

Gary Bloomfield, Gary Lester, Tom Leskiw and Mary Severdia have been involved since Year 1 (1996). “That very first evening, the opening reception was held in Arcata City Hall,” recounts Lester. “The warmth and enthusiasm shared by city staff and council members was a credit to the city’s support and buy-in for the festival that has lasted through the years.”

All four have served as field trip leaders; the two Garys have helmed workshops; Mary and Gary B. have served on the festival Board (the former as secretary, the latter as “staff graphic artist,” art show organizer and vendor, and judge nearly every year for the 17 years of the student bird art contest). 

Mary, a city employee, was asked by City Manager Alice Harris to volunteer to help with registration, then started signing up for field trips, and now co-leads the Big Day event. Tom founded and judges for the local Audubon chapter’s student nature writing contest associated with the festival for 15 years.

Other sustaining volunteers soon joined in: Gretchen O’Brien in 1998, David Juliano in 2000, and myself around 2003. Gretchen and David started as field trip leaders. Gretchen joined the Board, eventually becoming the event coordinator as an independent contractor. David is “Mister Birding by Ear,” teaching workshops for many years about how to identify birds via their calls and songs. I have served as a Board member, treasurer, media liaison since 2005, nature writing contest judge, and founder/organizer of the student bird art contest mentioned earlier.

Answers received in response to my question “What brings you back year after year to contribute?” are excerpted below, ranging from lofty to more practically focused to funny:

“I feel strongly that bird and nature festivals can help drive society’s appreciation and value of the natural world. That is key to making sure that wildlife and habitats are preserved, not only for future generations, but also for their inherent value.” (Gary B.)

“Active birders know that the birding is good in coastal Humboldt year-round. However, there’s something special about witnessing and participating in spring. When the relative doldrums of the inland areas are suddenly chock-full of brightly colored Neotropical migrants: Western Kingbirds flycatching from vineyard trellises, a flock of Nashville Warblers nectaring on madrone flowers, or Western Tanagers flitting among the conifers… My involvement in the nature writing contest lets me give back to the community: helping youngsters to reflect on their relationship with nature and, hopefully, play a part in inspiring them to protect and steward the amazing array of life that lies just outside their door.” (Tom)

“I get a kick out of seeing especially the elementary-school kids who’ve won an award in the student bird art contest I coordinate walk up onto the stage on Saturday morning, most dressed in their ‘Sunday best,’ to pick up their prizes, to thunderous applause from the audience. Just strolling through the Community Center lobby and down the hallways to experience hundreds —sometimes close to a thousand -- colorful bird drawings from local kids, then watching them search through the entries to show their personal piece of art to their parents and grandparents is so gratifying.” (Sue)

“I enjoy sharing my love of nature with others. I am a very ear-reliant birder, so teaching those skills to new birders has been very fulfilling.” (David)

“It’s just part of my routine at this point. It is fun to see some of the same people every year that I only see at Godwit Days.” (Gretchen)

“I return each year for the field guide swag. My Godwit Days T-shirt collection gives me birder cred and brightens by wardrobe, especially those adorned with Gary B.’s art.” (Gary L.)

When asked to share anecdotes – especially funny ones – here’s what was reported.

“Ah, Microsoft, how we love thee... I use a PowerPoint presentation for my birding by ear classes. When Office updated from 2007 to 2010, did it detach all the sound files from all my slides when I opened the slideshow to start the class? Why yes, yes it did.” (David)

“The second year of Godwit Days, we set up the art show in a tent on the Arcata Plaza. Not the easiest venue to hang a show. I did wind up breaking the glass on one piece — luckily, it was one of mine!” (Gary B.)

“In 2011, while leading the Brown Shrike field trip, I shared the rare bird with the group but the rising tide prevented an easy return to our cars. I needed to hike the group off the beach via a steep bluff trail. Surprisingly, I managed to not lose anyone.” (Gary L.)

“When Rob Hewitt kicked off Godwit Days a number of years ago by finding a first Humboldt County record Smith’s Longspur on Bear River Ridge [outside/direction from Ferndale?], Daryl Coldren was leading a trip near Alderpoint. About an hour later, reveling in the Longspur, I chatted with several of Daryl’s field trip participants. They recounted a fast-paced drive to get to Bear River Ridge, equating it to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!” (Tom)

“I used to lead a trip to Jan Doward’s home near Centerville to see Gray (now Canada) Jays. There usually were several participants who had never seen one. There are many ways to experience a Life Bird, but probably none as satisfying and intimate as feeding them bread, while their feet tickle your hand.” (Tom)

To close out the questioning, participants were given the opportunity to write a short essay suitable for use in future festival promotional efforts. (Well, the question actually was “What value do you feel Godwit Days has provided to Humboldt County over the past 25 years?”)

“I think Godwit Days has put Humboldt on the map, birding destination-wise. When I’ve talked to birders while birding out of the area, many know of Godwit Days when I tell them where I’m from. Birders drop money locally, and the more birders we get, the more County residents benefit.” (David)

“Godwit Days has brought awareness and appreciation of the bird diversity found in northern California. It offers an opportunity to share the amazing natural habitats we so value, and we often establish lasting friendships with attendees.” (Gary L.)

“The student bird art contest is the facet of the festival that does more to get local non-birders involved than anything else. This awareness is exactly how the value of birds and nature becomes important to future generations.” (Gary B.)

“With the many field trips each year, we can guide people to a variety of habitat types, including private properties with experiences not available otherwise... About a third of our registrants come from out of the area, patronizing local businesses and boosting the economy a bit.” (Gretchen)

“Godwit Days has made a huge contribution. The inclusion of field trips to study butterflies, plants, etc, has drawn in more participants. Increasingly, the natural world is in need of stewards and participating in field trips with skilled naturalists is a great way to jumpstart one’s interest and knowledge.” (Tom)

“I look forward to Godwit Days for reasons beyond the field trips. It brings the local community, birders and non-birders, together for education and just plain fun. Every year I meet people from out of the area who are here for many different reasons. Some are looking for one particular life bird, or trying to build up their bird list, while others want to enjoy the area or maybe watch the bounty of birds that migrate though in the spring. Whatever their reason for attending, most of the people I talk to fall in love with the area and plan to return, either for another festival or on their own. Thanks, Godwit Days, for all the good times. Here’s to many more!” (Mary)

If you like to join Mary, Gary B., Gary L., David, Gretchen, Tom, and me and start or add to your long-term relationship with Godwit Days, visit godwitdays.org for a complete listing of sessions open for registration.



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