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Birding and nature festival takes wing near Ashland

Ryan Brady admits the undertaking is a bit daunting.

The first Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival will offer 40 birding and nature field trips and 140 activities overall. The event runs Friday through May 20, with headquarters at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center near Ashland.

"It started small and just kept growing," said Brady, an avid birder who is helping organize the festival. "We were trying to tap into as many of the resources as we have, and it turns out we have a lot."

Birding festivals are becoming more common, especially in so-called "shoulder" tourism seasons such as spring and fall when communities are looking for ways to attract visitors.

Steve Hoecker, director of the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, planted the seed for this festival, Brady said.

"It seemed a natural fit," Brady said. "Here's this popular activity -- birding -- and here's this great place to go birding, and we didn't have any way to celebrate it."

And mid-May is the right time, said Brady, a 29-year-old Ashland resident who has a temporary position with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

"If you had to pick a one-week window when the most birds are migrating through the area, it would be May 15 to 23," Brady said. "What you're going to see is a big pulse of songbirds -- warblers, grosbeaks, tanagers, thrushes and flycatchers. The other big thing at that time is shorebirds."

Birding has become more popular, partly because it's so easy to do, Brady said.

"There's a lot of 'em, and they're all over the place," he said. "There's always that hope, every time you go out the door -- what's going to happen today? But you can pretty much guarantee that something will happen."

The Chequamegon Bay Birding and Nature Festival will be an annual event, Brady said. Organizers will see which events are popular this year and structure future festivals around those, he said.

Programs and activities for the inaugural event will include birding field trips, bird banding, kayaking, hands-on activities for kids and programs on loons, bears, butterflies, dragonflies, native landscaping, outdoor photography and more.

The area offers diverse birding habitat, from the sandy shores of Chequamegon Bay to open waters of Lake Superior, coastal wetlands, open fields and nearby pine barrens. "That's what makes the festival work," Brady said.

Brady, one of the most active birders in the Ashland area, grew up in Pennsylvania and was drawn to Northland College by its location and environmental emphasis.

Brady had become interested in birding in high school, just watching birds at his parents' feeders. He majored in biology and earned a master's degree in raptor biology at Boise State in Idaho. In the fall of 2005, he assisted Frank Nicoletti in counting raptors at Hawk Ridge in Duluth.

"He's excellent. He's top-notch," Nicoletti said of Brady.

Brady discovered Hawk Ridge while still studying at Northland College.

"I'd skip classes to go to Hawk Ridge," he said. "It was great to go there and be a sponge around Frank, to soak up all his knowledge."