Moving Forward: MB Bird Festival Redesigned for Worldwide & Local Growth

Written by Judy Salamacha

December 14, 2023

A young birder working on photography skills.

Looking for a holiday gift? It is not too late to register for the 27th Annual Morro Bay Bird Festival. Although it doesn’t happen until next month, reservations have usually been sold out by now, but Program Co-Chairs, Robbie & Bob Revel, want Estero Bay residents to know they are particularly interested in locals’ attendance.  January 4 by 8 a.m. is the final date to register at Check it out. So much to choose from! 

Why haven’t locals jumped at the chance to attend the West Coast’s largest bird and wildlife festival? Maybe because it’s in our own backyard? Why are we not taking a staycation on a 3-day weekend for many of us? Why not celebrate while learning about our Morro Bay’s bountiful estuary and bird sanctuary positioned on the Pacific Coast Flyway? On December 16, volunteers participate in the annual national winter bird count. Morro Bay is typically in the top five areas for number of species counted in the US. Species number 200 and during the year our numbers will have upwards to 50,000 birds migrating, hanging out, and feeding in our area. 

January is a prime time migrating birds are traveling through. Don’t we explore new sites and book excursions on our vacations? The Morro Bay Bird Festival’s all-volunteer committee has 27 years of experience assembling savvy guides — neighbors in the know and imported professionals— to direct 200 trips and programs, including renowned speakers, authors, artists, photographers leading excursions focused on the Central Coast’s feathered, furry, bay-life, and SLO wildlife.    

 Jon Dunn, renowned ornithologist identifying a Burrowing Owl on Morro Rock during the Annual Morro Bay Bird Festival.

Last year I met Bob and Robbie Revel at a Morro Bay Chamber member appreciation event. Their energy was contagious. They had been festival supporters before they moved permanently to the Estero Bay. Their first year as program chairs, however, was during last year’s atmospheric deluge, yet they pressed forward, and Estero Bay businesses welcomed more than 500 visitors that experienced the outdoor activities in rain gear. 

The Revels goal for 2024 is to include more locals, more families, and more teens in the festival. They intend to break the cycle where locals have been left out mostly because we traditionally wait until January to register. 

Bob said, “Yes, registration opened November 4 and by noon 130 trips were full. We’ve added a fourth day – Thursday – more locations and 40% more capacity this year. We have room for 750. So as of today (11/27)), 60 trips still have room.” 

Shorebirds return to Morro Bay for the winter. 

The festival planners have also made it easier for registrants to check in once and then meet-up on location instead of coming into Morro Bay daily to pick up their information. They’ve added locations, including Sweet Springs, SLO Botanical Gardens and the Elephant Seals overlook. Early-pick-up is on Wednesday afternoon at the Morro Bay Community Center and packets include badges, tickets for all events registered for, and a list of restaurants and businesses offering discounts that Susie Reddy, Outreach Coordinator, has assembled to be available during the festival. 

Bob is proud of what he calls the Bobolink he designed. “Once registered we now have a link on our phones that will show everything registrants need to know such as where and when to meet, their guide, directions to sites, and activity descriptions.” Room for more activities? The link shows what is open and how to add to the schedule.

Robbie detailed new experiences added this year to diversify the program. “We have created activities for community members who might not be into the birds as much.” 

Bird festival trip leaders celebrating the last event of the 2023 festival. Left to Right: Curtis Marantz, Chris Cameron, 
Robbie and Bob Revel.

Authors and avid journal writers, listen up! Nature journaling has nine events on the scheduled. Sharon Lovejoy, who many locals will recall visiting her garden shop in Cambria, is the author of several New York Best Selling Children’s books. She has several sessions teaching how to observe and describe birds in nature. 

Artists Alert! Several professional artists will be instructing sketching classes, including Fiona Gillogly, a protégé of John Muir Laws. 

Robbie continued, “All day Saturday, we have a free Community Family Day at the Morro Bay Community Center. Journaling, craft making, meet-up with the Pacific Wildlife raptors. We have touchable reptiles this year.” 

The vendor bazaar has everything from jewelry to trinkets, souvenirs, and books – even purchase Big Year Coffee. “And you can dissect an owl pellet.”

Excuse me? Dissect an owl pellet? Robbie explained, “The kids love it! Owls don’t digest all their food and when they regurgitate it, we discover what they’ve eaten – bugs, bones, and stuff.”  

Bird festival traditions continue to highlight premier keynote speakers. Featured guests for 2024 include Jennifer Ackerman, John Muir Laws, and Jon Dunn. Jennifer is the author of several books including her latest, “What an Owl Knows.” John Muir Laws is a naturalist, artist and educator who has dedicated his work to connecting people to nature through art and science. Jon Dunn is a renowned bird expert who has co-authored seven editions of National Geographics’ “Birds of North America.”

Youth outreach is major focus for 2024 with younger people led by younger people. Several programs are on deck, many are free.  Max Taylor is a local 17-year-old birding expert. Lara Jseng, also 17, is an expert birder in college. Fiona Gillogly, 20, is a birder, artist, and nature journalist. Susie and Robbie have also visited the high schools and middle schools to invite local youth.  

Might landscape design and gardening be your preferred interest? Would you like monarch butterflies in your garden and want to know what attractive pollinators to plant? Have you been to SLO Botanical Gardens recently? It is one of the sites where master gardeners will be available with information about SLO’s native plants. 

If your garden has lots of birds but you don’t know what species are visiting, there are master classes available on falconry, gulls, and how to recognize bird sounds.   

Ever heard of the Beaver Brigade? This trip allows you to walk out into a river in north county and investigate beaver dams. The group’s goal is educating, conserving, and protecting the species.  

Maybe you enjoy meeting visitors from other areas of our world? Through the years Morro Bay has attracted many of the 45-million American “birders” who will spend $43 billion in equipment, visits and festivals worldwide. Our friendly residents mixed into this year’s trips and sessions, whether festival volunteers or registered attendees, automatically become ambassadors for Morro Bay. Robbie said registrants from more than 30 states are already registered. Typically, 70% come from out of the area. Fact! Morro Bay Bird Festival is the largest ecotourism event on the West Coast. This is, indeed, positive for our local economy. 

Isn’t it time we take a break from the noise and join our visiting birders who have treasured this festival for now 27 years. Susie reminded us that taking time to “take a walk, meditate and enjoy the nature is relaxing. Why not take a weekend to reflect on the beauty around us — the birds in flight or acting out before us in their habitat? It’s therapeutic to get away from our busy lives and news about worldwide conflict and drama. And Martin Luther King weekend is a good time for reflection about how we want to live our lives the rest of the week and great time for a walk discovering and enjoying our piece of paradise – our Central Coast environment.” 

And, even I can navigate the amazing list of activities on the website

Photos courtesy of Morro Bay Bird Festival

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