Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard
CORRECTION(RAN MAY 7, 2009): Outdoors: Wings come before the wine at the Fern Ridge Wings & Wine Festival, to be held Saturday in the Veneta area. A Tuesday story incorrectly referred to it as the "Wine and Wings" festival.
Even park ranger Christie Johnson was taken aback by the diversity of bird life revealed by a single glance through the looking glass.
"I can see like 10 different species of birds in this one spotting scope!" said Johnson, an outreach specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
She then rattled off a list that included American white pelicans, red-winged blackbirds, a coot, a cormorant, northern shovelers and more.
By panning the scope around Fern Ridge Lake - or just looking with naked eye - many other species of birds could be seen. Other unseen birds interjected their distinctive calls into the conversation.
"That's a Virginia rail!" Corps wildlife biologist Roberta Swift exclaimed immediately after one guttural call came from the nearby brush.
Johnson and Swift set up spotting scopes at the Royal Avenue viewing platform on the east shore of Fern Ridge Lake one morning last week to provide a preview of what members of the public are likely to see during the 2009 Fern Ridge Wine and Wings Festival on Saturday.
The Veneta area's fourth annual toast to International Migratory Bird Day (and to a significant local agribusiness) features a full day of bird and nature walks, hands-on workshops, canoe trips, educational talks, children's activities, food booths, wine tasting and a winery/bird-watching van tour.
Most activities are held or start either at Secret House Vineyards, off Highway 126 just west of Veneta, or at Fern Ridge Lake, just east of Veneta. The festival grounds at Secret House will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
Swift and other volunteers will be at the Royal Avenue viewing platform from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to help visitors spot and identify birds. The platform is about a quarter-mile hike from the parking lot at the west end of Royal Avenue. Visitors can bring their own binoculars or spotting scopes and bird books, or use the ones provided.
Different species of birds are likely to be seen during the bird walks offered on the grounds of Secret House Vineyards every hour on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
One reason for the wine-birdwatching connection is that Secret House owner Patti Chappel has developed hedgerow habitat and gardens that attract a variety of birds.
A kid-friendly bird walk begins at 11:30 a.m., and other activities for youngsters will be available.
Army Corps of Engineers botanist Wes Messinger will lead a "Plants and Wildflower Walk" on Fern Ridge Wildlife Area's Fisher Butte management unit at 1 p.m.
Meanwhile, educational talks scheduled at the festival grounds include: "Raptors: Who they are and how to know them" at 11 a.m.; a talk on hedgerows and other plantings to enhance bird habitat by Chappel at noon; and a "Backyard Habitat" talk by Dick Lamster at 2 p.m.
Birds aren't the only winged creatures to be featured. Cameron Bishop will give a "Bat Talk" at 3 p.m.
All of the above activities and many others are free. However, some festival activities - including the van tour of three area wineries and a "paddle for predators" canoe trip - require preregistration and a fee.
Schedule details and on-line registration are available at: www.wingsandwinefestival.com.
The festival is sponsored by the Lane County Audubon Society and Secret House in association with Cascade Raptor Center, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Corps of Engineers, Willamette Resource and Education Network, the City of Veneta, Fern Ridge Chamber of Commerce and Travel Lane County.
"What we're trying to do is increase our bird-related tourism in the area," Johnson said. "We want to let the public know what a very special place this is a about all the amazing resources, the diversity of birds."
During last year's Wine and Wings festival, birders tallied 104 different species of birds seen during the organized events and outings.
"Since this year is the 150th anniversary of Oregon statehood, it would be cool if we could see 150 different kinds of birds this year," Johnson said.
Ambitious, perhaps, but not out of the realm of possibility, given that 295 different species of birds - about half of which can be found during May - are on the list of those that have been documented at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area.
And there is always a chance of spotting something not on the list. During 2008, for example, a brown pelican and a wood sandpiper showed up at Fern Ridge for the first time. Word of the rare sandpiper drew birders from afar.
"Fern Ridge is one of Oregon's best birding areas," said Maeve Sowles, president of the local Audubon chapter.
One reason that's so is that the reservoir and surrounding wetlands provide habitat for several species not found elsewhere in Western Oregon.
Yellow-headed blackbirds, for example, are among the "eastern breeders" normally seen east of the Cascades that are commonly found at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area. In fact, some birders refer to the Veneta-area refuge as "Little Malheur," a reference to the famous bird refuge in Eastern Oregon.
Fern Ridge Lake and the surrounding public lands are managed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Both agencies will have booths at the festival.
"The Corps really wants people to know what we're doing out here in the Fern Ridge Wildlife Area to enhance habitat for birds and other wildlife," Johnson said.
For example, the Corps last year completed construction of a one-acre island in the reservoir designed to provide nesting habitat for Caspian Terns.
Meanwhile, wine isn't the only "wet" aspect of the festival. Wetlands play a huge rule in providing habitat to migratory birds, and May is National Wetlands Month.
The Willamette Resources Education Network will have a booth at the festival featuring information about the new Environmental Education Center to be built in the West Eugene Wetlands.