I’ve been to a lot of birding festivals—sometimes as a speaker, sometimes as a trip leader, and sometimes just because I love going to birding festivals. Last weekend I was in North Dakota attending The Potholes & Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington, ND. If you’ve never been to the potholes region of the Great Plains, you need to get it on your birding bucket list now. And the P&PBF is an easy way to have friendly folks show you the wonders (feathered and otherwise) of the prairie.
There’s nothing quite like birding from dawn until midday and then repairing temporarily to a café in the closest town—maybe Woodworth, Robinson, Pettibone, Dawson, Grace City, or Pingree for some comfort food and a break from the ever-constant wind.
Carrington, North Dakota is farm and ranch country. The folks who make their life there are as tough on the outside as they are kind-hearted on the inside. The wide-open spaces of the prairie and the land it takes to make farming or ranching pay means that folks can get kind of isolated—especially in winter. So, naturally, when you walk into a small-town café—a place full of locals all of whom know each other—and it’s clear you’re a stranger, you might feel a tad uncomfortable.
This is why I wear my binoculars. They ALWAYS help me to break the ice.
Now I’ve never been accused of being shy, so I’m often the first to speak to the café regulars. All it takes is one “Hi there, how’s it going!” and I can count the seconds before a polite question is asked.
“So whatcha doing out here? Hunting? Taking pitchers?”
“Nope we’re here bird watching!”
“BIRD watching? Here? Really?”
“Oh yeah. You all have a LOT of very interesting and hard-to-see birds here in North Dakota. We’re here as part of that birding festival over in Carrington that happens every June!”
“Oh ya. I heard about dat. How’s it goin?”
“Great! And as soon as we enjoy some hot soup, and a slice of rhubarb pie, we’re headed back out!”
It’s not like wearing my binocs into a North Dakota café is going to change the world. But it might make people think a little differently about birds. It might make them stop to help a stuck birding van along a farm road. Or it might even convince them to let bird watchers hike across their property looking for a Baird’s Sparrow or a Sprague’s Pipit.
My real goal is to talk to the local people, and to let them know how much we love coming to their part of the world—whether that’s Woodworth, Nort Dakooootah, or Muddlety, West Virginia or Moose Jaw, Maine, or Salmon Shin, Alaska. They need to know that their local birds are special and worth protecting. They need to know that people will come from far away just to see them. Bird watchers are nice people and they spend money where the birds are!
Bird watchers outside the Chieftain Motor Lodge in Carrington, ND.
So please wear your binocs the next time you walk into some local joint and let your optics help you start the conversation. Then treat yourself to a piece of pie. I recommend the rhubarb.
A good point excellently made.
Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie is very, very good.
Thanks for this. I have always left my bins in the car. Not anymore.
Can’t wait for next year’s festival…it’s how we’re going to celebrate our 30th Anniversary!! What out…here we come.
As long as you aren’t wearing them too close to National Guard bases or elementary schools. I’m only half joking, there.
Quite seriously, though, I managed to start several of these conservations at the Canaan Valley Birding Festival in West Virginia last weekend. Everywhere I was spending money, I’d manage to joke about being unfamiliar with the area and say, “we’re from Michigan, and just in town for the BIRD-WATCHING festival.” I got that idea from Kim Kaufman in Ohio. They print business cards there that indicate the bearer is spending money in town because of the birds. Kim says they’ve made a big difference. It was nice this year to come out of Toledo, still 25 miles from the Biggest Week festival, and see “Welcome Birders” signs on restaurants.
I always smile at myself when I start to remove the bins to go into a cafe, then remember that they’re a badge of honor and outreach. As if the locals couldn’t tell we were up to something from the hats and zip-off pants…and besides, there’s almost always something interesting just outside the windows in those little prairie cafe’s. Here’s to the ladies of Woodworth and Robinson for putting on the smorgy dog for us and baking extra rhubarb pies!
Great post, B.
Excellent post. As a passionate birder and birding evangelist, I have always done this. For one thing I’m so comfortable in my bins sometimes I forget they are on. But I do like to wear them as a badge. I am a birder and proud of it. I suggest putting your rain guard on just to keep the crumbs out!
Ours binoculars get their rain guards used to keep the crumbs off a lot more than to keep the rain off! 🙂
Yatahey, Billy Thompson!!
i wear my bins to bed…..
I have found that a few drops of mayonnaise are good for cleaning the lenses. I have also found that not only do I educate locals about their birds, they often educate me.
My birdy buddy never removes his binocs, even when he is eating, yet it still surprises him everytime we come out of a cafe and he gets crumbs in his eyes.
Once he did remove them for the sake of politeness in mixed company (by mixed, I mean birders and non-birders). A child placed itself in such a way that he couldn’t reach his glasses as something stopped in a tree outside the window. It was like watching a hippo being cut off from the water.
I love birding North Dakota, but the best part is the accent that you got on the money, You Betcha. I was approached once by a farmer on a back road with my binoculars and camera in full view.
“I’m taking pictures of birds”
“Birds? You from the gover’ment?”
“No. I’m just looking at birds.”
“Boy, I wish somebody would pay ME to do that.” and off he drove.
Well said, Bill!
And Julie, people in zip-off pants are always up to something…
It’s the people with their pants zipped off that are really up to no good.
Bin pride for life! I appreciate this article as a fellow bird enthusiast. I can just sit by my windows in carrington nd and watch those creatures for hours