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Bird species lure gawkers armed with binoculars and telescopes

SALTON SEA INTERNATIONAL BIRD FESTIVAL:

February 17, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

It is shortly after daybreak as a group of people, faces covered by hoods and hats and hands by gloves, makes its way along the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea.

They stay close to each other, scanning the sea. They are quiet and intense in their observance.

Then.

"Here you go; hold on!" one man in the group calls out.

"There he is; he's up!" a woman shouts.

"Find the green bush!" points out another woman.

"I think I see it!" yet one more member of the group signals. "Yeah, there it is!"

Eagerly, the men and women who have come to the Imperial Valley for the Salton Sea International Bird Festival this weekend turn their scopes and binoculars to the same spot.

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There, within view, is a great-tailed grackle, a small bird with a large "Y"-shaped tail, one of more than 400 species of birds in the Imperial Valley.

Hundreds of people from throughout the country and from areas outside the United States are in the Valley this weekend for the festival, now in its fifth year.

On Saturday morning bird-watchers climbed aboard buses at the county fairgrounds before daybreak and headed to areas around the Valley.

Those bird enthusiasts on the tour at the Sony Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge said it was a moving experience whether they had been to the Valley before or were making their first trip.

As they stood near the shore, the songs of several birds filled the air as a crisp breeze blew over the sea.

A slight haze hung over the water and the mountain peaks toward the west were covered with snow.

Birds flew overhead in the cloud-filled skies and others skimmed over the still waters of the Salton Sea.

"It is kind of overwhelming," said Nancy DeStefanis of San Francisco. "There is such an incredible variety of birds here. It is thrilling."

Tjeerd Klaassen of the Netherlands, who was in San Diego for a meeting, heard about the festival and decided to check it out.

"This is so beautiful," said Klaassen, who said he does most of his birding in Europe. "There are so many different species in such a small area."

Those on the refuge tour were being led by Claude Edwards of San Diego, who is a biologist and has been a tour leader in the past for the festival.

Edwards said the festival is an important event for the Imperial Valley because it promotes tourism based on a natural resource in the Valley — its wildlife.

He said people will come to the Imperial Valley and spend money at local restaurants, hotels and gas stations for the festival. Then they will return on their own to enjoy what the area has to offer.

That was the goal of the volunteers who founded the festival five years ago.

The festival was the brainchild of Jim Kuhn of Kuhn Farms near Seeley. Kuhn more than six years ago went to the Joint Chambers of Commerce and spoke to officials about an idea he had to hold such an event.

He said he got the idea while shooting photographs of birds for a brochure he was putting together at the time.

Kuhn's idea was to show how agriculture and wildlife co-exist with the environment and that both can thrive. He also said at that time he wanted to build tourism in the Valley.

Kuhn's idea took root and grew and it has made many friends for the Valley.

Those taking part in the tour at the refuge said they planned to return.

Connie Madia, who recently moved to La Mesa from Virginia, said she had never been to the Valley before. She said she planned to return on her own and for next year's bird festival.

"I think this is just wonderful," Madia said. "The diversity of birds is amazing."

Madia said for her bird-watching is a special experience. She said just walking around in such areas as the Salton Sea make birding a unique sport.

"Even if you only see one new bird, it is something you didn't know before," she said.

Anne Holmes of San Diego, who works for Sea World, spent the past summer treating sick brown and white pelicans who suffered from avian botulism. All the birds she treated had come from the Salton Sea.

She said coming out for the festival allowed her a chance to see the birds in the natural environment and to see them healthy.

"It's exhilarating," she said of the experience.

Along with the tours, the festival includes seminars held by birding experts at the Barbara Worth Golf Resort near Holtville, a live bird show, which was set for 11 today at the resort, and other programs for people of all ages.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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