Along the Oregon Trail

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: The last few days were like a blur, almost, inspiring me to think of a new title: "Blur-ding with Kenn and Kim!" Friday night our band played at Mango Mama’s in Port Clinton, and it felt like one of our best performances yet, but we didn’t have time to bask in the afterglow of a rocking fine time: I had to hurry home, in most un-rockerly fashion, and sleep for a couple of hours. At 3:45 a.m. I was leaving the house to drive to the Cleveland airport so I could fly to Boise, Idaho, get into a rental car, drive three and a half hours west into Oregon, and arrive in the town of Burns in time to set up and give the Saturday evening keynote talk at the 28th annual John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival.

If you’re familiar with the concept of bird festivals, that figure will have caught your eye: 28th annual? Has any bird festival been around that long? There are now hundreds of bird and nature festivals all over North America, but most of them have sprung up within the last decade or two. A couple of the long-standing events, the Festival of the Cranes in Socorro, New Mexico, and the Hummer/Bird Festival in Rockport, Texas, are now about twenty years old. But the festival in Burns, Oregon, preceded them. If I’m counting correctly, they would have held their first event in 1982, years before most of the current festivals got off the ground.

Burns is the largest town in Harney County, a huge county (larger than Massachusetts) with a population of only about 8,000. Birders know Burns for the proximity of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a fabulous area for huge numbers of waterbirds, and for the wealth of raptors, sagebrush country species, and other wonderful birds in the surrounding area. The Harney County Chamber of Commerce, working with the refuge staff and with other biologists in the area, have created one of the finest bird festivals anywhere. For several days each spring, the festival takes over the local high school and the local fair grounds, local businesses roll out the welcome mat in an obvious way (see the sample signs to the right), and hundreds of people come from all over the northwest to attend.

After my marathon of rock concert / air travel / long drive, I arrived in somewhat woozy state, but the organizers made me feel welcome and at ease immediately. Jessica Boone, director of the Chamber of Commerce, and Carey Goss, the energetic Visitor Services Manager from the Malheur refuge, were in the final stages of setting up inside a huge building at the fair grounds, with a dozen young volunteers from the high school softball team helping out. In no time I had my laptop hooked up to a projector, and I had an hour to relax before the crowd started to arrive. So of course I went outside. In the parking lot I ran into my longtime friends Harley and Karyl Klein, who had come down from the Portland area, but our conversation was constantly interrupted as we paused to stare at the waves of Ross’s Geese and Snow Geese flying overhead. Literally thousands of white geese streamed over the parking lot as we stood there. What a way to welcome people to a bird festival!

In conversations later that evening and the following morning, I talked to dozens of people who had come from several hours’ drive away to attend the festival, and who had been coming annually for many years. And I could understand why. Aside from the fact that I was missing sleep somewhat and missing Kim very intensely, this was one of the most delightful bird festivals I had ever attended. We’ll certainly make a point of coming here together in some future year.

For more infomation about this festival, visit


  1. The John Scharff Festival is indeed an Oregon bird watching mainstay. Glad you enjoyed your visit to my beloved home state.

  2. Kenn, thanks for coming to the JS Festival. It was very gracious of you to spend time signing "Kingbird Highway" books for some of us. I see you finally got your driver's license!


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