When you live in a place as awash in natural wonders as Humboldt County, it can be easy to take it for granted. Towering redwoods with trunks as thick as Volkswagens? Just look out the window. Miles of rocky coastal beaches with endless tidepools to explore? Been there, done that.
But how about backroads that snake east through the hills, twisting and climbing through open prairies to a place where majestic California condors soar? That, perhaps, is something you haven't seen.
North America's largest raptor has a starring role in the 2023 Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival, which kicks off Thursday, April 13 and runs for four action-packed days. Its theme of Renewal and Restoration is fitting for both the condor and the festival: This year marks the return of full in-person activities for the first time since 2019. Events include 70 field trips, two keynote addresses, a banquet and silent auction, a student art show and a bird fair with multiple vendors and nonprofits, among other fun diversions. It's the 27th year for this popular celebration of all things bird and birding.
The festival was hatched in 1996 as a one-day event staged primarily on the Arcata Plaza and featuring a handful of field trips, a few vendors and a keynote lecture. Its eponymous bird was suggested by the Redwood Region Audubon Society as an ideal representative of both the county and festival: The marbled godwit is a handsome bird that looks great on a T-shirt and Humboldt Bay is a particularly important stop for godwits during their annual migrations. The event quickly became a perennial favorite of local birders as well as drawing a strong contingent of out-of-towners, a nice boost for the local economy.
And like a hungry fledgling it grew. In 2000 the festival moved to its permanent venue at the new Arcata Community Center, and by 2003 it was a week-long event with 85 guided field trips and legendary birder and Audubon magazine field editor Kenn Kaufman as the keynote speaker (his field guide is at my left elbow). In 2004 the festival became a self-contained nonprofit with a board of directors and added a student art contest to its list of activities. When renowned ornithologist David Sibley (whose field guide is at my right elbow) gave the keynote address in 2016, paid registrations totaled 574 and the event appeared to be on high-flying trajectory.
Then came 2020. Five weeks before Godwit Days was scheduled to begin, it was canceled — a devastating blow. Donations kept the festival aloft — barely — and in 2021 it was reinvented as a three-day free virtual event. The next year saw a mix of virtual and in-person activities, but it was still a shadow of its former iteration.
Now it's back in full-feathered glory with 16 brand-new field trips, including a pelagic (ocean) tour and a trip to look for condors, along with many of the old favorites. Guided by local experts, all trips are on a space-available basis — some have already sold out— and while many have an additional modest fee, quite a few are free. A one-time $35 registration fee is required to sign up for field trips, and it's waived for kids 15 and under. There's also a "lite" registration option of $10, which enables you to sign up for the no-fee field trips and gets you a ticket to the Saturday night address. The bird fair and Friday night keynote address are free to the public without a registration fee.
Then the adventures begin. If you're an early bird, check out the Dawn Chorus at the Arcata Marsh where marsh wrens and warblers are sure to be in full voice. For seabirds and a possible migrating Pacific loon, try the North Jetty Seawatch. Or brush up on your birding-by-ear skills, explore Eureka's hotspots or even learn more about other winged creatures — dragonflies. There are fun activities just for kids, too, including a nature walk at the marsh and dissecting owl pellets to see whose bones are inside.
When my boys were small, Godwit Days was always part of the fabric of spring. We'd make a beeline for the bird fair at the Community Center and peruse the student artwork in the lobby. Then the kids would gravitate to the live raptor presentation while I'd wander around and eventually end up at the high-end optics vendor to daydream.
Later on, we signed up for a few field trips. Some of them were spectacular but the one I remember best was a simple walk at Freshwater Farms Reserve. It was a typical April day in Humboldt, overcast and damp, the air tangy with the scent of freshly unfurled alder leaves. The trip leaders were friendly and knowledgeable, sharing some of the history of the reserve as we shuffled along at the usual stop-and-start birding pace, and everyone had a great time. I saw my first olive-sided flycatcher on that trip, a life bird.
In 2006, my partner and I scraped together cash for a sitter so we could attend the Godwit Days keynote address: John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, discussing the potential sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker — a bird long believed to be extinct — by Cornell scientists deep in the swamps of Arkansas. The hall was standing-room only and the audience was utterly mesmerized. By the end of the lecture many were in tears (maybe I was one of them, I forget) listening to Fitzpatrick weave a tale of impossible dreams that just might have come true.
Dreams and the tremendous work that brought them to fruition will revisit the podium on Friday, April 14, when Tiana Williams-Claussen and Chris West talk about the California condor's incredible return to the North Coast after an absence of more than 100 years. Williams-Claussen, director of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department, and West, the tribe's Northern California Condor Restoration Program manager, will describe the 14-year effort to bring Prey-go-neesh home to Humboldt's skies and to the Yurok people, for whom the condor has long been spiritually significant. The lecture is free to the public and begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Arcata Community Center.
If you'd like to see Humboldt through the eyes of a birder, check out Godwit Days. You'll find everything you need to celebrate spring, wings and the beautiful place we live at godwitdays.org, including registration information and a place to sign up for an adventure or two. Or why not more?
Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.