A Festival of Flight: Wings Over Water

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Renowned birding expert and WOW’s 2016 keynote speaker, Kenn Kaufman. Photo Kimberly Kaufman

When Kenn Kaufman first visited the Outer Banks in 1973, he and a friend hitchhiked to get here, hoping to spot some rare birds that had been reported in the area. He was 19 at the time, but the trip marked the first of many this world-renowned bird expert and lifelong naturalist would make to these barrier islands.

It was February and we were in the middle of a winter storm. I remember watching the birds react to the conditions,” says Kaufman, who is the originator and editor of the Kaufman Field Guides. “The birds were really abundant and I remember it made a big impression on me.”

Kaufman’s first impression of the birds that gather and live on Outer Banks has lasted a lifetime. As he prepares to return this fall, he doesn’t hesitate to rank this region as one of the best birding areas in North America.

But although this area has always been a favorite spot for the winged set, without an idea that was first batted around the offices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Outer Banks may never have gained the recognition it deserves as a prime destination for birders from all over the world.

WOW Takes Flight

Twenty-one years ago, Mike Bryant stepped in as project manager of the six wildlife refuges in northeastern North Carolina. Before that, he worked in the Rio Grande Valley, a region of Texas that hosted a huge birding festival to bring local wildlife organizations, the community, and businesses together. 

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Mike Bryant was the first person to suggest starting WOW in northeastern N.C. more than two decades ago. Photo Bonnie Strawser

During his first year at his post here, Bryant suggested starting a similar festival on the Outer Banks to the refuges’ visitor services manager, Bonnie Strawser. 

“I told him I thought it was a great idea but that we were slammed with other projects. But when your boss asks a third time, you know it is not going to go away,” Strawser jokes. So refuge leaders collaborated with one another, the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, and others and it wasn’t long before the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival was born.

Two decades later, Wings Over Water (WOW) is a fixture among must-attend birding festivals across the country. An annual National Wildlife Refuge fundraising event, it now draws more than 300 participants every fall from all over, including Germany, England, and the Netherlands, says WOW coordinator, Steven Brumfield. Last year, participants from 39 states were represented at the festival that includes not only birding, but also paddling, natural history programs, nature art and photography classes, and nature field trips that span a six-county region in northeastern North Carolina. 

“The Outer Banks is easily considered one of the top 10 birding sites in North America,” says Kaufman, who will be the 2016 WOW keynote speaker. “If it wasn’t partly for the good publicity of Wings Over Water, birders may not have even begun to mention it. Now, if you talk to any birder in North America they know about the Outer Banks.”

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Photo Eve Turek

Kaufman, who also served as the keynote speaker for WOW back in the early 2000s, says that the Outer Banks has the perfect combination of birding opportunities. “You can jump on a boat and go out to the Gulf Stream to see shorebirds or spend a couple of days on the refuges or inland birding.” 

Pat Moore of Buxton agrees. She’s been involved with WOW since its inception and still remains an integral part of the festival 20 years later. Her main charge is organizing the birding trips and their leaders, who she says are the backbone of the festival. 

When asked what her favorite bird is, she’ll say it’s whatever bird she’s watching at that particular moment. But if you press her, she’ll tell you that she loves sparrows because she likes to hear them sing. 

“I always tell people that I like to watch birds with my ears,” says Moore, who adds that one of her greatest desires is to have people enjoy birds the way she does. 

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Photo Allie Stewart

Aside from the boost the festival gives to the economy in the off-season, Moore said the festival makes residents more aware of how bird habitats (including the shore, marshlands and forests) are fragile places that need recognition, respect, and protection. 

Birders Flock to Festival

The Outer Banks and its surrounding region are part of the Atlantic Flyway, and more than 400 bird species live or migrate here, so it’s not surprising that it’s the perfect spot for a festival of this kind.

Sponsored by the nonprofit Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society, this year’s 20th Anniversary WOW kicks off on Tuesday, October 18 and runs through Sunday, October 23. It will feature 96 trips, classes, and programs that span a six-county region and six national wildlife refuges — including Alligator River, Pea Island, Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, Mackay Island, and Currituck national wildlife refuges. 

For the second year in a row, a three-day WOW Encore will be held in December, purposely scheduled during the colder weather when flocks of migratory birds and waterfowl such as thunder swans, snow geese, and large duck populations are likely to be seen. Brumfield says the encore session allows room for more outdoor adventures during the fall season, particularly the popular paddling field trips.

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Photo Jackie Orsulak

In order to put WOW together, experts from across North Carolina volunteer their time and equipment by leading programs in their fields of expertise. Popular programs include field trips such as Beginning Birding at Bodie Island and Oregon Inlet (which will be led by Kaufman), Hummingbird Banding on Hatteras Island, Buxton Woods Maritime Forest Hike, and Birding on Portsmouth Island. A few new programs being offered this year include Purple Martin 101 and How to Listen: An Introduction to Birding by Ear. 

While WOW originally began primarily for birders, it’s certainly not just for birders. Its eclectic mix of field trips and programs draws nature lovers, paddlers, and artists of all kinds. This year’s festival will even feature more art with new classes by local artists. Painting Marshlands with Fay Davis Edwards, Sunrise Photography with Mark Buckler, Wading Birds in Pastel with James Melvin, Bird Drawing with John Sill, and Painting Watercolor Wetlands with Susan Van Gieson are all new on the itinerary. 

As Brumfield points out, one of the many unique aspects of WOW is that it also gives participants a glimpse of some refuge areas that are usually restricted. 

“Participants have the chance to see areas of the refuges that are either closed to the public or they can have access to certain areas during times when the refuge is usually closed,” Brumfield says. On this year’s schedule is a birding field trip to the restricted South Pond at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and a program that gives participants an opportunity to experience Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge at night. 

WOW organizers make it a point to limit the number of participants in classes and field trips to no more than 12, and some programs such as Big Day Birding are limited to six people. This, Brumfield says, ensures that class members are able to have a more intimate nature experience. While registration is open right up until the week of the festival, the more popular programs fill up when registration begins during the first part of May. But, he adds, there are plenty of programs to register for and many peripheral trips that take participants to more remote areas of the Outer Banks such as Portsmouth Island.

Building a Nest

Over the years, WOW has become so popular that now it’s not only self-sustaining, but it’s also somewhat profitable — which has directly benefited the refuges. 

But the refuges are not the only ones benefiting from the success of WOW. Over the years, it has brought more tourism to the area at a time when local businesses typically slow down. In addition, WOW organizers say it attracts visitors who may be more apt to visit our region during the off-season.

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Photo Eve Turek

Brumfield points out that WOW not only brings participants to the region, but also their families and friends who all stay in hotels, shop, and go out to eat at local restaurants. “It bolsters the economy and encourages people to come back at other times of the year to see the Outer Banks when there are not 350,000 people here per week.” 

The festival has also helped spread the word about the significance of northeastern North Carolina’s refuges and the important work that takes place there. Any proceeds from the festival are used to support refuge projects, including trail maintenance, signage, and refuge equipment. Profits also fund the transportation costs of school visits to the refuges. 

While the festival hasn’t grown appreciatively over the years, it does have a strong following and many participants return year after year, Strawser says. “Every year, a few hundred come and experience the area, and they go home and tell others. It generates a lot of exposure.”

There’s no doubt that WOW will continue to generate that exposure and that the Outer Banks will remain a top destination for birders for years to come — thanks to an idea that took flight more than 20 years ago. ♦

For more information about the 20th Anniversary Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival or to register, visit wingsoverwater.org. ♦

Michelle Wagner

Michelle Wagner is the editor at Three Dog Ink and has been living and writing on the Outer Banks for more than 15 years. Contact Michelle

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