couple from Rockford, Illinois, made the five-hour journey Saturday to The Wings Over Muscatatuck Migratory Bird Festival just east of Seymour.
Carrying a book of birds, Marie Polkowski and her boyfriend marked off the different species they caught glimpses of during a bird count at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge.
“We’ve seen 19 different species,” Polkowski said, naming red-winged black birds, Canadian geese, indigo buntings and cat birds.
Polkowski and Chris Potts had been immersed in the sights and sounds at the refuge since 6:30 a.m. Saturday — their first time ever visiting the area.
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“I like it, it’s really pretty,” she said.
Birdwatching has been a hobby of Polkowski’s since she was five, mostly because you can do it anywhere, she said.
“Even when you go to a restaurant,” she said. “Ask to sit by the window and you might see house sparrows or in a place that’s in a wooded area, chickadees and cardinals.”
The 17th annual festival offered activities Friday and Saturday at the refuge and also some Sunday at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge near Madison.
The weekend full of activities brought in folks from not only Jackson County, but avid bird watchers from outside Indiana like Polkowski and Potts.
Park Ranger Donna Stanley said a torrential rainfall hit about 8:30 a.m. Saturday but didn’t last long enough to stop crowds from forming early during what would be a warm day.
“There are only three national wildlife refuges in Indiana, and this is the only one that has a bird festival,” Stanley said. “We attract visitors from a wide area.”
Stahley said the event, which falls on International Migratory Bird Day, is for attendees to learn.
“The goal is education,” she said.
Besides birds, it was a chance for those attending to learn something about butterflies, too.
“Some species have had an alarming declines,” she said. “The monarch butterflies, they have had a 90 percent declines in the last year or two.”
Stanley said they are important pollinators for crops and food.
“If we lose butterflies and we lose birds, we are going to be in big trouble ourselves,” she said.
Some of the activities offered Saturday included guided bird tours, children’s activities, live bird programs and an outdoor painting activity. There were also vendors, food and the popular bird-calling contest.
Wearing binoculars around her neck, Nancy Foxworthy of Mooresville, joined in one of the morning bird walks.
She’s a regular volunteer at Muscatatuck but also enjoys bird watching. She said the guided tours are a great chance to find out right then and there what she’s seeing.
“A lot of times you see a bird, but you really don’t know what it is,” she said. “The guide will help you.”
On Saturday, she spotted some birds she hadn’t seen in the past including a spotted sandpiper and a male American redstart.
“I like being out with nature and seeing the birds and the wildlife, the flowers and the trees,” she said.
Nine-year-old Lauren Galvan of Jennings County was particularly excited about the bird-calling contest, but she also spent some time building a birdhouse from a few pieces of wood and some nails.
With the guidance of David McNabb of Seymour, Galvan walked away with her own piece of work, which she planned to paint later.
“I think it’s neat,” Galvan said with a big smile.
McNabb, who volunteered to help oversee the building activity, said it gives kids a sense of accomplishment to make their own.
He also said bird houses are important to have around the yard.
“With the loss of some habitats, especially in cities and in the farming communities, I think it’s necessary to make available houses, so birds can have a place to live,” McNabb said, who also serves on the Muscatatuck Wildlife Society board.
Jacque Richey of Greensburg set up a table inside the visitors center and displayed his work of hand-carved birds (particularly song birds) that could easily be mistaken for real ones.
Though he doesn’t sell the pieces of art he’s entered into competitions, Richey said he’s probably made about 40 in a period of 25 years.
“It’s a hobby,” he said. “They will eventually go to members of the family.”
Holding a figure of a grayish blue titmouse, he described how he uses oil paints, wood carving tools and a wood burner to create the feathers of each one.
“I put on a number of thin, watered-down coats of paint, which gives them the softness,” he said.
As for the tiny claw-feet, he uses clothes hangers wrapped in thread and sealed with glue. One bird can take about four months to complete.
“With the detail, it’s difficult to work for more than three to four hours at a time and keep my eyes focused,” he said.
In addition to wooden birds, attendees were offered an opportunity to see live birds including a bald eagle, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture and four species of owls.
The non-releasable birds of prey were shown by Leslie Grow, interpretive naturalist at Hardy Lake in Scottsburg.
Grow, who visits schools and educates scouts on the raptors, said seeing how the audience reacts is priceless.
“There’s nothing like being able to show a live bald eagle to not just kids but to adults as well,” she said. “Some of them have never been within 10 feet of one.”
Being up close and personal with the animals is the goal because people care about things that they know about, she said.
Grow said there are ways for people to less-likely hurt the survival of the birds of prey, which are ever important to the ecosystem and food chain.
For example, she said people should avoid using mouse poison, which can ultimately lead to the poisoning of an owl. She also said people should never dump chemicals, oils and trash.
“All of those kinds of things can impact wildlife and that’s what were trying to teach the younger generation,” she said. “Oftentimes they will tell their mom and dad, and that’s wonderful to see.”