History of The Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival
The Eastern Shore of Virginia consists of two counties, Northampton and Accomack, which lie between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay on the Delmarva Peninsula. Our southernmost county, Northampton, is connected to the Tidewater metropolitan area by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
Both counties are rural and historically have relied on the agriculture and seafood industries as income bases. In the last two decades, Accomack has grown economically and in population, largely due to the locating of two major poultry processing plants in the County. Northampton, however, has shown a population decline of some 5,000 over the last 20 years and now has about 13,000 residents; statistically, it ranks at the top of Virginia’s local government fiscal stress index. Jobs have been on the decline for many years and the County’s young people generally are forced to seek careers elsewhere.
On the positive side, the area is brimming with a wealth of unique natural and cultural resources and has nearly unlimited possibilities in terms of nature tourism. The leadership of both Accomack and Northampton recognized the economic potential of tourism and in the mid 80’s funded a bi-county Tourism Commission, which is run administratively through a contract arrangement with the Northampton County Chamber of Commerce.
Simultaneously, through cooperation among Federal and State agencies, legislators, local governments, the Nature Conservancy and other local representatives, Northampton County constructed a plan for long-range use and preservation of the County’s natural assets. Subsequently, a second natural refuge was opened at the Shore’s lower end; Assateague Refuge already had become one of the nation’s most popular. In addition, a State Park opened at Kiptopeke in 1992. The Shore’s pristine barrier islands, its wetlands forming a coastal wilderness, the fabulous fishing and other water sports – and yes, it’s magnificent array of birds - now found the area poised to become a nature tourism mecca. And it is in this climate that the Eastern Shore Birding Festival was spawned.
It is important to note at this point that in December of 1991, the Virginia Coastal Program recognized Northampton’s strong track record in coastal resource protection and approached Northampton County with a proposal – to pull together the various levels of government and private interest groups to create a comprehensive plan for coastal resource protection combined with sustainable economic development within the southern and seaside portions of the County. For a number of reasons, not the least of which was the skepticism that existed among some residents, it was crucial to do something right away on the economic front; hence, the concept of an annual fall festival celebrating the migration of neo-tropical migratory songbirds emerged. It was nurtured through the leadership of the Secretary of Natural Resources and the Eastern Shore Advisory Task Force, which she then chaired.
The Secretary of the Commerce and Trade joined the effort to establish a model for nature tourism that demonstrated responsible use of natural resources as an economic value to a community. The project was initiated with the full support of the Governor’s office.
In the early spring of 1993, the Secretaries invited the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce to coordinate the Festival, so that the event might become a local initiative rather than one directed from the State Capitol. The Chamber Board embraced the idea – and Joyce Fooks Holland agreed to chair the Birding Festival Planning Committee, which continues to include representation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, local and state governmental agencies, the Nature Conservancy and private business. Membership definitely represents both the conservation and economic sectors, and such membership fosters an effective checks and balances mechanism for our several-pronged mission.
Generally, the Festival, through a partnership of local, state and federal governments, private business, and organizations, promotes the awareness and stewardship of the Eastern Shore’s natural resources as well as the local economy. Specifically, our mission incorporates (1) raising public awareness of local habitat within this bird migration corridor; (2) raising national awareness of the Eastern Shore of Virginia as a birding “hot spot”; (3) providing educational and recreational opportunities for the citizens of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and beyond; (4) highlighting natural resource areas as showcases for natural resource protection in concert with appropriate and compatible recreational activities; (5) raising local awareness of the economic potential that the area could derive from nature tourism; and (6) providing a forum for other related local industries such as artists and craftsmen, farmers, nurserymen, fishermen, and retailers of outdoor equipment.
The breadth of this mission is underscored by the inclusion of a two-day educational component, which begins on Thursday. It is comprised of in-school programs and field trips in an effort to educate our youth to the unique natural resources that surround them everyday and their responsibility in protecting and nurturing these gifts.