Shorebirds are making their yearly stopover at the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge on their migratory paths northward. The harbor mudflats provide a feast and a refuge for migrating birds. Each year at the end of April and beginning of May, bird watchers and nature lovers converge on Grays Harbor to celebrate and witness part of the journey with the Grays Harbor Shorebird and Nature Festival. Family activities, vendors and guest speakers such as wildlife artist Bart Rulon and wildlife biologist Dan Varland will delight and engage visitors in all things shorebird. Birders both new and seasoned can register for birdwatching day trips and speaker presentations.

Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge Sandpiper Trail is a 1.9-mile trail with a small loop at the end and then a return along the same path. Photo credit: Rebecca Sanchez

Attending the Grays Harbor Shorebird and Nature Festival

Hoquiam Middle School acts as the hub of festival activities and opens for festival information and registrations early each day. In total, the festival runs May 5-7, so mark your calendar. Bring your binoculars, your all-weather wear and the festival weekend itinerary that contains all of the operating times and locations of events and shuttles. 

When you get there on Saturday and Sunday, grab a parking spot at Hoquiam Middle School and catch one of the shuttles that run every 15 minutes out to the refuge. Participants can enjoy the vendors, exhibitors, the birding marketplace, a nature fun fair at the school, and register for events and field trips.

For those staying overnight to catch multiple festival days, lodging choices around the harbor range from modern hotels and motels to cozy get-a-ways and historical structures. The Best Western Plus Aberdeen has an indoor pool and free breakfast. Retreat back to a Vrbo cottage or cabin near the river in Hoquiam, or stay a night at A Harbor View Inn Bed and Breakfast in Aberdeen.

For birdwatching in particular, the best shorebird viewing times are three hours on each side of a high tide. Shorebirds keep closer to viewing areas when the tide is high, and they return to the mud flats to eat again as the tide recedes.

grays harbor shorebird festival
Sandpipers fly together. Photo credit: Don McCullough.

Register for Shorebird Field Trips to Ocean Shores, Tokeland, Grayland and Westport

Field trips to Tokeland, Grayland and Westport leave from the Hoquiam airport and will be gone for most of the day. The guided tour cost is $50, and registered participants will want to bring a lunch and be prepared for getting out to walk a bit at waterfowl viewing stops along the route. Friday and Saturday field trips to Ocean Shores visit one of the unique places in the state that have many species all in one spot. The all-day trip cost is $40 and registration is required.

Meet at the airport kiosk location to catch a free, guided walk at the Grays Harbor NWR led by refuge volunteers. Guided walks will follow the Sandpiper Trail, which leads off from the airport road along a partially shaded, wooden pathway next to the water. When the tide is out, a view of the mudflats is visible. Not only do the trees and brush provide opportunities for seeing littler birds flit about and perch, but the bushes also give way to an open view of birds near the mudflats. Benches are scattered along the pathway, so people can sit and watch wildlife. Choose from Friday and Sunday for the guided walks with a special field trip event for beginners on Saturday. Refuge staff and volunteers will also be out and about during the festival weekend.

A mixed flock of shorebirds at Grays Harbor includes sandpipers and dunlins.
A mixed flock of shorebirds at Grays Harbor includes sandpipers and dunlins. Photo credit: Ryan Munes

Attend Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival Presentations

On Friday evening, Bart Rulon will present “From Fields to the Studio – Experience Birds Through the Eye of a Wildlife Artist” slide show as the keynote speaker at Hoquiam High School. Saturday morning Kim Ullrich gives a presentation on Mason bees titled, “Bring Back the Bees,” and Scott Morrison gives a presentation on the basics of identifying shorebirds.

Wildlife biologist Dan Varland who is the executive director of Coastal Raptors, a nonprofit that studies raptors along the coast, is the featured speaker on Saturday evening. Varland will give his speech “Adventures with Gyrfalcons in Washington and Norway” at the Elks Lodge in Hoquiam as part of their annual fundraising dinner.

Learn About Shorebirds and Migration Before You Go

The Shorebird and Nature Festival website offers enlightening resources that can enhance a birdwatching visit to Grays Harbor. Story maps, created for the 2022 virtual festival are a great study tool for the upcoming 2023 festival. Info-graphics, maps, time-lapsed video and informational audio clips from biologist Vanessa Loverti provide a multi-media walk-through of coastal migration and the significance of Grays Harbor. Get to know the identifying features and feeding behaviors of different species with spectacular photography of individual shorebirds and audio clips of bird calls.

Exhibitors and vendors with be present Saturday and Sunday at Hoquiam Middle School with merchandise on sale. Most activities do not cost anything, but some have a fee. Check out the festival activities registration page for helpful information about activities, presentations, nearby restaurants, handy maps and registration access.

Gather up your cameras, scopes, binoculars, walking shoes and rain gear! Don’t miss this amazing act of mother nature.


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