Fledging "Taking Flight: Birding in the Catskills"

My dad was an aircraft mechanic and I have always been comfortable with flying. But launching the first serious Catskill birding conference was scary. I had questions like: Will people come? Will we make it worth their while? How will we handle all the logistics?

About a year ago the former executive director of the Catskill Center, Alan White, casually complained to me that the Catskills are a grossly undervalued destination for birders, despite the wealth of birding opportunities here. Later I was meeting with Peggy DiBenedetto, a Catskill Center board member and a bird specialist with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Peg was interested in adding bird displays and programming to the Catskill Interpretive Center. I casually mentioned the idea of a Catskill birding conference to her, and like robins on a spring lawn, Peg was all over the idea.

Peggy DiBenedetto hatched all of the great ideas for Taking Flight: Birding in the Catskills, which debuted June 10 through 12th at the Ashokan Center. She contacted all the major Audubon and birding societies in the northeast, lined up a stellar array of birding specialists to present walks and workshops, and came up with a nest of other great ideas. Along the way, Katie Palm and I played supporting roles.

Katie pulled a lot of the actual logistics together. She crafted a wonderful attendee packet stuffed with information. She researched and put up a list of off-site lodging for people who did not want to stay at the Ashokan Center. I did a lot of the business stuff working out the deal with the Ashokan Center and contacting vendors, possible exhibitors and ordering conference bling that included the hat, patch and name badge lanyard. Others on the Catskill Center staff, including Erik Johanson, Brit Hotaling and especially Susan Blake pitched in and made this truly a group effort by the Catskill Center.

Then the big moment came. Katie, Erik and I showed up to set up and the volunteers I recruited from the Catskill Interpretive Center showed up to help, as well. It was all coming together. The welcome packets and name tags were laid out. There were exhibit tables from the Albany and Adirondack Audubon organizations set up. The Catskill Interpretive Center had a table with books, brochures and information as did the Catskill Center. The attendees started to arrive.

Like a well oiled machine, our staff and volunteers fielded questions and directed attendees to their chosen lodgings. I got my first goosebump when an attendee exclaimed as she looked through her welcome packet, "You all are taking such good care of us, you have thought of everything!"

The Friday pre-dinner got underway and attendees went off on their first bird explore at the Ashokan Center. At 5 a volunteer opened the bar for wine and beer and attendees began to gather and chat about what they had seen thus far. Friendly conversation continued through dinner when everyone had their first happy surprise of the weekend. Jay Ungar and Molly Mason appeared with fiddle and guitar to lead us all in a sing-a-long. That was a sweet dessert to a lovely Ashokan Center dinner. The good surprises and great birding continued for the rest of a very successful weekend.

Chris Rimmer captivated the group with his presentation on the Bicknell's thrush at the after-dinner keynote talk. Friday night there was a sing-a-long campfire down by the water with s'mores and lots of good cheer. As planned, the next morning at 4:30 AM, Chris and an intrepid group of hearty birders set out for the top of Slide Mountain in search of the Bicknell's Thrush.

There were still moments of anxiety for me. One attendee Friday night was certain that another attendee was going to be at the wrong meeting place for the walk up Slide Mountain early the next morning. I tried calling that attendee's cell and home phones and left messages. Luckily she found me on Saturday afternoonto say that of course she knew where the correct meeting place was but that she really appreciated my concern and efforts to contact her. She and the other Slide Mountain hikers were well rewarded with sightings and hearings of a Bicknell's thrush among many other birds encountered on that expedition.
Another anxious moment occured Saturday afternoonwhen we all got to experience a Catskill thunderstorm. The Catskill Center's John Thompson had just taken a group out to explore the birds of the Ashokan hemlock forests when the trees shook with thunderous booms from the clouds. Another group had also departed to view birds at the Ashokan Reservoir. The reservoir crew took shelter at a coffee shop. John was able to safely lead his group back to the main conference building and he instantly created a slide show for folks while we waited out the storm.

Taking Flight delivered on the promises we made to people for a conference that combined the best of birding festivals with birding conferences. The talks by knowledgeable speakers were well attended and many birds were seen. Serious birders added to their life lists. There were two keynote talks, two off-site hikes before the crack-of-dawn, three plenary talks, six workshops and six bird walks. Best of all, the final tally was 93 separate species of birds identified.

The conference was best summed up by attendee Terryanne Maenza-Gmelch who emailed me:  "The Taking Flight conference had something for everyone: from bird identification workshops to sophisticated academic presentations on relevant research. The staff was amazing at their planning and implementation of this conference. Everything was great - the lovely Ashokan Center, the walks, the talks, music, meals, and lodging. Katie, Peggy, Michael, Kevin and Rachel were fabulous and talented. I am looking forward to the next conference." The anxiety was well worth the results and I can't wait for next year's Taking Flight!

Speakers Chris Wood and Jesse Berry giving a talk about eBird. 

Speakers Chris Wood and Jesse Berry giving a talk about eBird. 

Participants spot a cuckoo at the Ashokan Center during Taking Flight: Birding in the Catskills.  

Participants spot a cuckoo at the Ashokan Center during Taking Flight: Birding in the Catskills.  

Jeff Senterman