Bird festival boosts B.C. mountain towns' economies
Birdwatchers recently flocked to Radium and Invermere for the Wings Over the Rockies festival
Forty years ago, Pat Morrow ascended the South Col route up Mount Everest, becoming the second Canadian to stand atop the world's highest peak.
But after photographing and filming 6,000-metre peaks around the globe, Morrow moved to the Columbia Valley and fell in love with documenting wildlife.
"I had pursued human adventures for so many years," said Morrow, who lives just outside Invermere, B.C. "All of a sudden I rediscovered nature."
Now, Morrow leads bird and nature photography walks at the Wings Over the Rockies bird festival in the Columbia Valley in southeast British Columbia. The annual festival, which wrapped up Sunday, features 100 events including birding walks, kayaking tours and speeches.
Hundreds of birders from around the world migrate each year to the Rocky Mountain communities of Radium and Invermere for the festival. This year's celebration was the 25th iteration of the festival, and the first featuring in-person events since 2019.
Festival drives tourism
Wings Over the Rockies is a significant contributor to the local communities' economies, according to Pete Bourke, executive director of the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce.
"People come here for the wings but they spend time and money in a number of businesses," he said.
"It's just such a great impact for our region."
While neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the festival keep statistics on revenue generated by the festival, Pauline Chung, owner of the Piccadilly Motel in Radium, insists the economic footprint is significant.
Chung said every year birders crowd her hotel.
"It's a busy time … [the festival] puts our name on the map," she said.
When Chung first moved to Radium from Calgary in 2017, she said she didn't know the region's birds attracted visitors.
"I had not heard about the bird festival ... people from all over the world come and watch our birds," she said.
"People come to our property and point to me, 'Falcons! Eagles!' and I'm just in awe."
Len Shrimpton, from Sherwood Park, Alta., attended the Wings Over the Rockies festival for the first time this year.
While Shrimpton has been a casual birdwatcher for 20 years, he says this was the first time he'd travelled to search for songbirds.
"It's hard not to hear about Wings Over the Rockies [in the birding community]," he said.
"We just needed to notch up our game and decide to spend a whole week at an event."
Fifty per cent of festival goers hail from Alberta and another 10 per cent travel from other areas of Canada or internationally to attend, according to festival president Ross MacDonald. He said approximately 1,400 tickets were sold to the festival's various events this year.
Shrimpton said he was particularly impressed by the Columbia Valley's dense population of bald eagles and ospreys.
In addition to generating tourism revenue, the festival donates a portion of proceeds generated from ticket sales into environmental education and protection programs. Wings Over the Rockies helped launch Project Take Flight, a raptor rehabilitation program in 2011.
One of Canada's largest wetlands
The majority of bird and nature walks for the festival take place at the Columbia Valley Wetlands, which stretch 180 kilometres between the Rocky Mountains and the Purcell Mountains.
Over 260 bird species have been recorded in the wetlands, which provide essential habitat for elk, moose, wolves, badgers and other animals, according to the province of British Columbia.
Pat Morrow says after a lifetime of adventure, he still gets excited for bird and wildlife photography excursions in the Columbia Valley Wetlands because the area is so diverse.
"As you get into your older age, you appreciate every day [in nature]," said Morrow. "You just don't know what you're going to see."