Bird festival boosts economy in BC mountain towns
Forty years ago, Pat Morrow ascended the South Col route to Mount Everest, becoming the second Canadian to stand atop the world’s highest peak.
But after photographing and filming 20,000-foot peaks around the globe, Morrow moved to the Columbia Valley and fell in love with documenting wildlife.
“I’ve been pursuing human adventures for so many years,” said Morrow, who lives just outside of Invermere, British Columbia. “Suddenly I rediscovered nature.”
Now, Morrow leads bird and nature photography hikes at the Wings Over the Rockies bird festival in the Columbia Valley in southeastern British Columbia. The annual festival, which ended on Sunday, features 100 events including bird-watching walks, kayak tours and speeches.
Hundreds of birdwatchers from around the world migrate to the Rocky Mountain communities of Radium and Invermere each year for the festival. This year’s celebration was the 25th edition of the festival and the first with in-person events since 2019.
The festival boosts tourism
According to Pete Bourke, executive director of the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce, Wings Over the Rockies contributes significantly to the economy of local communities.
“People come here for the wings, but they spend time and money on a number of businesses,” he said.
“It’s just such a big impact for our region.”
Although neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the festival keeps statistics on the revenue generated by the festival, Pauline Chung, owner of the Piccadilly Motel in Radium, insists that the economic footprint is significant.
Chung said that every year, birdwatchers invade his hotel.
“It’s a busy time… [the festival] put our name on the map,” she said.
When Chung first moved to Radium from Calgary in 2017, she said she had no idea the area’s birds attracted visitors.
“I hadn’t heard of the bird festival…people from all over the world come to watch our birds,” she said.
“People come onto our property and point at me, ‘Hawks! Eagles!’ and I’m just in awe.”
Len Shrimpton of Sherwood Park, Alberta attended Wings Over the Rockies for the first time this year.
While Shrimpton has been an occasional birdwatcher for 20 years, he says this was the first time he’s traveled in search of songbirds.
“It’s hard not to hear about Wings Over the Rockies [in the birding community],” he said.
“We just needed to up our game and decide to spend a whole week at an event.”
According to festival president Ross MacDonald, 50% of festival-goers come from Alberta and 10% come from other parts of Canada or abroad to attend. He said around 1,400 tickets have been sold for the various festival events this year.
Shrimpton said he was particularly impressed by the dense population of bald eagles and ospreys in the Columbia Valley.
In addition to generating tourism revenue, the festival donates a portion of the proceeds generated by ticket sales to education and environmental protection programs. Wings Over the Rockies helped launch Project Take Flight, a raptor rehabilitation program in 2011.
One of the largest wetlands in Canada
The majority of bird and nature walks for the festival take place in the Columbia Valley Wetlands, which stretch 180 kilometers between the Rocky Mountains and the Purcell Mountains.
More than 260 species of birds have been recorded in the wetlands, which provide critical habitat for elk, moose, wolves, badgers and other animals, according to the province of British Columbia.
Pat Morrow says that after a lifetime of adventures, he is always excited about bird and wildlife photography tours in the Columbia Valley wetlands because the area is so diverse.
“As you get older, you enjoy every day [in nature]”, Morrow said. “You just don’t know what you’re going to see.”