A flock of ducks swims in a peaceful cove along the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay. They’ve traveled the Atlantic flyway to winter in the bountiful marshlands of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The mild weather here supports more than 40 species of waterfowl that depend on the region’s aquatic plants, mollusks, and field grains to survive.
Decades ago, this environment risked destruction and overhunting. That’s when Eastern Shore sportsmen and women decided to protect the pastime and fend off overdevelopment by conserving and fostering the wild bird ecosystem. The first annual Waterfowl Festival started in 1971, and every year the three-day event in Easton cultivates waterfowl habitation while honoring the Shore’s heritage.
“The founders wanted to bring awareness to the issue of conservation and recreation. These things go hand in hand,” says Heather Grant, marketing manager for the Waterfowl Festival. She compares the event to a homecoming. “Some people have been coming to this festival for 50 years. You’ll see entire families of all generations walking through town.”
The festival, which over the years has raised $5.7 million for wildlife conservation projects and scholarships, offers entertainment and local cuisine, but it is best known for showcasing artists inspired by area wildlife and the Eastern Shore landscape. Most notable are the handcrafted carvings and decoys.
“With the carvings, artists are trying to be as detailed as possible. They’re literally carving and painting every single feather,” Grant says. “On the other hand, vintage decoys are very simple and are used to attract birds in the water. People collect decoys because of their age, or because the person who made them was famous.”
Six venues in Easton exhibit paintings, photography, and sculptures, with a concentration of waterfowl carvings. Artists are on hand to talk about their work, and Grant says visitors will find everything from mosaics to bronze to driftwood. After perusing the art, guests can pay for tastings from area breweries, distilleries, and wineries.
People come year after year to watch the competitions. The retriever and diving dog demonstrations are popular, along with a fishing derby for youngsters. The festival also hosts duck and geese calling contests.
“This is the world championship of waterfowl calling, and people travel from as far away as Australia to compete for swag and cash prizes,” Grant says.
Typically, there are about 18,000 to 20,000 attendees, many of whom come for the weekend. “Beyond the shops, hotels, vacation rentals, and restaurants in Easton, it’s fun to explore Oxford and St. Michaels while you’re here.”
Plan Your Visit:
The 52nd annual Waterfowl Festival is November 10 to 12. Buy tickets online and at festival entrances. Admission: $25 per person, children 10 and under free
Feature image courtesy Waterfowl Festival