It's fall on the Eastern Shore, and a cool breeze carries crisp amber leaves and scents of bubbling apple cider through the quaint streets of Easton in Talbot County.
Anticipation hangs in the November air, as the town's 8,000 residents wait expectantly for the yearly migration of travelers to their Colonial haven.
Two types of visitors flock here. There are the ones with wings -- the geese, ducks and swans that come here from the north until the spring -- and there are those whose love of such feathered creatures bring them here to the annual Waterfowl Festival.
The weekend of Nov. 8-10 marks the 21st anniversary of this festival that draws 20,000 people every year with paintings, auctions, carvings and special events that showcase birds on the Shore.
Collectors and curiosity seekers alike can roam about the small town to view the works of 500 exhibitors who have gathered from 40 states.
"There's something for everyone here," says festival administrator Ann White. From oil-painted pintails to watercolor quails, the art lover can pore over the works of more than 100 artists in the Blue and Gold Room collections that can be found at the Elks Lodge and the Tidewater Inn.
Duck lovers can watch decoy crafters in action at a workshop, or trade their wooden carvings for others at the Buy, Sell and Swap display in Easton High School. Browsers can purchase souvenir ruddy duck hats and T-shirts autographed by the artist, while savoring hot cider and steamed crabs.
And for the environmentally concerned, the festival is a reason to cheer. Waterfowl Festival Inc., the non-profit organization responsible for the event each year, is dedicated to raising funds for conservation projects. Since 1971, the festival has appropriated $2.3 million to organizations in Maryland and along the Eastern seaboard that work to conserve waterfowl habitat. Last year, $279,939 was raised.
One organization that has received support over the last 20 years from this Easton organization is Ducks Unlimited, a national organization of hunters. When Easton sportswriter Bill Perry was trying to organize the first festival in the late 1960s, Ducks Unlimited offered to underwrite the festival with a $1,500 backing in case it didn't raise enough to cover costs.
"We want our projects to make sense together," explains Ms White, whose administrative duties include organizing a committee to decide how the money is distributed.
"We fund breeding projects in Canada so that there will be Canada geese to come to our sanctuary sites in Maryland."
"We must concern ourselves with conservation if we want our waterfowl to keep returning," says Martha Horner, one of the 1,000 volunteers who assist in the year-round planning of the festival. Ms. Horner, who's been involved with the festival since 1978, has been chairman of the Blue Room for the last six years.
The prints and originals for sale in the Blue Room at the Elks Lodge are priced under $700. "While waterfowl is the primary subject of these pieces, artists are increasing their scope of subject matter." explains Ms. Horner. "Elephants, zebras and other African and North American wildlife will be represented this year."
School buses provide shuttle service throughout the day between the 17 exhibit sites, from places beyond walking distance -- such as the Elks Lodge on Dutchman's Lane -- to downtown Easton, where the historic Tidewater Inn is located.
"While most of the paintings in the Gold Room range from $700 to $30,000, the majority of them are priced under $2,500," says Gold Room Chairman Penny Dietz. While she confesses to "know nothing about art," this volunteer knows her festival.
"I've been involved with the event since I moved to Talbot County in 1974," explains Ms. Dietz with enthusiasm. "The festival is a community event for all kinds of volunteers, not just for those with art backgrounds."
"Easton would not have a show if it wasn't for the dynamic and creative staff of volunteers that play host to so many visitors each year," says Carol Kramer, who's been a part of the festival with her husband since 1971. "I don't think there's a person in Easton who's not involved in some way."
Each year, Dr. Morton Kramer and his wife display some of the wooden decoys they have collected for the past 25 years as part of the Artifacts/Museum Showcase at the St. Mark's Church. At the festival, the Kramers will showcase 12 golden eye decoys, crafted by the Ward Brothers in Crisfield in the 1960s and '70s.
"Many people aren't aware that decoys were originally carved to be used by hunters," explains Mrs. Kramer. "These Ward decoys were prototypes from which many Maryland carvers based their own decoys."
"Decoy collecting is the hottest hobby today," says Ms. White. "People are spending up to $40,000 for the ones they want." While the Kramer's decoys aren't for sale, buyers can bid on other handmade carvings in Saturday afternoon's decoy auction.
While wooden waterfowl draws some to the Waterfowl festival, other sojourners are attracted by the excitement of the celebration.
"The atmosphere is electric in Easton this time of year," sayDavid Turnbaugh, the winner of the 1991 Maryland Duck Stamp competition sponsored by the State Department of Natural Resources. His winning entry, titled "Almost Spring," captures a pair of shoveler ducks in a gently rippling pond.
From ducks to geese to skipjacks, Mr. Turnbaugh has captured life along the Chesapeake with paintbrush and canvas for more than 20 years.
Mr. Turnbaugh's prints, as well as the winning prints in the Federal Duck Stamp Competition, will be on display and available for sale at Christ Church on South Street.
"Shovelers are pretty ducks that weigh less than a pound," says the Baltimore artist who grew up in Towson. "You can spot them along the Eastern Shore, in the rural setting I like to call 'God's Country.' "
Making its festival debut at the Avalon Theatre on Dover Streewill be a series of seminars conducted by waterfowl artists. "This is the first year that well-known photographers, sculptors and carvers will talk in depth about their crafts and then let the audience ask questions," says Ms. White.
For dog lovers, local hunters will demonstrate at the Bay Streepond how their dogs help them retrieve. While crowds look on, rubber bumpers are thrown into water while the dog is looking or not looking, and then the hunter, using a serious of whistles and hand signals, guides his sidekick to the downed bird. "Everybody in this town has a retriever," says one Easton resident. "Dogs are a part of the family."
Other popular events include the World Championship Goose Calling Contest and the Mason Dixon Regional Duck Calling Contest, which will be held Saturday night at Easton High School. Participants in the junior and senior categories can use wooden calls or their own lung power to compete for first, second and third place in this traditional event.
The 21st annual Waterfowl Festival will be held in Easton Nov. 8-10. Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. next Sunday.
A one-day ticket costs $8; children under 14 are admitted free with an adult. Only the calling contests and decoy auctions require small additional fees.
While hotels within a 25-mile radius of Easton are typically booked months before the festival, the Talbot County Chamber of Commerce at (301) 822-4606 can provide information on accommodations.
Decoy auction: 2 p.m. Saturday, Easton High School.
Goose and duck-calling contests: 7 p.m. Saturday, the high school.
Retriever demonstrations: 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sunday, Bay Street.
Market gunning demonstrations: 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, St. Michaels.
Here is a list of locations of major events.
High school: Buy, sell and swap; collectibles.
Elks Lodge: Blue Room art (priced under $700).
St. Mark's Church: Artifacts, museum showcase.
Middle school: Gift Shop, collectibles.
Christ Church: Duck stamps.
Academy of the Arts: "Through Artists' Eyes" This exhibit of traditional wildlife art on loan from galleries and private collections will be at the academy through Nov. 30.
Armory: Carving, festival headquarters.
Mayor and Council Building: Eastern Shore artists.
Tidewater Inn: Collectibles, Gold Room art (priced above $700).
Avalon Theatre: Waterfowl Festival seminars.
Historical Society: Photography.
Fire Hall: Workshop