This fall, as V-shaped formations of Canada geese wing their way down the Atlantic Flyway across Maryland's Eastern Shore, another kind of migration will take place on the roads leading to the Colonial-era town of Easton.
Twenty thousand visitors are expected at this year's 23rd annual Waterfowl Festival Nov. 12-14, which organizers say draws outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers and friends of the Chesapeake Bay from across the United States -- and from around the world.
And no wonder: The event is a showcase for the nation's top wildlife artists, carvers and photographers.
"We've started to call it a 'happening,' " says Ann White, administrator of the Waterfowl Festival. "The festival is unique because it's not held in one building -- it's spread out over the entire town. In fact, the town is consumed by the whole thing."
Seventeen locations in and around Easton will house 475 of the nation's top artisans, who will be on hand to display and sell their work. Also, artists from the Netherlands, Australia and Canada will be in attendance this year.
Festival hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 for a three-day pass good for unlimited visits throughout the event. Children age 14 and under, accompanied by an adult, will be admitted free.
Free shuttle service
Easton will close its streets to vehicular traffic during the festival. Free shuttle buses will provide transportation from outlying parking areas into town and to exhibition sites outside of the downtown area. "It's easy to get around," Ms. White says.
Baltimore oil painter David T. Turnbaugh says he's been exhibiting at the Waterfowl Festival for "12 or 15 years." He'll be there this year, too.
"The show is a real nice place to be on an autumn afternoon," Mr. Turnbaugh says. "Most people who attend the festival really seem to enjoy it."
His favorite subject is Canada geese. "That's probably because they're what I see the most on the Eastern Shore," he says. "My painting this year is 'Winter Evening,' which shows 15 or 16 geese standing on the ice in a marsh, while a few are taking off."
The scene shows off the subtlety and beauty of the region, the painter says. "That's what's terrific about the Eastern Shore -- even in the winter it's extremely colorful. A lot of people aren't too wild about snow, but the reds and oranges and yellows of the grasses and weeds are brilliant against the white."
'A Chesapeake celebration'
While the festival is a class event that draws serious collectors (paintings can sell for as much as $12,000), the real story behind it is one of devotion to wildfowl conservation: $2.7 million has been raised by the nonprofit festival over the past 22 years to benefit native and migrating waterfowl.
"It's a benefit for conservation organizations all over the U.S.," Ms. White says. "It's a Chesapeake celebration."
Any advice for first-time visitors?
"It takes at least two days to see the whole thing," Ms. White advises. "Anyone from the beginning art enthusiast to an art critic will enjoy the festival, as well as people who enjoy scenes of the outdoors and wildlife."
Be forewarned that lodgings book quickly for festival weekend. "There are a few accommodations left in and around the area, mostly bed-and-breakfasts," says Maureen Ober, director of the Talbot County Conference Visitors Bureau, who recommends booking now for next year. For information, call (410) 822-4606.
This year, overnighters and day-trippers will be able to see about 1,000 paintings on display, Ms. White says. In addition, 100 antique decoy dealers will be on hand to sell their wares. "Some old decoys are terribly collectible," she says. "Prices can range up to $30,000 -- it's like collecting stamps."
Demonstrations each day
Workshop exhibits will feature 18 artists demonstrating painting, carving and sculpting. Children -- and most adults -- won't want to miss the retriever demonstrations, featuring trained dogs fetching objects from the water. The demos are to be held at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. each day of the festival.
Carvers will be demonstrating their skills in two exhibition areas. "We're going to have a spectacular carving that's 6 feet high and 8 feet wide called 'Wabash River Woodies,' " Ms. White says. "The carver has been working on it for at least a year."
Bronze sculptors are a recent addition to the festival, Ms. White says: "Its popularity is spreading east from the West Coast. This year we've invited about 12 bronze sculptors to attend."
In addition to exhibitors and demonstrations, visitors to the festival can attend seminars on a wide range of topics, including wildlife photography, research and carving.
Special events occurring at specific times throughout the festival include a decoy auction (Saturday; preview at noon, auction at 2 p.m.), duck- and goose-calling contests (Saturday, 7 p.m.) and a shooting exhibition (Sunday, 10 a.m.).
Between exhibits, visitors can stroll Easton's tree-lined streets, listen to wandering musicians and sample Chesapeake Bay delicacies such as oysters, crab cakes and spiced hot cider sold by street vendors.
Taking in a concert
And apres festival? Easton is home to a wide range of restaurants. In addition, festivalgoers can become concertgoers at Easton's Avalon Theatre: Tom Rush is in concert Friday, followed by John Sebastian on Saturday. Tickets are $15 each; call (410) 822-3744 for more concert information.
Question: How can this nonprofit festival afford to give away so much money -- as much as $250,000 this year -- to conservation efforts?
"It's because we have a paid staff of four -- and 1,200 volunteers," Ms. White says with a laugh.
"They volunteer for a lot of reasons: Some believe strongly in conservation, some like to have their minds challenged, and others like to meet friends and people from all over."
Without a doubt, it's the contagious enthusiasm of the volunteers that makes the Waterfowl Festival a success. "Visitors say they love coming here because the people are so friendly," Ms. White says.