For more than 50 years, the Waterfowl Festival has been the party of the season in Easton and Talbot County. This year it’s being celebrated by the Talbot County Economic Development Commission for its impact on the community.
“The Waterfowl Festival is a celebration of all things waterfowl, all things Eastern Shore, all things Easton and Talbot County,” says Kevin Greaney, president of the Festival’s Board of Directors. “We usually have about 15,000 people who come for the day or for the whole weekend.”
Named for the birds that overwinter on or near the inlets and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay region, the Festival is always held the second full weekend in November. It features 15 venues with more than 250 artists and vendors, including sculptors, painters, carvers, and photographers from around the world. Other favorite activities include retriever demonstrations, diving dog competitions, and waterfowl calling contests.
The first festival was held in 1971 and arose out of the local community’s interest in local traditions and the protection of habitat for winter waterfowl. Since then it has played host to generations of visitors who love wildlife art and the sporting lifestyle. These days, it feels a lot like coming home, even to those who don’t live here full time.
“We are now seeing our fourth generation of visitors and they are being carried or pushed in strollers by their parents and grandparents,” says Margaret Enloe, executive director of Waterfowl Chesapeake, the conservation partner of the festival. “We love that people come back for this Eastern Shore homecoming year after year after year.”
What’s more, the festival is largely run by volunteers. Each year, 700 to 1,000 volunteers invest their time to make Waterfowl Festival a success, and more than 75 community partners and sponsors offer vital support to the event, too. “This is an enormous indicator of community buy-in and community involvement,” Enloe notes.
“You can see pillars of the community putting in their time to make this event happen,” Greaney agrees. “Nobody is above or below. That is really what makes it a special event.”
Still, the Waterfowl Festival is more than just a party. It is often the proverbial golden goose for Festival vendors and local businesses. An economic impact study conducted in 2019 by Rockport Analytics found that shopping, dining, and lodging by festival visitors generated an economic impact of $2.6 million.
Almost $500,000 of that total impact comes from the Waterfowl Festival itself, which focuses on spending operations dollars locally in creating the annual event. A total of 74 cents from each dollar spent during the festival weekend remains in Talbot County. All these figures are remarkable for a once-a-year, three-day festival of its size.
The study also highlights things that local residents and visitors value about the Waterfowl Festival. Most residents recognize the crucial role the Festival plays in keeping traditions alive and believe it is “very important or essential” to showcasing local culture and heritage, uniting the community toward a common goal, and igniting a sense of community pride.
The year 2020 would have been the 50th year for Easton’s Waterfowl Festival. While in person festivities were cancelled, the Festival marched into its second 50 years by launching a series of online events including a virtual art gallery and an online decoy auction.
While the hiatus did little to dampen the enthusiasm for future events, it did slow contributions to waterfowl conservation, a core mission of the nonprofit organization.
“Over the years, we have invested nearly $4 million in habitat conservation, more than $1.2 million in education, and more than $26,000 in wildlife research initiatives, not to mention our scholarships” Enloe says. “COVID made last year a little tight and we weren’t able to do as much as we would have liked, but we are looking toward the future. The 2021 Waterfowl Festival isn’t the end of a 50-year run. It’s the kick off for our next 50 years.”
The 50th Waterfowl Festival is scheduled for November 12-14.