Dabbing her brush in brown and blue watercolor paints, Phyllis Dixon captures on paper her childhood memories of autumns near Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, where “migrating birds seemed to take over the whole world.”
“You paint what you know,” says Dixon, 65, using her brush to wash slate blue hues around the head of a bufflehead duck painted during last year’s Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Md. (pop. 15,945).
Dixon, of nearby Kent Island, Md., is among 300 artists who bring their talents and love of waterfowl to Easton each November for the festival, where up to 18,000 visitors flock to enjoy the arts, contribute to wildlife conservation and celebrate the region’s annual migration of Canada geese.
Established in 1710 along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, the Colonial-era town is a natural venue for the annual event, begun in 1971 and now one of the premiere wildlife festivals along the East Coast.
“With 602 miles of shoreline, we have more water than land here in Talbot County,” says woodcarver Bernard Burns, 82, of Easton, who’s displayed his waterfowl decoys at the festival for 25 years.
His inspiration is the sights and sounds of migrating birds flying along the shore in V-shaped formations each fall. Canada geese are drawn to the area’s cornfields and other agricultural lands, and an array of duck species forage in nearby wetlands, including those along the upper Choptank River and in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge.
“Easton has made [for] a natural stopping point for Canada geese and wild ducks as they make their way down the Atlantic flyway,” says festival volunteer Sylvia Gannon, 76, who is among the event’s charter members.
During the last century, however, wildlife populations dwindled-a trend noticed by conservationists as well as business and community leaders.
“These folks foresaw the consequences of overhunting and the destruction of habitat due to increasing development,” says Judy Price, 57, the festival’s executive director and a resident of nearby Grasonville.
Recognizing the importance of freshwater birds to the region’s environment, culture and economy, leaders organized to preserve and share the migrating waterfowl with the world by starting the Easton festival 40 years ago.
The first festival drew 4,000 visitors and raised $7,500 for wildlife conservation projects. During the next four decades, the event grew to between 15,000 and 18,000 festivalgoers, 1,500 volunteers and 400 exhibitors, and has contributed about $5 million to restore wetland habitats and fund other conservation projects.
Easton hosts its three-day festival on the second weekend of each November, allowing only pedestrian traffic on its picturesque streets lined with specialty shops, restaurants and art galleries. Paintings, photography and waterfowl carvings are prominently displayed.
The aromas of hot crab cakes, clam chowders, oysters and crab soups fill the air, thanks to the civic groups, churches and other vendors that serve seafaring cuisine. Raymond Copper, 71, executive chef of Easton’s historic Tidewater Inn, has ladled snapper turtle soup at every festival since its inception-always using local turtles and stewing the soup in the same tradition.
Shuttles take visitors to 12 art venues throughout Easton, as well as to retriever-jumping and fly-fishing demonstrations, decoy auctions, concerts and the World Championship Goose Calling Contest. All are in keeping with the heritage of Easton and the rhythms of nature’s seasons, particularly the fall waterfowl migration along the waterfront.
“There’s a special quality of life here,” says Sharon Stockley, 66, a glass and metals sculptor who lives on a farm outside of Easton. “It’s a little slower and a little more thoughtful.”