NEWBURYPORT — Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center runs Wednesday Morning Birding from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Wednesday of the year, except in July. Newcomers are always welcome and it is a great introduction to local hotspots and the birds of the area. This program is also highly social birding and many participants have been coming for years. But once a year, the birding serves mostly as prelude to the Chili Fest and Sock Contest.
On Wednesday, Jan. 15, 35 birders, led by sanctuary director Bill Gette and David Weaver, headed out to Plum Island in three minivans and a few cars to look for winter birds. Clearly a highlight of the day was seeing at least seven snowy owls on the island and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.
After the birding part of the program was over, the group headed over to the home of Jock and Nancy Purcell, next to Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury. Since everyone arrives wearing boots (they have been birding after all), the tradition is to de-boot at the door and dine in stocking foot. So, naturally, a Sock Contest became part of the tradition. Competition is fierce, judging is impartial (sort of), and the grand prize (based on weirdness and whim) is a book of coupons for Wednesday Morning Birding programs.
There is a serious underpinning to the birding, feasting and silliness of this day. All of the proceeds from the program and generous contributions from the participants and other supporters go to the Joppa Flats Scholarship Fund. This fund is dedicated to supporting impoverished students in Belize. While Belizean public schools are free, students need to buy uniforms and books and pay fees in order to attend.
Such expenses are out of the reach of many Belizean families. Joppa Flats works with its conservation partners in Belize, Programme for Belize and the Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment, to support as many as five students every year. One of those students from a couple of years ago is now in college in Great Britain, on a full scholarship.