The Story of Southwest Wings
For the love of birds and all things wild ...
Southwest Wings is a celebration of the wonderful biodiversity of the Sky Islands of SE Arizona.
I'm Mari Cea. After nearly a couple of years like no other, it's suddenly Summer 2021. My husband Chris Harbard and I, along with the rest of the Southwest Wings Board of Directors, are honored (and doing our best!) to fill many big shoes left by some wild and wonderful former pioneers.
As you may know, Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival has been flying strong, through monsoons and droughts, for the past 30 years. Even a global pandemic couldn’t stop us! Since 1991, it’s Arizona’s oldest birding festival and the “Greatest Little Birding Festival in the US”, based right here in Sierra Vista AZ, now officially designated the “Hummingbird Capital of the US!”.
How did we get here?
Did some silly fun seeking local birders have the audacity to fluff up their feathers and turn their passion into a nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to promote nature-based tourism and environmental awareness in southeastern Arizona?
Let’s travel back in time and find out.
On behalf of today's Board of Directors, we’ve reached out to our heroes of the past to share their Southwest Wings stories with us.
In the beginning
In 1991, I was manager at The Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve and, as part of our community outreach, I served on the tourism committee of the Sierra Vista Chamber of Commerce. One of the other members, who owned a car stereo store (remember those?), suggested we hold a “hummingbird festival”. I asked where we would send the anticipated throngs of people and he said “Up to Ramsey Canyon".
Tom Wood circa 1991
Since we already were turning away more people than we could accommodate at Ramsey Canyon in August, I proposed we expand the focus and the tours to showcase all the OTHER places people could go to enjoy the biodiversity of the area.
Working with the Chamber’s tourism committee was a challenge – one member thought pet stores and pet bird dealers would be anxious to be exhibitors at the festival. Another, when I suggested a Roadrunner be featured on a poster as a way to deflect the emphasis on hummingbirds, said “No, let’s use a bird”. I had to explain that a Roadrunner was a bird.
"Meep Meep ... I'm a bird"
The first year was successful enough the Chamber agreed to fund a second year, but would only reimburse expenses with no up-front funding. At one point I had the entire festival expenses on my personal credit card. It was a weekend festival held at Oscar Yrun Center with trips on Saturday and Sunday – and it rained 3 inches on Sunday. But we made expenses and I was off the hook.
Southwest Wings was founded in 1991 by members of the Sierra Vista nature community. Original signers of this nonprofit organization were Tricia Gerrodette, Sandy Anderson, Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson.
Priscilla Brodkin, with her late husband, and former Southwest Wings President, Hank.
Still active founders are Sandy Anderson who runs Gray Hawk Nature Center a nonprofit nature education program, and Sheri Williamson & Tom Wood who run the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary in memory of the late Mary Jo Ballator, where birders come from all over the world to see SE Arizona special species.
Southwest Wings past Presidents include Tricia Gerrodette, Wezil Walraven, Hank Brodkin & Gordon Lewis who served from 2007 to 2019. Currently Chris Harbard President & Mari Cea VP are running Southwest Wings as a dynamic husband & wife team. Registration before 2007 was managed by the capable team of Dave & Sherry Cunningham. Our thanks to them for a hard job well done.
Sandy Anderson with one of her reptile friends
Southwest Wings was originally held in local hotels, settling on the Windemere for registration & vendors venue. After a short stint in Bisbee, Southwest Wings moved back to Sierra Vista. Gordon Lewis found a wonderful partner in Cochise College, where vendors, free nature presentations, registration & Keynote Dinners are now held. Cochise College will continue to be our venue in 2022 after a short COVID hiatus. Southwest Wings will continue to celebrate our 30 year Anniversary.
Southwest Wings has some long term serving Board members: Priscilla Brodkin Treasurer from 1999 to 2020, Tom Miscione, Secretary, Swag Master & Art and T-shirt Director & Sally Rosén Vendor Director.
Past Keynote speakers include Kenn Kaufman, Jon Dunn, Rick Taylor, Rick Wright, Pat & Clay Sutton from Cape May, Bill Thompson III & Julie Zickafoose, Sheri Williamson and Scott Wiedensaul: all experts well known in the birding world.
Southwest Wings is the oldest Birding & Nature Festival in Arizona and takes pride in small field trip groups with personal attention, giving a quality experience to our participants! It takes place the first weekend in August with vendors, field trips & speakers including Keynote dinner. Southwest Wings Spring Fling takes place the first weekend in May with field trips only, including evening owling excursions.
Southwest Wings takes huge pride in being the Best Small Birding Festival in the West.
The Long Haul
With so many memories of my years at Southwest Wings it is hard to pick one that stands out from the others. One that I think exemplifies its spirit is a trip from several years ago to Patagonia and Sonoita with a stop at Las Cienegas. The trip was led by Matt Brown whose quiet personality hides a wealth of information he readily shares about the birds and other fauna and flora.
This trip included a side trip to the Black-tailed Prairie Dog project in Las Cienegas. On the way into the prairie dog town the van got stuck in a soft spot from the recent monsoon rains. These vans are big and heavy and despite the best efforts of Matt and the people aboard to move the van, it remained stuck.
No problem. One of the people aboard knew a rancher who lived nearby and called him to come and pull the van out. He arrived shortly and promptly got his truck stuck also.
Thanks to the efforts of the people from our van the truck was extracted and with a new lease on life the truck managed to pull the van out of its mud hole.
Did I mention mud? Arizona mud is special, red and sticky. So everyone involved was pretty well coated. I thought that when they returned I would be dealing with a van full of enraged people. But everyone enjoyed the experience. They bonded through adversity and became best friends, exchanging numbers and email addresses and taking pictures of the van extraction.
For years later small groups from that trip would show up at Southwest Wings on new trips with the acquaintances they made on the Las Cienegas trip. I still have a picture of the muddy group together smiling in front of the unstuck van.
These Changing Times
Board Member 2018-2019; President, 2020-present
Board Member 2019, Vice President, 2020-present
Mari Cea and Chris Harbard
When former SW Wings Director Gordon Lewis announced his departure in mid-Dec 2019, the remaining SW Wings Board of Directors - Secretary, Van Master & Art and T-Shirt Director Tomas Miscione, Vendor Director Sally Rosén, Historian Priscilla Brodkin, new Treasurer Ann Lorris, Field Trips Director Chris Harbard, Free Progams Director Renée Dagseth & Event Registration Director Mari Cea - were thrown for a loop at this sad news. You see, there would be some VERY BIG shoes to fill in Gordon’s absence! The upcoming 2020 May Spring Fling was already well into full production, with the Summer Main Festival in August next up on the agenda. But, as we do, we buckled up for the ride, girded our loins, strapped on our optics and focused on the future.
Firstly we needed to reorganize. The Board voted: Chris, former Head of Media at the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, international traveler, lecturer and guide, and writer on birds, became President and Mari with a background in small group, remote, International Adventure Travel and Hospitality became Vice President. Together we all carried on. Full steam ahead!
Three months later COVID 19 marched right in and slammed the brakes on us. In March 2020 we cancelled our full spring field trips with assigned guides, our Cochise College venue, festival artist Nathalie Aall, catering, vans etc and fully refunded already registered participants. Scheduled Summer vendors, exhibitors, presenters, guides and keynote speaker Kim (and Kenn) Kaufmann were released too.
We were left with the unknown. The pandemic forced us to regroup and re-imagine how to carry on, to keep our mission alive, to keep our community together, to not despair … at a time like no other.
What did we do? Along with the rest of the world, we shape-changed. We revisited our Mission Statement. Ever resourceful, optimistic and driven, we got creative. We got inspired. Overnight we embraced our ‘techy’ selves and became mini-Zoom producing fiends! What started out as a time of tremendous uncertainty turned into an opportunity to produce our Online Speaker Presentations and subsequent YouTube Channel.
Contributions came from amazing and dedicated wildlife warrior presenters, such as Rick Wright, Jillian Cowles, Jeff Babson, Glenn Minuth, Jim Koweek, Ken Blankenship, Diana Hadley, Kathe Anderson and others … along with fabulous nature videos by talented local filmmaker Mike Foster. Thanks to their support we created a wonderful virtual world for our SW Wings Community to enjoy in the safety of their own homes during a global pandemic.
Most importantly, we found a way to stay connected during a time of widespread isolation. In many ways, the pandemic created a new shared reality. BIRDING, from urban balconies and abandoned parks, to the wilds of Southeast Arizona, proved to be a shared bond that inspired us and sparked interest in novice birders through these changing times.
Long time SW Wings supporter Rick Wright gave the first online talk.
Our hope is that this virtual world will continue to grow as an important component to our traditional in person on-site festivals, allowing that broad reach to those who, for whatever reason, may not be able to attend in person. With luck these “new hybrid” festivals will become a firm feature for Southwest Wings as we continue to stay fluid and flexible, to keep shape changing as we evolve and venture into a better future ... for the love of birds, and all things wild.
Starting with this Summer 2021’s “hybrid” festival in celebration of Southwest Wings 30th Anniversary, here’s to the next 30 years and beyond!
Mari Cea and Chris Harbard
FESTIVAL PROGRAMS OVER THE YEARS
Here’s to the next 30 years of amazing Sky Islands birding!
Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival
Spring Fling May 4-7, 2022
Summer Festival Aug 3-6, 2022
Southwest Wings at Cochise College.
Photo: Pam Mowbray-Graeme
We would like to thank all of the board members, guides, keynote speakers, free program presenters, volunteers, vendors, exhibitors, venue staff and especially the participants, who have made Southwest Wings such a success over the years. Thanks also to our many generous donors. Without you all it would not have been possible.
We are looking forward to seeing you all next year!
Southwest Wings Board of Directors
Priscilla Brodkin, since 1999
Tomas Miscione, since 2008
Sally Rosén, since 2014
Chris Harbard, since 2018
Mari Cea, since 2019
Ann Lorris, since 2019
Diane Visty, since 2020