SALISBURY - From the days of Crisfield's Ward Brothers, Lem and Steve, bird carving has evolved from its utilitarian beginnings as a tool for hunting, into a fine art which is coveted by celebrities and avid collectors alike.
These carvings mimic wildfowl species such as red tail hawks, bald eagles, saw whet owls, wood ducks and hundreds of other wildfowl species from around the globe.
Now in its 42nd year, world-class artists from the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia will return to Ocean City, to showcase their carving skills at the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition and Art Festival.
The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, Salisbury University, hosts the competition, which will take place at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center from April 27 to 29.
On display will be more than 1,400 wildfowl carvings by artists representing all levels of experience - from youth to world champions. Nearly $70,000 in cash and prizes will be awarded, in addition to the honor of having their work on display at the Ward Museum for one year.
This year's festival features the inaugural competition of the Delmarva Dock Dogs. Throughout the weekend, Delmarva Dock Dogs will present the "Big Air Wave" competition, accompanied by Extreme Vertical and Speed Retrieval competitions.
The Big Air competition features dogs running down a 40-foot dock, and diving into a pool of water after an object, then are electronically judged for the length of their jump. The Extreme Vertical competition is a "high jump" for the dogs lunging to snag a "bumper" suspended in the air. With each grab, the height increases by two-inch increments until only one dog is crowned king.
Rounding out the action is the newest form of competition: Speed Retrieval. The dogs are put on the clock to see how fast they can run down the dock, jump into the water, swim to the end of the pool and retrieve an object held by a modified extender arm.
The competitions are open to the public. Teams will be comprised of one dog and one handler, and the dogs must be six months or older to participate. Handlers must be at least seven years old.
Also making its initial debut is Skyhunters in Flight, a demonstration of the ancient art of falconry, with master falconer Brian Bradley on April 28-29.
Supported by the John M. Maphis Memorial Fund, Bradley presents an educational lecture with live birds on display, followed by free flight demonstrations with a variety of raptors from around the world. Audience members have the opportunity to watch a hawk and a falcon sharpen their hunting skills while experiencing the silent flight of an owl.
They will also learn about the raptors' many adaptations for survival, and how they play a vital role at the top of the food chain in the environment. Because many of these majestic birds hunt only in remote places or at night, bird lovers and photographers alike will have a rare opportunity to interact with and observe these raptors.
According to Laura Bottinelli, executive director of the Ward Museum, this year's event promises to be among the best in the history of the competition. "Not only will we have more international carvers and a host of new vendors, but we are excited that we've added live demonstrations of falconry and the wonderful Dock Dogs.
"We hope everyone will stop by over the three days of competition and experience the excitement of this amazing art form and meet some of the best carvers in the world."
In addition to viewing the DockDogs, raptors and world-class carvings and sculptures, visitors can shop at more than 100 vending booths to purchase paintings, photography, carvings, bronze sculptures, jewelry, and folk art, home decorating items and carving supplies.
For the avid decoy collector, or anyone wishing to begin their own collection, Saturday's live auction provides a chance to bid on original carvings by top artists from around the world. There also is a silent auction for the two winning carvings from the Champagne Waterfowl and Champagne Waterfowl Champion divisions.
Additionally, visitors can purchase carvings directly from the artists at the Carvers Art Shop.
Activities for children are plentiful at the Kids Corner where they can create soap carvings, carve feathers using power tools, receiving instruction from a world champion carver and decoy painting, among others.
Visitors are also encouraged to stop by the museum to view the exhibit, Open to Interpretation; in 1987, the Ward World Championship introduced an interpretive category to the lineup of divisions, allowing the carvings that emphasize form, content and movement over realism.
This exhibit in the LaMay Gallery features paintings, carvings and other sculpture rendered in ways that break from realism to provoke thought and wonder.
A list of hotels offering special rates to visitors attending the show is available on the museum's Web site. Show hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, April 27, and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, April 28, with the awards ceremony beginning at 5 p.m. On Sunday, April 29, show hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students.
Children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by a paying adult. Three-day passes to the event are available for $18.
For more information, call 410-742-4988, ext. 120, or visit the Ward Museum Web site at www.wardmuseum.org