Birdwatching hobby takes flight
im Rapp has one hand on the wheel and the other holding a pair of binoculars as he drives his truck slowly down a gravel drive on the banks of a Chesapeake Bay marsh.
“Do you see that? Right there?” he whispers, excitedly pointing to a black-and-white bird dabbing its beak in the mud. “That’s a black-necked stilt. Wow. Oh, wow!”
Not since the days of John James Audubon have birds gotten so much attention from naturalists. While hunting and fishing are declining in popularity, the old-fashioned act of birdwatching is hot again as people look for outdoor activities that don’t require a lot of equipment or training.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which tracks wildlife recreation, birdwatching is now a hobby of 47.8 million Americans, with “wildlife watching” up 8 percent from 2000 to 2006. The birdwatching trend comes as both hunting and fishing declined in popularity, by 4 percent and 12 percent, respectively, over the same period.
More than 20 states have created “birding trails” since 2000 to guide newcomers to good spots to watch fowl. Outfitters that once specialized in hunting expeditions or horseback riding are branching out to offer trips focusing on feathery critters, too.
Rapp wants to help the Chesapeake region cash in on the trend. A former zookeeper, Rap heads Delmarva Low-Impact Tourism Experiences, a nonprofit that aims to boost ecotourism in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
Rapp is beginning work on a “Cape to Cape Trail” from Cape May, N.J., to Cape Charles, Va., to show off the region’s bountiful bird population, including one of the nation’s highest concentrations of bald eagles. Peregrine falcons roam the skies around the Chesapeake Bay, and the marshes along the Atlantic coast attract migrating waterfowl in the fall and spring.
Standing on the bed of his truck in the Deal Island Wildlife Management Area, Rapp spies plenty of birds despite the hot weather.
“I see one, two, three, four, five different species of birds right now,” he says, pointing his binoculars toward a marshy copse of trees in the distance. Herons and egrets seem not to mind the attention, but rarer black ducks fly away in groups when Rapp’s truck rumbles down the gravel.
At Pocomoke River Canoe Co. in nearby Snow Hill, customers are now given laminated pictures of birds in the area to carry along on their paddles.
“It seems to be growing year by year,” canoe guide Ron Pilling says of birdwatching. Then he boasts, “Almost everyone has seen bald eagles this year. Almost everyone.”
Rich in waterfront woodlands, Maryland certainly has plenty to show birders. But it’s late to the trend of state birding trails, which started in Texas in 2000 and were so popular they inspired birding trails in many other regions.
“Birds are everywhere. You don’t have to go to the Serengeti to see birds. You can see them right in your backyard,” says Nancy Severance, spokeswoman for the New York-based Audubon Society, which promotes habitat protection and birding.
Tourism officials attribute the rise in birdwatching in part to a graying population. Some baby boomers give up hunting because it’s too rigorous; others want to see wildlife in their retirement years but don’t want to take up a new, strenuous hobby.
“It’s a chance to be outdoors and be active, but it doesn’t require all the exertion of tennis or something,” said Tom Wood, naturalist for the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory in Bisbee, Ariz. “You can be alone, do it as a couple, take the kids _ it takes all different forms.”
Wood said birdwatching has long been a hidden hobby, but since Texas’ trails took off, tourism officials now recognize the value of attracting birders.
“They’re not out there wearing orange blazers or carrying golf clubs, but they’re out there, and they’re a big market,” he said.
It’s a profitable market for tourism industry workers who spot it. Norma Dorenkamp of Holly, Colo., started a horseback-riding bed-and-breakfast and didn’t even think to promote the lesser prairie chickens common to southeast Colorado. Then a friend mentioned it to Dorenkamp’s husband, and the couple’s Arena Dust Tours now offers as many birding expeditions as traditional ranch vacations.
“We tried it and now we have all these birdwatchers,” Dorenkamp said. The couple has seen visitors increase in all three years they’ve been offering the prairie chicken tours, and Dorenkamp sees room for more growth.
“Anybody can be a birdwatcher. You can do it in your backyard or you can go thousands of miles. And you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment,” she said.
Birders may not need expensive equipment, but they have money to spend. Americans spent $45 billion observing, feeding and photographing wildlife in 2006, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey. And since the hobby requires no expensive infrastructure, rural towns across the nation are looking to attract birders.
“These folks are well-educated and well-compensated, and they will spend money if they have the opportunity,” said Mary Jeanne Packer, a project manager for ecotourism company Fermata, Inc. Packer has consulted on the creation of birding trails in Alabama, Louisiana, Illinois and New York. She said towns are eager to attract birders because birders tend to be affluent and seek out local businesses.
“They want to stay at a local inn with high-speed Internet. They want to eat at a restaurant with a nice wine list. They want to shop for local pottery. And they are a very thoughtful group that believes in leaving no trace, so they don’t require a lot of municipal services to clean up after them.”
Several counties in Maryland have birdwatching brochures, and Rapp helped create a book guide of the Eastern Shore several years ago. But he says a Chesapeake region birding trail, complete with roadside markers and multistate promotion, would get even more people interested. And then, they might be more interested in environmental protection.
“My hope is that if we can elevate this as a way to explore nature, then people would see what we have right here and the importance of this habitat,” Rapp said.
On the Net:
List of birding trails: http://www.audubon.org/bird_trails/backseat_birder.html
Delmarva Low-Impact Tourism Experiences: http://www.delmarvalite.org
U.S. Fish & Wildlife survey: http://federalasst.fws.gov/surveys/surveys.html
Arena Dust Tours: http://www.arenadusttours.com