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Bird watching has changed, and masses have followed

05/13/2014, 12:00am EDT
By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Bird watching has changed

Birders use a window to spy on a variety of birds at Swan Creek Metropark. Windows are an easy way for those with health or mobility concerns to enjoy the birds without navigating any trails. The Blade/Andy Morrison

OAK HARBOR — Fair or not, for years avid birders were pigeonholed into a somewhat rigid stereotype: L.L. Bean khakis, floppy hat, Birkenstocks, NPR bumper sticker, maybe a Volvo, checking the retirement fund almost daily, and with a king’s ransom in optics dangling around their necks.

But as this conservation-minded activity has exploded in popularity, that portrait of the “typical birder” has been blown apart too. “Birders” are now a group whose best definition might be: impossible to define.

It’s a continually morphing and growing demographic that will drive the market analysts crazy, and it has been on parade in the bird-filled marshes along Lake Erie north of here, and in the dozens of other popular birding sites around the region as the fifth Biggest Week in American Birding festival continues its 10-day run.

“The so-called birding crowd has grown so diverse that now you see people of all ages, from all walks of life, and from all corners of society,” said Stacy Tornio, editor of Birds & Blooms magazine, who is in northwest Ohio to attend her fourth “Biggest Week.” “You can’t really define the crowds, other than to say there is a shared enjoyment of birds. Beyond that, it’s just everyone.”

The increased number of boardwalks and birding trails has made it easier for novices to fledge into birding, which is either a recreational activity, a hobby, a pastime, a sport, or a passion, depending on the birder in question.

“At any one of the birding sites in this area, you will likely see a number of individuals who are out for the first time, and right next to them will be lifelong birders, a mother with her six-week-old infant in a carrier, and folks who are searching for the best vantage point,” Tornio said.

Some parks have special wildlife viewing windows, which allow those with health or mobility concerns to enjoy the birds without navigating any trails. There is also an emphasis on introductory level talks and tours at “Biggest Week” and other festivals.

The “Biggest Week” is intended to be a celebration of the peak of the spring migration of hundreds of thousands of birds, including some rare and brilliantly-colored warblers. These birds use the marshes, meadows and woodlots around the western Lake Erie shoreline as a stopover to rest and feed before the long water crossing on their trip from their southern wintering grounds to nesting areas in Canada.

The crowd on any one day might include elementary school kids on a carefree field trip, college biology students intently taking notes, older birders from the American southwest who are getting baptized every few minutes with a new sighting, a group of Amish birders from central Ohio, and more than a few “locals” who just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It is a cornucopia of humanity that appears to blend somewhat seamlessly.

“I don’t think you will find a friendlier group overall,” Tornio said. “People don’t need a lot of equipment to go out here and enjoy this, because others seem so willing to share. They’ll hand someone else their binoculars or spotting scope, just so more people can enjoy what there is to see. There’s nothing exclusive about this – the goal is to get the whole group to see as much as possible.”

There is also a conscious push to share this region’s birding bounty with all corners of the globe. Tornio said that on an outing in the Toledo area last week, she was part of a group that included birders from Madagascar, California and London.

“When you bring birders together, no matter what the level of experience or expertise, you can really see the comradery working,” Tornio said. “You can’t help but meet other birders, since we’re all out here for the same basic reason.”

And the ardent conservationists understand the strength there is in numbers. Avian author Kenn Kaufman, who delivered a keynote address at the “Biggest Week” Saturday and has led several other events at the festival, said he sees the influx of new birders as crucial to the effort to protect and preserve vital bird habitat.

“I'm a firm believer in the notion that we will gain more support for wildlife conservation if we just get more people interested in nature in general,” he said. “In my books, I’ve sought to make bird identification easy for a huge new community of birders. The newcomers are the ones that have the most pressing need for information, and it is wise to provide that as they come out and take part in this.”

Tornio said that as birding attracts greater flocks of people, it also opens many eyes to the habitat connection.

“Backyard birders far outnumber the serious birders, but if we can encourage them to go out in the field and see birds you will never see at your feeder, that helps tremendously,” she said. “Seeing them firsthand, in their habitat, makes you realize that connection between birds and the need for habitat. So, as more and more people get involved in birding, the push for protecting habitat only gets stronger.”

BLUE WEEK: The opportunity to explore Oak Openings is the highlight of "Blue Week," which runs through Sunday. There are hiking, biking, gardening, art, and food-related activities, plus a keynote address by Kim Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, at the dinner and raffle on Friday at 6:30 in the Ward Pavilion at Wildwood Preserve Metropark. Kaufman will speak on “Marketing the Warbler Capital of the World: Spring songbird migration in northwest Ohio.” Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at oakopenings.org.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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