Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Parks and Birders: A Natural Pair: Why Parks Should Work to Attract Birding Enthusiasts

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Parks and Birders: A Natural Pair: Why Parks Should Work to Attract Birding Enthusiasts

Article excerpt

Birding, the most accessible form of wildlife watching, continues to be the fastest growing outdoor recreational activity in the U.S., according to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment. The 1st century version of "birdwatching," birding is an activity that's not only growing in popularity, but an activity that park managers, planners and recreation resource professionals should recognize as having the potential to enhance visitor experiences and contribute to protection of park resources.

"Birders are some of the best park citizens there are," says Chris Wagnon, chief of natural and historical resources for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, in Prince George's County, Md. "They don't litter, they report unsafe conditions and they are some of the best volunteers we have. They turn up at budget hearings to support us, and they are the staunchest supporters for land acquisition and conservation."

Birding is no longer solely the province of Nettie S. Himmelfarb and other skulking old ladies in tennis shoes. Birders now come from all walks of life, and include families, travelers, seniors and professionals. The pastime has changed considerably in the past half-century for several reasons--improvements in quality optics such as binoculars and spotting scopes; increased opportunities for recreational travel; and, especially, the development of popular field guides to bird identification. The recently published Sibley Guide to Birds (Knopf) has sold more than 600,000 copies, and is frequently on local area bestseller lists.

Birding is starting to show some real economic muscle as more and more businesses market to birders. Outdoor clothing manufacturers, travel promoters, heritage tourism planners and a range of birding-related suppliers are recognizing the vast purchasing power of a growing army of birders. Birders now represent the largest consumer bloc in the binocular industry, with more than so percent of all binoculars purchased for birding. Retailers and manufacturers are finding that birders want high-quality merchandise and will pay handsomely for it.

Staying Close to the Nest

Although birders bird everywhere they go, most birders bird locally. So while there are increasing numbers of birders who travel across the country, from Alaska to Florida, and while there's a growing business in bird treks to the Galapagos, Costa Rica and even Kenya, most birding occurs close to home in local parks, recreation areas, wildlife management areas and nature reserves. Birders' preferred method is to take short birding trips to wildlife refuges on weekends or days off, or just spend an hour in a local park. The choice of where to go birding next is paramount in the minds of a growing birder population, and park and recreation resources managers would do well to consider how to make their parks "birder-friendly."

What do birders want? Frequently, all they really want is to be left alone. However, there are some modest amenities that birders want; first and foremost among them is access. Wagnon says, "Birders go into virtually every part of our park system, and we are happy they do. They are often our eyes and ears. We learn of unsafe conditions, vandalism and environmental hazards from birders. Best of all, their legitimate use of the parks deters illegal and unauthorized use."

Birders do want a few other things, including trails that are accessible and that traverse a variety of habitats. They appreciate high-quality signage, especially informational signs. They love observation towers, especially around wetlands, and often will volunteer to help build observation blinds at good birding spots. Birders very much want good maps; the more detailed the better.

Birders of different skill levels have different interests. Serious "listers" will think nothing of jumping in the car to drive 100 miles to see a rarity that they don't have on their list of birds seen in their lifetime, and will go to extraordinary lengths to see really rare birds. …

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