By Howard Meyerson
Kay Charter recalls her “epiphany,” the moment she knew she wanted to do something for birds. It was 1992. She was poking around the lot behind her Northport home. A family of Winter Wrens emerged from under a brush pile. Charter found herself deeply moved.
“They are one of my favorite birds,” explains Charter, who started birdwatching 30 years ago. “Not many get to see Winter Wrens come out of a nest. I was saddened to realize that we are losing these little birds to people who are developing their habitat. I felt an uncontrollable urge to do something to make a positive difference for birds.”
She and her husband, Jim, decided as a result of the experience to sell the house and buy 47 acres of mixed habitat near Omena. The property would become Charter Sanctuary, home to 60 nesting bird species and a stopover spot for many others. It would also become the eventual base for a non-profit she helped form in 2001 called Saving Birds Thru Habitat.
That organization today, with its dedicated nature center and three-acre parcel deeded to the non-profit by the Charters, attracts more than 1,500 human visitors each year. What began as a personal endeavor to protect birds has since become a popular travel destination for birding enthusiasts around the country.
They come from as far away as Washington DC and the state of Washington, according to Charter. Some arrive in the area for the Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival every May, but others visit the sanctuary for nature photography workshops or birding walks, or to tour the property and learn how they can manage land for the good of birds. School groups also regularly visit to learn about bird conservation.
“Our reach goes from California to Connecticut,” said Charter, the executive director for Saving Birds Thru Habitat. “We have member support from all over the country.”
“Birders spent an estimated $15 billion on their trips and $26 billion on equipment in 2011.”
–U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2011 report “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis.”
Money talks in the world of bird conservation and birdwatching. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates 47 million people, 20 percent of the U.S. population, are birdwatchers. Eighty eight percent (41 million) are backyard birdwatchers; 38 percent (18 million) travel to watch birds. Those findings were reported in the agency’s 2011 report “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis.” It is an addendum to the USFWS National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, produced every five years.
“Birders spent an estimated $15 billion on their trips and $26 billion on equipment in 2011,” the report states, later adding that those expenditures resulted in $107 billion in direct and indirect economic impacts. They supported 666,000 part-time and full-time jobs, creating $31 billion in employment income, which generated $6 billion in state tax revenue and $7 billion in federal tax revenue.
Approximately two million people, residents and non-residents, watched birds in Michigan in 2011, the same survey reports. Most (1.6 million) watch birds around the home. They spend money on feeders, seed, and binoculars along with other bird-watching gear, magazines and memberships. Approximately 818,000 traveled away from home to see birds.
Wildlife Watching, the broader category tracked by USFWS, includes bird watching along with feeding, photographing, and traveling to see other wildlife. It accounted for $1.2 billion spent in Michigan. Trip-related expenses amounted to $417 million and an average away-from-home trip expense of $425 per person.
Adam Byrne is not your typical traveling bird watcher. The highly dedicated bird chaser from DeWitt has been known to hop in his car at any hour if he sees an online posting about an unusual bird. On one spontaneous road trip last summer, having driven to Grand Marais to observe a rare Berylline Hummingbird, Byrne noticed 38 others had also come to the shores of Lake Superior. They drove in from Detroit, Traverse City, Flint, and Lansing, even Wisconsin, Ontario, as well as other Upper Peninsula locales.
“I will bet at least 50 people went to see that bird,” said Byrne, Michigan’s eBird reviewer. “At minimum they had gas expenses, but I know some got hotels in St. Ignace and went back the next day. It’s very common to pay for lodging on a weekend trip. [Last fall] there was a Scissortail Flycatcher near Ludington. Someone posted it. At least 30 people went to see it. A ton of people downstate chased it. The majority of those are not spending a lot of money, but when I go somewhere to see a bird, I try to visit the local bakery and contribute. I tell people that when they visit a town, let them know you are there for the birds.”
Chuck Allen knows all too well the economic impact that birders have. He is the manager
for Tawas Point State Park, in East Tawas, where thousands of birdwatchers converge each May for the Tawas Point Birding Festival. Visitors observed 187 bird species at the 2014 event. The influx of birdwatchers filled empty campsites, hotel rooms, and restaurants.
“We fill 80 to 90 campsites because of the festival, at a time when we might otherwise fill 15,” Allen said. “We calculate the average state park visitor spends $120 a day in the local community. I don’t think people realize the economic impact that birding has on the state. I know the local hotels do very well. It’s the same with the restaurants. And it’s not just here in Tawas. Oscoda benefits as well. Some of the birding tours go to Oscoda.”
New Beaver Island birding trail
Beaver Island businesses also got a taste of that bounty last May when the new Beaver Island Birding Trail was dedicated on the island. Pam Grassmick, who co-founded the trail with Kay Charter, said the event drew 100 people, many from the mainland. They bought ferry tickets and paid for lodging and food during a “shoulder-season” when business is typically light, and island restaurants and motels are often closed.
Grassmick predicts that birding traffic to the island will increase substantially in future years because of the trail. The trail website registered 300,000 hits in its first seven months. Visitors to the island, she said, often stay in motels on the mainland. They may visit towns like Petoskey and Charlevoix on the way home after the event.
“We have had hundreds visit so far this year,” Grassmick said. “We’ve gone through 600 rack cards, 1,000 maps, and 1,000 bird checklists. The island is an IBA [Important Bird Area]; we’re expecting to see a lot of growth. We’re located in the middle of the lake, and it’s a critical stop-over point for birds. We have had tons of people ask when the next event will be. We’re planning one for Memorial Weekend in 2015. That will be called Warblers on the Water.”
A pelagic bird trip organized last fall sold out in three days, according to Grassmick. Thirty-seven birdwatchers arrived from around the state to observe fall water birds from the decks of the Beaver Island ferry. The group ate on the island and stayed overnight. Many businesses were closed for the season, but some were willing to accommodate the group.
“The restaurants were packed and had to put on extra help,” Grassmick said. “They were thrilled with the experience. The Emerald Isle motel owner was totally booked and asked ‘Can’t you do this every weekend?’”
© 2015 Howard Meyerson
Appears in the Jack Pine Warbler, publication of Michigan Audubon Society