Tourism experts say birdwatching is one of the fastest-growing leisure pursuits in North America. In Ohio alone, more than 23,000 people are members of the Audubon Society, the nation's oldest naturalist group dedicated to an appreciation of avian species. Add to that the thousands of amateur birdwatchers who flock to the shores of Lake Erie every spring and fall for the annual migrations and you get some idea of the tourism potential of birdwatching in Ohio. This fall, a dedicated group of bird enthusiasts came together to designate the whole of Kelleys Island just off the coast of Sandusky in Lake Erie as an Audubon Society Important Bird Area. They're hoping to make people more aware of an abundant natural resource - and bring more tourism dollars to the local economy. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer: If you want to watch birds - or just learn about watching them - you've got to get up with - well - the birds. These early risers dressed in parkas and draped with cameras and binoculars were on the seven-o'clock ferry to Kelleys Island this fall. That's 7 a.m. - and some of these 30-odd birdwatchers came from communities east of Cleveland. Despite the hour and the pale dawn light, they're cheerfully awaiting the arrival of Ohio Department of Natural Resources research botanist Jim McCormick. He's leading the group on a bird walk this morning on the Kelleys Island Boardwalk.
Jim McCormick: Is there anyone that considers themselves a really good birder here? So I can know if I can lie or not? We're just going to walk around and see what we can see. There's a Swainson's thrush just called. Birds have an uncanny knack, though. Once you stop and - you hear that? - they shut up, almost without fail.
KS: McCormick studies plants, but his first love is birds. He says anyone can learn how to tell a yellow-bellied sapsucker from a red-eyed vireo with a good pair of binoculars, a bird book or two - and a little bit of practice.
JM: This time of year you've really got to hunt and peck and work to get decent looks at things. Oh there's a... yellow-bellied sapsucker! Come here everyone!
KS: The group is lucky to spot the small, brightly-colored woodpecker. This morning strong winds from the tail-end of a storm have kept most migrating birds huddled on the mainland, waiting to gather their strength for the hop across the Lake Erie Island archipeligo. Some of these birdwatchers seem a little disappointed. They were hoping to spot more of the species on their Ohio bird checklists. But others are content to just to tag along.
Woman: We've never been.
KS: Oh, this is your first time?
Woman: Yeah. Always wondered what people did. It's a good excuse to be out with nature. And if they catch something interesting along the way, that's good.
KS: And a crick in the neck.
KS: There are more than 200 species of birds to be seen and heard here along Lake Erie in the path of the Mississippi Flyway. So it's no surprise that birdwatching is becoming big business in the $7 billion regional tourism industry. Even a novice birdwatcher has to have the right equipment. Many amateur ornithologists are Baby Boomers or retirees who also spend money on gas, food, lodging, souvenir T-shirts, and - in the case of Kelleys Island - ferry tickets. Dolores Cole is a member of the island chapter of the Audubon Society. She organizes spring and fall bird walks with local experts like Jim McCormick. Cole says eco-tourism is a new concept for islanders used to summer beach and boating crowds. But she says her group is hoping to capture some of the new birdwatching tourism dollars for the local economy.
Dolores Cole: You know, we just started this, because basically it's a boating and fishing environment. So in the spring, you know throughout the week, we could have a couple hundred people. And this real low-key here, it's not real crowded. You know, we have thousands here in the middle of the summer, but it's really peaceful and nice.
KS: Today's bird walk is just part of a special event that's brought together bird experts from all over the region. Audubon Society members are celebrating the designation of Kelleys Island as an Important Bird Area. Events like an annual hawk watch and seasonal bird banding have helped document the number and diversity of species that migrate through the island. Kevin Metcalf is a naturalist with the Cleveland Metroparks.
Kevin Metcalf: Well, let's see. One, two, three, four...five...six...seven, eight, nine...ten...eleven. Turkey vulture, sharpshin, American kestrel, ospery, and bald eagle.
KS: Tom Bartlett is a master bander who comes to the island every year to capture and band song birds like the yellow warblers that fly over Lake Erie on their annual pilgrimage to Mexico.
Tom Bartlett: The first year we started banding here we caught a yellow warbler that was eight years old that had been banded at the Davis-Besse power plant on the mainland. That was an old bird, because they went there in South America. So it goers to South America, comes back here, goes to South America. So it's made at least eight trips.
KS: It's these years of data that convinced state Audubon officials of the importance of Kelleys Island's natural areas as a feeding ground for migrating birds. While there's no official protection extended to Ohio's 96 IBA's, supporters here are hoping to create a greater local awareness of the need to safeguard the island's still-extensive open space against over-development. Ohio ornithologist Vic Fazio says in his 25 years of studying Great Lakes birds, he's watched important bird habitat disappear.
Vic Fazio: We do get to experience the occasional fall out here, tremendous numbers. Just last Sunday was one of the greatest fall outs I've experienced, several thosuand warblers.
KS: But for politicians like state legislator Chris Redfern of Port Clinton, it's the dollars and cents of the birdwatching boom that makes the Kelleys Island Important Bird Area a sound investment.
Chris Redfern: Not just important for the environmental aspects, but important for the economic reasons, the fact that thousands of birders come to this region every year and spend their hard-earned money right here in the local economy.
KS: Next year, Lake Erie tourism officials hope to attract more birdwatchers to locations like Kelleys Island with new eco-tourism initiatives that focus on natural with links to local cultural attractions. Birdwatchers here may never rival the crowds that visit Point Pelee National Park in southern Ontario every year. But supporters of the Kelleys Island Important Bird Area want visitors to know their avian paradise is not just for the birds. On Kelleys Island, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.