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OAK HARBOR, Ohio — Step into the throngs of birders who have descended on the area for “The Biggest Week in American Birding” festival and one thing becomes very clear — this is not your grandma’s birding crowd any longer.
Twenty or 30 years ago, the birders were predominantly older, well-to-do, and highly educated. That pattern was present even in studies of the makeup of the birding population done in recent years.
“Old ladies in tennis shoes — that was the profile you used to hear pretty often when people were talking about bird-watchers,” said Mark Shieldcastle, an avian biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife for three decades. “You never heard the word ‘birding.’ It was bird-watching — people studying birds.”
But the makeup of the human crowd drawn to northwest Ohio to observe the mass migration of songbirds from their wintering grounds in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, is changing.
On Monday morning, the boardwalk that uses a series of tangents to make its way through the swampy woodland at Magee Marsh was crowded with people from most corners of the map, representing varied walks of life, and reflecting the breakdown of the stereotypical “bird-watcher” mold.
“It used to be more of an academic group or naturalist types that would be keepers of the records,” Shieldcastle said, “but with the Internet, it has moved well beyond bird-watching. People of all ages and backgrounds began taking part, and the term ‘birding’ was coined. It became a competition, a sport.”
With that change, the birding folks can brag a little about diversity, and not be referring to the myriad species chattering away in the trees around the marshes about 10 miles north of here, on the southern shore of Lake Erie.
“The Biggest Week” has brought out factory workers and court judges, junior high science students, and PhD candidates, unemployed carpenters and retired attorneys, farmers and fishermen. Black and white, Amish and Mennonite, east and west — they are all represented at this birding festival.
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“I think birding has been transitioning into something enjoyed by multiple generations and people from multiple demographics,” said John Windau of the Division of Wildlife, which manages the 2,202-acre Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. “We’re living in a society that’s nature-deprived, so anytime we can get a wide range of people outside enjoying wildlife and nature, that’s a very positive thing.”
Today at 9:30 a.m., Doug Gray, Drew Lanham, and Rue Mapp from an organization called Outdoor Afro will lead a two-hour birding tour through Swan Creek Preserve Metropark. The hike, entitled “Urban Bird Walk: Birding the City of Toledo,” will start from the Yager Center at 4659 Airport Highway, and is free and open to the public.
“My favorite part of all of this is how many people it brings together,” said Kim Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and one of the driving forces behind “The Biggest Week” festival. “The theme of this year's event is that birding is for everyone. Diversity is one of the reasons this festival is successful. Birders from all over remark about the diversity of our crowd.”
There was nothing highfalutin or exclusive about the vehicles lined up in the parking lots at Magee on Monday morning — many more minivans, pickup trucks, and compacts than Volvos or Range Rovers. The tags read Maryland, West Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Florida, Nebraska and Connecticut, along with many from Ohio and Michigan.
“There is still an elitist class of birders that is able to go to far-off destinations like India and Ecuador, but a place like this can draw from a much larger group, and is close enough for many people to just drive here,” Shieldcastle said.
Magee Marsh is recognized as one of the top birding sites on the North American continent. A convergence of flyways bring hundreds of thousands of migrating birds through this region, and Magee plays host to more than 100,000 guests a year, with many of them here to take in the spring concentration of warblers.
“When you become a birder, all groups of the population come together,” Shieldcastle said. “There’s something about birds that intrigues all of us. Maybe it’s their capability of flight, and we’re just envious.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068 .