OUTDOORS

Birding festival lives up to name

Birders prepare for ‘Biggest Week’ of watching events

5/6/2014
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Neal Hohman, of Marietta, Ohio, gets a bird's-eye view at Magee marsh Wildlife Area in Oak Harbor, Ohio, during the Biggest Week in American Birding.
Neal Hohman, of Marietta, Ohio, gets a bird's-eye view at Magee marsh Wildlife Area in Oak Harbor, Ohio, during the Biggest Week in American Birding.

At the start, the name might have sounded a little ambitious, like a bit of a stretch. They decided to hold a birding festival and it needed a name, but they chose not call it “Our Little Bird Watching Week” or “A Modest Gathering of U.S. Birders”.

No, they went large instead. This celebration of our feathered friends at one of their strategic rendezvous points would be called “The Biggest Week in American Birding”.

PHOTO GALLERY: Bird Week

We already had The Big Apple, The Big Bang Theory, and the Big Ten Conference, but those were just descriptive words. “The Biggest Week” flew two steps further — it claimed the superlative.

An eagle sits on a nest above the parking lot for the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.Birders can see eagles, and hundreds of other birds during the Biggest Week in American Birding, which begins today.
An eagle sits on a nest above the parking lot for the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.Birders can see eagles, and hundreds of other birds during the Biggest Week in American Birding, which begins today.

If anyone flinched at that title five years ago when this birding gala was hatched, nobody is questioning it now. The festival that opens today and runs through May 15 is the biggest week in American birding, and not because the name says so, or because it runs for 10 days.

It’s the biggest because it draws the most people from the most places, and they come here to see the most birds.

“I’m proud to say this didn’t happen accidently,” said Kim Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. “This region is blessed to have the habitat that brings in these birds, and we wanted to spread the word and get birders from all over to come here. We felt that if we gave them detailed information on where and when to find birds, then they would come. And that has worked.”

Kaufman is quick to point out that it is the unique habitat along the Lake Erie corridor — marshes, wood lots, oak savanna, and grasslands — that brings thousands of warblers here each spring, with many of these sweet-singing birds on their long-distance migrations from wintering grounds in the tropics to nesting grounds in northern Canada. A number of major flyways funnel into this region, concentrating the birds in a manner that is not replicated throughout the rest of the year.

The birds stop along the lakeshore for refueling before making the long flight over Lake Erie, feeding on the spring hatch of insects. “The Biggest Week” celebrates this incredible spectacle of nature, with an array of guided field trips through parks, wildlife areas and nature preserves, workshops, programs, and lectures.

At first, Kaufman and company had to pitch the concept of an early-May festival, with birds as the stars of the show, to some skeptical business partners. When the birders came — by the thousands and from across the country and the globe — the raised eyebrows in the business community melted into smiles, and now businesses are knocking on the door, wanting to be part of the event.

“Initially, we recruited them, and now businesses are reaching out to see how they can get involved,” Kaufman said. “Tourism is one of the things we do very well in this region, and with this festival we’ve been able to create a new tourist season, before the kids are out of school and the lake-based tourism really kicks in.”

Since the prime bird-watching areas are spread from Oak Openings in the west to Cedar Point and the Lake Erie Islands in the east, there is no turnstile to get an exact count on the number of birding tourists the festival draws, but conservative estimates are around 70,000-plus. While many of them officially register and take part in the multitude of structured events, thousands more just show up at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Magee Marsh, Cullen Park, or the Metroparks, and go find the birds.


“As of a couple of weeks ago, we had birders from 44 states and 11 countries registered for The Biggest Week,” Kaufman said. “We expect that has grown to record numbers, again. If you love birds and you love people, then this is for you.”

The festival draws legions of the hard-core birders — those who each year spend their vacation time and thousands of dollars to visit the world’s premier bird-viewing sites. They have a small fortune in optics hanging around their necks, a well-worn field guide stuffed in a back pocket, and a cell phone app that identifies and also plays the distinct songs of many warblers.

The Biggest Week in American Birding is also designed for the casual bird-watcher, the novice, or the newcomer. Although on a morning stroll along the popular Magee Marsh Boardwalk you might exchange sightings and notes with birders from Austria, Skokie and Flagstaff, Kaufman said the local draw is one of the most important elements of festival.

“We have this incredible habitat right here, and we want to make everyone aware of it, and have them come out and enjoy these many different species of birds we get to see each spring,” she said. “One of our goals is to have more of the people who live right here in the area experience this. If they know about it, they will care about it. These are public places, and this is an asset for everyone to enjoy.”

Kaufman, who with her husband, author and avian expert Kenn Kaufman, has traveled the globe to seek out unique birds, said nothing beats what’s right here in the backyard.

“What we have here is one of the grandest birding experiences in the world,” she said. “That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. The Biggest Week just showcases this wonderful resource.”

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