The Biggest Week in American Birding could claim its title just on length - 11 days - but size alone would just scratch the surface of this inaugural all-out regional celebration of spring migrations under way now in the western Lake Erie marshlands.
The Big Week, which officially began Thursday and runs through next Sunday, is a full-court press from federal, state, and private agencies and organizations to call attention to birds and birding. It is meant to draw in newcomers to a friendly, enjoyable outdoors activity as well as appeal to advanced birding enthusiasts. And it is meant to call attention to the economic clout of it all.
Not surprisingly, the 11 days could not be better timed, for during the period - with the next turn of weather to warmth and southwest wind this week, in fact - the spring's premier wave of neotropical songbirds should pass into the region.
The tiny feathered migrants tend to pile up along the lakeshore and wooded beach ridges to rest and feed before attempting the nonstop lake crossing north. Here it is easily possible to view scores of species, fresh from the tropics, almost at arm's length. As veteran birders point out, other sites may have wood warblers, but they may be out of touch or out of sight 100 feet up in the tree canopy, not at eye level mere feet away in the beachfront scrub here.
One songbird wave already has crested here, between April 25 and 30, and a third wave, with the largest numbers of birds overall, should come in around Memorial Day. But the anticipated Mothers Day wave this week invariably is the most diverse in terms of species.
Indeed, event promoters can rightly claim that the southwest Erie lakeshore and adjacent marshlands are the "Warbler Capital of the World," the Lake Erie Marsh Region of Northwest Ohio.
This birding festival-week is jam-packed with a dizzying array workshops, warblers, free guided activities, warblers, half-day bus or boat trips, speakers, workshops, and more warblers. The programs are hosted by the Oak Harbor-based Black Swamp Bird Observatory; Tropical Birding, a Texas-based touring company; Kaufman Field Guides; Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area.
Ottawa and Magee lie adjacent to one another along State Rt 2 in western Ottawa County, between State Rts. 590 and 19, and BSBO's nature center is situated on the entrance road to Magee Marsh. So they all are handy to visitors, as is another prime site, the 10,000-foot wetlands boardwalk at Maumee Bay State Park. The walk begins at the park's Trautman Nature Center.
For a complete run-down of all the events and programs and opportunities, visit on-line at biggestweekinamericanbirding.com. Or, today, visit Ottawa, Magee, and BSBO for the final day of the festival within a festival, observing the international migratory bird theme.
If you doubt the veracity of the claims about this region's international stature in spring birding, listen to the testimony of Iain Campbell, one of the principals of Tropical birding. He was one of the speakers Thursday at the kickoff of the Biggest Week, held at Ottawa refuge's striking new visitor center.
"I could be anywhere in the world this week, but the second week of May, this [region] is my home" started Campbell, an Australian who lives in Ecuador when not traveling for the Texas company.
Campbell noted that the Erie shore is where the hot birding is at right now, as aforementioned, and said that he turned down a trip to northern China to be here. The bird touring company, moreover, has fielded 10 of its seasoned guides to assist visiting birders at such sites as the famed Magee Marsh Bird Trail, a boardwalk through the marshes hard by the beachfront.
No less than 21 prime birding sites are mapped for the week, from Oak Openings Preserve Metropark in western Lucas County all the way to Sandy Ridge Reservation/Perry F. Johnson Wetland in Lorain County. So there is plenty of elbow room for birding. You can pick up a map at the counter at Ottawa visitor center.
The average birder in Ohio is a Baby Boomer with an average individual income over $50,000, often with at least one college degree, according to statistics.
So with numbers like those, the state's 2.4 million birdwatchers are obviously an important segment of Ohio's $39 billion tourism industry. But until now, no one has studied exactly how much they affect the state's economy.
In the coming year, however, Ohio Sea Grant researcher Philip Xie plans to find out, and the information he uncovers could be used by resource managers, conservation groups, local officials, and tourism organizations to create new programming, improve and preserve natural areas, and entice new visitors-and their dollars-to the Buckeye State.
Xie, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University, will focus his study on six sites along the shores of Lake Erie, from Toledo to Conneaut. "Using a 50 or 60-question survey, we'll ask if they're from out of state or in state," he said.
"How much are they spending to travel? How much on food, accommodations, and equipment while they're here? Lastly, we'll ask for feedback on what they like and what they'd like to see improved."
By talking to many different bird enthusiasts to pinpoint their expectations, Xie's research can help resource managers, local governments, and tourism groups hone their facilities and programming to satisfy a variety of visitors.
Frank Lopez, who manages Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, thinks that the study will also give communities the hard data they need to back up their conservation efforts.
"In Ohio, conservation and land-use decisions are generally made at the local level, so giving the decision-makers a full picture of the economic value of wildlife resources and habitats could lead to improved or additional access to public lands," Lopez explains.
Early data from this study will be available in spring 2011.
Contact Steve Pollick at: