As tens of thousands of birders flock to northwest Ohio for the Biggest Week in American Birding, the local economy will benefit from millions of dollars poured into it.
More than 90,000 people from all corners of the world visit the region’s Lake Erie shore between late April and mid-May to track their favorite songbirds as they migrate. Perhaps the only people more excited for the annual festival than the birders are business owners in Oregon, Oak Harbor, Port Clinton, and surrounding areas.
A 2013 study conducted by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory — located at the entrance to Magee Marsh in Oak Harbor — determined 77,000 people pumped $37 million into the economy. This year the economic impact is expected to surpass $40 million.
“We asked them lots of questions about the festival, but most importantly, we asked them how much money they spent in the region on gas, lodging, and shopping,” said Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the observatory. “We’ve had birders register from every state, 52 countries, and six continents. It’s truly a global reach.”
About 30,000 people will visit the observatory during the Biggest Week. Ms. Kaufman said sales at the gift shop increase, with 100 percent of the proceeds going back to programs and research.
Customer and birder Lisa Young, center, buys plants at Bench Farms on Jerusalem Road in Curtice.
The observatory is an independent nonprofit organization and receives no funding from state or wildlife agencies. They serve as one of the hosts of the 10-day festival and handle marketing.
The Biggest Week now fills a gap in the tourism schedule. Ms. Kaufman said the festival has extended the summer tourism season by six weeks.
“We’ve essentially created an industry where nothing existed before,” Ms. Kaufman said. “That’s putting people back to work earlier in the season. All the ‘ma-and-pa’ shops along the lakeshore that wouldn’t open until June are now opening in mid-April because there are so many birders coming to the region.”
In Oregon, the Maumee Bay State Park Lodge and Conference Center is headquarters for the Biggest Week. Sales manager Kendra Buchanan said rooms start to fill up far in advance, and birders account for about 90 percent of the hotel’s occupancy.
“Once guests are leaving this year, they’re already starting to make their reservations for next year,” Ms. Buchanan said. “Chances are good we’ll sell out. You might fine one night here and there, but any consecutive duration is going to be pretty tough.”
Cindy Bench owns and operates Bench Farms on Jerusalem Road in Curtice, selling plants and produce. Birders have been in and out for a couple weeks.
“We are a retail greenhouse in the middle of nowhere,” Mrs. Bench said. “The birders bring us that traffic volume without having to chase them down.”
Many familiar faces return each year looking for bird-friendly plants. The farm also raises plants for the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.
There’s a good chance a portion of Mrs. Bench’s customers will grab a bite to eat at Tonia Tice’s Barnside Creamery just outside the Marsh in Oak Harbor. The stone parking lot at the popular lunch spot surrounded by farmland fills up daily during the Biggest Week.
Hungry customers can cool off with ice cream and take advantage of daily lunch specials.
“A lot of friendly faces come back year after year,” Ms. Tice said. “I’d say it has a huge impact on our business here. We open our season just in time for the birders because we know they’re coming. They’re a great kickoff to our season.”
Ms. Tice said her establishment receives so many customers, they typically measure by the number of bags of ice cream sold.
As the 10-day festival grows in popularity, birders are forced to stay as far away as Ottawa County or Monroe County in Michigan. Hotels in Port Clinton are routinely packed with birders.
Holiday Inn general manager Kim Bartish said the hotel is close to selling out.
“I get people all the way from the United Kingdom and Australia just to come here and look at birds,” Ms. Bartish said. “I get people who have been coming here for 15 years. It’s nice; you become like family.”
About 60 percent of the hotel’s rooms are occupied by birders. Ms. Bartish said the uptick in sales benefits not just her hotel, but the surrounding restaurants, museums, and shops.
“People don’t realize how big it is,” Ms. Bartish said. “It’s fun because I’ll be sitting here and in the morning these people leave in droves. They always say, ‘Happy birding, happy birding.’ That’s what they say to each other every morning as they leave the hotel.”
The Island House Hotel is also filling up with birders. General Manager Lisa Young often recommends places to eat or play around town.
“It definitely brings business, and we’re happy to have it,” Ms. Young said. “We’re very grateful they keep coming back.
“It fills the gap; we love that. Otherwise, it would be very quiet.”
The Blade is owned by Block Communications Inc., which is a sponsor of this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding.
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