OAK HARBOR, Ohio -- Birder stereotype: A 60-year-old retired woman, socks up to the knees, wearing a wide-brimmed floppy hat and a birding vest. Binoculars are strung around her neck, a bird guide is tucked under her arm. She can tell you with certainty the migratory songbirds she has seen, those that are a rare sighting.
Birder reality: Nate Ellis, 19, a Whitmer High School senior who is a wrestler and who dabbles in cooking through the school's culinary arts program. He has never seen a rose-breasted grosbeak -- its markings so bright red it almost appears to be bleeding -- before Friday.
Also birder reality: Chris Batty, 34, an ornithologist from Manchester, England, who is in Ohio with a couple of friends for the first time after being told that northwest Ohio was "the place to be" to spot 37 species of migrating warblers.
And Jeremy Weaver, 25, a storage-barn builder from Jackson, Ohio, who with one hand trains his binoculars on a bird high in the tangle of trees while with the other holds tight to 5-month-old son Samuel, who is getting his own visual piece of the serene surroundings.
They were among hundreds -- both stereotypical and not -- who came out Friday to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area to take part in the kickoff of The Biggest Week in American Birding, a 10-day festival that highlights the migration patterns of thousands of songbirds.
"It's a lot more fun than I thought it would be -- it's really relaxing," said Mr. Ellis, who came to Magee Marsh with biology teacher Jeff MacKenzie and about a dozen others. "I just never really thought about birding before."
The trek for students was only a few miles, but many came from all areas of the country and beyond -- license plates from other states dotted the parking lots: Wisconsin, Texas, and Kentucky. Rhode Island, California, and New York. Vermont, Maine, and New Jersey. Even Quebec and Ontario.
If some of Friday's birders had nothing else in common, they all had binoculars, things to hear and see -- and enthusiasm.
"Zee-zee-zoo-zoo-zee, hear that?" said Ken Keffer, Black Swamp Bird Observatory education director and guide, referring to the call of the black-throated blue warbler.
"Go left; wait, he flew to the right, just below that branch … " he guides birders as someone spots movement in the trees.
Observers "oohed" and "aaaahed."
They raised their binoculars in unison as a species of bird was spotted flitting among the trees by one observer, causing a domino effect for birders in the immediate area, who fell into place along the forest-enclosed boardwalk. The melodic symphony of songbirds provided a musical backdrop.
Lists were brought out, the species of bird checked off, a trophy of sorts in each birder's day. The prothonotary warbler. Check. The worm-eating warbler. Check. The gray catbird. Check.
The Kirtland's warbler, the rarest of the breeds, still to be spotted.
"It's been fantastic," Mr. Batty said. "I've seen 28 warblers so far, so it's matched our expectations."
Kim Kaufman and her husband, Kenn, a nationally known author on the subject of birding, run the Black Swamp observatory, an independent, nonprofit bird conservation and research facility nestled in an area of state-owned Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, 13551 W. State Rt. 2.
With the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant as a backdrop, the 2,200 acres of Lake Erie marshland sit next to the federally owned Ottawa Wildlife Refuge.
Organizers say it is one of the best -- and few -- places to witness the spring migration of neotropical birds. Their reluctance to cross Lake Erie and the area's natural habitat combine to provide them the perfect pit stop before they fly north to breed.
Besides actual bird-watching -- the fastest growing outdoor sport in the country, Mrs. Kaufman said -- the 10-day festival includes field trips, educational programs, student events, and lectures. It is hosted by the observatory, Kaufman Field Guides, the Ottawa refuge, and Magee Marsh.
Today: Hike the Dikes, meet at 9 a.m. at the Bird Center at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
Tuesday: Biggest Week Taste of the Region, 5-7 p.m., Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center.
Thursday and Friday: Book signing with author Richard Crossley, 3-5 p.m., Magee Marsh.
Friday: The Big Year Movie Night, 7:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m., Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center, Fee: $10; proceeds benefit Ohio Young Birders Club.
Saturday: International Migratory Bird Day with various events including a Back to the Wild demonstration with live animals and a Walk on the Wild, Magee Marsh.
Saturday: Pride in the Name of Birding, presented by Kenn Kaufman, 7:30 p.m.- 8:30 p.m., Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center, Fee: $12, registration required.
The organizations have put together an aggressive strategic plan in the last six years that involves partnerships with other area organizations to support both tourism and the birding conservation that is vital to the area, Mrs. Kaufman said.
Two of this year's partners are the Toledo Mud Hens organization, which is offering a coupon for game tickets to baseball fans in May, and the Toledo Museum of Art, which is offering an exhibit called For the Birds that features avian art from the museum's collection.
"I think the region was really hungry for something like this in the spring to stretch out the tourist season," Mrs. Kaufman said.
Recognizing the need to show hard data to back up the importance of the organization's work, the observatory sends out an economic impact survey after the migratory season to help compile information.
"We ask people 'How long did you stay? Where did you stay? How many meals did you eat out while you were here?' " Mrs. Kaufman said.
According to that data, just under 50,000 people came to the area in 2010, dropping about $24 million into the local economy. Last year, more visitors came -- about 64,000 -- staying just a little longer and spending just a little more -- $30 million, she said.
Retired photographer Ken Schmidt, 70, of Orlando is one of the tens of thousands who puts the area on the map and helps pump millions into the local economy in a span of just a little more than a month.
He comes every year and stays for weeks in the same motel room at Our Guest Inn, Port Clinton. This year, he won't head back to Florida until May 28.
"I drive 1,000 miles every year just to see the warblers," he said.
Contact Roberta Redfern at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6081.