Lullabies in birdland

MARY McIVER May 23 1988

Lullabies in birdland

MARY McIVER May 23 1988

Lullabies in birdland


Spring is sprung The grass is riz I wonder where The birdies is?

—Folkloric poem

In May, the peak period of spring migration, the birds are just about everywhere. Yellow-rumped Warblers are passing through Alberta, Ross’s Gulls are alighting in Manitoba and Great Blue Herons are flocking to Prince Edward Island. Last week Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park saw the return of the Prothonotary Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher and Whiteeyed Vireo—and large numbers of a different species: the Tilley-hatted, Sneaker-footed Canadian Birder. The growing number of humans in the woods and on the beach this spring underlines the emergence of birding as one of the nation’s favorite recreational activities. Declared P.E.I. naturalist Geoffrey Hogan: “It’s the fastest

growing hobby sport in Canada.” Originally a blood sport—participants used to tally birds after shooting them—birding eventually became the gentler and frequently ridiculed pastime of bird-watching, with an image conjuring up visions of elderly recluses wearing pith helmets, pincenez and an assortment of illfitting tweeds. But over the past few years bird-watching has caught on with large numbers of younger North Americans, seemingly giving the pastime a new respectability. “Those eccentric bird watchers seem to be a thing of the past,” said David Elphinstone, a naturalist at Calgary’s popular Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. “It is more of an approved activity these days.”

Indeed, according to recent estimates, 1.2 million Canadians consider themselves serious birders — meaning that they watch regularly, use a field guide, keep lists and are able to identify a hundred or more species. An additional 3.6 million describe themselves as casual watchers —socalled backyard birders.

As a result, birding has developed into a booming industry. Dedicated birders spend millions of dollars yearly on their hobby—the

greatest portion on travel. Galvanized by bird-alert hotlines, many will dash off at a moment’s notice in the hope of spotting a rare specimen. They participate in field trips, workshops, “Birdand-Breakfast” outings and “Big Day” events—where they compete to see how many different species they can list in a day. They visit places where local birds abound—the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Fish Creek Provincial Park in suburban Calgary and Oak Hammock Marsh in Manitoba—and they undertake expensive junkets to Panama, Costa Rica, Australia and elsewhere in pursuit of tropical species. Among the more peripatetic is a group whom scholars have identified as the “hard listers”—birders who are dedicated to stalking and observing different species and noting their sightings on what they call their life list. This year Pelee officials declared May 10 to be Norman Chesterfield Day in honor of Canada’s most famous hard lister, the 75-year-old mink rancher from nearby Wheatley, Ont.,

whose life list of 6,260 sightings has earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Hundreds of people turned out that day to honor Chesterfield and salute him for his most recent achievement: the intrepid birder, tipped off by a bird-alert hotline, flew off to Newfoundland on April 26 to track the Greater Golden Plover—and triumphantly recorded it as his 500th species sighted in Canada.

In addition to their outlay on travel, hard-core birders also invest heavily in equipment. Although the backyard or beginning birder can get by with a $50 pair of binoculars and a $20 field guide, serious birders spend thousands of dollars on birding paraphernalia. As examples: Bushnell Customs, one brand of field glasses recommended by the Audubon Society, cost $300; the more sophisticated Zeiss or Leitz models sell for $2,000 ($3,000 when equipped with a motorized zoom lens). The popular Bausch & Lomb spotting scope—a telescope-like instrument that gives greater magnification-costs $700.

Birders also spend money on clothing—from the ubiquitous brimmed, canvas Tilley bush hat ($39) manufactured in Ontario, to the handcrafted wool sweaters ($100 to $185) made by Charlottetown-based Great Northern Knitters Inc. Indeed, Great Northern’s president, Michael Jardine, reports that sales to birders have doubled in the past year. In addition, birders lavish funds on photographic equipment and supplies, walking shoes, guide-

books, coffee-table books, magazines, sound recordings of bird calls, tape decks, computer software for keeping life lists, souvenirs, sun block, sunglasses and insect repellentemdash;and birdseed for backyard feeders.

Studies conducted during the bird migrations at and around Point Peleeemdash;the triangular spit of marsh, forest, fields and beach on Lake Erie at the southernmost tip of Canada’s mainlandemdash;have shed further light on birders’ spending habits. Indeed, not only has the national park become a mecca for an estimated 525,000 visitors around the world each year, but now experts are training their sights on the birders in the crowd. For the past five years a research team from the Uni-

versity of Alberta in Edmonton, headed by James Butler, professor of parks and wildlife, has studied Point Pelee as a model for birders’ behavior. Their recently published interim report revealed that total spending in the month of May, 1987, alone was $2.1 million in the park and three adjacent communities.

According to the report, birders are a wealthy group indeed. The average household income is $57,000, compared with $38,000 for Canadians as a whole. Birders, Butler says, are also highly educated: more than 60 per cent have university degrees, and, of those, 10 per cent have doctorates. For the most part, he adds, local residents perceive the visitors as pleas-

ant, honest and sociable. Butler’s study also documents overwhelming approval among members of the business community. May birders, said one businessman, “signal the start of the tourist season and are a vital injection of dollars into the community.” Said another: “You can often smell money all over them.”

Still, birders have their detractorsemdash;including residents of birding areas who claim that birders encroach on their privacy. Declared one annoyed proprietor of a rental cottage in Prince Edward Island, comparing visitors to the local Piping Plovers whose nestsemdash;fenced off by wildlife officialsemdash;occupy valuable space on the beaches: “These birder kooks are as silly as those little birds stupid enough to build their nests and lay | their eggs right in the middle of the lt; beach. Our tourist guests pay $100 a Q day. They should have precedence z over birds.” But most birders are like| ly to ignore such criticism. A single| minded lot, they are not easily dis2 tractedemdash;unless compelled by a birdS alert. Said Verna Higgins, a biologist I at the University of Toronto who has undertaken birding excursions to Australia, New Guinea and Panama: “The only way to talk to a birder is in a dark room.”

Last week a visitor to Point Pelee, Don Hollums, director of the E. L. Johnson Nature Centre in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., near Detroit, promised to be an exception. Hollums, perched awkwardly on a rock jutting out from Point Pelee’s sandy shores, enthusiastically described his $2,000 birding trip to the Galápagos Islands off Ecuador last year, and seemed prepared to talk about his passion for hours. But then, a warbler flew by. Gazing after it longingly, Hollums politely excused himself and took up the chase.

MARY McIVER with MAXINE McDOWALL in Point Pelee and correspondents’ reports