- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2007

DEAL ISLAND, Md. — Jim Rapp has one hand on the wheel and the other holding a pair of binoculars as he drives his truck slowly down a gravel drive on the banks of a Chesapeake Bay marsh.

“Do you see that? Right there?” he whispers excitedly, pointing to a black-and-white bird dabbing its beak in the mud. “That’s a black-necked stilt. Wow. Oh, wow.”

Not since the days of John James Audubon have birds gotten so much attention from naturalists. While hunting and fishing are declining in popularity, the old-fashioned act of bird-watching is hot again as people look for outdoor activities that don’t require a lot of equipment or training.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which tracks wildlife recreation, bird-watching has become a hobby of 47.8 million Americans, with “wildlife watching” up 8 percent from 2000 to 2006. Hunting and fishing declined in popularity by 4 percent and 12 percent over the same period.

More than 20 states have created birding trails since 2000 to guide newcomers to good spots for watching fowl. Outfitters that once specialized in hunting expeditions or horseback riding are branching out to offer trips focusing on feathery critters, too.

Mr. Rapp wants to help the Chesapeake region cash in on the trend. A former zookeeper, he heads Delmarva Low-Impact Tourism Experiences, a nonprofit organization that aims to boost eco-tourism in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

He is beginning work on a Cape to Cape Trail from Cape May, N.J., to Cape Charles, Va., to show off the region’s bountiful bird population, including one of the nation’s highest concentrations of bald eagles. Peregrine falcons roam the skies around the Chesapeake Bay, and the marshes along the Atlantic coast attract migrating waterfowl in the fall and spring.

Standing on the bed of his truck in the Deal Island Wildlife Management Area, Mr. Rapp spies plenty of birds.

“I see one, two, three, four, five different species of birds right now,” he says, pointing his binoculars toward a marshy copse of trees in the distance. Herons and egrets seem not to mind the attention, but rarer black ducks fly away in groups when Mr. Rapp’s truck rumbles down the gravel.

At Pocomoke River Canoe Co. in nearby Snow Hill, customers are given laminated pictures of birds in the area to carry along on their paddles.

“It seems to be growing year by year,” canoe guide Ron Pilling says of bird-watching. Then he boasts, “Almost everyone has seen bald eagles this year. Almost everyone.”

Rich in waterfront woodlands, Maryland has plenty to show birders, but it’s late to the trend of state birding trails. They started in Texas in 2000 and were so popular that they inspired birding trails in many other regions.

“Birds are everywhere. You don’t have to go to the Serengeti to see birds. You can see them right in your back yard,” says Nancy Severance of the New York-based Audubon Society, which promotes habitat protection and birding.

Tourism officials attribute the rise in bird-watching in part to a graying population, part of which wants to get outside and see wildlife but doesn’t want to take up a strenuous hobby.

“It’s a chance to be outdoors and be active, but it doesn’t require all the exertion of tennis or something,” says Tom Wood, naturalist for the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory in Bisbee. “You can be alone, do it as a couple, take the kids — it takes all different forms.”

Mr. Wood says bird-watching has long been a hidden hobby, but since Texas’ trails took off, tourism officials have come to recognize the value of attracting birders.

“They’re not out there wearing orange blazers or carrying golf clubs, but they’re out there, and they’re a big market,” he says.

It’s a profitable market for tourism industry workers who spot it. Norma Dorenkamp of Holly, Colo., started a horseback-riding bed-and-breakfast business and didn’t even think to promote the lesser prairie chickens common to southeastern Colorado. Then a friend mentioned the idea to Mrs. Dorenkamp’s husband, and the couple’s Arena Dust Tours has started offering as many birding expeditions as traditional ranch vacations.

“We tried it, and now we have all these bird-watchers,” Mrs. Dorenkamp says. Visitors have increased in all three years that the prairie chicken tours have been offered, and the couple sees room for more growth.

“Anybody can be a bird-watcher. You can do it in your back yard, or you can go thousands of miles. And you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment,” Mrs. Dorenkamp says.

Birders may not need expensive equipment, but they have money to spend. Americans spent $45 billion observing, feeding and photographing wildlife in 2006, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey. Because the hobby requires no expensive infrastructure, rural towns across the nation are looking to attract birders.

“These folks are well-educated and well-compensated, and they will spend money if they have the opportunity,” says Mary Jeanne Packer, a project manager for the eco-tourism company Fermata Inc. Miss Packer has consulted on the creation of birding trails in Alabama, Louisiana, Illinois and New York. She says towns are eager to attract birders because birders tend to be affluent and seek out local businesses.

“They want to stay at a local inn with high-speed Internet,” she says. “They want to eat at a restaurant with a nice wine list. They want to shop for local pottery. And they are a very thoughtful group that believes in leaving no trace, so they don’t require a lot of municipal services to clean up after them.”

Several counties in Maryland have bird-watching brochures, and Mr. Rapp helped create a guidebook of the Eastern Shore several years ago.

He says a Chesapeake region birding trail, with roadside markers and multistate promotion, would get even more people interested. Then they might be more interested in environmental protection.

“My hope is that if we can elevate this as a way to explore nature, then people would see what we have right here and the importance of this habitat,” Mr. Rapp says.

•••

For more information, visit www.audubon.org/bird_trails/ for links to birding trails all over the country.

Delmarva Low-impact Tourism Experiences in Salisbury, Md. (visit www.delmarvalite.org or phone 443/944-8097) has Information about birding, hiking, biking, wildlife watching, camping, kayaking and other outdoor activities on the state’s Eastern Shore in the Delmarva Peninsula area.

Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory in Bisbee: www.sabo.org or phone 520/432-1388.

Arena Dust Tours, Holly, Colo. (www.arenadusttours.com or 719/734-5226) offers B&B; accommodations for $55 per night. Tours to watch prairie chickens, from late March through early May, cost $30 or $105 to $110 for weekend tours including accommodations).

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