- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2007

DEAL ISLAND, Md. (AP) — Jim Rapp has one hand on the wheel and the other holding a pair of binoculars as he slowly drives his truck 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 is now a hobby of 47.8 million Americans, with “wildlife watching” up 8 percent from 2000 to 2006. The bird-watching trend grew as both hunting and fishing are declining in popularity, by 4 percent and 12 percent, respectively, over the same period.

More than 20 states have created “birding trails” since 2000 to guide newcomers to good spots to watch 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, Mr. Rapp heads Delmarva Low-Impact Tourism Experiences, a nonprofit that aims to boost ecotourism in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

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 said of bird-watching. Then he boasts, “Almost everyone has seen bald eagles this year. Almost everyone.”

Rich in waterfront woodlands, Maryland certainly has plenty to show birders. But it’s late to the trend of state birding trails, which started in Texas in 2000 and were so popular 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 backyard,” said Nancy Severance, spokeswoman for 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. Some baby boomers give up hunting because it’s too rigorous; others want to see wildlife in their retirement years but don’t want to take up a new, strenuous hobby.

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. And because the hobby requires no expensive infrastructure, rural towns across the nation are looking to attract birders.

Several counties in Maryland have bird-watching brochures, and Mr. Rapp helped create a guide book of the Eastern Shore several years ago. But he said a Chesapeake region birding trail, complete with roadside markers and multistate promotion, would get even more people interested. And then, they might be more interested in environmental protection.

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