Birdwatching used to be for little ole ladies in tennis shoes. Those birdwatchers are joined today by “birders” that roll in Escalades with $1,000 Swarovski binoculars, spotting scopes at twice the price and enough photographic gear to make Ansel Adams roll over in his grave – driving cross country to tick off a common crane or scheduling a guided trip to India in quest of a mangrove whistler.
Of course, most people fit somewhere in between, but they all have one thing in common – a fascination for our feathery friends. A 2011 survey – National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (FHWAR) –teased the birders out of the overall group. They found that there were around 47 million birders over 16 years of age in the U.S. The greatest percentage, by far, of these birders (88%) were “backyard birders.” You know who you are – you put out seed feeders and hang hummingbird feeders and keep a cheap pair of Tasco binoculars and a 20-year-old Golden field guide on the table by the window. Thirty-eight percent of birders (yes there was a little double-dipping) said they take part in birding trips at least a mile from their home.
Birders spend money on a wide range of goods and services related to their passion. The list is extensive and includes optics, field guides, birdhouses, bird feed, lodging, transportation and more. And all of these expenditures have ripple effects throughout the economy. According to the FHWAR report the 47 million U.S. birders generated $107 billion throughout the birding industry, supporting 666,000 jobs and creating $13 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue. A 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study reported that “wildlife-watchers” in North Carolina spent about $827 million pursuing their hobby.
The Old Home State is a premiere birding destination and for good reason. North Carolina has recorded more than 460 species of birds, fifth highest of all states east of the Mississippi. Pelagic (offshore) species are a big draw to the state. The confluence of warm Gulf waters and cold Atlantic currents provide a melting (or cooling) pot of pelagic species. Inland, North Carolina has the greatest elevational range of any eastern state providing opportunities for low-elevation, marsh and estuarine species plus high-elevation specialties as well as anything in between.
Around 2003 a group of partners including Audubon North Carolina, North Carolina Resources Commission, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, North Carolina State Parks, North Carolina Sea Grant and the North Carolina Extension Service came together to begin work on the North Carolina Birding Trail. Part of the mission of the NCBT is, “To conserve and enhance North Carolina’s bird habitat by promoting sustainable bird-watching activities, economic opportunities and conservation education.”
During the next six to seven years the partnership worked to produce a series of guides or “Birding Trails” to help birders and other visitors to the state find great birding destinations plus “birder friendly” businesses and accommodations. They did this by creating three trail guides geared to the three distinct geographical provinces of the state – the Coastal Plains Trail Guide, the Piedmont Trail Guide and the Mountain Trail Guide. The area around Asheville and all of Western North Carolina is featured in the 105 sites listed in the Mountain Trail Guide. Some sites in and around Asheville include Beaver Lake Sanctuary, The Biltmore Estate and Devil’s Courthouse along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Other sites in Western North Carolina include Kituwah Farm in Cherokee, Whiteside Mountain near Highlands/Cashiers and Lake Junaluska. Site descriptions in the guides include directions, access information, focal species and habitat listings, and on-site visitor amenities.
Birder friendly businesses in Asheville include Wild Birds Unlimited, The Compleat Naturalist and the North Carolina Arboretum. Ventures Birding Tours of Skyland offers guided tours year round in Western North Carolina, statewide, across the country and around the world. To find out more about birding trails and birder resources across North Carolina check out the NCBT at http://ncbirdingtrail.org/.