2014-03-27 / Nature

Birders Give Boost to Local Economy

By Jack Kelly


The prospect of seeing Snowy Owls at Sachuest Point drew birders from all over New England. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The prospect of seeing Snowy Owls at Sachuest Point drew birders from all over New England. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Bird watching, or “birding” as it is known among its devotees, is an art. It is a silent and respectful way of viewing the beauty of nature, and it can be a very satisfying pursuit. A friend of mine who has enjoyed birding for over six decades once shared that his experiences in the natural world allow him to be a part of something greater than himself.

According to a number of wildlife groups and conservation organizations, birding has become the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the United States. It is estimated that 48 to 50 million Americans participate in avian endeavors ranging from backyard birding to bird hikes in natural habitats.

It is also clear that birding is now big business in the United States. In a federal report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008, the agency concluded that wildlife enthusiasts make significant contributions to the nation’s economy. Over $82 billion was spent by nature observers in 2006, impacting 617,000 American jobs and contributing $11 billion to the tax coffers of local, state, and federal governments.


A mated-for-life pair of Ospreys that nests on the cell tower at Toppa Field in Freebody Park safely returned to their nest recently. This will be their ninth season together. They will spend at least the next two weeks fishing, finding new sticks to repair their nest, and welcoming offspring. (Photo by Jack Kelly) A mated-for-life pair of Ospreys that nests on the cell tower at Toppa Field in Freebody Park safely returned to their nest recently. This will be their ninth season together. They will spend at least the next two weeks fishing, finding new sticks to repair their nest, and welcoming offspring. (Photo by Jack Kelly) A breakdown of figures showed that $12 billion was spent on travel related expenses such as food, lodging, and transportation. Approximately $23.6 billion was spent on birding items like camera equipment, binoculars, telescopes, bird food, feeders, water dispensers, and nest boxes. Purchases or rentals of boats, campers, RVs, backpacking equipment, tents, and cabins added to the totals. In 2012, Arizona’s economy received a $1.4 billion economic impact from birders, while North Carolina realized a boon of $900 million. Government estimates predict that spending on the hobby will rise anywhere from 1.9 percent to three percent annually.

Over the last four months, businesses in Middletown and Newport have shared in these economic benefits. In late November, a juvenile Snowy Owl was spotted at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. This seldom-seen diurnal raptor from the Arctic was immediately reported by sharp-eyed observers. Intrigued birders from across New England descended upon the area.

Within a matter of days, it became apparent that a record irruption of juvenile Snowy Owls was under way along the New England coast. Biologists believe that a combination of variables led to a lack of food in the eastern Arctic and northern Canada, forcing the hungry birds south in search of prey.

Outlets such as the Boston Globe, Washington Post and “CBS Evening News” embraced the visitors’ appearance on the East Coast with news features. Birding reports and photos were distributed nationwide. By late December, three juvenile Snowy Owls had taken up residence among the 242 acres of trails and spectacular ocean vistas of Sachuest Point. By mid-January, the refuge was experiencing daily visitor counts in the hundreds, and weekend crowds approached those more typical of peak summer months.

According to Sarah Griffith, volunteer coordinator for the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge complex, “Our electronic counter recorded almost 40,000 vehicles entering the refuge between Dec. 1 and March 20. From November through February, we welcomed over 12,000 adults and children to the visitors’ center. It was busy every single day, no matter the temperature or the weather conditions. We met people from across the country who traveled to Sachuest Point just to see our Snowy Owls.”

Rachel Farrell, an avid birder, avian statistician, and co-compiler of “Field Notes of Rhode Island Birds,” said, “When Sachuest Point hosted four owls in January, the news spread fast. Wildlife enthusiasts traveled long distances to get a glimpse of the owls in person. I received reports from birders who traveled from California, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, along with just about every state along the Atlantic. We also had visitors from Canada, Mexico and Europe.”

Rachel Hobart, raptor specialist and educator at the neighboring Norman Bird Sanctuary, echoed those comments. “We experienced a huge increase in attendance and entertained many questions, not just about the Snowy Owls, but on locally-nesting owls as well. Our ‘Owl Prowls’ were sold out during the winter and people have just been owl crazy. The visiting Snowy Owls have benefited our programs and have given folks the chance to learn about our resident Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, and Eastern Screech Owls.”

Local restaurants and other small businesses in the Aquidneck Avenue region of Middletown have seen an increase in customers and sales during the last four months. While exact numbers on customer traffic are unavailable, most describe moderate to significant growth over last year’s figures. Business owners and employees are very happy to have this shot in the arm. One restaurant manager explained, “Here we are in the middle of the snowiest and coldest winter in 40 years, at the beach no less, and we are serving more people now than we did last year. We know that quite a few of them have been to the refuge, because that’s all they talk about during their meals.”

The total impact on Newport’s economy may never be known, but it’s likely that a sizable portion of birders’ dollars ended up in Newport’s hotels and restaurants. What is known is that visitors from 22 states and three foreign countries made their way to scenic Sachuest Point to get a first-hand view of nature’s gifts.

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