For The Birds … And The Watchers

By John Brush
Photos: Quinta Mazatlan

There’s a multigenerational group of people who spend billions of dollars in pursuit of their hobby, passion, or vocation. They may travel hundreds and thousands of miles in their pursuit, yet will frequent local parks almost religiously. They are armed with a variety of tools, but nearly all are distinguished by two identifying features: binoculars and a keen attentiveness to the avian world. These are birdwatchers.

For a birdwatcher, a single bird can be cause for celebration. In December 2017, a Blue Bunting appeared in the South Texas thorn forest of Quinta Mazatlan. Because it was only the 52nd of record for the United States, hundreds of birdwatchers from around the state and country flocked to the site. One 5-inch bird increased park visitation from out-of-town visitors by over 500 percent during a roughly two-month stay (337 visitors in 2016-17 jumped to 2,303 in 2017-18). The birdwatchers’ travel costs—flights, car rentals, hotel nights, food, etc.—ended up having an economic impact worth roughly $1 million.

While individual sightings of the Blue Bunting are rare, sightings of rare birds across the United States and Canada are regular occurrences. These birds are considered rare because they are discovered far away from their normal range; the Blue Bunting is a non-migratory species found in Mexico. Depending on when they show up and where, they can generate a considerable economic impact.

But it’s not only the sighting of rare birds that drive eco-tourism. In 2016, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported 45-million people nationwide had purposefully watched birds. When compared to the U.S. Census Bureau population estimates from that year, roughly one of every seven Americans could be considered a birdwatcher. These birders made up more than half of all wildlife-watching participants in 2016—a group that spent a cumulative $75.9 billion in pursuit of seeing wildlife.

There are millions of birdwatchers out there willing to travel in their pursuit. The question then becomes: How do you attract birdwatchers to your location?

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The Birds
The most obvious answer is “have birds.” Quinta Mazatlan is fortunate to be in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas—a four-county region that has documented more birds than in all but seven states. There are more than enough birds to go around, though; there are approximately 10,700 species in the world and over 1,100 in Canada and the United States (from the International Ornithologist’s Union and the American Birding Association, respectively).

Time of year also matters for the number of birds in an area. For example, during spring migration from March to May, more than 260 bird species have been observed at Magee Marsh in Lucas County, Ohio, yet only about 90 species are seen there during a cold Great Lakes winter. The abundance of birdwatchers follows a similar pattern; when birds arrive in spring, thousands of birdwatchers flock to the bird-laden site.

Location and annual cycle are out of a park manager’s control, but local habitat—the most important feature for supporting birds in a park—can be greatly influenced. The habitat must provide all the necessities of life for birds, which are often described as “food, water, cover, and a place to reproduce.” Luckily, almost all aspects of habitat are provided or enhanced by vegetation.

Considerations For Habitat
Different habitats provide homes for different birds. Trees, shrubs, herbs, wildflowers, grasses, and ground covers of those habitats form a plant template that can then be filled by birds. However, not all plants are created equal for a given area. The last part of that statement is particularly important because there are no magical plants that will work in every park. As a general rule, you should establish plants that naturally occur in the region rather than exotic plants. Because exotic plants originate in a different part of the world, wildlife (particularly, insects) aren’t adapted to using those plants—the wildlife didn’t “grow up” with them, so to speak. Supporting scientific research reveals a trend: more native plants mean more insects, which leads to more birds (see the work of Douglas Tallamy for examples).

In practice, combining diversified habitats and native plants can lead to different approaches. In the extreme, one might want to curate distinct habitats in different areas of a park. Quinta Mazatlan, for instance, has added ponds, a wildflower meadow, and a savannah-like area over its 12-year existence. However, as a part of the World Birding Center network, the nature center is specially committed to creating a bird habitat. If you don’t already have a wild space, dedicating as little as 5 percent of a park area as a natural habitat can matter to birds.

Another option is to enhance what is already present rather to add new habitat types. For instance, adding more species of trees with different heights and characteristics can enhance a park for birds. Or, perhaps, understory plants can be added in a small section of grass. While it may not lead to as much bird diversity, it can greatly impact specific kinds of birds, some of which may be of great value to birdwatchers.

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Birdwatching Amenities
Birdwatchers have all the basic needs of other park visitors—such as restrooms and drinking water—but other amenities can be added to attract birders.

Bird feeders are one such amenity. The major focus of a feeder is to allow the viewer a clear look at a bird, so the feeder doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, natural-looking feeders are often preferred. Logs and branches can be turned into hanging or standing feeders by cutting out troughs and holes for seeds and suet. Fruits, like halved oranges or apples, can be stuck on nails in logs, or can be placed on a raised platform feeder. Even scattering seed on the ground can act as a birdfeeder.

When designing a feeding station, be aware of where a visitor will stand or sit. A visitor who is too close to a feeder may scare birds away, but a distant feeder may not give the visitor good views. As with habitats and native plants, diversity of feeders is the key. Some feeders can be farther away from a seating area and in more cover, potentially attracting shyer birds.

Regarding seating, traditional benches certainly have their place, but a larger natural seating area allows birders a greater sense of flexibility and sociality. An amphitheater overlooking feeders allows birdwatchers a place to chat while they wait for a bird, swapping stories of previous birdwatching outings and sharing the excitement when they see a bird.

Water features also help birds and birdwatchers, but the features don’t have to be fancy. The keys to a successful water feature are depth, water movement, and surrounding habitat. Bird baths should only be a few inches deep, and a gentle slope down may help bird access. Drips and misters are powerful bird attractants—even if the water falls into a simple basin. But the most important element is that a water feature has some type of vegetative cover nearby (e.g., a bush, brush pile, tree, etc.); these allow birds to feel safer when in the vulnerable position of bathing.

Lastly, to attract birdwatchers, you must get the word out. Working with a local club to organize a bird walk is a good start. With modern technology, birdwatchers can almost instantaneously share information on what birds they spotted with the birding community; make sure to ask birders to share their sightings. If possible, signage or a posting board on-site that tells visitors about what birds are being seen in the park, and where to find them, can be very helpful.

Making a park more bird-friendly has many benefits: beautification via plants and animals, a healthier environment through ecosystem services (air-pollution removal, for example), and an economic impact with visitors spending time and money in the area. Quite simply, it’s a new recreational activity to offer at a park.

John Brush is an Urban Ecologist at Quinta Mazatlan’s Center for Urban Ecology in McAllen, Texas. Reach him at jbrush@mcallen.net.