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A Fast-Growing Hobby

Editorial: Outdoor life goes to the birds

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Birdwatching

Mention outdoor adventures in the Old Dominion, and the mind quickly goes to traditional activities like camping and hiking, hunting and fishing, as well as boating and swimming.

A few folks might want to put shopping at outdoor malls on that list. It does occur outdoors, and involves walking and occasionally carrying heavy items. So we’ll add that to the list of favorites, too.

What doesn’t come to mind for many is an activity that may well be one of the faster growing hobbies in the country — bird-watching.

Long viewed as a retiring activity of older adults and professional ornithologists, that reality has been steadily shifting for at least 20 years.

In 2002, the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station published a report using data from the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment that noted a steep climb nationwide in bird-watchers.

Between 1994 and 2000, bird-watching grew 33% among people age 16 and older — some 70 million people. That was good enough for 15th place among 51 activities the SRS then tracked.

That number only has continued to climb. Amy Gardner, co-owner of Wren & Sparrow on Caroline Street in downtown Fredericksburg, says the interest in birding has exploded since the pandemic. The most tangible evidence of this has been the increase of sales in bird seed.

“Nationally, feeding birds increased 60% during COVID,” she said, citing research from the Wild Bird Feeding Institute.

“Bird-watching is not just a hobby for people over 60,” she continued, noting that at the store she co-owns with lifelong birder Lisa Benoit, they are seeing people of all ages and backgrounds.

Asked to explain why it’s growing in popularity, Gardner relates her own experience. Following a career in the Marine Corps and government work, she shifted gears and started working part time at Wild Birds Unlimited, where she initially met Benoit.

Bird-watching “just consumed me,” she said. “It is so rewarding.”

In King George County at Caledon State Park along the shores of the Potomac River, Ranger Mackenzie Guenther tells a similar story about the increased interest in birding.

Eagles and Osprey frequent the waterfront and are popular with bird-watchers. Every month, she or Mike Callahan will lead eagle-watching tours.

There’s no driving to the waterfront, so you have to hike in. But the trails generally are easygoing for people who are in decent shape and comfortable walking 2 to 4 miles. Along the way, people travel through old-growth forests that support numerous birds, in addition to the waterfowl in the area.

“We have a beginning birders brochure that lists over 100 species of birds,” Guenther said.

Caledon isn’t the only place in our vicinity to watch birds. The National Audubon Society has developed a list of “Important Bird Areas.” According to its website, IBAs are locations the organization has worked to “identify, monitor, and protect” because of their importance to the life of birds globally, on the continent, or to a particular state.

There are 21 such sites in Virginia. Nine are of global importance, four of continental importance, and eight of state importance.

In our region, there are IBAs in King George, Orange, Stafford and Westmoreland counties. A popular spot near Fredericksburg is a stretch of the Rappahannock River between Tappahannock and Port Royal that the Audubon Society describes as “pristine.” Among the more interesting birds you’ll encounter there is the prothonotary warbler, whose grey wings and deep-black eyes contrast sharply with its bright yellow head.

For those who can’t get out into nature, bird feeders bring a dizzying array of feathered friends to your yard.

With the weather warming and nature blooming, it’s time to go back out and rediscover the remarkable diversity of wildlife in our area. Not just that with paws on the ground, but also those creatures with wings.

There are fewer places in the world better than right here in our own backyard to do so.

— Adapted from the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

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