MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - As I have written before, I believe that any Alabamian interested in birding -- or just enjoying nature -- should learn about Alabama Birding Trails, a collection of 270 accessible birding sites around the state that have, for birders, some of the same lure that the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail holds for golfers.
The golf trail has been a tourism boon for Alabama since its inception, welcoming its 10 millionth visitor three years ago. Alabama's tourism generated about $2 billion in revenue prior to the Trail opening, and it is over $10 billion now. A good chunk of that growth can be attributed to the golf trail.
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's photos]
But comparing the economic potential of birding to golfing is a stretch, many would say. I would agree, in some ways. For instance, some economists point to hard to measure but no less real side benefits of the golf trail. It draws CEOs and corporate board members and other corporate bigwigs to Alabama by the thousands, and it could be argued that making the state more familiar to corporate decision-makers has played a role in the dramatic growth of corporate investment in Alabama in recent years. Could birding have such an impact? Probably not, at least on the same scale.
But in other, more direct ways, birding and golfing have some things in common.
There are estimated to be 60 million people in the United States who identify themselves as birders. But many of these birders do much of their birding in their backyard. These backyard birders have a considerable economic impact nonetheless, spending billions of dollars on bird food, feeders, binoculars, cameras, etc.
But for tourism purposes, that 60 million figure is misleading. A better comparison might come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's study of birding in the United States in 2011. It found that more than 18 million birders in the United States travel for the purpose of birding each year (those numbers do not include visitors to zoos, backyard birders, etc.) Those traveling birders spend $14.8 billion on trip-related expenses, and another $26 billion on birding equipment. The study found that birders, like golfers, tend to be better educated and have better-than-average incomes.
I do believe those involved in developing and maintaining the birding trails program should take one cue from the RTJ Golf Trail, and that is its emphasis on quality. All of the RTJ sites provide quality golf. I've visited more than 100 of the birding trails sites, and almost all have been top quality sites. But one or two have been just OK. The birding trails might benefit from actually reducing the number of sites by 8 or 10 percent, eliminating marginal sites. But even as it stands, the birding trails system is a wonderful resource for Alabama.
I don't think the impact of birding on Alabama tourism ever will match the impact of golfing. But its potential still makes it well worth the state investing in promoting and better maintaining the wonderful birding trails it already has. (For more information, see: alabamabirdingtrails.com)
But forget birding for a moment. Birding, unlike golf, can be conducted side by side with other activities -- fishing, camping, hiking and boating, for instance, as well as hunting outside of hunting seasons. A majority of birding trail sites also support these other activities; in fact, many exist primarily for these other purposes. So all Alabamians interested in hunting, fishing, camping or hiking should be just as strong a supporter of the Alabama Birding Trails system as any birder.
Next week: I will take a look at a handful of lesser-known Alabama Birding Trails sites I have visited in recent months.
A sad note: Members of the Alabama Ornithological Society are grieving for the loss of long-time friend and supporter John Walter Stowers Jr. of Montgomery and Dauphin Island, who died recently. The generosity and hospitality of he and his wife, Jennie, are legendary among birders on Dauphin Island. At the AOS fall meeting, a bench will be placed on Dauphin Island honoring Stowers for his service.
Here is one of many memories of Sto shared by AOS members. Read more at: http://aosbirds.org/documents/stowers-tribute.pdf
AOS member Elberta Reid wrote: "Many years ago, perhaps the 2nd time Sto had ferried us across to Pelican Island for a wonderful half-day of birding, Bob said to him on the trip back, 'John, I want to buy you a tank of gas for your boat.' Sto laughed and replied, 'No, you don't know how large this tank is,' whereupon Bob said, 'Yes I do (he actually did), but you don't understand how very much you have added to the pleasure of our weekend by taking us out there.'
"After some banter back and forth, Sto finally said, 'Listen, Bob, what you like to do is look at birds, and what I like to do is drive boats. So forget it, we're both happy!' What he didn't say, which I always suspected was the whole truth, was that what Sto really liked to do was make others happy. He made us doubly happy when he became a birder himself. What a truly wonderful friend we have all lost!"
-- The schedule is complete for the 13th annual Alabama Coastal BirdFest to be held Oct 5-8. The BirdFest has guided trips, speakers, dinners and free activities on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Trips and evening events require advance registration, which opens in mid-August. For details, see: www.AlabamaCoastalBirdFest.com
-- The Alabama Wildlife Center will hold its fifth annual casino-themed night, Chirps and Chips, where guests can "Bet on the Birds," on Aug. 19 from 7-10 p.m. at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The evening includes games, live entertainment, a silent auction and a drawing, plus complimentary hors d'oeuvres, wine, and beer. Tickets are $50 and proceeds will support the work of the center. The event is sponsored by Raptor Force, a group of young professionals that support the center, which rehabilitates injured and orphaned native Alabama birds and returns them to the wild. Information at: www.awrc.org