WASHINGTON — Most tourists come here to see the monuments, historic sites, and museums. But to Kari Cohen, Washington is for the birds.
The densely populated district is home to a surprising 322 avian species, surrounded as it is by the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and scattered with open spaces.
“The beautiful thing about birding is no matter where you are, even in a city, you can always find a park,” said Cohen, a 46-year-old government biologist who has been birding for nearly half his life and has been known to leave a meeting when he hears about a sighting of a particularly rare bird.
Cohen eased his Prius into the parking lot at the National Arboretum as soon as the gates opened and paused to listen to the Blue Jays sounding angry at the intrusion. His binoculars flew to his eyes the moment he heard a nuthatch in the woods. He would also see, on this visit, Yellow-throated Vireos, six kinds of warblers, and a Scarlet Tanager.
Lately the number of people listening and looking for birds has soared, and hotels, tour companies, conservation areas and museums are out to capture them with special programs and packages.
Just as COVID-19 stripped many of these kinds of attractions and businesses of customers, the pandemic helped birding take off among huge numbers of new enthusiasts.
“We have had a lot of people who were either not really aware of birds before or only casually interested who have had their eyes opened — and their ears,” said Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association. “And the travel industry is trying to serve that market.”
The number of monthly users of the authoritative Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird app, has as much as doubled since the start of the pandemic, and the number of submissions of bird observations is up by more than 40 percent; more than 255,000 birders submitted 13.6 million checklists on the app last year.
Nearly a million people have downloaded the companion Merlin app, which helps identify birds by sight and the sound of their calls. Global Big Day birding events in 2020 and 2021 broke new records for both the number of participants and the number of species spotted.
Downloads of the Audubon Bird Guide app also nearly doubled last year over the year before, the society reports. So did the number of times people used it and the number of sightings they logged, which were up as much as 150 percent.
Among those who are discovering birding are young travelers like Nima Olumi, a 26-year-old Chestnut Hill marketing entrepreneur who takes his friends on mountain hikes to look for birds. He describes these companions as “nature junkies but not necessarily looking to do something crazy like kite-surfing or mountain-biking.”
Once they start, he said, they’re hooked — mostly by the birds, but also by the chance to show off their photos and videos on social media (the hashtag #BirdWatching on TikTok has more than 86 million views) and be outside in groups but at a social distance.
“People are looking for things you can do that are in nature and COVID-friendly,” Olumi said. “It’s also inexpensive. You just need binoculars.”
Where once birders wandered in isolation, these apps have also added a new social aspect, letting users summon fellow birders when a sought-after bird sets down.
“You can be alone and social distancing but also interacting with people,” Gordon said.
Travel providers are racing to respond.
“It’s a good niche market,” said Matt Brooks, managing director of Wings Birdwatching Tours, who said he often hears from lodges and hotels looking for ways to increase business.
The collection of cabins at Asilomar, near California’s Monterey Peninsula, has launched a bird-watching package with 15 percent off lodging, the “Sibley Guide to Birds,” binoculars for rent, and maps of the state park, which is considered a top birding destination; it’s been so popular that parent Aramark is considering adding more such deals at its state and National Park accommodations, said Mary Johnson, director of marketing for the company’s leisure division.
The Inn at Newport Ranch in Mendocino, just north of San Francisco, offers birding tours of its 2,000-acre grounds at $100 per hour. Zapata Ranch in Colorado’s San Luis Valley runs a photography workshop for guests who come to see the sandhill cranes that converge on the area every March. In South Carolina, Montage Palmetto Bluff has added birding tours of its 20,000-acre surroundings and guests can participate in bird surveys and help monitor nesting Bald Eagles.
“Even before they go on guided walks, if they’re birders, the first thing they do when they come here is open up their apps and see what birds are around,” said Brian Byrne, the property’s resident naturalist, who was hired for the job in January.
Birders have also been alighting in big numbers in New York’s Finger Lakes, which has started marketing its conservation areas — inhabited by warblers, wrens and other species — alongside its wineries, microbreweries, distilleries and historic landmarks, including the site of the nation’s first convention to demand equal rights for women. Inquiries about birding are up by more than 50 percent.
“Whether they’re coming to visit the home of the women’s rights convention or enjoying Rieslings, they’re spending a few days and also looking for other opportunities,” said Mark Benjamin, community relations director for the 575-acre Seneca Meadows Wetlands Preserve.
The Ales on the Trail event at the preserve combines birding with beer served by local breweries. The nearby 50,000-acre Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge offers birding tours by foot, canoe, or kayak followed by beer, wine, and food pairings; last year visitation rose by 25 percent.
“We have definitely seen an uptick,” said Chris Lajewski, director of the Montezuma Audubon Center. During the pandemic, he said, “people took notice of the birds in their backyards, and that got them hooked.”
A whole industry, all but invisible to nonbirders, offers organized birding tours, and many say they’re struggling to keep up.
“There’s just a huge demand that nobody expected,” said Joan Collins, who runs Adirondack Avian Expeditions and said she has a waiting list of clients willing to take spots that come open because of rain.
“People found that being out in nature was restorative to their souls, to their enthusiasm for life,” said Victor Emanuel, founder of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, who said some of the company’s tours are now sold out a year ahead of time. “And once they do it, they want more of it.”
In Tucson, the Audubon Society operates bird walks; so does the Audubon Society in Sanibel, Fla., on Saturdays before the beachgoers come out. Visitors descend on Parvin State Park in New Jersey in May to see returning orioles and Spotted Sandpipers and on Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in August to watch the annual hawk migration. Torrance, Calif., also offers nature walks.
More and more younger people are coming on these tours, said Tracy Drake, a naturalist and park services manager in Torrance. “Younger people are wiser to the world than people my age,” said Drake, who is 59. “It’s exciting to see this awareness growing. We all long to be a part of something greater to ourselves and birding can do that.”
Many birding destinations have multiday festivals that attract whole flocks of bird buffs, with speakers, workshops, and deals at hotels and resorts: the Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas, Texas; the Laredo, Texas, Birding Festival; FeatherFest in Galveston, Texas; the Wings over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival in Arizona; the Southwest Florida Birding Festival; the Winter Wings Festival in Southern Oregon. The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio even hosts a birding exhibition during the spring migration.
Gordon, of the birdwatching association, said he’s not worried about so many people becoming interesting in birding that they’ll scare the birds away.
There’s room for everyone, he said. “And a world with more birders is a better world.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.