Hit the Trail

Birding, the art of watching birds, is a rapidly-growing phenomenon in the U.S., including here in Idaho.  Birdwatchers across the country, 47 million of them, spent $40 billion in 2011 and supported more than 666,000 jobs, and generating $13 billion in local, state, and federal tax revenue according to a recent Fish & Wildlife Service study, “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis.” Wildlife watching in general, and bird watching specifically, increased 10% from  2001 to 2011. This kind of public participation generates significant economic value.

In Idaho, 29% of the state’s resident population aged 16 years and older participated specifically in birding activities in 2011 – this is nine percentage points above the national average. Idaho ranks among the top seven states in the U.S. for the number of residents who participate in all types of wildlife viewing, including trips away from home and feeding or viewing wildlife around the house.

Given the trends in birding, both nationally and locally, and like other birding trails around the country, the Idaho Birding Trail was created in 2006 to stimulate economic growth through nature-based tourism, especially in rural areas and during “off-peak” times of year. Like Florida, Texas, Virginia, Colorado, Maine, Montana, and more, Idaho promotes nature-based tourism opportunities in the form of premier birding spots throughout the state. The Idaho Birding Trail was developed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Diversity Program with other state, federal, and private partners, to promote opportunities for rural economic growth in the form of providing amenities to travelers who are birding, and to promote the conservation of bird and wildlife habitat to maintain quality of life for Idahoans.

Four years in the making, the statewide trail is a network of sites and side trips that provide the best viewing opportunities to see birds in Idaho. With 175 sites and about 2,000 miles of trail, the birding trail represents a collection of bird watching hotspots, diverse habitats, and a glimpse of Idaho’s rich natural heritage. And 22 sites are designated as Blue Ribbon sites-“the best of the best” bird viewing opportunities in Idaho.  The trail is a series of self-guided, auto-driven tours lasting anywhere from an afternoon outing to a week-long expedition. Most sites are easily accessible and are connected by no more than a 30-minute drive. Along the way, birders are guided to the best places to see large concentrations of birds, high species diversity, or unique places of high habitat quality and their associated birds.

Much of the trail leaves the freeways and highways behind, and wanders deep into Idaho’s rural communities and along backcountry byways. As a result, it has brought economic benefit to places that are well off the beaten track. Birders spend considerable amounts of money when they travel—on gas, food, motels, optics, books and outdoor clothing.

Along with the economic benefits, the Idaho Birding Trail promotes the conservation of bird habitat and natural areas.  Maintaining natural areas in both urban and rural communities in Idaho will benefit Idahoans by providing them with natural beauty and wildlife habitat, one of the reasons so many of us love Idaho.

A great event that showcases Idaho’s more urban wild places is International Migratory Bird Day. It is an annual celebration of birds world-wide that educates the public about the conservation of birds and bird habitat. This year’s theme is “Why Birds Matter.” In Idaho, celebrations will be held on Saturday, May 10th,  in Boise at the MK Nature Center, as well as in Lewiston, and Coeur d’Alene. On Saturday, May 17th, celebrations are planned in the McCall area as well as in eastern Idaho near Roberts at the Market Lake Ranch. See the schedule of events on page 5 of Windows to Wildlife.

Wildlife viewing, wildlife photography, bird feeding, nature study and wildlife appreciation is not new. People have been participating in these “watchable wildlife” activities for at least as long as they have been hunting and fishing recreationally.

Watchable wildlife is all wildlife that people might see, enjoy and learn about.  Although birds and the charismatic megafauna (like elk and deer) are the most watched species, what people would like to see is as diverse as the viewers are themselves. People watch wildlife because it is enjoyable - a fun activity either on its own or as part of another outdoor activity like picnicking, auto touring, hiking, and bicycling.  Remember to keep your distance and remain quiet while viewing wildlife. By getting too close you may be seen as a threat. The best wildlife viewing experiences are those where you can observe an animal doing what comes naturally.

Next time you plan to spend some time outdoors, be sure to have in your backpack a pair of binoculars, a camera, guidebooks,  and keep your eyes open for wildlife.