Money migration

Biggest Week in American Birding brings big revenue
Melissa Topey
Apr 29, 2014
Each spring in Northeast Ohio, birds become the stars during the Biggest Week in American Birding.

The real red carpet, however, is rolled out for the birdwatchers who flock to this area, as they bring with them binoculars, cameras and plenty of cash.

Kim and Kenn Kaufman, along with the Black Swamp Bird Observatory board, recognized as far back as 2005 that the amazing birds seen in this region could be a big draw for tourism. They created a business plan and drew up marketing strategies, and they campaigned.

The first festival five years ago was a hit, and it continues to grow every year, luring tourists from around the world.

“We worked hard to make this festival matter,” Kim Kaufman said. “If we can make this economically viable, it will make people recognize the value of protecting the birds and their habitat”

While birds need the food sources and habitat found along the shoreline, humans seem to want to develop that shoreline. So as marinas and condos pop up, it’s important to remember wildlife should be part of the plan, too, Kaufman said.

The wooded land that does exist has been preserved because of the foresight of advocacy groups.

“They were able to look at the future and say, ‘We need to protect this,’” Kaufman said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now protects the land and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources manages it. Economic studies show the Biggest Week in American Birding brings in, on average, $25 million a year, said Larry Fletcher, executive director at Lake Erie Shores & Islands West.

All told, last year’s participants spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $37 million. Wildlife officials estimate more than 60,000 people venture to the Magee Marsh boardwalk during the bird migration celebration. Other birdwatchers can be spotted along the shore, from Maumee Bay to Vermilion, Fletcher said.

“Most stay for several days, some for the entire event” Fletcher said. The payoff: Outside money is being spent on lodging, food and incidentals at area stores and businesses. “It adds up in a hurry” Fletcher said. This year’s 10-day event is May 6-15. May is normally a slow month for tourism, as children are still in school and families haven’t hit the road for vacation just yet. This is why the birding extravaganza has become so important to area businesses. Among the biggest beneficiaries are hotels, bed and breakfasts, campsites or venues where birdwatchers can nest for the night.    

For 17 years Eileen and Jerry Jarc have operated The Five Bells Inn on Sand Road in Port Clinton.

In the Mays of yesterday, business was slow for this bed and breakfast on the Lake Erie shore. It sits about 20 minutes from Magee Marsh.

Now at this time of year, the Jarcs are gearing up for the annual migrations of birders.

“As soon as they started the Biggest Week in American Birding, it really started to bring birders in,” Eileen said. “I give the credit to the Kaufmans”

For the festival’s two weeks, The Five Bells Inn is full with about eight couples, or 16 people total, giving the Jarcs a much-needed cash infusion.

The Jarcs prepare the birdwatchers breakfast, then offer them granola bars to take to the marsh. After that, the tourists are on their own.

“They’re always looking for where they can go get a sandwich to take out to the marsh or where they can go get dinner” Eileen said. “They ask where Walmart is. They spend a lot of money in Ottawa County”

Another business catering to the birdwatchers is Blackberry Corners, just off Ohio 2, at 5975 N. Elliston-Trowbridge Road in Martin.

“It’s like preparing for the marathon,” said Brenda Lowe, who with her husband, Jim, has owned Blackberry Corners for eight years. “There’s not a whole lot in this area for the people to select from”

Winter months are painfully slow for the country restaurant, and the Lowes know they have four months of solid tourism to make enough money to get them through the year. And the Biggest Week in American Birding is critical in that equation.

“It’s huge for us” Brenda said.

She and her husband have hired six people to help staff the restaurant during the birding festival.