When my friend told me she’d recently gotten into birding, I laughed. “Are you an 80-year old retiree?” “No, it’s a hipster millennial thing now,” she insisted before dragging me with her on a three-day birding trip.
By the Numbers
It turns out, she wasn’t wrong. According to a recent survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a third of the U.S. population age 16 and up enjoy wildlife watching from observing to feeding and photographing, making it one of the fastest growing hobbies in the U.S. Upwards of 45 million people observe birds around their home or on trips, contributing over 75 billion dollars to the economy. And as for the hipster part, well, they just like any excuse to unplug from the endless bombardment of tech.
Most people identify as recreationalists, casually observing their surroundings when they’re out and about anyway, but a small yet growing subset of the population make it a point to seek out unique animal encounters on vacation or otherwise. Gen Xers and boomers are still the largest group of backyard bird watchers, but birding is definitely growing in popularity with everyone from 16-64 with those under the age of 35 especially interested in traveling to see feathered friends.
Why Birding’s Become So Popular
Fancy cameras and binoculars aside, birding is an inexpensive hobby that’s easy to pick up and encourages getting outside and decreasing screen time. We’re all looking for ways to disconnect from the slew of devices and focusing on nature can be either calming or competitive depending on your attitude.
Technology has made it easier to document and identify your sightings and created a new kind of “bucket list” to find some of the more challenging “life birds.” In fact, a number of birders even treat it like a sport to track down the rarest finds.
What the Experience Was Actually Like
There’s a lot of subculture and etiquette between the casual backyard birder and the listers, chasers, and photographers, some of which you can get a feel for in the Big Year. At the end of the day, though, it’s a community. Birders often throw themselves big days, weeks or years with the sole intent of seeing as many species as possible in a given time frame. If you time it right, you can get thrown right into the mix.
Beaumont is on two migratory flyways so one week every spring and every fall, the skies are filled with rare and unusual finds for the area with species from as far as South America making landfall. On our “big bender” during the spring flyaway, we went to 10+ stops and saw over 200 species, which is pretty crazy if you think about it. Some of the most rare were the piping plover and the snowy plover, along with thousands of American avocets and shorebirds.
I actually found it just as interesting to observe the people as the birds as their level of excitement for a hobby some do every day is simply unreal. I was shocked to find bleachers set up at some of the more popular locations where people post up for the entire day. If someone has their binoculars up, give them space so as not to scare the bird. For the most part, though, people are happy to help you spot and identify what’s in the area.
One person is responsible for documenting the group’s list on ebird, an app that tracks ornithology distribution and abundance in real-time. It’s a lot of the honor system since so many people amateur naturalists, but for the most part, people want to contribute to the community. As with every sport, some act more professional than others and stringers have a reputation of being unreliable sources and false reporters, boosting their lists just to seem more boastful. It’s a major faux pas to false report and get everyone excited as others will come running to the region with the hopes of seeing rare birds.
Car birding is also a thing since a lot of the traditional birders are older and want to be able to cover more ground. While I initially cringed at the thought of being trapped in a car for hours on end (the opposite of being one with nature), it ended up being pretty exciting and felt like what I imagine a safari to be like. You go with a guide who’s an expert at spotting rare and hard to find species and he directs everyone where and how to see it. We saw a few “lifers” in just the first few hours.
Being an adrenaline junkie, I wouldn’t say I loved birding, but I was definitely intrigued by the subculture and could understand why it’s taken off (pun intended). It is definitely nice to be able to identify a few species while I'm out and about being a bit more active.