Birding is the best. It's Pokemon GO but more unpredictable and real. There are few educational thrills quite like waking up early in the morning and grabbing your binoculars to travel far away, chasing rumours that a rare bird might be pecking at a tree in a graveyard.
A black-backed oriole (Image: Susan Schmoyer)
I'm biased here, but there's now scientific evidence to back me up. On 26 January 2017, someone spotted a single black-backed oriole in a bird feeder in their backyard. It was only the second time the Mexican bird had been spotted in the United States. At least 1800 birders visited the home, some coming from as far as Canada, to see it until 10 April 2017, when it departed. A team of Australian researchers amounted the economic value of the single bird's appearance at $US223,000 ($296,310).
"Some birdwatchers value rare birds, contributing significant time and financial resources to their viewing," the authors from the University of New South Wales write in a recent paper published in Human Dimensions of Wildlife. They say that calculations like these might help authorities determine the value of and best ways to use their land.
The birding community can be a diehard bunch, with many sharing their rare bird spots on twitter (lol) and other apps, or reporting and calling rare bird hotlines weekly, and then heading out to spot. I've heard stories from more die-hard birders about driving many kilometres away, causing traffic jams on country roads during migration season or following news of a vagrant bird visiting from Mexico or Europe. Some make a competition out of it, as the paper writes:
This competition was sensationalised by a 2011 Hollywood film starring Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black. These "listers" or "twitchers" often travel great distances, expending significant resources to see rare and/or vagrant birds, often treating birding as a competitive sport, as depicted in the movie.
The researchers made their calculations using a model based on assumptions about the number of visitors and amount of money they spent. Furthermore, they were able to survey the visitors. After all, the oriole spotters were running the viewing operation out of their backyard, and kept a log of who came.
Obviously it's just a model, and the analysis required a lot of assumptions. But the authors made one thing clear: Birding, especially spotting vagrant birds like this black-backed oriole, can have under-appreciated economic value that hotels, motels and local restaurants might be able to take advantage of.
Also, it rules.