Building an Empire for the Birds in Northwest Ohio

Unless you’re looking for a roller coaster ride at Cedar Point, Northwest Ohio does not often top lists of U.S. tourist attractions. In recent years, however, it has become a premier destination for a niche set of tourists: birders. The transformation from hidden gem to international birding hotspot was the result of the dedicated effort of volunteers, local businesses and a local bird conservation non-profit. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

If you’ve never heard the word “ecotourism” before, you can probably guess what it means (here’s the Merriam-Webster definition in case you want to check). You may be picturing resorts preserving rare turtle populations on tropical islands or national parks in Kenya that draw tourists to see elephants, zebras, lions and wildebeests. What you probably aren’t thinking of is a thin strip of swamp straddled between cornfields and the historically polluted Lake Erie in the heart of the American Rust Belt. 

Yet the wetlands of Northwest Ohio are the destination of choice for over 90,000 tourists from all 50 states, 54 countries and 6 continents. It is the site of one of the largest birding festivals in the world, the Biggest Week in American Birding, which generates about $40 million in revenue in Northwest Ohio each May.

So what’s so special about Northwest Ohio in May? It’s no secret that many species of birds that live in temperate regions go south in the fall to avoid the cold, and then return to the north in the spring to build nests and raise their brood. This means that twice a year, during these migration events, bird enthusiasts have a chance to see an unusual variety of birds as they fly through. 

For birders, spring migration is more dramatic than fall; viewing is easier because the trees often don’t have leaves yet, and birds are decked out in their “breeding plumage” — showy, mate-attracting bright colors  that may fade when birds head back south for the winter. As the birds migrate north toward their breeding grounds, they also rehearse their songs so they can attract mates and mark their territories once they reach nesting habitat. Early May is the peak time to see this loud, colorful party visiting the shores of Lake Erie.

The Western Basin of Lake Erie, which includes Northwest Ohio, turns out to be a great place to see a wide variety of birds. When birds migrate from the tropical parts of the world to the cooler regions, they tend to use particular routes called “flyways.” The more flyways over an area, the more species of birds you are likely to see. According to Kim Kaufman, director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), three migratory bird flyways pass through this region, providing ample opportunity to birders to see new species. 

Birds migrating along the eastern half of North America into Canada all have to cross the Great Lakes somehow — a trip over open water that can be treacherous for anyone, let alone a small bird that weighs less than a AA battery. The relatively short distance over the Western Basin of Lake Erie is a particularly good place to cross, though even this “short” crossing is over 25 miles (40 kilometers). There’s also the dotting of islands in this region for birds to land as needed. Prior to making the treacherous journey over Lake Erie, birds typically have few options for places to rest and refuel — either long stretches of lake or farmlands without appropriate cover or sustenance — so the few remaining swamp areas along the Lake Erie shore draw huge numbers of birds.

Migratory flyways in North America. Orange paths represent flyways — three pass over Northwest Ohio. Image by Yitong Jiang and Ruth Chang for Midstory with base image courtesy of Kaufman Field Guides.

All of these factors make Magee Marsh, Maumee Bay State Park and other surrounding parks and nature preserves in Northwest Ohio hotspots for birding. Where flock the birds so flock the birders — or so you would think. But there is much more to the story of the Biggest Week in American Birding. To make it a major event for any tourist — not just those who are willing to brave swamp water, primitive tent camping in locations of dubious legality and instant coffee — requires a surprising amount of knowledge, planning and infrastructure.

Kaufman is also  one of the founders of the Biggest Week in American Birding, and has worked for years to make the annual event the tourist attraction it is today. The Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) is a local non-profit based out of Oak Harbor, Ohio that was founded in 1992 by migratory bird researchers. The bird nerds at the BSBO realized that the spring migration in Northwest Ohio was spectacular, and together they put together a plan to share it with the world.

In order to bring together birders and the birds, BSBO had to work on three main fronts: they had to bring people to Northwest Ohio, make Northwest Ohio ready for the birders and bring together the birds and the birders in the marshes and forests along Lake Erie.

To bring in the birders, BSBO first had to heavily publicize the festival. According to Kaufman, Northwest Ohio had a great product to market: a birding destination where you can see often-elusive but colorful warblers (tropical songbirds, several of which migrate to northern climates to breed in the summer) at eye-level when there are no leaves on the trees. In addition, the mosquito levels in the Black Swamp during the early spring is low, which any outdoor enthusiast will tell you is a major plus. 

In addition to more typical publicity avenues like social media, BSBO had a great “asset” that they were able to use to reach out to the birding world: Kaufman’s husband, Kenn Kaufman, a respected birder and author of the Kaufman field guide series. When Kenn Kaufman started writing about the birding in the region, the birding community took notice. Soon, the tweets and chirps around Northwest Ohio’s birding began to grow.

Black-throated blue warbler at Magee Marsh. Photo by Andrew C cc-by2.0.
Magnolia Warbler in Magee Marsh. Photo by Francesco Veronesi cc-by-sa-2.0.

The next obstacle for BSBO to solve was where all these birders would sleep when they weren’t birding. The answer seems obvious — a hotel, right?

Prior to the creation of the Biggest Week in American Birding, the tourism season along the Lake Erie coast in Northwest Ohio started in June, which meant that many hotels, restaurants and tourist amenities were closed or operating at reduced capacity at the time of the April/May migration, leaving limited options for 90,000 potential visitors who couldn’t crash on a friend’s couch. 

Kaufman and the BSBO set out to spread the word among local businesses. They used their connections in the local community to reach out to influential hotel owners and chambers of commerce, telling these businesses that tourists would be in the area and that they could profit from being open. They also handed out “birder calling cards” to festival participants to give out to local businesses that said, “I am visiting northwest Ohio and spending money here because of the Biggest Week in American Birding and the wonderful bird watching here!”

Once the businesses were open and paying attention, BSBO hosted workshops and provided resources to these businesses to help them better market to the birding community. For example, they recommended that hotels hang pictures of birds in their lobbies and have copies of birding magazines available to guests. They mentioned to bed and breakfasts that they didn’t need to get up early to prepare elaborate breakfasts for birders. Many birders like to be out in the field early (five or six a.m.) to catch the dawn chorus, so a cup of coffee and a sandwich to go would suffice. 

BSBO also encouraged businesses to put up “welcome birders” signs, a practice that has caught on in Northwest Ohio in the spring. In return, Biggest Week organizers encourage festival-goers to patronize the businesses who support the Biggest Week through their visitor’s guide. The Festival has become so big locally that even the Toledo Museum of Art often has bird-themed exhibits that overlap with the Biggest Week.

And to get the birders to the birds, Black Swamp Bird Observatory provides lots of free and low-cost resources, including bird checklists and maps of birding hotspot locations. The BSBO staff also uses their Biggest Week Twitter account to tweet out the locations of notable bird sightings in the area in real time. The festival itself also includes talks and social gatherings, including a birder “prom” and bird tattoo contest.

According to Kaufman, it took years to build the festival into the birder institution it is today. Prior to the official launch in 2010, BSBO spent 3 years organizing and planning, even conducting a trial festival in 2009. Now, the Biggest Week in American Birding is the biggest birding festival in the U.S. Not only that — the tourism season along the Northwest Ohio shores of Lake Erie has been extended by six weeks in the spring. And Northwest Ohio has been branded the “Warbler Capital of the World,” advertising that I will admit influenced my decision to move to Toledo.

Trumpeter swans at Metzger Marsh in Jerusalem Township, Ohio. Image courtesy of Jessica Susser.

In addition to creating a fun festival for birders and stimulating the Northwest Ohio economy, BSBO has used some of the capital and influence that the festival creates to promote conservation in the region. Politics and land-use decisions are complicated, so it is difficult to explicitly quantify the impact that the Biggest Week has had on these areas. There is, however, one specific conservation initiative that Kaufman believes has been impacted by the economic sway of the Biggest Week in American Birding. In the United States, about 599 million birds are killed by building collisions every year. During bird migration, birds are impacted by lit buildings, both directly through collisions and indirectly when the buildings ‘confuse’ the birds and direct them away from their natural habitats

According to Kaufman, the economic importance of the Festival and birding in the region made it possible for BSBO to convince businesses and high-rises in downtown Toledo to participate in a “lights out” program, during which people turn off the lights at night during the critical bird migratory seasons in order to reduce the impact of lit buildings on birds and save avian lives. Kaufman said it was easier to convince businesses in Toledo to participate in this program than it is in other cities because they understand the importance of birds to the local economy.

BSBO and the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival demonstrate the effect that a small group of people can have to create economic benefits from ecotourism, even in seemingly unlikely places. Ecotourism alone, however, is not going to “save the natural world.” The jobs created by the tourism industry are typically the lowest paid in the U.S., and as recent years have shown us, they are very sensitive to global health, political and economic fluxes. The preservation of natural habitats, however, has many economic and cultural benefits outside of tourism, such as valuable ecosystem services that keep our water clean and the mental health services that nature provides. Ecotourism can help make preserving natural ecosystems more economically viable, and it can help refocus how we value natural resources.

Should you ever find yourself in Northwest Ohio in early May, you certainly should make your way to one of the birding hotspots near Oak Harbor, Ohio. I have myself made the pilgrimage from my Toledo home to Magee. There, I saw one of the most magnificent displays of birds that I have ever seen in my life — topped only by a trip to a canopy tower in a remote portion of the Amazon Rainforest. 

But even more interesting than the birds were the people who gathered around them. Although crowds were thicker than a tailgate before an Ohio State- Michigan game, they were almost completely silent.  The loudest noises were the shutters of extremely-expensive cameras and the soft whispers of people pointing at kirtland and cerulean warblers, bald eagles and shockingly-red scarlet tanagers. I am not by any stretch a “hard core” birder, but I thoroughly enjoyed looking at and learning about the array of colorful birds around me from the knowledgeable visitors to the swamp. And while I do think it is worth checking out the Biggest Week in American Birding someday, I really think everyone should first look in your own backyard and hometown for “hidden gems” of ecotourism. You may be surprised by what you discover.


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