It’s March. It’s still cold outside, but the calendar tells us winter’s winding down.
There are other signs of spring: Major league baseball players are working out in Florida and Arizona. And businesses along the western Lake Erie shoreline are gearing up for another fantastic festival called The Biggest Week in American Birding, scheduled for May 3-12.
What fascinates me, in the big picture, isn’t just the birds. But it’s how quickly the issue of birding has gelled and what that could mean for the future of energy production and the environment by getting more people engaged with our natural resources.
Serious birders have known for decades that western Lake Erie is one of the most crucial regions for migratory birds, anything from tiny songbirds to mighty raptors.
For thousands of years, birds have been hard-wired to migrate across Lake Erie en route to Canada and other destinations. Scientists believe nature has programmed them to rest up along the northwest Ohio shoreline and use the Lake Erie islands as stopover points.
Some of this region’s earliest known maps suggest the lake’s western edge could have actually been out at what are now the islands (South Bass, Middle Bass, North Bass, Pelee, et al), not as far west as what became Toledo and Monroe. If that’s true, experts say, the birds may just be following the routes their ancestors took, which is often the case with migration.
But enough of the science lesson. What’s at stake now is public policy, politics, and — of course – money.
International Migratory Bird Day, which takes place in May each year close to Mother’s Day, has been described for years as the Super Bowl of birding. It may have been in other parts of North America, but its potential wasn’t fully realized along the western Lake Erie shoreline until this festival, organized by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, gave it more synergy.
Now, The Biggest Week in American Birding festival is a showcase for how educational and business programs can be more effective working in combination with each other, from ferry shuttles to guest lectures.
Oh, there have always been lots of birders converging along the western Lake Erie shoreline each May, to be sure. But hotels and restaurants packed for miles around and 100,000 or more visitors over a few weekends? Probably not.
In terms of eco-tourism, this effort – bad pun intended – has really taken flight.
Birding, America’s fastest-growing outdoor activity, has gone beyond the stereotypical nerdy bird watchers to become an economic powerhouse. If Great Lakes politicians are serious about diversifying this region’s economy with lighter industries – as they should be, especially given the declines in manufacturing – they cannot deny the impact that birding brings to recreation and tourism.
In northwest Ohio alone, birding contributes $26 million a year and supports 300 jobs, according to a report issued a year ago by Ohio Sea Grant.
The festival’s success and rising popularity comes at a crucial time for birding advocates, because they’re in the fight of their lives over wind turbines, transmission lines, and other energy-producing items they see as threats.
Wind is America’s fastest-growing form of energy production, although that oft-cited claim by the American Wind Energy Association may soon be toned down because of hydraulic fracturing of shale rock for oil and natural gas, or fracking.
There’s a need, even for birds, for society to become less reliant on coal-fired power. Greenhouse gases, the largest source of which are coal-fired power plants, alter the Earth’s climate and that, in turn, threatens the very act of migration. One of the best books on this topic is David S. Wilcove’s No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.
Ohio is the No. 4 state for energy usage and No. 2 for greenhouse gases.
Western Lake Erie is where the avian vs. wind power issue collides. It is Ground Zero for the Great Lakes region, which has some of the best wind resources in the nation along the lake shorelines.
Bird and bat advocates argue the research is far too young to assume those avian creatures can co-exist with commercial-scale turbines anywhere near the shorelines.
In Ohio, birders want a moratorium on wind turbines within three miles of the Lake Erie shoreline. The western basin of the lake is the most crucial because it lies smack in the path of major bird flyways.
It also is the most coveted to potential offshore wind-farm developers because the shallowness of water and the access to the regional electric grid offer the best chance for return on investment.
This energy debate is all about siting. A Government Accountability Office report that came out in 2005 reached no definitive conclusions about the impacts of wind turbines on birds and bats, but it gave examples of other parts of the country where thousands of deaths can be attributed to poor siting.
This isn’t the 1950s. We need more energy and cleaner forms of it.
We have the chance to do it right, though. Maybe history will show someday that concerns are unfounded, that birds and bats can indeed co-exist with wind turbines. Maybe it won’t.
What’s intriguing about the surge in birding’s popularity, though, is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult for politicians to dismiss enthusiasts as a bunch of nerdy bird watchers, especially as their impact on recreation and tourism continues to grow.