OAK HARBOR, Ohio — They arrive from Austin and Austria, from Columbus and British Columbia, from Miami and Milan, and from both Berlins — Germany and Ohio.
They are in northwest Ohio to see birds, primarily the tiny warblers that make the woodlots and marshes near Lake Erie a rest-and-refuel stop on a migratory path that covers thousands of miles from their wintering grounds in the tropics to their nesting areas in the northern forests.
The flocks of birders that descend on the region each spring have created a phenomenon that jump-starts the tourism business a full month before the traditional summer season gets under way.
"It really shocked me at first, to see all of these visitors come here in May with one main purpose — to see the birds," said Stacy Wiseman, the general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Oregon. "And it's not just Ohio or even the U.S. — they come from all over the world. This spring birding has really become quite a big thing."
Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory and one of the driving forces behind "The Biggest Week in American Birding" festival, which runs 10 days starting May 5, said the rich habitat in the corridor along the lake attracts the wide array of colorful and melodic birds, and wherever you find birds, the birders will follow.
"The birds bring the people because there is just something about birds that is so captivating, and it never gets old," Kaufman said. "And to see this festival grow to the point where it draws people from around the world to this part of Ohio is extremely gratifying. It gives us an opportunity to not only show off the great connection people have with birds, but also to showcase the whole area to guests who otherwise might never visit here."
The festival, now in its eighth year, offers registered guests a wide suite of workshops, seminars, lectures, and guided tours. There are also a number of free events intended as an introduction to birding. Kaufman said the festival has partnered with many area businesses and attractions to expand the experience for the visitors taking part in The Biggest Week in American Birding.
"I think we are seeing birds and birding become part of the culture here," Kaufman said. "There are positive implications in every direction. We have birders renting houses along the lake for the month of May, and some even buying cottages to use primarily for birding. The hotels, the bed & breakfasts, and the restaurants are very busy, and the birders get to the Art Museum and the Mud Hens games, too."
The event is based at Maumee Bay State Park but the epicenter is the boardwalk at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, located tight against the lakeshore about 22 miles east of Toledo off State Route 2.
A traffic counter on the road leading into Magee Marsh recorded 77,000 visitors during the 2016 spring migration period. Larry Fletcher, president of the Lake Erie Shores & Islands tourism bureau, said the economic impact of birding on the region is in the neighborhood of $40 million.
"I'm not surprised by that figure because the hotels are full now at this time of year, and that wasn't the case a few years ago," Wiseman said.
Magee Marsh was named the top birding site in the country in a 2014 USA Today poll, but birders will fan out across a broad section of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, utilizing the premium birding opportunities at Oak Openings, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Catawba and Marblehead, Michigan's Pointe Mouillee State Game Area, East Harbor State Park, South Bass, Middle Bass and Kelleys islands, Maumee State Forest, Maumee Bay State Park, and Metroparks of the Toledo Area.
"Five or six years ago it was more localized around Magee Marsh, but now they go all over. They are everywhere," Wiseman said. "And as a group they are wonderful people. They are great guests to have visit our area."
Tonya Tice operates the Barnside Creamery on State Rt. 2 just east of Magee Marsh and in the heart of birding corridor. She said the birders make up a good portion of her customers in May, and many come back year after year.
"The birders are a very loyal crowd and a great bunch of people," she said. "We open our business for the season so we're ready for the birders, and we've seen that as this festival grows every year, our business has grown with it. No matter what the weather is, if it's May, the birders are here."