Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The business of birding

Birders spend billions each year; could northeastern Minnesota get a bigger piece of the action?

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/18/19

REGIONAL— Birding can mean business, and lots of it in parts of our region, where the chance to see a rare owl or another unusual northern species can bring thousands of visitors from around the …

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The business of birding

Birders spend billions each year; could northeastern Minnesota get a bigger piece of the action?

Posted

REGIONAL— Birding can mean business, and lots of it in parts of our region, where the chance to see a rare owl or another unusual northern species can bring thousands of visitors from around the world, even in the dead of a northern Minnesota winter.

“It’s amazing how much people will spend to see one bird,” said naturalist and author Sparky Stensaas, who has helped put one such birding hot spot, the Sax-Zim bog, on the map.

The nonprofit Friends of Sax-Zim Bog has spent the past several years trying to spread the word about the abundance of birds in that locality, which combines a mix of lowland black spruce and old farmsteads, located about 30 minutes south of Eveleth. They’ve also purchased land, built a welcome center and a section of boardwalk, which they expect to expand next year.

And the results speak for themselves. The welcome center, tucked away on a gravel road just north of Meadowlands, saw a total of 4,377 visitors sign their guestbook between mid-December and mid-March this winter, an average of almost 50 people per day. Some weekends saw hundreds of birders come through the center, which is typically staffed with knowledgeable locals who can provide all the latest reports of rare bird sightings.

For the local restaurant in nearby Cotton, or the bed and breakfast outside Meadowlands, the influx of birders is a huge part of their business, particularly in winter when business used to be slow, according to Stensaas.

Earlier this winter, the Friends of Sax-Zim distributed a questionnaire to visitors at the welcome center to try to better assess the economic effects of all the traffic. About 270 visitors filled out the questionnaires, and the results showed that visitors to the bog spent an average of 2.7 days in the area.

With few lodging options in the immediate vicinity of Sax-Zim, Stensaas said most visitors end up staying in hotels in Duluth or on the Iron Range. And some hotel operators, such as the operators of the Super Eights in Eveleth and Cloquet and the Days Inn, in Duluth have taken notice, offering birder discounts and earlier breakfast hours to accommodate the fact that many birders like to be out in the field early.

Could other parts of the North Country benefit from the birder business? Pete Schultz, with the Rainy Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, is certainly hoping so. “I know birding is popular,” said Schultz, who recently issued a press release touting the outstanding mix of bird habitats in and around Voyageurs National Park.

That’s one of the reasons that the Audubon Society of Minnesota has designated the park as an Important Bird Area, a moniker given to areas with exceptional bird habitat that attract a rich variety of birds. The Sax-Zim bog has a similar designation.

Schultz says his group regularly gets inquiries from birders, most often looking to find boreal bird species, like spruce grouse, although the park is home to a wide range of warblers as well as many birds associated with large lake and marsh environments. Schultz’s recent press release cites the variety of habitat found in and around the park, including “fire-dependent mixed pine and boreal forests, mesic hardwoods, floodplain forest, and rich peatland forests,” attributes that aren’t typically associated with promotional press releases intended for the general public. It’s a sign that those tasked with bringing visitors to the area are learning to speak to a different demographic from the traditional hunting and angling crowd.

Real potential

If you doubt that birding can have a noticeable economic impact on a state, consider a recent study that found that birders bring $1.4 billion a year to the Arizona economy. Like Minnesota, Arizona is a location where birders can often find birds that are not typically found elsewhere in the country, and that draws hundreds of thousands of birders to the state annually, particularly to southeastern Arizona where several internationally-known hot spots are located.

Nationwide, the numbers are even more impressive. A 2011 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the total direct economic impact of birders at more than $41 billion nationwide. The bulk of that was spent on the equipment that birders use, such as binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras. But the roughly 18 million birders who travel beyond their backyard to pursue their passion spent a total of $14.9 billion on travel in 2011, according to the Fish and Wildlife study. That included $4.6 billion on meals, $3.1 billion for lodging, and $5.1 billion for transportation.

Schultz said he recognizes that birders are a potentially valuable segment of the traveling public and Minnesota could be tapping more of those visitor dollars with the kind of promotion that Schultz is starting to undertake.

In terms of bird diversity and abundance, northcentral and northeastern Minnesota actually do stand out as among the most significant places in the lower 48 states. Besides Voyageurs National Park and the Sax-Zim bog, which are both state-designated Important Bird Areas, the Superior and Chippewa national forests are designated as globally-significant IBAs. The vast Red Lake peatland is also a state-designated IBA.

The region’s abundance of wetlands, its location at the confluence of the boreal forest and Great Lakes pine forest, and its limited human development has helped the area maintain a rich diversity of bird life.

Could northern Minnesota someday draw hundreds of thousands of birders a year, like Arizona? Longtime Tower resident Steve Wilson, who is a member of the Minnesota Ornithologists Union, thinks the potential is there. A few years ago, Wilson conducted breeding bird surveys in the Tower-Soudan area for the statewide breeding bird atlas— and he found the highest diversity of breeding birds of any location in the state.

That’s the kind of statistical data that could catch the eye of millions of serious birders if more were done to promote it.

Schultz is certainly hopeful. He said he watches web traffic on his organization’s website and he notes that blog posts on birding in the area tend to see more readership than other posts. He’s hoping his latest press release will continue that trend and start bringing more birders to the park and surrounding areas. “We’re trying to reach out on that,” he said.

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