Birding In The National Parks: Interesting Numbers From Acadia Birding Festival

Where you one of the 151 birders who attended this year's Acadia Birding Festival? If so, did you spot any Cape May Warblers? Photo by Kirby Adams.

The numbers are in from the 15th annual Acadia Birding Festival, and two of them are very impressive: 151 and 200,000.

One-hundred-fifty-one is the number of bird species seen by the more than 200 participants in this year’s festival in and around Acadia National Park. That’s a record for the festival and an impressive number for Mount Desert Island and a few pelagic sites offshore in the Atlantic.

Birding records are falling frequently these days. A team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology destroyed the North American "big day" record in April with 294 birds in 24 hours in Texas. Other state and regional "big day" and "big year" records are being broken regularly as well.

At first glance, this seems like good news. More birds is a good thing, right? In most cases, yes, but it’s somewhat disconcerting when many of the exciting rarities added to lists are southern birds being driven farther and farther north by rapid climate change. Likewise, some birds of the far north are showing up way too far south in search of food. So while it’s exciting to see a new bird in a region, it’s not always great news on a macro scale.

Back at Acadia, however, I think 151 is nothing but a great number. It represents another, more encouraging factor in the slew of broken records. More people are birding, and more people are birding well. When the Acadia Birding Festival was in its infancy, mobile apps for bird identification didn’t exist. There was no good way to immediately check if the song you just heard was a Willow Flycatcher or Acadian Flycatcher. (Ironically, an Acadian Flycatcher would be an extremely rare find in Acadia National Park. It’s more of a southern bird.) Printed field guides are also better and more widely available than they used to be. Likewise for optics. There have always been high quality binoculars and scopes available, but they have become much more available and affordable.

The same technology that allows for use of identification apps in the field also allows immediate dissemination of information between birders in the field. I was at a festival in May where I got on several really good birds thanks to a Twitter feed from the festival. When my phone started blowing up in my pocket, I knew there was something good somewhere.

Some would say that takes the fun out of birding, and for some folks it certainly does. But I don’t mind using the latest technology to lead me to a good bird. And as much as I sometimes proclaim to be a loner, there’s something exhilarating and encouraging about being part of a group of people reveling in great views of a Kirtland’s Warbler. I’ll take that over the adrenaline of a herd of football fans any day.

So, I’m happy to hear about the 151 bird record at Acadia, even though I couldn’t be there for the festival this year. More people are seeing more birds, they’re recording those birds for citizen science projects like eBird, and they’re going home and telling their friends about the wonders of Acadia’s birds and nature. As Martha Stweart would say, “It’s a good thing!”

The other number that grabbed my attention from Acadia was 200,000. It came in a letter from Michael J. Good, founder and director of research and development for the Acadia Birding Festival. There was a dollar sign in front of the 200,000 and it represented the economic impact of that one weekend on the Mount Desert Island community. Now, there’s no doubt that Bar Harbor and rest of MDI hauls in millions of dollars thanks to the park, but a fifth of a million dollars in a weekend is nothing to overlook. The lesson here is that birders (and all nature enthusiasts) spend money when they travel. It pays, in real dollars, to conserve great places to bird.

Birders tend to be sheepish about their hobby, but it’s time to be loud and proud about what we do. When I visit a new location, most of the locals I encounter are aware I’m there to see their birds and that I’m spending money in their restaurants simply because someone thought to protect some nearby habitat.

Last June in Medora, North Dakota, I had some pleasant encounters with local business owners during my breaks from birding in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. These folks are inherently skeptical about conservation efforts, especially those originating in Washington D.C., but they thanked me for coming to town and they knew I was there because there’s an island of good bird habitat in the midst of a lot of oil fields. As I mentioned in a guest blog post for the American Birding Association last year, the more we become ambassadors for our hobby, the more the birds benefit.

One-hundred-fifty-one and 200,000. Anyone want to join me in Acadia next year to help break both of those records?