The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service regularly conducts a survey to determine how many birdwatchers there are in the country. Their most general category is based simply on whether a person looks at birds, perhaps only at home. They estimate a whopping 45 million people qualify as birdwatchers. A more selective definition classifies a birdwatcher as someone who travels at least a mile from her house to see birds. Sixteen million people qualify as this type of birdwatcher.
Certainly, not all those 16 million birdwatchers travel great distances to see birds. Nevertheless, the USFWS estimates that birdwatching adds 96 billion dollars to the U.S economy each year and provides 782,000 jobs.
I think most Maine birders would agree that the Steller’s Sea-Eagle that spent parts of the last two winters here is the bird of the century so far. This species is native to eastern Russia and Japan and rarely occurs in Alaska. The one we saw here is a wanderer having been sighted in Texas, Massachusetts, Maine, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.
The eagle was first confirmed in Maine at Five Islands on December 30, 2021. The bird stayed in the Georgetown/Boothbay region until early March 2022. It was subsequently seen in Nova Scotia and spent the summer of 2022 in Newfoundland.
The eagle appeared again in Maine on February 4, 2023, and remained until early March, attracting lots of birders. The eagle spent the summer again in Newfoundland and was photographed there as recently as September 24. Many of us are hoping the eagle will spend a portion of the winter in Maine again.
Because of the extreme rarity of Steller’s Sea-Eagle in North America outside of Alaska, many birders have visited Maine from great distances to try to see and photograph this astounding bird. A look at the license plates of birders at popular viewing spots for the eagle tells us much about the draw of this bird.
If you have been among the hordes of people looking for the eagle, have you ever wondered what the economic impact of these birders is? Motel rooms, meals, hot coffee and more hot coffee, warmer clothes, gasoline, airline tickets. I know I have in a fleeting, off-hand way.
A more serious approach was undertaken by Brent Pease and three colleagues in a paper published recently in People and Nature. Brent is a member of the School of Forestry and Horticulture at Southern Illinois University.
The authors point out that analyses of the economic impact of vagrant birding are few and no previous studies of a large, charismatic bird has been conducted.
The authors solicited on-line surveys of birders who chased the eagle between December 2021 and January 31, 2022, when the bird was in Massachusetts briefly and Maine. The survey asked for information on time spent chasing the birds, sociodemographic variables, expenditures associated with their effort, and an estimate of the number of other birders present while looking for the eagle.
The researchers received 680 responses to their survey requests. Fifty-five percent of the responders were at least 55 years old. About 13% of the responders were in each of the 25-34, 35-44 and 45-54 age categories.
The birders were overwhelmingly white, over 96% of the responders. Five percent of the observers flew to Maine to try to see the eagle. The average distance driven by car was about 360 miles although one person drove 1,460 miles.
The authors determined conservatively that 2,350 birders tried to see the sea-eagle over the study period. Each observer spent an average of $180 on expenditures. Birders contributed between $380,604 and $476,626 dollars to the Maine and Massachusetts economy!
This value is an underestimate for Maine since it does not include the winter of 2023 or February and March 2022. The Steller’s Sea-Eagle has brought great joy to birders and bucks to the Maine economy. Here’s hoping for its return this winter!