By RJ Walters / For the Jackson Citizen Patriot
The Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau may not have captured the entire flock, but it’s hoping for a new migration of people spending time and money on bird watching in Jackson County.
Last summer, the visitors bureau started a two-year marketing plan to bring visitors to the area for bird watching. Executive Director Mindy Bradish-Orta said she believes the initiative is on its way to becoming a success.
She said web-based promotions and advertising have allowed the bureau to reach bird enthusiasts all across the nation.
The birding portion of http://www.visitjacksonmi.com received more than 2,200 views from 1,700 visitors from January through June, and there have been more than 15,000 Google searches on phrases like “bird in Jackson” or “bird watching in Jackson” in that time.
“If we have a person who comes in for no other reason than to look at birds, and stays two nights in hotels and spends … $80 a day outside of the hotel expenses, that’s significant for our community,” she said. “That’s not us circulating (money). That’s them bringing money here.”
Bradish-Orta concedes it is hard to nail down concrete financial gains made in the past year thanks to bird-watching activities. Unlike golf, where there are greens fees to track, bird watching can be informal.
One place seeing increased interest is the Dahlem Environmental Education Center, 7117 S. Jackson Road.
More than 21,000 people visited Dahlem in 2009, an increase of more than 4,000 visitors from the year before.
Gary Siegrist, a naturalist at the Dahlem Center and formerly the president of the Michigan Audubon Society, said he was part of discussions that started the marketing plan, and he believes Jackson County is a great place for bird watchers.
“As you sit down and start looking at some of the birds that are either special concerned or threatened (birds) we have here nesting that people want to see — things like Cerulean Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Henslow’s Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows — these are all birds that you can see in Jackson County,” he said.
Siegrist said he has met people from all across the Midwest who travel to see birds in Michigan. He even ran into a couple from England who was on a several-week birding trip.
Siegrist also spends some free time working with the Haehnle Sanctuary in Pleasant Lake — where bus tours bring in people to see Sandhill Cranes.
He said he has noticed a significant increase in the number of phone calls he gets at the Dahlem Center about different birds, and the birding course he started in 2007 continues to grow more popular.
Bradish-Orta said the next step in the marketing plan is to reach out more to younger people and groups other than the “affluent 40-50 year-olds” that have been identified as the core of bird-watching consumerism.
She said the visitors bureau has had discussions about having the West Avenue water tower painted with a design focused around birds.
Bradish-Orta said events like next weekend’s Birds, Blossoms and Butterflies Festival, which was attended by 600-plus people last year, are wonderful ways to educate the general population, and that’s precisely what the bureau wants to continue to do — through memorable first-hand experiences as well as the latest technology.
She said one of the biggest hits so far has been the “Falcon Cam” that streams live video of peregrine falcons living downtown, and the bureau has learned that an updated, newsworthy website is vital to communicating with the public.
Bradish-Orta said she expects to help roll out a new Jackson birding website sometime this year, and she would also like to see technology debuted in locations like the Falling Waters Trail.
“Ideally, we want to work with county and the park system to put way finding and informational signs along Falling Waters Trail, so like at the zoo, here’s the types of birds you can see here, here’s what to look for, and push a button to hear what they sound like,” she said.
“We’d also love to have that downloadable onto your phone or PDA so you can have app that you can download that chirps at you while you’re walking along.”