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Delaware’s Own World-Renowned Birder

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Jeff Gordon has loved animals ever since he can remember and, as a kid growing up in the Deerhurst neighborhood in Brandywine Hundred, his interests were typical for a boy living in a suburban jungle—snakes, frogs and creepy, crawly insects.

Then, one day, his eyes turned toward the sky.

“It was almost a conversion experience,’’ Gordon says. “I’m still interested in all types of wildlife and natural history in general, but, for some reason, birds have a hold on me like nothing else. And at some point, I realized that I wanted to make birds my vocation. I wanted to discover everything I could about them and then share my knowledge and my passion with others.

“So far, it’s worked out pretty well.’’

As president of the American Birding Association, Gordon has come full circle, returning to his home state as well as influencing the relocation of the ABA’s national headquarters from Denver to Delaware City.

The move comes at a time when Delaware is focusing on a growing trend in the tourism industry, trying to attract visitors who have an interest in observing wildlife and supporting conservation efforts. 

“Jeff Gordon is world-renowned as a birder,’’ says Linda Parkowski, the director of tourism for the state of Delaware. “We’re really looking forward to him and his organization setting up camp in Delaware and helping us show people all the wonderful things this state has to offer as a destination for birders and all wildlife lovers. Having the ABA in our backyard is a real boost for eco-tourism in Delaware.’’

The American Birding Association, which was founded in 1968, has more than 12,000 members from every state and more than 40 countries. Ninety-eight of those members are from Delaware—almost double the number that was in the state chapter as recently as 2011. The ABA, a nonprofit, is the only organization in the U.S. that’s dedicated to recreational birding.

And while Gordon may have had input in the relocation, the main reason for the group’s move is that the Delmarva Peninsula is in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, one of four main migratory paths across North America, where 410 different species of birds have been officially recorded in Delaware.

There are six bird-watching regions in the state, which are categorized by their ecological diversity: Piedmont Hills and Valleys (most of northern New Castle County, including the Brandywine Valley), the Delaware River Coast, Delaware Bay Coast, Forest and Farmland (mostly western Kent County), Ocean Beaches and Inland Bays, and Cypress and Pine (mostly southern and western Sussex County).

Popular birding sites include the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge along Delaware Bay, which was recognized by the American Bird Conservancy as one of “America’s Top 100 Important Birding Areas.’’ There have been 278 species of birds recorded at Bombay Hook, and 103 species nest there.

Another important spot is Pea Patch Island—which can be seen from the ABA’s new headquarters in Delaware City’s historic Central Hotel—the home to one of the largest and most varied heronries on the East Coast. And there’s also Delaware’s best-known wildlife adventure, the annual spring spawning of horseshoe crabs around Delaware Bay, which lures thousands of red knots, sanderlings and sandpipers that refuel on the crab eggs as they migrate north to their Arctic breeding grounds.

“Delaware has everything we were looking for,’’ says Gordon, 50. “And, as a bonus, I get to come home.’’

He credits his mother, Kathleen Gordon, for instilling in him a strong empathy toward wildlife. She loved nature and was a volunteer guide for the Delaware Nature Society while he was growing up, he says. Then, a trip to the Everglades with a youth naturalist group opened his eyes to the variety and majesty of the bird kingdom. Later, he got a job as a birding tour guide in Austin, Texas, which helped him land a job with the ABA in Colorado, where he worked his way up to become its president.

Delaware rolled out the red carpet when state officials learned the ABA was considering Delaware City for its new home. Gov. Jack Markell and Alan Levin, the state’s director of economic development, wooed the birding group to be another part of a First State avian empire that includes the Delaware Audubon Society, the Delmarva Ornithological Society, the Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Center, and Ducks Unlimited, which are all dedicated to habitat preservation and enjoyment of nature in general.

“They actively courted us,’’ Gordon says. “And they’ve done everything they can to make us feel welcome here. They knew, just like we did, that the ABA is a great fit for Delaware.’’

For Parkowski, the arrival of the American Birding Association in Delaware is a win-win situation. As an outdoor enthusiast, whose husband, Mike, is an environmental lawyer, she also has a personal interest in preserving wildlife and habitat.

“Everyone realizes that it all starts with habitat,’’ Parkowski says. “If you preserve that, everything else will take care of itself.’’

She also appreciates the impact on the state’s eco-tourism efforts. 

“Wildlife viewing has become extremely popular, and it brings in visitors who have a little bit higher income, which is obviously a good thing for the local economy,’’ Parkowski  says. “And it’s an activity that is growing more popular all the time, especially with younger people. When they go on vacation, they tend to want
to do more things and be more active, and we’re
doing our best to make sure they have that option. And having the American Birding Association move to Delaware is a big part of that.’’

The money that’s generated by eco-tourism is impressive, too. A study by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, released in 2012, found that trail-based activities, which include bird-watching, generate $174 million in revenue for the Delmarva Peninsula annually.

Matt Sarver, a member of the board of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, says the ABA will further Delaware’s reputation among bird-watchers.

“I think the state knows a good thing when it sees it, and eco-tourism is a good thing,’’ he says. “There aren’t many things out there that are good for the economy and for the ecology, and eco-tourism is both.’’

Sarver’s conversion to birding was a lot like Gordon’s. He was a “backyard bird-watcher’’ and didn’t dive headfirst into birding until he got older. He’s found that birders come from every walk of life and every nationality. And one of its attractions, he says, is that it’s relatively cheap—all you need to start is a good book on birds and a pair of binoculars.

“I think one reason people enjoy it so much is that, unlike a lot of other animals, there are so many different kinds of birds,’’ Sarver said. “You can never get bored because you never know what you’re going to see or when you’re going to see it. At the same time, even though there is an incredible diversity in birds that can keep people’s interest, there aren’t so many in a specific area that you can’t master all of the birds in your area with a few years of dedicated study.’’

When asked why people would want to spend so much time and effort studying birds, Sarver smiles.

“Because they can fly,’’ he says. “How many of us have looked up in the sky and seen an eagle soaring above and been envious that it can fly? That’s a subject that has fascinated people since ancient times, and people are still fascinated when they see how gracefully and effortlessly a bird flies. I think that strikes a common chord in most of us.’’

It certainly did with ABA member Taj Schottland, who grew up in Vermont, where there are plenty of open spaces to watch birds. He wasn’t sure what to expect from the local birding community when he arrived in Newark almost two years ago to pursue his career as a biologist. 

“I realized that Delaware has absolutely spectacular birding,’’ Schottland says. “I had no idea what a diverse place this is and how accessible everything is. I mean, you can go to someplace like Prime Hook and see tens and tens of thousands of birds in a single day—and up close, too.

“And now, having the ABA relocate to Delaware City definitely raises the profile of Delaware for birders in the U.S.,’’ he says. “A lot of people travel to Cape May, and now they’ll hear about all the great things happening across the bay. Then, they’ll get here and see how cool Delaware is for birders.’’ 

John Barczewski, an ABA member who grew up in Wilmington, became interested in birds when he was 10 and his father bought him a bird book.

“I was glued to it for a long time,’’ Barczewski says. “Then, one day, I saw a goldfinch in my backyard, and it was so cool to actually see this bird in real life instead of just a page in a book. It was a life-changing experience because it made me think, ‘Gosh, what else is out there?’’’

Barczewski and Schottland approach their bird-watching hobby differently. Barczewski is more laid-back, while Schottland is competitive. He and his bird-watching friends vie to see who  can spot the most of a new species or the first bird of a season.

“We really get into it. We even do a little trash talking,’’ Schottland says with a laugh. “It makes birding more enjoyable for us and gives us something to talk about. It just shows how diverse bird-watching is—the birds and the people who do it.’’

For world-class migratory bird sanctuaries and other outdoor adventures around the state, check out the Delaware Nature Trail, which includes sites in all three counties. www.visitdelaware.com/outdoor 

 

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