Hipster Alert: Bird-Watching Is The Next Big Thing

Forget Pokemon Go: Birding is the newest craze.

August 15, 2018

By Sam Nar / Photo: Daniyal Ghanavati, Pexels

As the days wane and the nights draw closer, chilled winds echo through skeletal trees, inviting golden leaves in a last, wistful dance. Among the performance, Lindsay Marsh hunkers down, her senses geared to capture and study the seasonal birds migrating through Vancouver. Bird-watching has been part of her routine for yearswatching, listening, and living among the birds. In the age of smartphones and hybrid supercomputers, Marsh’s hobby seems out of place. But for her, traipsing through the city in search of all sorts of birds is a no-brainer.

“It allows us to connect with nature right at home and it allows us to connect with each other,” she says. “I think no matter who you are or what your background is, there’s a chance for you to enjoy birding wherever you might be.” Though a lot has changed over the years, Marsh’s passion for feathered wildlife—along with her connection to nature—has withstood the test of time.

When talking about animals in the city, cats and dogs get most of the recognition, but birds remain a harshly underrated species. Sure, they might not seem so when you’re cleaning their poop off your windshield, but the flying ones just need a better publicist, and this August, they’ve got one: Vancouver. Late last month, city officials designated August as Bird Month in Vancouver and birders aren’t wasting any time; two bird-centric events have already been scheduled in honour of all-things-bird.

The 27th annual International Ornithological Congress (IOC), which takes place every four years, will take flight this Sunday until the 26th at the Vancouver Convention Centre, featuring a global gathering of bird scientists who will discuss the importance of research, conservation and other academic issues in regards to popular themes of the bird world.

The congress coincides with the first-ever Vancouver International Bird Festival (VIBF), which will kick off with a parade of around 300 participants dressed as birds, complete with stilts, bill replicas, and top-notch bird calls, followed by a performance from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) quintet in collaboration with the Aeriosa dance troupe. Guests can look forward to the unveiling of Canada’s five new stamps by the federal government, paintings of over 600 endangered birds in the world and speakers such as Margaret Atwood, author of A Handmaid’s Tale, Whitley Award-winner Purnima Barman, The Genius of BirdsJennifer Ackerman, and birders from Middle East war zones. The 8th Artists for Conservation Festival (AFC) will also be showcasing a separate art exhibit with regional artists, films, live demos, music and cultural performances.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to put these two [IOC and VIBF] together: You’ve got the world’s best ornithologists in the same city as all the crazy bird watchers and what you get is a city that is really into it [birding],” says Rob Butler, chair of VIBF.

A New Generation

According to Butler, what was once regarded as an outdoor hobby reserved solely for the retirees with too much time on their hands, is now making a comeback as one of the most popular activities for hip youngsters. He believes that the rise in bird-watching popularity may be the result of technology.

“There’s a program called eBird that’s run out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can go to any location in the world, and you can see all the birds that have been seen just in the last week or over the last twenty years,” says Butler, adding that the app is now available on-the-go for Subaru cars. “Just shows how popular it’s [birding] become.”

Marsh, now the manager of communications for the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, is a fellow user of the app who will also be attending the week’s festivities. “I think they’re [apps] absolutely facilitating young birders to connect to birding as a hobby or even a professional activity.”

Marsh says apps like eBird aren’t the only things pushing birding forward. “I always had a deep appreciation for birds and bird-watching,” she says, noting that she grew up in the rich bird surroundings of Delta which exposed her to birding at a young age. “But I didn’t really consider myself a birder until I developed an interest in photography … that allowed me to see an even deeper appreciation of their beautiful colours and the way they interact with each other in our environment.”

She isn’t alone. For a lot of birders in Vancouver, sharing photographs on social media sites like Instagram to create an awareness for avian animals is what spurred their interest in bird-watching. The pictures are living proof that birding has spread its wings, inspiring a whole new generation of bird lovers. One of these hipster birders attending VIBF is 17-year-old Liron Gertsman, a B.C.-based nature photographer who recently won the Audubon Photography Awards‘ youth category for his portrait of cobalt-winged parakeets from a trip to Ecuador.

“I’m not totally sure how I got into birds, but of the things in nature that I saw when I was young, birds always really fascinated me,” Gertsman says, commenting that Vancouver sees high levels of traffic because it’s on one of the main migration routes for birds. “B.C. is one of the most amazing places in North America, if not the entire world, for birds.”

Potential Economic Benefits

Birding isn’t just limited to Vancouver or B.C.–it’s become one of the fastest growing hobbies in Canada with approximately 70 per cent of the population spending more time outdoors, according to 2016 report from Canadian Nature Survey.

Butler says the U.S. estimates spending $40 billion per year on bird-watching and he suspects the growing bird market could extend into Vancouver’s tourism industry. “If we get a rare bird here, as we have in the past, people come from all over to see them. What we’re looking at here is seeing if we can increase the number of tours.”

The only surprise about Vancouver’s bird talk is that it didn’t happen sooner. B.C. is home to over 200 different species including common house sparrows, majestic eagles, and great blue herons, and there are no shortages of places to see them. “[Birds] are a common sight. You can’t go [anywhere] without seeing a bird,” Marsh says.

Bird-watching hotspots include English Bay, Burrard Inlet, Fraser River estuary in Delta, Queen Elizabeth Park, Boundary Bay, Iona Island, Colony Farm, Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, Burnaby Lake, areas in Greater Vancouver, and provincial parks like Grouse, Seymour, and Cypress.

“This is part of Canada. This is part of life here, part of the natural world and we’re so fortunate in this country to have all of this,” says Butler. “If you’re not getting out there and actually looking at everything, getting more exposed to it, you’re not really taking it all in.”

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