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Ashland sees birdwatching as a possible tourism draw

After spotting a pair of uncommon prairie falcons during Ashland's Christmas Bird Count Saturday morning, John Alexander announced that birdwatching has become America's fastest-growing recreational sport — and that Ashland in May will launch a new birding weekend designed to bump up tourism.

Alexander, the director of the Klamath Bird Observatory in Ashland, says birding nationally has grown to levels that, if it were a business, would rank in the Fortune 500 list.

"There are more birders now than golfers," Alexander says, "and our focus is how can we enlist them to be significant actors in the conservation movement in the ways they purchase and vote and live their lives. We engage them in the science and what science does is identify what the real conservation needs are."

About 40 birders in 11 teams around Ashland on Saturday spotted scores of species as part of the nation's 113th Christmas Bird Count, a tally that not only shows the health of avian life, he notes, but the habitats they require to thrive.

The census, started in 1900 by the New York Audubon Society, was designed to replace traditional bird hunts, which men did while the women baked Christmas dinner. The count now supplies one of the oldest continuous biological records of any kind and provides a snapshot of how habitats have changed, Alexander notes — mainly because of human activity.

Most notably in this year's Ashland count were robins, flocking here to gobble a bumper crop of madrone berries, says Brandon Breen of Klamath Bird Observatory. Almost as numerous were European starlings and dark-eyed juncos.

Breen's tally showed marsh wren, hermit thrush, white-breasted nuthatch, golden crowned kinglet, red-breasted sapsucker, house finch and western bluebirds, who were enjoying a feast of mistletoe berries.

Also spotted was a ruby-crowned kinglet, whose cry sounds just like an old dot-matrix printer.

"We used to describe this to young students, but now they say they don't know what a dot-matrix printer is," he says.

Rick Arndt of Ashland said he and his wife, Kathryn, enjoy "getting outdoors into the fresh air and learning habitats. Birding doesn't take a lot of money and it's a good way to spend the day."

So popular has birding become — both as a contribution to environmental science and a fun way to get outdoors and also meet new people — that the KBO, with a $15,000 grant from the city of Ashland, will stage the first Mountain Bird Festival, a three-day social and nature event designed to attract tourists on the eve of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor season.

The event, May 30 through June 1, will be based at ScienceWorks and combine lots of birding with lectures, art, music and a cocktail party. Admission fees will go to conservation of wildlife refuges, notes Alexander.

Ashland, located in the middle of the vast and globally significant Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion, is home to many less-seen species — great gray owl, white-headed woodpecker, mountain quail — and, says Alexander, "people will pay to come and see them" and add them on their list of birds they've observed.

Data from the bird count goes to Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology, where it may be accessed by scientists and the public.

KBO also offers this and many other data sets on the bioregion online as Avian Knowledge Northwest, under its Resources & Publications tab. The K-S bioregion stretches from Roseburg to Redding, Calif., and from the coast to the Klamath Basin.

Ashland birders were to end the count with dinner Saturday at Alex's restaurant, a jovial social event during which they add up all their tallies, hoping to exceed the species record for both Ashland and Rogue Valley birders of 119 species.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

John Alexander, executive director of the Klamath Bird Observatory, left, counts birds as Brandon Breen records his findings during the Ashland Christmas Bird Count Saturday off of Ashland Mine Road. Julia Moore / Daily Tidings - Julia Moore