Birders, by the nature of their hobby, aren’t the same kind of economic engines for Ocean City and Worcester County that Sunfest, or Bike Week or the White Marlin Open are. You won’t find 5,000 birders in the Inlet Parking lot, but they’re an important niche because they help preserve the area that sustains the diverse interests of people all over the world.
Jim Rapp and Dave Wilson know this just about better than anyone. Wilson is the Executive Director of the Maryland Coastal Bays program and Rapp, by his own admission, is involved in just about everything. Late of Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences, Rapp has, he thinks, four different job titles now aside from the committees, consulting and other responsibilities he finds for himself.
Underpinning their professional devotions to nature and conservation is their strong personal passion – devout belief in the preservation of natural habitats and the protection of native species. They are avid birders and best friends. They frequently auction themselves off as guides for local birding tours to raise money for various causes and often play host to politicians and dignitaries who come to tour the Eastern Shore and explore its wonders.
They identify birds by sight, by sound and by inference. They know the back ways of the backwoods of Worcester County like the backs of their hands.
“Part of the success in Worcester County is we have very strong Ag zoning in the south. We obviously have lots of wetlands. Certainly the Pocomoke River and Nassawango creek would still be there without zoning but you need a large buffer so birds will breed there. No one wants to go and see a river surrounded by subdivisions,” Wilson said.
“It’s all about season and place and time,” Rapp explained, “It’s peak migration right about now, but that doesn’t mean the birds just disappear. A lot of what we see here goes south, and what lives north of us comes down. When the beach crowd is gone and the water recreation has slowed it’s best to find the weird stuff. You’re going to see a whole lot of things you’re not going to see anywhere else in Maryland.”
And it doesn’t always take a pair of expert eyes, the birds are there for anyone to find – it just depends who is doing the looking and when.
Wilson remembers a story of a Realtor who wasn’t really all that interested in the trip at hand. They were at the Inlet and there were a large number of birders looking through scopes and scanning the beach and shore for something rare.
“She pointed at a bird six feet away and asked, what’s that?” Wilson said.
Rapp finished Wilson’s sentence, “It turned out to be a Dovekie
; a little Penguin-looking bird the average person wouldn’t know was special. The phones blew up, and the e-mails went flying. It was pandemonium.”
Dovekies generally don’t come any farther south than New England. Discoveries such as this are commonplace enough to have given Worcester County a name for being home to rare birds.
The Coastal Bays and the Cypress swamps common in the county are, according to Rapp, premier habitats, where the largest numbers of species in the state call home.
Birding can be, Rapp and Wilson both admit, a fairly solitary enterprise in other areas. But Ocean City is a tourist town, and the best birding is often found during the off season.
“Birding can be really rural and natural but we don’t have to do that here. You don’t have to travel far to get good things you want when you’re not birding. I want to bird and go get a beer – or bird and get a Bloody Mary at the Purple Moose. I’ll take a nap but I don’t want to go right to bed. Ocean City does that for me,” Rapp said.
Entertainment is never too far away in Worcester County and Ocean City. Restaurants, nightclubs, the Boardwalk and even the beach all make interesting nighttime diversions – clean and comfortable hotel rooms make staying here for a while easy. Plus, some of the best birding happens during off the summer tourist season when prices fall and people are a little more spread out than other times during the year.
The presence of Birders in Ocean City may not be able to challenge those of other events, but that’s simply a matter of perspective. For those engaged in the hobby too much company isn’t always a bad thing, but with so many areas offering different habitats for different species the good things the area offers are nearly boundless. The addition of tourist facilities adds to the relative comfort of an occasionally rustic hobby.
Equally important is the continued preservation of these habitats and nesting areas for everyone to enjoy. The events attended by hundreds of thousands may make a lot of noise and draw a lot of attention; but others with a vested interest in the area keep Ocean City and Worcester County honest by helping to retain the natural beauty that draws people in the first place. However these features need to be used so they may be preserved.
So try out Ocean City’s or Worcester County’s vast selection of birding habitats and facilities supporting them. There is always something new to discover and always something new to see.