A surprising number of Americans consider themselves bird watchers, Rural Action’s environmental education director Joe Brehm said.
That’s why a few years ago, Rural Action decided to have its first Birds in the Hills Festival at Camp Oty’okwa in Hocking Hills. Brehm and another AmeriCorps member wanted to find an innovative way to bring more ecotourism to the Athens area, which would encourage people to take more of an interest in environmental care.
This weekend will mark the third Birds in the Hills Festival and will include field trips to various outdoor attractions, beer tasting, live music and a keynote speech from Kelly Williams, a noteworthy Ohio University professor of biological sciences.
Brehm wanted to include a range of activities for all kinds of attendees. Some are geared toward families, such as a kid-friendly hike, while other events can be enjoyed by more serious bird watchers.
“Last year, someone said the birding is good, but the camaraderie is excellent,” Brehm said. “So I think it’s just as much about spending time with a community of people who are really interested and passionate about the outdoors as it is about seeing new birds and learning about birds.”
The weekend will be filled with outdoor events, which Brehm said is one of the best ways to educate attendees on nature and the environment. But he’s also excited to see how bird watching itself influences people.
“I think it can be kind of life changing when you see a bird like ... a Baltimore oriole through the binoculars,” he said. “So if we can create that opportunity for people that can lead to a lifelong series of adventures trying to see beautiful birds ... then people spend more of their whole lives outside.”
Another entity that has contributed to Birds in the Hills in the last three years is the Athens Area Birders. The club was started by Stefan Gleissberg in 2014 as an email group dedicated to sharing bird observations and offering bird walks and other events to the Athens area. The group has grown, and it now hosts more events such as a lecture series each semester and a nest box installation program.
Gleissberg has helped in the planning of Birds in the Hills each year and will lead a field trip to Lake Logan at this year’s gathering. Throughout the years, he has seen the festival grow into a well-established success.
“Rural Action's Birds in the Hills is unique, in that it is family-friendly and affordable, and geared towards making connections with nature at an early age,” Gleissberg said in an email. “If kids start loving birds and nature, they will grow to be advocates for the environment later in life.”
Gleissberg said bird watching is a means of lifelong learning about nature and of personal growth. It can open the door to a greater appreciation of both birds and biodiversity overall.
“Birds are ubiquitous, beautiful and stunning, and if we notice them, they can become a way to transcend our human-centered lives,” he said in an email. “We can start to feel that we and birds co-inhabit the same environment, and that our personal decisions as well as those made in the political arena do have direct impacts on the health of air, water, soil, and the habitats that birds happen to need.”