Birders Flock to the Land of Many Lakes

The head of Michigan Audubon is turning birding into a serious business.

When Jonathan Lutz looks at a warbler, he doesn't just see a bird—he sees an economic engine. The songbirds bring more than color to a landscape just emerging from the grip of winter; they also bring tourists. For the inhabitants of Iosco County, one of Michigan's poorest, with tourists come tourist dollars.

Lutz, 34, took over as executive director at Michigan Audubon in 2008 after spending a few years conducting bird surveys and conserving habitat on a barrier island off South Carolina, often accompanied in the field by his dog, Gatsby. One of his earliest priorities at Audubon was invigorating the Tawas Point Birding Festival, an annual spring celebration at a vital stopover site in the Mississippi Flyway. By beefing up online advertising, social media outreach, and word of mouth, Lutz has transformed the sleepy event into a popular festival that caters to at least 5,000 birders a year. Local business owners consider it such an economic boon that they donated $10,000 this past May to help cover operating costs.

Peggy Ridgway, a Michigan Audubon past president and the festival's cofounder, credits Lutz's success, and that of the festival, to his patience and enthusiasm. (For his part, Lutz credits the power of caffeine.)

Lutz sees leveraging tourism as a promising way to inject more dollars into protecting the state's natural resources. "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports indicate that wildlife watching generates $1 billion in economic activity in Michigan each year. This provides a huge opportunity to invest in a non-game conservation plan," he says. "Birders—and, most importantly, birds—are at the core of this opportunity."

Now that the festival has taken off, Lutz is focusing his efforts on convincing Michiganders to switch to bird-friendly coffee. And maybe squeeze in some fieldwork. But he'll have to rely on caffeine alone for support; Gatsby succumbed to cancer shortly after this photo was taken. "He was a great Audubon representative—he was never once a bird chaser," says Lutz. "Rabbits were another story."

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