Last weekend was the inaugural edition of the American Birding Expo in Columbus, Ohio, and by all accounts it was a great success.
The idea for an event like this, an American response to the venerable British Birdfair, has been kicking around for years. North America has a huge community of birders, many of them have disposable income to spend on binoculars, books, and trips to various corners of the world. Putting them in the same place as the providers of those goods and services seems like a no-brainer. And yet, the very things that make North America such a great place for birds and birding – the scale of the place, the many great birding sites, the strong conservation infrastructure – make logistical decisions about such an event more difficult.
Kudos to Bill Thompson III and the folks at BirdWatcher’s Digest for taking up the challenge. Columbus, Ohio, is more or less centrally located on the continent and is a growing city (15th largest in the US!). It hosts a gorgeous Audubon Center with ample space and pretty decent birding on the grounds. It’s close enough for many North American friends to get to and convenient enough for international partners. The dominoes lined up, and last weekend they fell gloriously into their places in a celebration of birding and a successful amalgamation of commerce, conservation, and community.
The ABA was proud to join the effort as a co-host. We welcomed many, many new members because of our presence there, which is great for us. We also pulled off a successful ABA Summit beforehand that saw a number of interesting and useful panels and workshops with topics ranging from conservation concerns, birding ethics, and how to be a more effective bird walk leader. It ended with our annual meeting where members voted on a slate of new and returning board members, and it’s always nice to see members taking an active role in our shared continental birding organization.
The event coordinators, primarily Bill Thompson III and Wendy Clark but including a whole range of staff and volunteers, gave the birding community a expertly organized canvas on which to paint the future of our shared avocation. They deserve kudos not only from vendors, exhibitors and attendees, but from the whole of the North American birding community for having the vision and persistence to make this long-anticipated event such a success. The first one is always the hardest, and with this inaugural event the seeds for bigger and better events in the future were undoubtedly planted.
But it was perhaps the most satisfying to see booth after booth of international exhibitors, many of whom were exhibiting in America for the very first time. Each one a symbol of the conservation and tourist potential of their home nations. It’s probably overly simplistic to say that bird tourism is a solution to the many daunting conservation and land-use issues face by nations around the world. But it’s certainly a tool to be used by those of us who care about such things, and if the Expo is any indication that tool is wielded deftly and creatively by bird tour guides on every continent represented. International travel is an opportunity to value wild places and the birds that are found there in a very practical way and the people from Uganda and Honduras and Colombia and India and everywhere else are passionate about just that.
Likewise the attendees. Wood Duck boxes were scattered around the grounds imploring visitors to donate a few dollars to the conservation causes of the hosts. For the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, it was a nature outreach program for inner-city students in Columbus. For Birdlife International, it was the critically endangered Hooded Grebe. And for the ABA, it was land acquisition and research for the Red Knot, a trans-hemispheric migrant famously tied to the horseshoe crab spawns on beaches near our headquarters in Delaware. Over the course of the event several thousand dollars made their way to each.
So the first American Birding Expo is in the books. The tents packed up, the tables put away, the exhibitors heading home and the attendees sent away with bags full of swag and minds full of possibilities. It was a great weekend.
We hope to see you there next year.