Australian birdwatchers generated between $199,000 and $363,000 AUD of economic activity by viewing rare Aleutian Terns at Old Bar, NSW

Aleutian terns

One of the Aleutian Terns seen at Old Bar, NSW, that created a frenzy among birdwatchers.

Image: Liam Murphy
© Liam Murphy

Birdwatchers, or twitchers, are very serious about their ‘hobby’ or as some exponents refer to it – their ‘calling’. Birding, or avitourism, involves travelling around looking for birds; spending money on books, binoculars and cameras to identify them; and frequently visiting far-flung parts of the world. There is even a movie about the obsessive twitching behavior of birders – The Big Year. But twitching rare birds is a unique part of the overall birdwatching hobby, and it is difficult to quantify. This is mainly because rare birds are unpredictable and ephemeral – sometimes only appearing for hours, although at other times they stay for months – and you never know where one will turn up. We sought to quantify this behavior, in an economic sense, for a case of long-staying Aleutian Terns at Old Bar, NSW, Australia.

Aleutian Terns breed in Alaska (USA) and east Siberia (Russia), spending the austral summer in the North Pacific, and in parts of Indonesia. They were first recorded on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia at Old Bar, on 4 December 2016, but only positively identified from photographs in October 2017, by Mr. Liam Murphy. (They look superficially similar to other tern species!). On 11 December 2017, Aleutian Terns were spotted at the same site, which was announced with photos on social media, precipitating immediate interest from twitchers.

Aleutian Tern

Birdwatchers gathered to view the Aleutian Terns at Old Bar, NSW.

Image: Joy Tansey
© Joy Tansey

We used an online survey, targeting the dark web of birding, to quantify how many people went to visit the bird. We received a total of 199 valid responses to the survey, resulting in an estimate of between 375 and 511 people viewing the birds, although even this is a conservative number! The average one-way distance travelled was 580 km, demonstrating the remoteness of the location in relation to the urban centres inhabited by most Australians.

This type of behavior is relatively common within the birdwatching hobby. For instance, see these photos here, here, or here for examples of mega-twitches. Indeed, this study comes after a similar study last year, which found that a single Black-backed Oriole resulted in approximately US$220,000 expenditure. Together, these case-studies are demonstrating the exceptional pull of vagrant birds to birders, while also showing the real economic potential of these event - these aren’t just isolated cases, and they happen globally.

We extended this study by assessing the willingness of vagrant-chasers to contribute to conservation. We found that people who travelled to view the Aleutian Terns were generally conservation-aware and were willing to donate up to AU$30,000 (in total) to view rare birds. Vagrants are often found in national parks and protected areas, and this is a potential fundraising opportunity to investigate how birders could work to preserve the habitats in which these vagrants are found. Ultimately, all birds depend on their habitats and so the benefits to the economy from birdwatching need to be balanced against environmental threats that destroy their habitats, such as land clearing. There is a need to have thorough economic assessments of developments, given the value to the economy from passive (or active!) birdwatching.

Corey T. Callaghan (PhD Candidate, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Sydney)

Dr. Richard E. Major (Principal Research Scientist, AMRI, Australian Museum)

More information:

  • Callaghan, C. T., I. Benson, R. E. Major, J. M. Martin, T. Longden, and R. T. Kingsford. 2019. Birds are valuable: the case of vagrants. Journal of Ecotourism.