FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Teresa Jaskiewicz is a self-described "bird nerd," and after spending an hour walking around the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center on the outskirts of this Otter Tail County city it is difficult to argue.
Binoculars hanging from her neck, Jaskiewicz stops mid-sentence while walking through a stand of oak trees bordering a marsh and raises her right hand as if demanding silence. "Hear that?" she says, responding to a bird's call from the canopy of green leaves. "That's a least flycatcher."
Sure enough, the "che-beck, che-beck" call was easy to hear, even if the small olive-gray bird remained unseen.
Jaskiewicz is an environmental educator at the learning center and a walk through it is a home game for her. An easy hike along paved or gravel paths revealed about 25 species of birds, both seen and heard, that included the least flycatcher, cedar waxwings, yellow warblers, American redstarts, clay-colored sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, wood ducks and bobolinks.
It was an example of the bonanza of birds available at stops along the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, a 220-mile stretch of 51 avian hot spots in western and northwestern Minnesota established in 1998 to benefit birdwatchers and the economies of the towns along the trail.
Fergus Falls and the PWLC serve as the anchor of the trail, which stretches north to Warroad on the Canadian border. It then turns into Manitoba's segment of the trail, snaking from Lake of the Woods to north of Winnipeg before splitting north to Lake Winnipeg and west to the famed Delta Marsh near Lake Manitoba.
Minnesota's section of the Pine to Prairie was the first birding trail in the state and the second in the United States, helping set a trend that's become popular in nearly every state. Minnesota now has two additional trails, the Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail and the North Shore Birding Trail, with a fourth in the works.
The trails are made up of stops along drivable routes that are known to attract birds, ranging from city parks to impoundments to state parks to wastewater treatment ponds. The stops were chosen for their varying habitat, so birders have a chance to view different and sometimes specific species. Adams Park in downtown Fergus Falls is a stop on the Pine to Prairie trail, for example, because it hosts a colony of tree-nesting great egrets, an all-white water bird with long legs and a long neck.
"It's a cool concept," said Jaskiewicz, who helped develop the trail. "It's a way to see lots of different birds."
Wayne Perala of Fergus Falls is an avid birder who's been immersed in the watching and photographing of birds for six years.
"When I started, I knew nothing about it. And that's why something like the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail is important. It can give people a starting point, like it did for me," Perala said.
On a recent morning, Perala was decked out in his birding gear for a quick walk through the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center. His equipment included an expensive camera with a lengthy lens and a high-end pair of binoculars. This is not unusual for avid birders.
"Birders are good spenders," chuckled Jean Bowman, executive director of the Fergus Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Economic impact is another important aspect of birding trails. The 10 cities along the Pine to Prairie trail that pitch in money to help promote it hope to lure the dollars that come with birding. Cleone Stewart of the Detroit Lakes Chamber of Commerce says that city's annual Festival of Birds (cancelled this year because of COVID-19) sometimes draws visitors from 26 states.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates "nature tourism," which includes birding and wildlife photography, had 86 million participants in America in 2016. They spent an estimated $76 billion. Both those figures are up significantly in recent years.
Compare that to hunting, which had an estimated 11 million participants who spent $26 billion in 2016. Those numbers are trending downward.
The trends are similar in Minnesota, leading former Department of Natural Resources Non-Game Wildlife Supervisor Carroll Henderson to call on the state to dedicate staff and money to develop and promote wildlife recreation and tourism. That would include things like birding trails.
Henderson was instrumental in the Pine to Prairie trail and is currently working on the proposed Heart of the Bog Birding Trail in northern Minnesota. He says there is not a single full-time staff member in state government dedicated to nature tourism.
"This is an enormous opportunity in which Minnesota should be leading this dramatic trend instead of passively following the trend," Henderson said.
At the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, Jaskiewicz marveled as a striking black, white and yellow bobolink hovered above the grass in a maneuver she called "skylarking."
"The Pine to Prairie trail is a lot of cool little places where you can stop, listen, look around and there's a pretty good chance you'll see some birds," she said. "Here it is, 11:30 in the morning and how many species have we already seen on a short walk? It's a great way to promote a great pastime."