Green Jay by Carlos Escamilla
Birders book travel plans with $500 bonus

(published 9-20-16)

If $500 fell out of the sky, and you had to spend it, what would you do? I recently posed this question to about 50 birders, just for fun.

My ground rules were simple: The five heaven-sent Benjamins must be used for anything birding related, including equipment and gear, books, backyard feeders, software, education, memberships, travel and donations. The money could also serve as a deposit or down payment on something worth more than $500.
As I’ve said before, birding is a “cheep” hobby. You can do it anywhere, with binoculars and some kind of bird identification guide (hard copy or electronic) being the only essentials. Anyone can easily get started for $200 or less, so a $500 windfall presents some tantalizing options.
The birders did not let me down. They spent the imaginary money and spent it well. In the process, they strengthened the birding community, satisfied their wanderlust and added new birds to their life lists. Texas, in particular, was a coveted destination.
Birders indeed revealed a strong preference for experiences over stuff, but a few jumped at the chance to upgrade their optics. Had my survey focused on beginning birders I suspect that new and better binoculars would have been the No. 1 use of funds.    
My fellow watchers also demonstrated a commitment to introducing more people to the hobby. Birders, I’m happy to confirm, are a generous and sharing species.  
Here’s a sampling of responses to “The $500 Question”:
“I’d use the $500 to purchase two to four pairs of reasonably good binoculars. I lead bird and nature walks where some of the participants are first or second timers who may not have serviceable optics. … Having good binoculars during those first few outings can make a big difference in really opening the door into the world of birding.” – Geoff, Chicago
“I’d travel to Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas. I was in Brownsville decades ago visiting a friend but at that time had no idea of the magnitude of birding potential that was at our fingertips, including my most wanted bird: green jay!” – Joan, Downers Grove
“I’d apply it towards a pair of Swarovski binoculars.” – Rob, Darien
“I would put the money toward a VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) birding trip to High Island, Texas, in April.” – Ron, Wood Dale
“I’d spend it on a flight to Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. I’d even have $150 to spend on field trip fees,” and a chance to see 20 species found nowhere else in the U.S. – Matthew, Evanston
“I’d probably buy four or five pairs of 6.5x binoculars [perfect for kids] from Eagle Optics for the DuPage Birding Club’s outreach and education programs. A lot of groups approaching me for programs don’t have suitable materials of their own.” – John, Glen Ellyn
“$500 happens to be the deposit on a Costa Rica tour I’m interested in for next year.” – Jim, Wheaton
“I think I’d go to a winter birding festival in Florida—lots of different birds to see, lots of interesting people to meet, lots of warm weather.” – Don, Aurora
“I love hummingbirds so I would use the $500 to help pay for a trip to the Sierra Vista area of southeastern Arizona. Hopefully I’ll spot 15 different kinds of those little guys.” – Candace, Naperville
“I’d use it to pay a landscape consultant to design a water feature for my yard. Or maybe I’d use it to pay off my South Africa birding trip, where I am right now!” – Diann, Winfield
“I would fund a winter birding trip to Minnesota or a visit to Cape May, New Jersey, during spring migration.” – Jim, Darien
“I’d buy a plane ticket to a place I’ve never birded and have a fun but long day trip.” – Scott, Glen Ellyn
“I would get a good pair of binoculars, since my money is in my camera gear right now. I would donate to a bird society, and I’d fund a trip for children to attend a seminar to learn about birds.” – Shannon, Carol Stream
“I’d buy plane tickets to Canada to see glaciers and golden eagles,” reliving a magical 2007 hiking trip to Jasper National Park and the Wilcox Pass Trail. – Diane, Wheaton
The longest and most detailed response to “The $500 Question” came from Nancy in Naperville. She carefully budgeted every dollar for a birding program to benefit the residents of Lifespring Women’s Shelter in Aurora, where she volunteers. While admitting that birding could be viewed as a “luxury” for homeless women who are learning basic life skills, Nancy believes the residents and their young children would enjoy learning about birds and going on bird walks. A little nature in their lives could go a long way, and several parks are walkable from Lifespring.
And what about me? Well, since you asked, I’ll spend $120 on two tickets to the Night Owl Benefit at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn this month. The Center is celebrating 60 years of helping local wildlife and deserves our support.
The rest of my allowance could facilitate a first-ever trip to the southern tip of Illinois and, hopefully, a successful search for two warblers I’ve yet to observe: Kentucky and worm eating. Maybe I’ll set aside a $50 bounty for anyone who can show me one or both of these mythical birds.
Copyright 2016 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.