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Corporations Helping Birders

Businesses interested in bird conservation efforts help birders enjoy the views.

Peter Stangel, Ph.D
Posted: June 7, 2013, 1:00 p.m. PDT

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Speeding down Highway 332 past Freeport, Texas, birders new to the Texas coast might wonder just where to find all the migratory birds that makes this area famous. While the Texas coast is the gateway to the United States for a billion or so migratory birds each spring, it’s also one of the most important sites in the country for energy and chemical production.

Giant tanks filled with natural gas and petroleum products pierce the horizon, and the associated infrastructure dominates the landscape. Every human instinct signals that now would be a good time to turn around the car and search for a more pristine sight. From the birding perspective, that would be a mistake.

Black Skimmers
An observation platform, funded in part by Gulf Power and its parent, Southern Company, allows motorists driving along the bayfront highway in Pensacola, Florida, to pull off and enjoy views of Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers (pictured here) and other coastal species.

Nestled in the beachside community of Quintana ("Where every day is a holiday,” according to its website) sits one of the Gulf Coast’s birding gems. In 1995, Quintana received funding for invasive plant control, trail construction and habitat enhancement on its 1-acre city park, christened the Neotropical Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The renovations proved an instant success for birds and birders.

Weary songbirds completing the 600-mile, overnight flight across the Gulf of Mexico arrived at an oasis of green where they could rest and feed. Birders, some trekking thousand of miles, enjoyed unparalleled opportunities to see the migratory birds in their spring garb.

Perhaps even more importantly, Quintana is an example of how bird conservation groups, local communities, government agencies and corporations working together to benefit birds and birders.

The best strategy for birders involves sitting quietly in the park and blending into the background. Hungry warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers and flycatchers are so focused on refueling that they hardly notice people. I have no doubt that if a big, green caterpillar was inching across the top of my ballcap, some bold bird would pounce on it, oblivious to the human head beneath the hat.

Quintana’s Neotropical Bird Sanctuary is one of many birding sites that has been protected or improved with corporate funding. This park owes its existence to the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory (www.gcbo.org), which works to establish a network of such sites through its coastal woodlot and expansion project. Recognizing the need for these sanctuaries along the Gulf Coast, GCBO secured funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and Conoco-Phillips, a major oil company, to create the needed improvements at Quintana.

This bird sanctuary became so popular for both birds and birders that, in 2005, GCBO used funding from the Great Texas Birding Classic (promoted as "the biggest, longest, wildest birdwatching tournament in the U.S.”) to add two acres to the site. Houston Audubon gifted another two acres in 2007, and ConocoPhillips and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pitched in with more than $50,000 in cash to restore the native vegetation craved by the local insects, which feed the migratory birds.

It might be small, but it’s a critical sanctuary for trans-Gulf migrants. Perhaps even more importantly, Quintana is an example of how bird conservation groups, local communities, government agencies and corporations working together to benefit birds and birders.

Government Can't Do It All
Why would a private company such as ConocoPhillips help pay for bird sanctuaries? It’s partly smart business; big companies know that there are millions of birders out there and, by helping conserve habitat, they might win new customers. For many corporations, ConocoPhillips included, such investments also reflect the passions of their employees, who often play a big hand in choosing how their employers invest their charitable dollars. ConocoPhillips is one of the many companies that have recognized that working with birders is a good way to do well for nature while reaching out to an ever-increasing customer base.

Bay Views
Motorists tooling along the bayfront highway in Pensacola, Florida, might have a difficult time keeping their eyes on the road. Just a few feet from the busy highway sits an impressive restoration project shepherded by Project Greenshores, a coalition of federal, state and private partners (www.dep.state.fl.us/northwest). This multi-million dollar effort proves that people can restore the ecosystems that our previous actions helped destroy.

Freshly minted oyster bars and newly planted beds of seagrass now sprout from a previously barren shoreline. As the habitat returns, so does the wildlife, particularly the birds.
 
Prudent drivers distracted by Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers and other coastal species now can pull off and enjoy unobstructed views, provided by an observation platform funded in part by Gulf Power and its parent, Southern Company. With Gulf Power headquarters just inland from the site, many of its employees helped with the restoration efforts. The project, one of dozens funded by Southern Company through the Power of Flight program, also a partnership with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (www.nfwf.org/power), helps birds and birders across the Southeast.

Southern Company’s main business is power generation, but it also prides itself on environmental stewardship. Why birds? Southern Company realizes that probably one-third to one-half of its customers enjoy watching birds or hunting for them. By making a major investment in bird conservation, including opportunities to watch birds species in places such as Pensacola Bay, Southern Company taps into an interest that many customers will appreciate.

Corporate Motivations
For some companies, the interest in birds stems from the passions of their employees. ConocoPhillips, an oil company with a 20-year record of investing in bird education and habitat protection, developed its focus in part through the commitment of employees who are birders and bird photographers. Like many companies, ConocoPhillips follows the lead of their associates in choosing amongst the many charitable options available to them.

Shell Oil Company, another petroleum giant, invests in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is a major producer of energy. The Gulf, of course, is the gateway for the billions of birds that migrate between North and South America, so supporting bird conservation projects is a natural.

For many big companies, investing in birds and their habitats is good business. Raising the corporate profile with birders offers a great way to shape an environmental message while supporting the conservation efforts of federal and state agencies and private organizations that need new financial resources.

The next time you bird at a site supported by a company, consider taking a few minutes to jot a note or an e-mail. Share your feelings about the business’ support for conservation. Let it know that its investments are warranted and appreciated, which could ensure that their generosity to birds and birders continues.

Excerpt from WildBird September/October 2009 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.

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