Shore birds, such as these at Cape May Point State Park in August, are a large part of Cape May County's eco-tourism industry. Officials are being encouraged to expand into other areas, including tours at night.

Dale Gerhard

When the sun sets, some wildlife goes into a slumber, but other critters are just waking up.

The question is, will tourists pay to view them.

James Mallman, president of Watchable Wildlife, Inc. believes they will. At a recent workshop in Cape May Court House on wildlife tourism, Mallman listed nocturnal wildlife viewing as one of 10 ways to attract more eco-tourists to Cape May County.

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The problem can be getting everything in place, including expert nighttime guides, to create such programs. The county, right now, is just scratching the surface with a few programs geared to species such as owls and frogs.

“What goes on at night is absolutely incredible,” Mallman said. “You have to find people well versed in these species and what you need to see them, and be comfortable when you’re out there. Wildlife at night is very different than wildlife in the day.”

Mallman noted that Costa Rica had an active nocturnal wildlife program and it was the best time to see many species, but officials there didn’t want to pay the rangers at night so the program declined. He said the local community has to be shown the economic benefits of such programs. Mallman also said finding the right people is important. Just knowing what mosquito repellent to apply can save such a program.

Brian Braudis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who helped organize Mallman’s seminar, suggested night beach walks to look for species such as ghost crabs and nocturnal owl walks. He said the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge already does a frog walk at night to listen to spring peepers.

“We need to make coming to the beach more than just coming to the shore. We can take advantage of what’s here. We don’t have to create anything new,” said Braudis.

Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland, who attended the seminar, said it showed there are many other ways to cash in on tourists who want to view wildlife. Wieland said Cape May County already makes $5.1 billion a year on tourists, including $544 million specifically on wildlife watching. Three-quarters of this comes from bird watchers. She said Mallman’s seminar showed there is plenty of room for growth.

“We have 54,000 acres of open space available for passive recreation. Because of the Atlantic flyway, we’re one of the top three birding hotspots in North America. He (Mallman) said we need to package it to make it easier for visitors to come,” Wieland said.

Birders are used to roughing it because the best birding sites are not usually near any hotels. Wieland said a package could include a stay in an area hotel with a visit to a spa.

Mallman said wildlife viewing, not including hunting and fishing, is a $55 billion a year business nationally with 71.8 million participants. He said they are the best kind of tourists.

“They don’t litter. They spend money. They’re the type of people you want to visit your community,” Mallman said.

Each dollar they bring has extra impact, Mallman said, because it comes from outside the community. He said each dollar is worth six to seven times the value of a dollar already in the community.

Besides nocturnal wildlife, Mallman stressed programs based on bald eagles, mammals, wildlife breeding grounds, migratory concentration sites, natural biomes, wildflower and butterfly sites, waterways and wetlands, rare species, and even common wildlife.

Cape May County has all 10. Mallman, who gives his seminars all over the world, said Cape May County is blessed with lots of places to watch wildlife but needs to identify the best sites and identify its market. He said to get specific. Don’t just seek wildlife photographers. Go for individual photography clubs.

State wildlife areas, federal preserves, beaches, parks, wetlands and other natural sites mean the government is paying “billions to manage assets” the tourism industry has free access to.

“This is paid by someone else and is there for your use,” Mallman said. “You have far, far more than you’ll ever use for a project like this. Narrow down the high points and understand who your market is,” Mallman said.

The first step is to gather a team of various community interests to come up with a plan to promote the region. Mallman said this team should not just be wildlife experts. He stressed his point when Hyland Motor Inn owner Nancy Lin brought up issues wildlife experts were not aware of.

The discussion was on increasing spring wildlife tourism since the fall bird migration already draws tourists. Lin noted that spring is when her motel is busiest with weddings, school groups and sports tournaments. She needs visitors other times of the year.

“The spring is busier than the fall,” Lin said.

Mallman said this is why a diverse group is needed on the team, to bring out facts such as this.

Laurie Pettigrew, a biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the seminar presented plenty of ideas.

“We have it all, and people don’t necessarily think of New Jersey that way. What it takes is a buy-in from the business leaders and tourism folks to promote it,” Pettigrew said.

The problem, Pettigrew said, is a lot of nonprofit groups that promote wildlife viewing are suffering from the bad economy and are barely holding on. She said businesses, such as hotels, can take small steps such as providing lists of wildlife viewing areas.

Pettigrew noted Lin identified January through March as difficult months. She said this could be a time to offer package deals to birders.

“The waterfowl in the winter is phenomenal if you can stand the cold. Offer a special with a two-day stay or go in with a restaurant for dinner,” said Pettigrew.

Braudis, who works at the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, said parking areas, approaches and signage could be improved at natural areas. He said the county should promote both the ocean and Delaware Bay as wildlife viewing areas.

“You need to highlight what you have and we often don’t do the best at that,” Braudis said.

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