Wildlife watching is usually done very casually.

We’ll be sitting, reading the morning paper and notice a bird moving through the small holly tree outside the window, or a hawk swooping through and landing on a limb. We grab the binoculars and have a look.

Sometimes we go out looking for birds in specific places. Other times we’ll join one of the excellent field trips offered in the region, and let the guides optimize our wildlife experience (and carry the spotting scope).

But most of the time when I’m afield, I’m just walking in the woods or along the ocean or bay. If I see an immature eagle ineptly diving on ducks on a lake in Egg Harbor Township, so much the better. The walk, though, is the objective.

Red-tailed hawks cruise through the suburban landscape as I drive by, three deer feed at the edge of the Catholic church while I’m in the credit union drive-thru, tree frogs and toads sing in spring as I walk to my car after work — a lot of casual, almost accidental experiences that add up to a lot of wildlife watching.

Nationwide, I’m amazed at how much it adds up.

In 2011, 72 million Americans participated in at least one type of wildlife-watching activity such as observing, feeding and photographing wildlife.

That’s the latest count from the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation, released just before Christmas by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The very detailed survey has been conducted every five years since the 1950s. For the current survey, the U.S. Census Bureau interviewed people in 48,600 households nationwide.

Wildlife watching continues to grow in popularity, up a million participants from 2006 and nearly 10 million from 1996.

The survey says 30 percent of Americans age 16 and older are wildlife watchers.

Most participate around the home, with nearly 58 million alone feeding birds. Surprisingly, 15 million feed other forms of wildlife — squirrels, butterflies and deer come to mind.

Our house does its wildlife feeding almost entirely through plantings that produce food for hummingbirds, butterflies and seed-eaters such as goldfinches. Our holly, oak, black cherry and persimmon trees also feed a lot of birds and mammals.

This, too, is a popular wildlife pastime in the survey, which estimates more than 9 million Americans maintain plantings for wildlife watching purposes.

Another 8 million help maintain natural areas. We can relate to that, too, with my wife helping with the local arboretum and my occasional cleanup of the nearby wooded park.

The survey even gets down to what kinds of wildlife people are observing, photographing or feeding. Among birds, ducks and geese are tops with 13 million fans, followed by nearly 13 million for birds of prey, 12 million for songbirds and 10 million for shorebirds such as herons and egrets.

Four million people were watchers of whales and dolphins in 2011.

As I read the survey, I keep thinking, “That’s us. That’s us, too. And that.” South Jersey is a famous and popular destination for seeing hawks and eagles, waterfowl and shorebirds, rare birds of all kinds, marine mammals and butterflies.

That has made wildlife observation a significant addition to our dominant tourism economy. The survey demonstrates the value of that as well.

The 22 million Americans who traveled for wildlife last year each spent an average $981 on their wildlife activities, mostly for food and lodging ($549).

Travel for wildlife fell off a bit after the recession, from 23 million participants in 2006. Mid-Atlantic wildlife travelers edged down to 2.6 million in 2011 from 2.7 million.

Most of us have gotten more careful with our spending, but a great thing about wildlife is that its enjoyment is usually casual and free. So overall, Mid-Atlantic participation is up, from 8.7 million in 2006 to 9.1 million.

Keep in mind next time you’re looking for something fun and relaxing that doesn’t cost much, if anything.

Contact Kevin Post:

609-272-7250