"For many locals, the birders were just a pain," said Helen Abramson of Meadowlands, Minn., a tiny town south of Eveleth.
She was talking about bird-watchers blocking roads and peering through binoculars in the area called Sax-Zim.
Sax and Zim once were towns east of Meadowlands, now long gone and mostly forgotten unless you are a bird-watcher. Birders from California to New York know of the Sax-Zim bog.
Spruce, tamarack and white cedar are the dominant tree species here. There are some hay fields. Alder swamps line crisscrossing gravel roads. This all combines to make for very good birding, particularly in the winter.
Three years ago, great gray owls came south into Minnesota by the hundreds, looking for prey they couldn't find at home in Canada. Birders came from all over to see the owls. They formed a critical mass in Sax-Zim.
Birders in cars stopped in their tracks whenever an owl (or anything feathered) was seen. Residents on their way to or from home found their usually quiet and little-used roads clogged with bird-watchers. And residents with bird feeders sometimes saw their yards under binocular scrutiny.
Some residents found that, well, uncomfortable. Words were exchanged between birders and residents. There was even a report of a homeowner charging down his driveway to chase birders away.
But just last month, Meadowlands hosted what probably was the largest winter birding festival in the nation. Road signs were erected to welcome birders. Feeders were moved to roadsides in some cases, viewing areas were plowed.
A festival is born
"We had no idea this area was so good for birding," Abramson said. "When we learned how many birders visit here, we thought we should make them welcome, do something for them. We also wanted our area to benefit from this interest."
And the people in the Sax-Zim area learned what people in some other towns already know: that birders are a resource. They buy local food and fuel. They have a beer now and then. They have economic value.
According to local folks, Mike Hendrickson deserves most of the credit for the successful birding festival. Hendrickson, who lives in Duluth, has birded in the bog for more than half of his 45 years. When the townsfolk came up with the idea of a festival, Henderson was called in. He met with city officials and Meadowlands' small commercial community. He wrote articles for the local newspaper.
"When I told them that birders from all over the country knew about their bog they were flabbergasted," Hendrickson said.
The festival drew 153 participants from 22 states. One of their stops was an elaborate feeder system along Blue Spruce Road, which had been set up by Derek Morse at the end of his driveway.
When Morse, who has long fed birds, learned about the festival, he built the feeders and set out several kinds of seed and suet.
Morse's feeders continue to attract large numbers of birds -- and a large number of birders.
And now, everyone thinks that's just great.
Jim Williams, a lifelong birder, serves as a member of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Birding Initiative Committee. He also is a member of the American Birding Association, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and Delta Waterfowl. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.