Published June 30th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Ordinarily, this would be a busy time of year for Ruth Hawkins and her family.
She and her husband Justin normally would be hauling their boys to youth baseball games or practices almost every night, leaving time for little else.
But life has slowed dramatically this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic, youth sports were put on hold in April and May to encourage social distancing.
The Hawkins family reacted, as so many others have, by connecting with nature. Caleb, 12, became fascinated with the birds in the rural area in southern Douglas County, Kansas, where the family lives on a small farm. And it wasn’t long before mom joined him.
“We go out in the evening and take what we call ‘bird cruises,’ “ Ruth said. “I drive real slow and he looks for birds.
“One time I got over 20 miles per hour and he said, ‘Mom, you’re going over the birding speed limit.’ It will take us an hour to go three miles.
“But it’s great fun. This is new to me, too, but we’re really enjoying our new hobby. We’re taking time to see what’s around us, and it’s fascinating.”
Getting back to nature. Maybe that could be a theme for the coronavirus era.
With youth sports, major league baseball, church functions, conventions and other activities that attract crowds canceled as a result of the highly contagious virus, many are turning to nature-based recreation in a slowed-down world.
Bird watching, hiking, canoeing, day trips to state parks, camping — the so-called non-consumptive outdoors activities — are attracting participants at rates much higher than in recent years.
“Almost without exception, we’re seeing non-traditional users turn to the outdoors,” said Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. “The silver lining of this COVID situation is that a lot of people are connecting or reconnecting with the outdoors.
“If they have a good experience, hopefully they will be back. This could be a turning point in attracting more people to the outdoors.”
Caleb Hawkins certainly fits the bill of an enthusiastic newcomer to a segment of the outdoors world.
He loves to fish and he was excited when he shot his first deer last fall. But he never had paid much attention to the birds flitting around his family farm until this spring.
He started his journey into birding by attaching an old rifle scope to a board and using it to scan the trees and high wires. When a relative posted a photo of his setup on a Facebook birding group’s page, the response was overwhelming.
Birders sent Caleb everything from equipment to bird identification books, and he was off and running.
“Sometimes we’ll go out looking for a particular species,” Ruth said. “One night we went out searching for Indigo buntings (a brilliant blue species). We didn’t get more than a mile from our house and we found some.”
Lately, the boy has been watching the nesting behavior of a pair of Baltimore orioles. They are using a tree that Ruth’s grandfather planted at the edge of a pond. It’s a good teaching moment for the mother and son.
“We discuss the need for good habitat and how we have to preserve it,” Ruth said.
Many people aren’t even leaving home to view an array of birds, though. Mark McKellar, owner of the Backyard Bird Center in Kansas City, North, has noticed a tremendous increase in birding during the pandemic.
“When a lot of people were staying at home, bird watching provided great entertainment,” he said. “People called us with all kinds of questions about getting started, and our sales of seed and feeders were up significantly.
“I think a lot of them felt, if they couldn’t travel to enjoy nature, they could bring nature to their backyards.”
They were rewarded by what McKellar termed “a spectacular spring migration.”
“The migration was a little behind and the birds didn’t have as much natural food as usual when they passed through,” he said. “They went to the feeders, and that provided some excellent viewing.
“We had a lot of beginners who have been excited by what they have seen. I truly hope this spring will produce a new generation of birdwatchers.”
Looking for a true sign of how popular the outdoors has become during the pandemic? Head to a Missouri state park.
The system, ranked as one of the best in the nation, includes more than 1,000 miles of trails, almost 3,600 campsites and everything from cold-water trout streams to warm-water reservoirs.
Those settings have been in demand during the COVID-19 outbreak. Though Missouri state parks have no attendance figures because entry is free, officials say there’s little doubt that residents are flocking to the parks in increasing numbers.
“Just by talking to some of the people, we can see that they are visiting our state parks for the first time,” said Mike Sutherland, director of Missouri State Parks. “Either that, or they’re coming back after years of being away.”
In a few state parks, that desire to connect with nature has been too much of a good thing. Four Missouri parks – Watkins Mill, Weston Bend, Elephant Rock and Castlewood — were temporarily closed when crowds became too large to meet social distancing guidelines. They have since been reopened at least for day use.
“I think visitors for the most part are practicing social distancing,” Sutherland said. “And we haven’t seen a lot of problems with littering.
“We’re promoting Leave No Trace, and most people have been good about picking up after themselves.”
Even in the urban areas, nature is a hot commodity.
The Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center was built almost 20 years ago with a specific goal: to bring an understanding of nature to the inner city.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, that mission is being met. Though the inside facility is closed during the pandemic, the trails and gardens are attracting increased visitation.
“Through landscaping with native plants, trees, shrubs and wildflowers, we have turned this area into a nature oasis,” said Pat Whalen, a naturalist at the Department of Conservation center. “During COVID, I think people are wanting to get outdoors and they are rediscovering our center.
“Our visitation is probably twice as big as it was last year.”
One indication came during a giveaway of native plants and tree bundles. Almost 400 people showed up to get their piece of nature.
“With so much shut down, we’re seeing more people turn to nature,” Whalen said. “Hopefully, that will carry over when they can return to other activities.”