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Trust for Public Land birdwatching trip starts conversation about needed diversity in birding space

Divya Sridhar (right) helps India Hobbs spot a bird at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Ottawa County, Ohio, on Friday, May 3, 2024.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Divya Sridhar (right) helps India Hobbs, both of Cleveland, spot a bird at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Ottawa County, Ohio, on Friday, May 3, 2024.

The Trust for Public Land kicked off an effort Friday at Magee Marsh to encourage more people of color to spend time outdoors birdwatching.

Magee Marsh in Northwest Ohio is a prime birdwatching location for birds like warblers, robins and even eagles on their migration journey, especially at this time of year.

The Trust for Public Land hosted a cohort of Northeast Ohio residents at the marsh to take part in the Biggest Week in American Birding, a 12-day birdwatching festival hosted by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

Gregory Orr of Bedford has been birding for more than 30 years, but his visit to the kickoff was his first time at the marsh.

Orr said he’s gotten used to being the only person of color in birding spaces, and though it’s discouraging, he’s hopeful that will change.

"You can be in an urbanized setting, you can be in a rural setting and still enjoy, well, wildlife in general, but birds especially," he said. "Hopefully when others see faces like ours, if you will, they'll be encouraged to come out and do things like we do."

The land trust provided binoculars for attendees to use along a two-hour guided tour through the marsh. Tour guides helped birdwatchers spot the birds, pinpointing locations so birders could get an up-close look before the bird flew away.

"There's so much habitat all around you. It's difficult to describe where something is," tour guide and life-long birder Greg Miller said. "Finding something you can [see] in the foreground that everybody can get on and then try to describe from that point to get to where the bird is and which way it's moving."

The tour was filled with novice and expert birders alike, including the chair of Kirtland Bird Club, Patty Kellner. She said she's happy to attend events like these until birders of color are able to take over.

With binoculars, you want to look at a bird, and while you're gazing at the bird, you bring your binoculars up without looking at the binoculars, and interrupt your your focus. Otherwise, if you look down at your binoculars, you'll lose your perspective and it becomes very, very hard to find the bird.
Greg Miller, tour guide, Wildside Nature Tours

"Given that the idea is to make birding more accessible to the Black community, it's ideally Black-led [by] Black educators, but there aren't that many yet," she said ."It's challenging to balance that just right. So I plan to step back as much as I can, but also help people see birds."

The Trust for Public Land will host more events later this month as part of its Black Birders Week event series in collaboration with Journey on Yonder, an outdoor advocacy organization focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.

"We can get away from saying birding is a predominantly white recreation activity, but can acknowledge the fact that it's one of the most universal passive recreation activities that anyone can do," Trust for Public Land Associate Vice President, Ohio State Director Sean Terry said.

The event included a keynote speech from birder, author and Vice Chair of NYC Audubon Christian Cooper. In 2020, Cooper was accused by a white woman of threatening her while birding in Central Park.

In his speech, Cooper highlighted ways to make the birding space more inclusive, not just for people of color, but for all marginalized identities, like by removing barriers to entry by providing binoculars, using inclusive language in marketing materials and providing transportation to birding outings.

Being able to hear from Cooper, may draw more people of color to the space, Terry said.

"I'm really grateful that Christian Cooper offer such, you know, transparency about things that we could do to improve the experience," he said. "True to the Trust for Public Land's mission, every, everyone, should have access to the outdoors. It's a universal right, ... it's something that provides so many health and wellness benefits, and why should we be, excluded from that?"

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.