Thumbnail image: Charley Hesse/Macaulay Library

[Deja Perkins]: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Black Birders Week 2022. Thank you for everyone watching live, and thank you to our future viewers for being curious enough to listen to this conversation. My name Deja Perkins, and I will be the moderator for this discussion.

Before we get started, I want to thank this year’s sponsors and partners for supporting this year’s events. And I want to send a huge thank you to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who is supporting this panel. This year, our theme is Soaring to Greater Heights, and as a part of that theme, we want to help explore the importance of the social aspects of birding.

People go birding for many different reasons. Some for the fun of exploring new places and spaces, others for building social connections, and many for relaxing and maybe even a little bit of mental reprieve. Today, we want to explore the social aspects of birding with three experienced birders and talk about the role mentorship plays in our bird-watching journey.

A few notes about today’s panel. The chat function is disabled. And if you have any questions, please drop them in the Q&A box, and we will answer them during the last 15 minutes of the program. Again, thank you so much for tuning in today. Now I will go ahead and introduce our speakers for today’s program.

First, we have Dexter Patterson, known on social media as the Wisco Birder. Dexter is on a mission to spread as much bird joy as possible by making his favorite hobby of birdwatching welcoming for all birders around the state. His Instagram followers love his energetic and exciting videos that feature him singing and dancing through the woods, finding stunning birds throughout the state, and taking gorgeous photos.

Dexter is on a mission to prove that birding is for everyone, and he hopes that the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin will help make birding more inclusive not only for his community, but across the country.

Next, we have Nicole Jackson. Nicole is a native of Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from the Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science in environmental education. A nature enthusiast, park advocate, and birder, she loves spending time outside and has a passion for getting people from underserved communities connected to the wonders of the natural world.

Nicole currently works as a coach and environmental education consultant assisting and creating programs that educate youth and families on how to build a healthy relationship with nature. She is also a board member of the Columbus Audubon and the founder of Black In National Parks Week.

And last but not least, we have Dwain Vaughns. Dwain is a Black identifying disabled photographer from Buford, Georgia. Before birding and photography became a part of his life, he was a commercial airline pilot for 11 years. Flying fascinated him, but the surroundings always drew his attention because nature and the surrounding landscapes take on a completely different perspective from 35,000 feet.

In 2016, he was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome and was no longer able to fly. Over the last six years, he has been transitioning his life to now include his disability.

Through great support and guidance from amazing programs and organizations like the Shepherd Center, Georgia Audubon, Birdability, Georgia Nature Photographers Association, and many more, he has homed in on his passion for birding and photography, both of which have not only given him a new purpose, but also to help him heal. Through his photographs, his hope is to harness the connection between the viewer to nature, others, and self.

First, I want to thank each of you for taking some time out today on this holiday weekend in order to have this discussion with us. I’m super excited to talk to each of you and hear a little bit more about your experiences. So as our first activity for today, I really just want to know if each of you can share your #InTheNestStory of why you got into birding. And so for this, I’m going to start with Dexter.

[Dexter Patterson]: Wow. Well thank you, Deja. Thank you so much for having me today. And shout-out to all the fellow bird nerds on the call today, on the Zoom. Happy Black Birders Week to everybody. It’s probably– if I have to choose one, if I have to choose one, and I know we’re going to talk about Spark Bird. So is it OK to go in that direction or do you want me to wait?

[Deja Perkins]: Yes, no, go ahead.

[Dexter Patterson]: So people that are familiar with my club, they’ll see that the osprey is our logo. And there’s a story behind that, and some of the people who may have been following me on Instagram may know this story. But it was a little over 10 years ago– and this was like right wing social media– I’m dating myself right now. It was really getting hot on Facebook and videos, and I come across this video of an osprey.

At the time I didn’t know what the osprey was. I just saw this bird with really long claws. And it was like– it’s flying down towards the water, Deja, like at a speed where like I couldn’t explain it to myself. This is something I’ve never seen. So immediately I’m like, what am I watching? So I’m locked in on this video.

And I’m watching this video and watching this video, and then all of a sudden it’s going faster, and the talons come out. And you know how the osprey talons like lock. And it hits the water. And I’m like, wait a minute, what is going on here? Y’all know that emoji where your head’s exploding? That happened to me in real life. Like I was like– I was super stuck, like I didn’t even know what to think.

And I remember thinking like, this bird is going to drown, because it’s like in the water. And all of a sudden, no, it’s not drowning. It comes up out of the water and it starts flapping its wings, flapping its wings. And not only did it not drown, it had this huge fish. It had this huge fish in his grasp, and I was like, once again, head just like blowing up. Like blow– like, I’m like what am I watching here?

Ever since that day, I was like, first of all, what is this thing? I was like, I need to know more about this bird. So I started researching the bird. And at the time, I was in college, and this is where the mentorship kind of comes in, too, is, my college advisor was the only Black man I knew that was a birder. Like, I didn’t know anybody else where I’m from.

So like immediately I send that video to him, because this is my bird guy. And so everybody has that bird person. He was my bird guy. So I send this video to Jeff, and Jeff– Jeff Galligan, and he’s also the co-founder of the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin now, so this is a decade ago, though. So this has been building for a while. I send them the video. I’m like, yeah, I just sent him some gold, like I was super excited.

All of a sudden he’s like, oh, that’s awesome, Dex. Check this out. He sends me back all these photographs of osprey that he’s already photographed in Wisconsin. That, once again, head blowing up. I’m like, wait a minute. Not only have you seen one of these, you took those pictures? I was just like, I was done, I was done. And like ever since then, the osprey did it to me, and I always tell people, once you start to pay attention, you cannot stop. That is so true. And I’ve also had similar feelings of seeing the osprey hunting and catching fish for the first time. It’s definitely a mind-blowing experience. I’m not sure if anybody on the call here today has seen that slow-mo video that was going around for a while of an osprey once it’s like hitting the water and its talons like opening up and catching the fish, and that whole process is just so mind-blowing, one, that they can hit the water from such a height, catch the fish, like you said, not drown, and still be able to get up and fly away?

Talk about amazing bodies that were just built for just mind-blowing activities. So thank you for sharing that story. It’s definitely, I think, a mind-blowing moment that a lot of birders can relate to. Nicole, can you share with us your #InTheNestStory of what got you into birding?

[Nicole Jackson]: Yeah, so I actually had a similar experience with the kingfisher. Summer camp. But my #InTheNestStory started with my internship through the Ohio State University. I was trying to figure out my career path at the time. This is 2009– yeah, 2009. And just getting started with my college journey and realizing I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do anymore.

So my advisor at the time, Amanda Rodewald, who’s actually at Cornell now, and she expressed to me, hey, there’s this field research opportunity if you’re interested to connect with my grad students monitoring northern cardinals and the Canadian flycatchers in Columbus, Ohio.

I literally did not know about anything about field research. Like I’ve seen those things on TV, people out in the field, heavy equipment, walking through brush and plants and all of that stuff and collecting data, but to be actually processing possibly doing it was a totally different story. And then I was thinking like, where does that even happen in Columbus? Do I go far away? Is it close? What type of vehicle? Like all of these questions popped up into my head.

But I figured I’d give it a shot. And I ended up doing that for the spring and summer for a few months, and we were out in different parks, metro parks, city parks monitoring nesting pairs. So some of them were banded, some of them were not. We also monitored predation. So we have wildlife camps set up to see how the nesting pairs were being impacted by predators.

I also learned a lot about vegetation and what the birds were using to build their nest. So I did not know any of this stuff, but it was awesome. It was an awesome experience because I’ve already had a relationship with nature growing up for more like mental health benefits, and then to be able to explore it in such detail with a specific species just really open my eyes into another world.

And it also gave me another way to communicate with people. We had a lot of people coming through the parks like hiking, walking their dogs, and they would just stop and ask questions of what we were doing, especially seeing me. I had my natural hair. This nerdy Black girl in the field figuring things out and people are just like, are you lost? Do you know where you are? What are you even doing out here?

So I was totally fine with those questions, But. At the same time, it sparked something in me that I was really enjoying myself learning about the birds that were in my neighborhood, and to be able to witness them in their natural habitat, and there’s the robins, there’s the catbirds, there’s blue jays, there’s the cardinals. And to be able to see them find mates, lay eggs, feed each other, like that was a whole different experience for me.

But when people would come and ask us questions, I was more interested in doing that than actual research. So then I was like, oh, something in my brain clicked with like, oh, what if I can just teach people about nature and if there’s even a career out there for that? So I found out about environmental education as a career path and have been doing that ever since.

So that was my birdwatching journey of-through field research, but then it progressed into learning about the birding community in Ohio, even the OSU Ornithology Club, through the college, through the university. And then really being self-taught, because once the internship was over, I couldn’t shut it off. Like the birds– the bird calls, the songs, the ID, all the stuff that I was learning during the field research, it really just stuck with me.

So just like every time I would go out beyond the internship, I was always just tuned in a different way and found myself just wandering sometimes. Literally like, I am going to the store. Nope. There’s a bird that I need to find, an ID, because I’ve just– it’s just been seared into my brain.

So from then on, it was just like, OK, this is what-whether I’m teaching it to people or I’m doing it casually as a hobby, I’m hooked. So it’s been over 10 years. But yeah, that was a really fun opportunity to have, but also it gave me another way to connect with nature and the outdoors.

[Deja Perkins]: I love that. And it just-it really speaks to how great that field research experience was for you, that it stuck out in your brain and then you just began to notice more birds in your daily routine. Like what Dexter said earlier, once it’s turned on, you can’t turn it off.

Like I like to say that people walking around– people who are not nature people, it’s almost like they’re walking around with blinders on, and I really love helping to take them off and helping people to see-it’s like seeing the world again for the first time. And I agree, watching those bird behaviors is so interesting, and it’s definitely just another level to bird watching. And it’s just so much fun to really start to learn more and understand more about bird behavior and how they’re living their lives. So thank you so much for sharing that. And Dwain, can you share your story– your #InTheNestStory with us?

[Dwain Vaughns]: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you all again so much for having me Cornell, all the Black Birders, I’m just so excited to be here, I really do. So my journey started unexpectedly. It was unfortunate. I broke my foot and developed a chronic pain condition called complex regional pain syndrome.

And like Deja was saying, I started flying when I was eight years old, and flew for forever and had really great mentors there and that got me through because obviously aviation not being a very Black-dominant career path either. And so those are my other birds that I had to find a nest for also, because it’s actually very similar now that I’m getting further into my story of how much they’re now starting to relate to each other.

But I ended up through a whole bunch of serendipitous events at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, and they mostly deal with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries and things like that. And they were gracious enough to take me into their Beyond Therapy physical therapy program.

And they also have a recreational therapy program there to help people in breaking that cycle of leaving the house and discovering a different life after something really traumatic. Again, most of them are paralyzed and things like that. So it’s a really amazing program of getting people back outside.

And like Nicole was saying, I’ve grown up my whole life outside. It was just not something I ever wanted to not be doing, is to be outside. And when I was injured, I was on three months of bed rest and I about lost it. I was texting my nieces. I didn’t even really know how to use my Netflix. I’m like, I don’t know what to watch. I just– I’m always outside.

And so that was a really, really tough part and I struggled with my mental health because of just not being outside and things. But I went-my wife, actually, was the one that was like, hey, they’re going on a birdwatching trip, and I’m like, a birdwatching trip? Who wants to do that? Like, I’m not trying to go birdwatching.

And she just kept-I don’t know why she kept pushing it, but she did, and I was like, all right, I’ll do it. And it ended up being such a great experience because it was also my first time to creating really my nest in the disabled community, which was huge. It’s tough being disabled at times, and I kind of consider myself like all high-functioning disabled, because I still can walk and things like that with my cane, but depending– like if I’m out birding, I have my little scooter and stuff like that to be able to get around.

So I’m really in between two worlds, which is also really eye-opening. But I was with a group of people where I didn’t feel like I was holding people behind. And so we really created this really great bond. I think all of us, it was like our first time getting out of the house and things like that. And again, we’re in nature, so it’s just we’re just all used to almost being homebound for a very long time.

And we get out there and I’ve just gotten my brand new scooter, and it comes apart in pieces, we put it in the car, we loaded it up, we get out that day, my wife puts it together, scooter doesn’t work. I’m sidelined. I am just reeling and– because I’m like I put all this effort into going outside, and now I can’t even do the project.

And the way CRPS works is it’s kind of like attached to your nervous system in that when your heart rate goes up, your pain goes up. And so they’re basically tied directly together. So as I’m getting angry about not being able to get on my scooter, my pain is going up. And this wonderful angel of a woman, Wendy, comes over to me and she’s just so calm.

And she just grabs my hand and she goes is over, she’s like, let’s just go over here to the Nature Center, and we sit there, and they start going on the birdwatching trip, and I’m like, why would you make me sit here and watch the people go birdwatching? This is just me. And she tells me, she’s like, hey, let’s try to identify the birds just listening to them. And I’m like, all right, whatever.

And she tells me about the towhee and listening for a towhee, and the carolina and the cheeseburger-cheeseburgers. And so we’re just–and I’m like, all right, this lady is really on one, but OK. And so I close my eyes and I start listening for the birds, and I’m like, oh, there is one. All right, let’s see if can I find another one.

And so do the progression of just focusing in and closing everything down, it lowered my heart rate and lowered my pain. And I was hooked. I’m like, I’ve been going to doctor after doctor, and CRPS is very-what they call like an orphaned disorder because there’s not a lot of research and stuff like that, so you mostly just get normal standard doctor runaround of, yeah, try this, try that.

And this was one of the first things that I ever tried where my pain like drastically came down. And so I just started using birding as a way of like a meditation and calming myself down, and I just kept it going, kept it going. And then the photography started, and it was like Dexter and Nicole were saying, it’s just capturing those little moments is what I wanted to do.

And just slow it down so you can see those little moments of feed and seeing that osprey hit the water, and like I said, again, with the airplanes, the more I started slowing it down with the pictures, I’m like, these are legit airplanes, like it’s the coolest thing. Like you see like the big raptors and like their wingtips or going out, and I’m like, we didn’t invent that, the bird invented that.

It’s just– it’s just so cool. You see them kick out their landing gear and come in for the landing and their flaps drop, it is just–and so all of a sudden I started putting this together and my whole life just recame back together and it was just absolutely beautiful. So yeah, so birding is my way of healing now, and I’m passing that forward by my photography and going out and sharing it.

[Deja Perkins]: Thank you so much for sharing that. I love that birding has helped you heal and helped things kind of come full circle for you. And I really appreciate you sharing that story of that first kind of birdsit and how that process went for you, because I definitely try and tell people that’s– I guess that’s the way I try and introduce people to birding. Like hey, let’s just go sit outside for like 10 minutes, because you don’t think there’s this misconception that you need to be walking and exploring and hiking to some far place.

But no, there’s so much that you can see and hear and just learn by just being still and being present and being in the moment. So I really appreciate you sharing that.

So I’m wondering for each of you if you can share if you are primarily a solo birder or a group birder and how that may have changed throughout your journey. And Dwain, I don’t know if you want to start with this question because I know you talked a lot about Birdability and how that group has helped you out some.

[Dwain Vaughns]: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, yes, Birdability has been absolutely wonderful, and getting to know them. Georgia Audubon had actually partnered with the Shepherd Center in doing the birding trip, and Melanie Fur was there with us. And I know she works a lot with Birdability as well.

But they’re doing so much. We have one of the areas down in Clayton County south of Atlanta. It’s called the Newman Wetland Center. And they have been working down there to make the entire park completely accessible, which is, again, being in between those two worlds where I see just doors that are hard to pull open and things like that, and then it’s like you get somewhere to go outside, and then there’s a steep hill or all this gravel or whatever.

And to see the care and effort that they’re putting into making sure that everybody, no matter what your ability level is, that can go out there, it just really is amazing. And that’s what Birdability is doing. They’re really helping people with all different levels of abilities to be able to get out and go experience birding and sharing other people’s stories of how it’s helped them heal or how it’s helped them get over a barrier and everything.

And then I have-mostly a solo birder, because again, I use it for my meditation. So I’m mostly out quietly and things like that. And I will agree with you, Deja, it’s like I actually almost don’t really walk around now because of disability anymore, but because I truly believe I can take in so much more in one spot.

It is really, really amazing of how much happens in this little bubble around you that we just never see. And so that’s mostly my thing, but I have been reaching out to-we have a CRPS community here in Atlanta and I took them for their first birdwatching trip and nature trip, and we worked on doing our breathing exercises and the whole thing while paying attention to the bird.

So I am now trying to pass forward the things that I’ve learned, and that’s where I guess I’m trying to become a mentor to other people, is just really sharing what I’ve learned, because it’s just been so helpful from a healing standpoint and things like that. And I really hope that it can catch on as to realize, hey, this is healing as well, especially with so much going on with mental health awareness and things like that. It truly is– it’s medicine.

[Deja Perkins]: Yes, nature is there for you. It really is. Nicole or Dexter, do either you all want to share?

[Nicole Jackson]: Yeah. I love that Dwain is talking about mental health. I’m just like– that’s literally how it started for me in my relationship with nature. I get asked the question a lot of how did birding or like your nature relationships start? And sometimes it’s coming from this like always positive with like everybody has this positive experience with nature and the outdoors and even birdwatching, and for me it wasn’t.

It was through, unfortunately, trauma and abuse that I went through when I was in foster care when I was younger. So I used nature as a healing tool for me to get through that, and still working on that journey, it’s never-ending. But at the same time, it opened up my world into better connecting with myself and helping me manage my emotions, especially anxiety and depression and feeling good about myself and what I was doing, what I was interested in.

And knowing that I could take that energy, that curiosity, that sense of wonder and do something with it. As well as still have hope for the future. People were just not- I was just not a fan of human beings just because of what I went through. And really thinking about how much of a struggle it was to just talk to people.

But when I was in nature, I was just like, oh, this is great. Like I don’t have to like guard myself or pour myself out or even try to shield or protect myself just in case someone tries to harm me. I just felt like myself, I felt free. I could cry, I could scream, I could laugh, and nature was just like confidant that I had.

And it really helped me build my confidence, as well as the trust in myself that I could get through tough things moving forward. So having-the birdwatching that I do now, a lot of it I do solo, but it is it does connect back to my nature relationship ultimately. And I spent a lot of time when I was younger outside by myself, because that was the time in space that I needed as an introvert, as a person who’s just like more reserved when it came to being around groups of people.

And that was really a practice for me, because I have 10 siblings. So I have seven sisters and three brothers, and pretty much being the only one in my family who’s really like invested in being outside and connecting to nature in a more intimate way, it really gave me a chance to embrace my quiet and realize there was nothing wrong with that. I really used to struggle with trying to hide my introvertedness and my quiet, reserved personality.

And with nature, I could just do that and be that and like nerd out. But also like, OK, if I need a minute to process something, cool. Like nobody’s going to rush me or you need to hurry up and think out loud or have more energy. I could just show up however in nature. And I was very grateful for that.

So a lot of my time that I spend in nature with birdwatching specifically, I like doing it by myself, but also, there’s that connection to people that encourages and inspires me. So knowing that I have a bunch of information and I get excited about it, I’m like, I want to share it with other people is the other side of connecting to people again.

Because I feel like if I’m not right with myself first, then I can’t give as much energy and excitement and enthusiasm to the people that I want to learn about the things that I’m experiencing. So with nature, it was just like, hey, this is kind of like my foundation of like for me to be my authentic self and then showing other people that they can do that through birdwatching.

And again, connecting back to environmental education, like a lot of people know me as a birdwatcher, but like that’s– I was interested in everything, like all things in nature, and I still am. But nature or sorry, birds help me see how everything is connected. So when I was talking about the behaviors and the things that birds are doing, like it’s helping me connect even to like the natural systems that are happening.

So how birds are impacted by extreme weather or light pollution. What birds need to have a healthy diet. What we can do as human beings as far as being better stewards or birds and other wildlife. I’m always making those connections in my head, and I’m just like, oh, there’s so much out there to learn and I want to help other people use that as an opportunity to see how connected we are to nature and how we can reconnect back to that, that it’s not lost. It just needs to be like the flame is out. So we just need to relight it.

So yeah. I feel like there’s so much learning and birdwatching, but also like the connection to the humanness of having that experience and how it impacts our mental health and how it really helps us build relationships in a more meaningful way.

[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, I really appreciate you sharing that. Go ahead, Dexter.

[Dexter Patterson]: Wow. I just want to say we have Black men and women talking about mental health right now, so let’s– shoutout to everybody. We need to show each other some love. I think sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that that vulnerability is a superpower. So seeing y’all do that because that was the big push for me, too, was the mental health benefits.

I always tell people burning isn’t always about the birds, and they’re like, what? Coming from the bird whisperer, The Bird Guy? Yes, because everything y’all are saying, I have some of the most candid and honest conversations with myself when I’m out alone in the woods. And as I’ve transitioned into a leader with the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin, I realized that I need to be my best self to give them what they need when they come out.

So I’ve shifted from this solo I’m in the woods by myself to now, I’m leading a couple of walks a month. We’re doing what we call pop up events and different things. So like I’m out and about, come join me. And what I love about it is it might be three, two, one person that gets to come to one of my favorite places and we bond as a community over birds.

So birding as therapy has been something since I jumped on. It’s something that I really try to push the people, because it is like– when I started feeling better about myself, the physical benefits-losing weight, blood pressure went down, sleeping better at night, I’m like, whoa, something is here, and I was like, I need to share this. I felt it in me. Like my body was like, Dex, you gotta share this.

And a lot of it, when I first started, why I was so solo was that fear factor. I had this fear of I’m not good enough. I had this fear this imposter syndrome. We get this at so many different levels in life, but I see that a lot in birding, too, where I see lens envy, these people with all these huge cameras and all this stuff. And I’m like, man, at the time I don’t have a camera, I don’t have this, I don’t have that.

So I was a little afraid. Growing up how I grew up, don’t see Black people birding, so I was worried that people were going to judge me. There were so many different levels that I had to break through by myself, and I did that alone, and that was those real conversations saying, Dexter, this is who you are. Share this bird joy, share your bird nerd with as many people as possible, but I had to get through that myself.

And the way I did it was through music and things that made me happy. I was like, all right, I’m going to try to make this fun. I’m going to try to make this cool, I’m going to try to make this approachable for my people. So it’s like, dang, Dex, out there birdwatching? But look at him, he’s having fun.

So I tried to–that was the way that I was able to ease it from more of this solo and to bringing more people in by trying to make it fun, by trying to make it approachable, by trying to make it just more casual. Like look, you don’t need all the fancy equipment. Just show up, start paying attention, and just watch how the birds and mother nature in general start to change you.

[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, and you brought up a lot of topics that I really wanted to discuss today in the panel. And you mentioned that you didn’t really have that person that helped you learn a lot of the more technical things of what the bird IDs were. And I’m– first I’m wondering, was that the case for everybody else on the call? Or was there a specific person that helped you trying to move through the technical aspects? And if not, what did you do? So anybody can hop in. Go ahead, Nicole.

[Nicole Jackson]: Yeah. So I very much– because I’m interested in everything, I’m like–I’m just going to put this out there, systems thinking needs to be in more schools, taught in more schools. And, like, it was so easy for me to get excited and overwhelmed just because I’m like, there’s so much information, I wish I could absorb it all like a computer.

But I had to remind myself that like, one thing at a time, and you’ll be able to build the skills and the knowledge. So for me, it was going to the library when I was younger, reading books, watching TV. I watched a lot of Nature on PBS. Watching people out in the field, like even the nature shows where they’re capturing clouded leopards, and like you see this awesome amazing footage, and then they’re like, hey, it took us eight months to do this. What? What sense does that make?

So being able to see behind the scenes of how these researchers, photographers, videographers are setting up these amazing shots, but because they have patience, because they had equipment and people to teach them and things that they were teaching themselves, you’re learning stuff over time and you’re building knowledge over time.

So sometimes I would get that from fellow birders who’ve been birding for a while, and sometimes I would just ask them like really basic questions like, how are you remembering that birdsong? And then I would twist it into something that would help me. I wouldn’t do exactly what that person did, but I would fine-tune it to fit me.

And then as far as the more technical skills, again, reaching out to people who had more of that knowledge and understanding, but knowing that I wasn’t going to get all of it at one time. Like I needed to pace myself., I needed to understand bits and pieces and then be able to apply it. So like with photography, I didn’t start taking pictures of birds until last year.

So I bought a camera for myself and I just started going out every day, and I had really crappy pictures, but I told myself, hey, well maybe next time I can stand in this spot or I can just watch the birds for 15 minutes and then try to take a pictures. So I was kind of giving myself lessons just by being more patient.

And then sometimes I would go out with other people who are taking photos and just watch them. Not even ask a question or not even say anything. Just observing and taking in information. And then also a combination of using apps and field guides. But the main focus was applying it.

So not just like reading a bunch of things or noticing a bunch of things, but applying it myself really helped it stick. And I’m still learning so much now– I mean, I’m definitely not an expert, but I feel like-I don’t know if anybody could see this, but this is a photo that I took– this is a photo that I took the first month of getting my camera. And it’s a picture of an eagle.

So where I’m living right now, I’m close to a trail, and there’s like a river. So I don’t know if anybody else has experienced this, but when you’re out birdwatching and you’re just lost, and then like six hours later and you’re like, six hours? So fast. I need to go home and like eat food and drink water.

I got to a point where I was heading back home, but then also hearing a hawk– I heard a red-tailed hawk first and I was trying to follow that hawk and I lost it. And then I heard another crazy sound by the river, and I’m like, ooh what’s that? So I literally just go and see this eagle flyover up into the sky, and I was like, oh my gosh! But then in that split-second, I stopped myself, I’m like, you have a camera, take a picture.

So I pulled the camera up, and in that split second, because I was just like honed in and focused, I got that shot, which was amazing, by the way, which is like the perfect setup, and it was maybe only like three shots total and then it flew away. So like it was a very spontaneous moment, but I was so proud of myself because I was paying attention. And like that just gives me more fire to like learn even more, like the technical stuff of the lighting and when to take pictures of something in action versus video, things like that.

So I feel like there’s definitely a combination of things that you can bring together without feeling like you have to box yourself into one thing. And I feel like that just expands your learning experience.

[Deja Perkins]: Dwain was there someone in particular for you that you feel really helped you on the technical aspects of birding? Or was– like the other panelists, was it more so an individual learning journey?

[Dwain Vaughns]: Yeah, mostly individual. Like Nicole said, using the apps. Merlin’s my big thing, because it’s hard for me to remember with the chronic pain, my memory, it’s tough. And so like just trying to remember all the bird calls. So I can generally be like, I’ve heard that one before, but just trying to remember them.

So I love the sound ID, because I can just put it on and it just tells me everything around me. And so that’s what I mostly use. But I also became a member of the Georgia Nature Photographers Association. And after being with them just for a short time, I actually now serve when their conservation board.

And so just being part of another community of people, too, that we’re doing nature photography, and I went down to the expo this year and things like that, it just– so I’ve just now started surrounding myself-what they always say, surround yourself with the people that you want to be.

And so I’ve just started-starting to, OK, if I’m going to do that, well, let’s see if I can put myself in a situation where I’m going to learn something different and expand my photography skills, expand my birding skills, whatever it is. I even still, like I’ll go out with people and I still am learning about– like I was saying earlier about doing my breath work and stuff like that.

So again, like Nicole said, it really starts to snowball into just all kinds of parts of your life, that technical stuff. But yeah, I wasn’t, would you say, formally taught. Yeah, just throughout community, which, again, I was so excited to be a part of this, because I think that’s really where it is. As soon as you get that community, you’re going to start snowballing off of each other or spitballing and, oh, you do that? Oh, OK, I need to do that. All right, great.

And that’s how you learn. And it’s like, it’s no fun sitting there trying to watch a video or read the instruction manual like that that came with your camera and figure out the 50,000 functions that you need five of. And so it’s your community, it’s your nest, and that’s where you’re going to learn.

[Deja Perkins]: Yes, that’s so true. I know for me personally, my operating journey has kind of just been a roller coaster, because I haven’t–like it took me a while to find my community, and I love that there is such a strong system of support in Georgia that you’ve had all of these various resources to help you build your nest and your community.

And I think for me personally, social media has been one of those things that has really helped me connect to other birders, especially through Black Birders Week. I know, Dexter, that’s how I connected with you. And being able to see your enthusiasm through your social media and your content, and it makes me want to get outside. I’m like, hold on, I gotta get a piece of this. I have to go outside and see who’s chirping outside in my neighborhood.

And so I think that’s one thing that I really appreciate about your platform, is that one of the things that you do is somehow, you are able to express your enthusiasm and that infectious just joy and feeling that you get outside and you’re able to convey that through the internet. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who gets inspired by your actions.

And so just along the themes of community and connection. For those of you who lead walks, what do you do to make people feel more welcome? How do you make them feel like they are where they need to–like they’re in the right place? Go ahead, Dexter.

[Dexter Patterson]: Yeah. Come as you are. So when people come to a BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin event, they’ll see people like them. As leaders–and I think that’s important. The representation of seeing people of color leading their walk. Not every person of color that gets introduced to birding is going on their first trip with somebody that’s leading them that looks like them, and I think that’s one thing.

But one thing– and it’s such a small thing we do at the beginning of every walk, every event, is we clap for new birders. Like we get excited and we celebrate them and we say, yay, we got–we got the new one, right? Like we get like– we got you. Like we got a new one! Like that, to me, getting that person to come out for the first time and making sure that they’re not– like no shushing on the trail, no– like we are very– you might see me do one of my videos at one of the events. Like you could be a part of it.

And I think that’s how we build that community of showing them like, this is for you. Just show up as you are. And I always tell- even the beginning birders, I pay a lot of attention to them. We get really seasoned birders that come, but I’m always looking for the– I’ve never been there before. When I hear that, you’re going– I’m on your hip the whole day. Like I have never been here before. You’re going to get one-on-one attention from the Wisco Birder for two hours, because I want you to understand that not only do you– I want you to come back, I want you to pay attention.

I want you to start– and I get it now, or they’re like, look what I found! Look at this! Look at that! And that mentorship of them just sending me these random bird pictures, it lights me up every time, Deja. I’m like, yes, I they ass, right? Like I’m like, I got ’em, I got ’em! I got ’em, I got ’em. And I get excited that they trust me enough to send me their crappy cell phone pictures, because I did that for like eight years. Like I was like, I don’t have a camera, I don’t have anything, but I got this.

I was sending these pictures to Jeff, and he’s like, that’s a yellow-rumped warbler, also known as a butter butt. And I remember that butt- yes! Like I got a butter butt! So I try to do my best to really foster that for the people that I’m around and just let them know, man, this is for you. I always say birding is for everyone, even you. Everybody on this call, don’t doubt it, like it’s definitely for you.

[Deja Perkins]: Yes, I love that. I love that you pay more attention to the beginner birders or the first timers, because I think that’s something, from my personal experience, why I was turned off from birding the first time I tried it– I gave it a try. Was because I was around all– we were doing a Bio Blitz with all these experienced people. Of course, I was the only person that looked like me.

And I was still shy. So I was always the last person up to the scope, and by the time I got up there, the bird was gone, or they’d be like, oh look, up there in the tree! And I’m like, where? It’s just leaves, like I don’t see anything. So I’m pretty sure your participants really appreciate the fact that you take that extra time to really be there for them and help them and go the extra mile and help– I know that’s something that– I love that you clap for the new birders. That might be something that I try and incorporate on my walks in the future.

I definitely for me, I’m like, all right, who do we have? Let everybody know that they’re welcome. And I’m like by the end of this walk, you’re going to have a favorite bird, and I want to know what it is. Or I tell people like, it’s– birding is hard. If you don’t see it, that’s OK. Just let me know and we’re– I’m going to make sure you get your eyes– I’m going to do my best to make sure we get your eyes on that bird.

Because it’s no fun to be on a walk and everybody else is seeing things and having a good time and you’re just like, I can’t do it. So I know they appreciate that, and that’s, I feel, like a common theme that I’ve been hearing throughout this talk, this discussion, is each of you are kind of being the person that you needed when you were starting out for others.

And I think that that’s something that we can all do, is just be the person–I think y’all’s passion really drives you to be the person that you needed and be that person for others, which I think it’s just something that we can all take home and each of us can try and apply to our lives. Nicole, did you want to share? Is there anything in particular that you do to make people feel welcome when you lead walks?

[Nicole Jackson]: I smile a lot. I smile. , I wear my hair flowers. I just show people my personality and how I’m connected to- because I still am my giddy self. I shout and I scream when I see something even though I’d probably say it like a thousand times. I’m like, oh my gosh! There’s a northern flicker right there, like– and they’re probably like, what is– why are you so– and I’m literally, because it’s a bird.

And the same with birds that we’re just like, oh, that’s just a typical robin or like blue jay. And I’m like, no, they’re just as exciting. Like, they have these–not to say personality, because I don’t want to humanize them in that way, but just their behaviors are so unique and different. And I feel like you just have an opportunity to experience a bunch of different behaviors different times of the day depending who’s out there as far as wildlife, what food is available. Like you’re, oh, it’s like watching a movie, but like a nature movie.

So I want to feel good when I’m showing up in a space and I want them to see that and not be in this like robot lecture, we’re going to talk about these things. I’m like, this is the only thing we’re going to learn about. And like, I want them to be in that space the same way that I show up with a smile and like, hey, if you wear your hair a certain way when you’re out in nature, great. That’s part of your personality, that’s part of who you are and what brings light to that space.

So for me, I don’t have my hair flower now, but I usually have a hair flower. I love to stop and observe, and then if something exciting happens, yeah, I’ll shout out. I don’t have a problem doing that. Or I’ll be like, ooh, ooh! And then it puts people in a panic. But it’s an opportunity to show them that something exciting has happened or I saw something really cool and I get to point it out to them.

Another thing I would add is listening to their stories about their bird experiences. And they don’t have to be anything like fancy or like magical. Like it could be, hey, when I go to my friend’s house or my parents’ house, they have birdfeeders, and I see these yellow and red birds, and like, that’s a part of their birding journey.

So I think having the time and space to acknowledge those stories versus like, we’re at a beginner bird hike and we’re just going to talk about these specific things I think takes away from the layers of our own stories and how we can contribute to considering ourselves birders by having a bird experience, and it doesn’t have to be anything long, drawn out. It could be, hey, I saw a robin when I was on the bus. Great. Like, I’m sure you’ll see more, but it’s wanting to be heard. Like hey, I have a story to tell, are you going to listen?

And if that person feels like that’s not happening and feel like cuts that experience short, and then they’ve made up their mind, yeah, I don’t want to be in this space or I don’t want to come to another event and they close themselves off. So I’ve had many of those experiences happen where I’m just like, OK, there’s a person who’s like taking over a conversation or they’re just restricting the information and what you’re learning and how you’re learning, and I’m just like, this isn’t like– it didn’t feel like a happy space.

So I would just shut down and wouldn’t want to be a part of that environment anymore and people will say, I haven’t seen you in a while. And it was because of that but I never vocalized it. So it was just more of, again, searching, going back out to search for an environment that was more inclusive in that way.

[Deja Perkins]: Yes. I think that’s probably the quickest way to get people to shut down, is to not listen to them or to just–for someone to not feel seen, I know that it hurts. It’s like, I’m here to learn to be a part of this space, and to just feel like you’re not being heard, that is the quickest way to exclude somebody.

And I love that you invite people to share their bird stories. I think that sounds like a really great icebreaker. I do like icebreakers and introductions. We do like a little circle, like community-building moment in the beginning, and that sounds like a great icebreaker that anybody can do. Like what’s your– what’s a bird– a story you have about a bird or something like really quick that sounds really great?

We are getting close to the end of the panel. We have about four more minutes, and I know we have a couple of questions from the audience. We have one question from Facebook, and someone is asking for lightweight camera recommendations that still have enough reach to capture birds.

I’m not sure if that’s a thing, because I know it’s like you kind of compromise–probably compromise the light witness when you get the extension. But I don’t know if anybody here has any recommendations. Dwain, do you have any?

[Dwain Vaughns]: Yeah, it is tough, because if you start getting big and you get lightweight, now you’re getting price heavy. It’s that fine balance. I’ve never shot with them, but I’ve heard really good things about Tamron lenses. I know a lot of the– another good thing– good resource would be is, again, social media. Go and look at nature photographers. And a lot of times they’ll post what they’re using. And so that’s one of the best ways to go through and not necessarily– don’t gauge it on their pictures, but just gauge it by like, hey, make yourself a list.

Like OK, I looked at 10 different photographers, here’s the lenses that they’re using, and then go do your research to see if it might be the right lens to fit for you. And some places have lens rentals. And so you can actually rent it, try it out, and see if it’s something that you want to use. And again, you start developing your community, share with each other.

I was at an event down at Jekyll island with Georgia nature photographers. And I was like, hey, can I use your camera? Yeah, go try it out. That’s what they want to do. So again, it just keeps coming back to, again, having that community and things like that. But yeah, if you can go onto social media, that’d probably my best guess for being able to price out and figure out what different lenses are out there.

[Deja Perkins]: Those are some great tips. Dexter?

[Dexter Patterson]: Yeah, I always say for beginning birders, find a digital camera that has a really good optical zoom. That’s the best way that you’re going to get a camera that will help you be able to get enough reach, is that optical zoom, and you can get them in those point-and-shoot digital cameras.

I’ve used a point-and-shoot digital camera for almost six years. No lenses, none of that stuff. So that’s the way that you stay lightweight, that’s the way you still get the reach and not have to spend a ton of money. My first camera was $279.

[Nicole Jackson]: Yeah, I would add that shop around. Like give yourself that space and time to shop around. Like don’t feel like you have to buy something right away and then you realize you’re miserable with it. So going back to what Dwain was saying, like just go to places, try it out. You can rent something knowing that you can return it without it being, oh my goodness, I’ve made this commitment and I’m miserable. So shop around. Give yourself space and time to try things out before you find something that really works for you.

[Deja Perkins]: Thank you all so much for those tips and all of your expert advice today. I will say that unfortunately we have run out of time. And I know there were a couple of other questions in the chat that were related to resources like books by BIPOC authors for our kids and teens as well as birding clubs for teens. The Country.

And I will say that we will be dropping a resource list on Saturday with all of those things– Bird Life– #LifeLongJourney. So we’ll be dropping a resource list with bird related books by BIPOC authors featuring BIPOC individuals. We’ll be dropping a resource list for various BIPOC family bird clubs that people can attend. And so please do keep your eye out on our website for those things.

And we also–so just make sure you all head over to our website, just for more information about different things that would be dropping throughout the week. Don’t forget to tune in and sign up for– enter to win the daily giveaway. The portals closed every day at midnight. And today’s giveaway includes tickets to the Bronx Zoo as well as window clings.

And I just want to encourage you all to join in on the conversation and share your mentorship stories and your birding beginning stories using #InTheNest the nest on either Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

And I want to thank all of you all for tuning in today, as well as all of our panelists were just giving–like just sharing your stories and giving such great advice today. And I hope to see all of you all tomorrow at 7:00 PM for part 2 of the Birding Social Experience. And we will be talking with beginner birders and getting the perspective of what the social experience has been like for them for #LeavingTheNest. And on Friday at noon Eastern, we will be talking about birding culture and the experience of birding in different countries for #AsTheCrowFlies.

So I want to, again, thank our panelists and thank everybody for tuning in today. This has been such a great conversation, and I hope to stay connected with y’all on the socials. Thanks so much and I hope everybody has a great–

[Dexter Patterson]: Thank you all so much.

[Dwain Vaughns]: Happy birding.

End of transcript

The third annual Black Birders Week (May 29–June 4, 2022) will feature a 3-part webinar series exploring the social aspects of birdwatching. Birding can be an individual activity but it’s much more enjoyable with a community of birders. In the age of COVID, and in the age of social media, how are birders connecting? Join the organizers of Black Birders Week to explore the importance of social connections in claiming your birding identity.

In part 1 of the series, Deja Perkins, Nicole Jackson, Dwain Vaughns, and Dexter Patterson discuss their experiences throughout their birding journeys and the importance of birding community relationships. These experienced birders know that birding can be exclusionary if you don’t find the right community! Panelists share how experienced birders can become effective birding mentors, and welcoming to new birders.

Black Birders Week is organized by BlackAFinSTEM, which creates and maintains the schedules, events, and hashtags. BlackAFinSTEM is a group of young professionals in the STEM fields. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is partnering with Black Birders Week to help these important conversations reach a larger audience.