Sunday, August 30, 2009
John C. Robinson has been a friend for several years. We had corresponded before we met, so I knew he was an expert birder before I knew he was African-American. John has been a writer and consultant on a number of topics, but with his status as a black bird expert, it was perhaps only natural that he would become a spokesperson on the issue of diversity in birding and outdoor recreation. At a conservation summit before the Midwest Birding Symposium in 2003, I heard John speak on this subject, and he was very persuasive and compelling. More recently he has published a book that addresses the same issue, Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers. It’s a thought-provoking work that offers some real solutions.
More than a decade ago I was already an admirer of Dudley Edmondson’s spectacular nature photography, especially of the birds of prey. Indeed, I arranged to use some of his images in my Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, published nine years ago. Later I found out that this very successful professional nature photographer also was African-American, and had begun to turn his camera toward human subjects as well. He felt that the lack of diversity in the outdoors was partly because people of color didn’t see role models taking part in birdwatching and other outdoor activities, so Dudley has made a point of finding, photographing, and interviewing the exceptions. One result of this work is his fine book, Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places, which is accomplishing great things by highlighting a diverse set of "outdoor role models."
These two guys are both dedicated to this cause of increasing diversity in the field. Here’s just one random piece of evidence: when I was struggling to get my North American bird guide translated into Spanish and then published, John Robinson and Dudley Edmondson were both very encouraging. I hadn’t even met Dudley at that point, but as soon as he heard about the project, he called me up to offer moral support.
Speaking of the Spanish-language bird guide, another person who is doing great things for outdoors diversity is Tamberly Conway, at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. She has been working with the U.S. Forest Service in Texas to promote a program called "Latino Legacy: Amigos del Bosque" (Friends of the Forest). This innovative program has had great success in reaching out to the Hispanic community and getting families to connect with nature on National Forest lands. We haven’t met her yet, but she and her colleague Maricruz Flores, one of the team leaders for Amigos del Bosque, will be coming to Ohio - - along with John Robinson and Dudley Edmondson - - to speak at our conference, Diversity in Outdoor Recreation: The Many Faces of Conservation, September 26 in Toledo. You can read all about that event on the Black Swamp Bird Observatory website here.
Monday, August 24, 2009
My serious interest in birds began at age six, but at first I birded alone. Then as a young man I was traveling and meeting other birders just a few at a time. So after two decades I still didn’t have a real sense of what the birding community was like. Finally by about the time I hit thirty, I was getting invited to speak to bird clubs and birding festivals all over the continent, and it dawned on me: Wow, we’re practically all white people here.
Once I had noticed, it was strikingly obvious. I’d be doing a bird program for an audience of 200 in New York, or South Carolina, or Alabama, or Chicago, and I’d realize that there wasn’t a single black face in the crowd. Or I’d be talking to a large group at a bird meeting in California or Arizona or Texas, and there would be hardly a face in the room that looked Hispanic or Native American.
The situation remains unchanged today. Kimberly and I live in Ohio, where the population is (according to the 2000 census) about 12 percent black. But when I go to popular birding spots, like the boardwalk at Magee Marsh in spring, the ratio of black birders that I see is not 12 percent, which would be one out of eight people - - it’s more like one out of three hundred. Likewise at big birding festivals and popular birding sites elsewhere on the continent, people of color are just vanishingly scarce.
Why does this bother me? Two reasons.
One, I hate the idea that there might be something exclusionary about birding. I would never join an organization that practiced any kind of discrimination. The birders I know are not racists; I’d like to think we’d be overjoyed to welcome more people of color into our fun times in the field.
But secondly, I’m concerned about bird conservation and the future. Birds and their habitats need all the friends they can get. If an interest in birds continues to be mainly something for white people, support for bird conservation is going to decline. The group that the Census Bureau categorizes as "Non-Hispanic Whites" already makes up less than 50 percent of the population in California, Texas, and New Mexico, and if current trends continue, the same will be true for the U.S. as a whole in a couple of decades. If we really care about the long-term survival of our bird populations, therefore, we need to bring a more diverse crowd of people into the birding world.
Fortunately, there are a few people who are not only talking about this issue, but actively doing something about it. And some of those leaders in the field are coming to our area of Ohio in about a month, bringing practical info on what we can do about it. I’m proud to say that our Black Swamp Bird Observatory is partnering with Toledo Metroparks and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge to put on a conference: Diversity in Outdoor Recreation: The Many Faces of Conservation. You can read all about it right here. Kimberly and I will blog some more about this issue within the next couple of weeks, but in the meantime, if you can make it to Toledo on September 26, come and join us! This is a great chance to show your support for diversity and learn what to do about it.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Winter and early spring are the seasons when most other tourists go to T & T also. Partly they go in winter to escape the cold weather up north. But another factor is that the other half of the year, June through November, is what used to be referred to as Trinidad’s rainy season.
I say "used to be" because we’ve changed it. That half of the year is now known as the "Green Season."
Yeah, there’s some rain. But we just spent eight very full days in T & T at the peak of the Green Season, and rain was never an inconvenience for us. We carried rain jackets, we carried plastic bags for the cameras and binoculars, and we used common sense about watching the sky. Showers came a couple of times a day but they were brief, and then the skies cleared again. We didn’t lose more than a few minutes to rain, and in between, the birding was fantastic.
I’ve already written about our extraordinary night with the leatherback sea turtles. That’s an experience you won’t have in winter, because the turtles aren’t breeding then. In a more directly bird-related vein, the Green Season also has a lot of breeding bird activity. The total number of species present may be lower than in mid-winter, but the resident tropical birds are highly active and visible. We saw plenty of evidence of that during our visit.
Palm Tanagers were everywhere in T & T, including in the towns. At the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a pair was nesting inside the living room of the main house, and the adults were coming and going without any regard for all the humans on the verandah. We decided that this could be called "Palm Tanager" because it might easily land on the palm of your hand.
This Barred Antshrike nest at the Grafton Estate on Tobago was just one of many nests we found during our trip.
These male Golden-headed Manakins (and 7 or 8 of their buddies) were displaying like mad at a "lek," or communal dancing ground, down one of the trails at Asa Wright. The gaudy males perform little moonwalks and other dances while making buzzing and trilling notes, all to attract females. Which suggests to me that those female manakins must have really weird tastes!
Over on the Main Ridge on Tobago, the male Blue-backed Manakins were similarly preoccupied with doing freaky dances and making strange noises.
Some of the most interesting breeding behavior that we saw involved Common Potoos on the grounds of the Asa Wright Nature Centre. Potoos are genuinely bizarre creatures. Distantly related to nighthawks and Whip-poor-wills, but classified in a different family, potoos spend the day perched bolt upright on high tree branches, looking for all the world like dead stubs. At night, they fly around catching large insects in flight. The naturalists at Asa Wright had located a potoo nest, which really just consisted of a depression on a high branch where the female would have laid her single egg a few weeks earlier. The poor blurry photo above shows an adult potoo brooding the young bird. If it's hard to see what's going on, the next couple of photos should help. Here's a photo taken a couple of days later, when the adult was roosting atop a different perch. Even here, it doesn't really look like a bird. It's facing toward us, and its very short, broad bill is pointing up toward the left.
And here's the young Common Potoo by itself, still perched on the spot where it had hatched. Its bill is pointing up toward the right, and its eyes are closed. Good camouflage, isn't it? It doesn't really look like a dead stub of a branch -- it looks more like a discarded pale teddy bear, plucked from the trash can and tossed up into the tree -- but it doesn't look very edible. Predators aren't likely to go for it.
Here the young potoo has lowered its head a little, its bill is pointing toward the right, and its eye is slightly open. See the eye? (It's under that impressive bushy eyebrow.) Does the shape of the bird make sense now?
Here the little tyke is more thoroughly hunched down. Possibly because it senses that it's just about to start raining. Um, I mean, greening. This isn't the rainy season, it's the Green Season!
Here's Kim (just right of center), surrounded by a group of students and their teachers, showing them the baby Common Potoo through our digiscoping setup. We saw several groups of students during the time we were at Asa Wright, and it was inspiring to see the amount of educational programming that was going on at that fine nature center.
Incidentally, anyone who wants to visit Asa Wright Nature Centre, or explore nature anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago, should contact Caligo Ventures. They are THE experts on birding and natural history in T & T, and they're the exclusive agents for Asa Wright in the USA. Mark Hedden from Caligo traveled with us in T & T, and he proved to be a very impressive guy in terms of his dedication to birding, conservation, and quality travel.