How Birding Can Lead To Climate Action

Monica Bryand uses her kayak and camera to explore the climate-threatened birds of Minnesota and share this issue with new audiences.

On many days Monica Bryand launches her kayak into the Mississippi River, paddles to her favorite creeks or lakes, and watches for birds on the water and along the shore. To get close without disturbing her subjects, she paddles a few strong strokes toward them, then glides quietly over the water and snaps photos with her digital camera.

Bryand, an avid birder with a strong practical bent, incorporates birding into her life in creative ways. Some days she rides her mountain bike to birding spots in parks around her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. “I feel like I don’t have enough time to do everything, but if I can do these two things at the same time, I feel pretty good,” she says.

Other days she brings her Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix (who’s “kind of a wimp”) and her yellow Lab along on bird walks. She says her dogs need the exercise too and are well-behaved birding companions—even the Lab, a breed that’s often trained to retrieve ducks. To hold the leashes and keep her hands free for binoculars and camera, she wears an outfit designed for skijoring, a winter sport in which dogs or a horse pull a person on skis.

Bryand is not only an active and adventurous birder—she’s also become active on the issue of climate change. She says her initial reactions were to find the issue depressing and gloom and doom. Global warming is so huge that the problem seemed overwhelming, she says. The way she transformed this feeling of helplessness was to “bring it home”—to take small but meaningful actions to tackle the issue in her day-to-day life.

Becoming a climate activist, one step at a time

To start with, Bryand changed her light bulbs to energy-efficient varieties, biked more instead of driving, and turned the temperature down on her water heater. She used the resulting savings to install more insulation in her house. This insulation saved her even more on energy bills, so she used those gains and took advantage of several rebates to purchase solar panels for her roof. She also started spreading the word about the importance of native plants and helping birds and other pollinators be resilient in the face of climate change, “working on getting neighbors to plant more native plants that are good for birds, bees, and butterflies and will continue to build on that.”

Her hopefulness and advocacy for birds and climate change don’t stop at home. Bryand has lived for more than three decades on the West Side of St. Paul—a historically Latino and Jewish neighborhood bounded on two sides by the Mississippi River. This January she began giving talks about birds and climate change around the Twin Cities. She’s spoken at locations such as a Jewish community center and a Unitarian Universalist church, and in the future she’d like to reach out to more communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. She also hopes to get her presentation interpreted into different languages, since there are large Latino, East African, and Hmong populations in the area.

Ashley Peters, communications manager for Audubon Minnesota, says she’s been excited to work with Bryand to help develop and expand her talks. She believes Bryand is a great combination of idealistic and practical—“[she’s] going to dream big, but [she’s] going to take manageable steps to get there.”

Putting a personal lens on green issues

Bryand is a longtime environmentalist and says she caught the birding bug when some friends took her and her partner birding more than 12 years ago. “I couldn’t believe what we had right here in the Twin Cities, and I loved being out in the woods,” she says. Now she volunteers with the Saint Paul Audubon Society and is a member of the Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter.

In her climate presentations, she talks about her personal quest to photograph all 166 birds in Minnesota that are threatened by the changing climate. So far she’s captured more than 100, such a perching Bald Eagle she took photos of from below while lying down in her kayak on the Mississippi River. Her photos will be featured at an art exhibit at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul this spring. Peters says, “I think Monica sets a great example for how you take a personal passion and you turn it into a community movement.”

Bryand also makes the climate issue more accessible and empowering in her talks by highlighting ways to take action. She is a big supporter of community solar, for example, and sees it as a way for more people to go green who may not be able to afford rooftop solar panels. She encourages audiences to get involved with local nonprofits working on environmental and social justice issues.

In addition, she uses Facebook to share information about climate-threatened birds and legislative issues such as proposed oil pipelines in the state.

Favorite birding spots in the Twin Cities

Bryand emphasizes that people can get outside and enjoy nature even in the heart of urban areas. She says that one of her major motivations in her volunteer work is to introduce new communities to the benefits of spending time outdoors. Here are some of the top birding spots she recommends in Minneapolis and St. Paul:

  • During spring migration, Bryand recommends Boom Island plus three lakes for ducks in particular: Lake of the Isles, Lake Harriet, and Lake Calhoun.
  • Her all-season favorites include Crosby Farm Regional Park, the Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary, Pickerel Lake, and Dodge Nature Center, which boasts diverse ecosystems of grasslands, woods, and small ponds.

You can find more information about birds and climate wherever you live by connecting with Audubon near you.