I arrived without binoculars, a field guide, or any birding experience whatsoever. There was a high chance of rain in the forecast. My boss was there. In short: I had every reason to be uneasy at New York’s Let’s Go Birding Together bird walk. But as participants started to trickle in, they looked to the sunless sky, shrugged, and proceeded with making introductions. Soon, someone loaned me a pair of binoculars. By the end of the day, not a drop of rain dampened the spirits of the 35 participants, and what for me started as a reporting assignment for my job as a Walker Communications fellow at National Audubon ended with an exciting discovery: a new appreciation for urban birding.
The Let’s Go Birding Together walk in New York City, which took place on June 23, was one of a series of bird walks that took place in June across the country and that deliberately welcome people who identify as LGBTQ and allies. During this year’s Pride Month, Audubon staff helped organize walks at the Audubon Center at Debs Park in Los Angeles, Seward Park Audubon Center in Seattle, Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio, Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center in Denton, Nebraska, Greenwich Audubon Center in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Pennsylvania.
Jason St. Sauver, the community education director for Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center, launched Let’s Go Birding Together in 2016. At the time, St. Sauver was looking for ways to help people connect more fully with the natural world around them. “I started Let’s Go Birding Together to create community, and what better way to do that than to start something in my own,” St. Sauver says. “Biodiversity makes our ecosystem stronger, and our diversity makes our community stronger.”
A founding pillar of Let’s Go Birding Together, according to St. Sauver, is making birding accessible to and inclusive of everyone. And, as many queer people will tell you, what seems like an innocuous and welcoming activity to straight people can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience for those in the LGBTQ community. In that way, Let’s Go Birding Together is intentionally welcoming of the LGBTQ community and the people who support them, and is designed to be a space where people can be themselves without fear of judgment or worse.
The need for this kind of gathering became immediately apparent once St. Sauver started advertising the first Let’s Go Birding Together walk: Some people felt it necessary to leave snarky comments on the event’s Facebook page (a phenomenon, it's worth noting, that the staff at Audubon HQ also recently experienced when we shared our story on the challenges faced by LGBTQ birders). St. Sauver has since led three walks in Nebraska, and in 2018 he asked some Audubon colleagues to organize walks in their own communities.
Courtney Straight, master urban naturalist and leader of Seward Park’s Let’s Go Birding Together event in Seattle, describes an immediate feeling of community on her walk. Participants were welcomed with coffee, donuts, and pastries. One attendee even distributed colorful beaded necklaces to the group. “The whole day was filled with warmth,” Straight says. “Individuals were good to each other. We laughed, shared bird guides, and made sure we all had the chance to see [and identify] birds.”
Seward Park Audubon Center capped the event at 25 participants and the walk filled up quickly. But that didn't stop those who dropped by without an RSVP, and Joey Manson, center director at Seward Park, says that there was no way he was going to turn anyone away.
To get a feel for everyone’s birding experience at the Seward Park walk, Straight and Audubon Washington board member Doug Santoni organized the group into a circle for an icebreaker exercise. Straight asked a series of questions: Who has been to Seward Park? Who has been to the Seward Park Audubon Center? Who has attended a bird walk? Anytime the answer was “Yes,” participants were asked to step forward. Only three individuals stepped forward when asked if they’d been on a bird walk before.
Back in New York, as we prepared to head out in Central Park, walk co-leader Martha Harbison (my boss) set the tone for a social and community-focused bird walk. Harbison, the network content editor for Audubon, delivered the opening remarks while standing on a bench. Next to her stood the walk’s co-leaders: Purbita Saha of Audubon magazine, Andrew Maas of New York City Audubon, and Andrew Rubenfeld of the Linnaean Society and New York City Audubon. By setting up a dynamic where Harbison, Saha, Maas, and Rubenfeld were facilitators rather than conventional leaders, the New York group was able to coalesce into a social unit.
“There hasn’t been that sense of community in previous bird walks I have been on,” Harbison says. “People are there just for birding—which is fine! Most of the time, I’m just there for birding. But it was great to see from the beginning that this was very social. People were talking to each other, finding similar interests with one another, and showing each other different birds.”
After spending most of the morning trekking through Central Park’s Strawberry Fields, Upper Lobe, and the Ramble, the New York group took a break where The Gill, a small stream, flows into The Lake. Harbison and Rubenfeld, along with some of the other experienced birders on the walk, delivered a pep talk to the group just after they’d identified a White-throated Sparrow purely by sound—a skill that takes effort to develop and, when it goes slowly, can make novice birders feel frustrated and discouraged.
“It is okay to suck at birding,” Harbison said. “I have been birding for 30 years, and I still suck. It’s about being forgiving of yourself and learning to let go. I became a better birder when I allowed myself to be awful at it.”
“I have been birding for 40 years,” Rubenfeld then added. “Earlier I saw a bird on a naked branch that I could not identify. And that is okay.” (In Rubenfeld’s defense, the bird was far away and completely backlit. Nobody could definitively ID it, but group consensus was that it was probably the extremely rare and tough-to-identify American Robin.)
Judging by the reactions, the impromptu speech appeared to work: Some people smiled knowingly, others tightened their backpack straps, and one person even said, “I feel galvanized!”
Then we set off, chasing the rumor of a heron.
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