The walk wasn’t scheduled to begin for another 25 minutes, but at 8:05 a.m., Monica Bryand was already out counting birds.
Seven cedar waxwings, four catbirds, and a handful of pigeons were among just some of her finds on a recent Sunday morning at Wakáŋ Tipi, a sacred Dakota site in St. Paul restored and maintained by the Lower Phalen Creek Project (LPCP).
She pointed to a bird on a nearby power line. Cedar waxwing number eight, she said.
Bryand, a Latina who describes herself as “crazy for birds,” founded the Urban Bird Collective (UBC) in 2018 with the goal of creating a welcoming space in the birding community for Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ individuals. The collective’s Facebook group now boasts over 450 members from diverse backgrounds.
“It’s not just about going out on a bird walk. It’s maybe about building relationships, you know–getting new friends,” said Bryand, who has lived on St. Paul’s West Side for over 40 years. “We’re there to learn together with people who join us.”
Jocelyn Salimka, 71, is the oldest member of the Urban Bird Collective. She’s an avid birder, and has spent the last 787 days (which she meticulously logs) birding for at least two hours a day–often more during migration season.
“I feel like I found my [people],” she said.
Salimka said traditional, predominantly white birding spaces often tend to be cliquey. UBC gave her a space where she felt she belonged.
‘Nature gap’ for people of color
Creating safe spaces outdoors for members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities seems particularly important in light of recent high-profile incidents. On the day George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, a white woman in New York City called police and falsely accused Christian Cooper, a Black man who was birdwatching in Central Park, of threatening her life.
According to a 2020 report from the Center for American Progress, people of color are far less likely to participate in outdoor and nature-based activities than white Americans, a phenomenon dubbed the “nature gap.” Organizations like UBC aim to change that.
One of their latest projects is bird counting. Once a month, UBC birders make their way to Wakáŋ Tipi to take notes on the bird population. This is for the purpose of understanding what already lives in the area, and determining what steps can be taken by the Lower Phalen Creek Project to entice more birds to the sanctuary, Bryand said.
But they aren’t just there on business. Part of the appeal of birding, Bryand said, is the simple pleasure of being outdoors. “We’re very successful in getting different communities out into nature,” she said.
Bryand was joined by Salimka in her pre-hike count. The two greeted each other before casting their gaze back to the sky. After a few minutes, a bird cried out.
“Mourning dove,” Salimka and Bryand said in unison.
The birdwatchers set off shortly after 8:40 a.m. and continued their count in the lush sanctuary, pausing every once in a while to call birds out of the greenery or peer at them through their binoculars. Occasionally, Bryand set up the sizable camera she carried against her shoulder. In addition to being a birdwatcher, she’s also a wildlife photographer.
While the sanctuary is quite impressive now, it wasn’t always this way. Industrialization and the development in the 19th century of the railroad alongside the site left its water and soil polluted with asbestos, mercury, and other contaminants. Until recently, the land near Wakáŋ Tipi was treated like a dumping ground, said Lauren Funke, an intern with the Lower Phalen Creek Project.
The area remained polluted and neglected until 1997, when LPCP was established. Over several years, volunteers removed metric tons of trash and contaminated soil. They brought in clean soil and replanted vegetation. As the native ecosystem was restored, wildlife–including birds–returned.
And with birds come birdwatchers. Ari Kim, a 27-year-old birder who became a leader at UBC last year, was among the attendees at the most recent bird walk. Kim also works for National Audubon Society, the oldest ornithological society in the United States.
Kim lauded Bryand’s efforts to maintain a space for BIPOC and LGBTQ birders. She said that typically, birding groups look like “a bunch of old white guys.”
The hike, their third bird counting event at Wakáŋ Tipi, wrapped up after about an hour. The final tally came to 97 birds from 22 different species, a figure that included several yellow warblers, a handful of cowbirds, a single spotted sandpiper, and plenty of robins and red-winged blackbirds.
While birding can serve practical purposes, as in the case of the collective’s partnership with LPCP, Kim said birding is also just a great excuse to get outside–one that she thinks more people should take advantage of. The UBC also hosts events outside of Wakáŋ Tipi. Past trips have taken UBC members and leaders to Red Wing, Sax-Zim Bog, and other birding sites around the state.
“I think more people should bird. I think more young people should bird,” Kim said.
Salimka said that a welcoming environment like UBC might be just what aspiring birders–especially BIPOC or LGBT ones–need to get started.
“A lot of people end up not going anywhere because they feel that they are not welcome,” she said. “So if you go out with a group like this, you are more encouraged.”