You can’t help but smile while scrolling through Dexter Patterson’s (aka wiscobirder) Instagram feed.
Interspersed with photos of diminutive downy woodpeckers and majestic snowy owls are videos of the beaming Patterson, lip-syncing to DJ Khaled’s “Higher” or his remix of Sublime’s “What I Got,” swapping out “birding” for “lovin’.”
Patterson might call himself a bird nerd, but with his infectious exuberance for birding and mastery of social media, he doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes of birders or nerds.
“I’m embracing my nerd-isms,” said Patterson, who lives in Madison and works as the social media manager for the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
“I want people to look at birding as being cool, as being fun,” he said. “That’s why you’ll see me dancing and rapping in the woods and wearing my shades. I’m just a little different when I’m out there, but I feel like that’s what’s going to draw in more younger people, that’s going to draw in more people of color. It’s going to draw in more people that might not think that birding is for them.”
Drawing more people into birding is what the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin, which Patterson helped found with Jeff Galligan, is all about. The club got its start in Madison on Juneteenth Day last year, and added a Milwaukee chapter in the fall. The two chapters host monthly birdwatching outings in natural spaces near both cities.
While birding can get competitive, with birders adding to their “life lists” (the number of unique birds they’ve seen), the BIPOC club strives to create a family-friendly environment where people can explore the outdoors and have fun while doing it. There’s no shushing at BIPOC Birding Club events.
“We take pride in taking a more low-key approach to our events,” Patterson said. “They’re led by experts, but we have fun. We cheer when we see birds, we cheer when we welcome new birders, and we laugh. I always tell people, guess what, the birds don’t care that we’re laughing, and that we’re having fun in the woods. They’re still going to be there, we’re still going to see a whole bunch of birds.”
A video from one of the club’s events at Turville Point Conservation Park in November shows that low-key approach. When a few kids got a little close to some waterfowl hanging out on the lake, Patterson shouted to them to not scare them away, but added, “They won’t go too far, though. Actually, that’s part of the fun.”
Down at the water, a 6-year-old with a life list of more than 100 told Patterson he spotted mallards, grebes and gadwalls.
“This is what it’s about, y’all … young birder of color out here, he already knows he wants to be an ornithologist,” Patterson said.
“Yeah!” the young birder shouts from the background. “I knew I wanted to be an ornithologist before I even knew what an ornithologist was!”
Getting kids excited about the outdoors and exposing them to STEM careers is one of the reasons Galligan wanted to start the BIPOC Birding Club. Not necessarily so every child considers a career in ornithology, but so they realize the many possibilities there are in outdoor and science careers.
“I think that exposure to STEM-related content or experiences can open up that whole possibility. And maybe they become something else, but knowing that hey, wow, this could be for me, too — I think that’s really powerful,” he said.
Galligan, who is a member of the Madison Audubon Society’s board of directors and the director of the TRIO Student Support Services and Men of Excellence programs at Madison College, said he’s always been fascinated with birds, from the time when he was little and would sit on a ladder in his backyard and take notes while watching robins in their nests.
But as he got more into birding as an adult, he began to notice something.
“I’ve been birding in Wisconsin for quite a while and every time I go out, I never see any people of color,” he said. “And I believe that the outdoors is … first of all, it’s healthy. It’s great to be outdoors. Vitamin D is wonderful. Seeing and hearing water and wind through trees has demonstrable positive effects on people, and when you only see a certain type of people or one or two people taking advantage of it, it’s a little bothersome.”
Birdwatching, like many other outdoor pursuits, is more popular among white, older people. In 2016, 82% of birders identified themselves as white, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Participation rates among the Black and Hispanic communities were just 6% and 10%, respectively.
Patterson experienced something similar as he got into birding. He said he always loved birds but didn’t “give them the attention they deserved” until four or five years ago, sparked by Galligan, who had been his college adviser when he was a returning student at Madison College.
“I remember finding out that he was a birder and he was a bird photographer, and I was just blown away because he was the first Black person that I ever met other than myself that loved birds,” he said, noting that most traditional birding spaces and organizations tend to be more homogeneous.
When people of color don’t see others who look like them leading or attending outdoor events, they might think those spaces aren’t for them, he said.
“I think that representation on all levels of life is really important. I think in the outdoors, especially, that is the case,” Patterson said. “Those outdoors experiences are dominated mostly by white people, and I think that that kind of sets the stage like hey, this isn’t for you. And we want to change that because it is. This land is our land, and we want people to understand that the outdoor experiences are just amazing, that these beautiful parks, these conservancies and these wetlands that are in our backyard, these are for you. They’re preserving this for the people to get out there and explore it.”
What’s more, Galligan said, issues like climate change and land stewardship affect all of us, so “we need to make sure that everybody has a seat at that table. And the way to do that is to expose people to or create positive experiences in the outdoors.”
Starting a birding club for people of color had been on Galligan’s mind for a while, which he shared with Patterson when they met at the Nine Springs E-Way on Juneteenth last year to go birding.
“I remember looking at him and I’m like, well, what’s holding you back?” Patterson recalled. “He was more or less like, I didn’t feel like I had a support system to make it happen. I looked at him and I was like, well, you do now. … I said, Jeff, I feel like if it’s just you and me, I feel like we can make some waves in the birding community, just you and I. … Look at how much fun we’re having right now … we need to share this with more of our people.”
They hosted their first event the next month at the same place the idea was born. Fifteen people showed up and spent almost two hours spotting 38 species of birds.
The club grew from there. They applied for and got grants to get binoculars, and soon they were hearing from other organizations that wanted to help them with their mission.
“I did not expect the amount of support and people reaching out to us wanting us to partner with them,” Galligan said. “There’s real need there, and I think that people and organizations are really wanting to be a part of that process.”
The club’s creation coincided with a time of racial reckoning across the country, including in outdoor communities. In 2020, an event in New York City’s Central Park drew attention to Black birders in particular. Christian Cooper, a Black man, was birdwatching in the park and asked a white woman, Amy Cooper (not related) to leash her dog, since they were in an area that required dogs to be leashed. She refused, Christian began recording the confrontation, and Amy then called 911 and claimed an African American man was threatening her and her dog. The video of the confrontation went viral, Amy was fired from her job and was charged with falsely reporting an incident to police (the charges were later dropped after she completed a racial equity education and therapy program), and the country got another look at what it’s like to be a Black man in America, even one doing something as seemingly harmless as birdwatching.
But something positive came out of the negative interaction. In response to the event, BlackAFinSTEM, a group of STEM professionals and students, created Black Birders Week, a series of events to celebrate black nature enthusiasts. This year’s event is May 29-June 4.
Other outdoor organizations like the Sierra Club have spent the past couple of years re-examining their racist pasts and how to “center the voices of people we have historically ignored, so we can begin repairing some of the harms done,” according to a 2020 blog post by Executive Director Michael Brune.
Local groups like Wisconsin Metro Audubon Society have made it a goal to diversify their groups, too, which made it easy for Rita Flores Wiskowski to say yes when Galligan called her in October to see if she’d be the point person for a Milwaukee chapter of the BIPOC Birding Club.
Flores Wiskowski, who is a fundraiser grant writer for Lutheran Social Services in Milwaukee, is on the board of the Wisconsin Metro Audubon Society.
“The last year or so, we’ve been talking about how we can diversify birding, because there’s not a lot of people of color. … Because I was passionate about that, (the board) let me kind of take over that mission of ours,” she said.
She said the mission was put on hold a bit because of COVID, but even when they hosted events, “some of the ways that we thought to engage people of color didn’t really work.”
Having the right partners is key, she thinks, and now the BIPOC Birding Club can be one of those partners, along with Nearby Nature Milwaukee, an environmental justice and equity initiative that aims to get more people of color into nature. While that group is more focused on nature in general, their connections can help get more people to the birding events, she said.
Flores Wiskowski, who grew up in South Milwaukee and lives there now after a jaunt of living in Madison, said she got into birding as a kid with her brothers.
“My mom would kick us out of the house and say, ‘Go play,’ and we just kind of started discovering things that we liked about nature,” she said.
When she was 10, her mom bought her a set of binoculars and a field guide, and the siblings would go out exploring.
She got more serious as an adult when she got a camera and found online communities that could help with identification.
Like Galligan and Patterson, she recognizes the healing power of the outdoors, and wants everyone to be able to experience it.
“There are studies that show that spending time in nature is good for mental health. So why isn’t everybody doing it? I don’t really know why certain people aren’t doing it, but I know that everybody would enjoy it if they had the opportunity, and they were invited,” she said. “There are people who just don’t even think about it. They don’t think that nature is for them, that this is not something that people like them do because they don’t know people in their immediate circles who are out in nature and enjoying it, and they don’t see people who look like them. So we’re changing that.”
The club provides a place for people of all ages to try something new.
“It attracts little kids who are getting excited about birds, which just warms my heart, and older people who are just kind of enjoying the walk in nature. … We have people who are brand new, and we have people who have been doing this for many years and who are avid birders who have a lot of knowledge.” she said.
Flores Wiskowski said the chapter is also trying to make its outings accessible to as many people as possible, including those with mobility issues, which is why it is hosting an event this March at Oak Creek’s Bender Park, which has a paved walkway on its northern end.
And she emphasized that the club isn’t just for people of color, but is open to anyone who supports their mission and wants to go birding.
“Our mission is to have safe places for people of color to enjoy nature, but anybody can join us, anybody who believes in what we’re doing, can join us,” she said.
While the peak of spring migration is still a couple of months away, there’s plenty to see in the winter and early spring, she said, including birds that migrate here from the Arctic like snowy owls and waterfowl.
At the Milwaukee chapter’s January event along the lakefront, they saw not only a snowy owl but also a purple sandpiper and a ruddy turnstone, rare sightings in Wisconsin, but ones you can only see in the winter.
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While Flores Wiskowski said she enjoys the challenge of birding, seeing a new species or seeing a species do something unique, she said people attend their events for a variety of reasons.
“Some people don’t like the competitiveness, and that’s totally fine. Some people just want to go take photos, and that’s another way of enjoying it. There’s so many ways of enjoying it, and a lot of people who come to our club events just want to walk in nature with a bunch of people. There’s no wrong way of doing this,” she said. “It’s just about joy and getting people out there. … I think we’re going to start seeing more people of color out enjoying nature, and the more people you have, the more it doesn’t look out of place.”
Patterson recalled experiencing that “bird joy” after hosting their first event last year.
“I remember (Jeff) and I just looking at each other and smiling, and talk about bird joy, because it was kind of like wow, we’ve got something here. We’re filling a demand in our community. It’s been such a fun ride,” he said.
More information: The BIPOC Birding Club hosts monthly birding outings in Milwaukee and Madison. The club is open to people of all ages and abilities, and binoculars are available to borrow at events.
The next event is a Woodcock Watch outing to see woodcocks’ aerial mating displays at Bender Park, 4503 E. Ryan Road, Oak Creek, from 6 to 8 p.m. March 19 (meet in the large gravel parking lot off Ryan Road).
The group will host another Woodcock Watch at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, 1207 Seminole Highway, Madison, from 6 to 8 p.m. March 26.
For more information about the club, see bipocbirdingclub.org.
Contact Chelsey Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.
The BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin is busting stereotypes about birdwatching – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
You can’t help but smile while scrolling through Dexter Patterson’s (aka wiscobirder) Instagram feed.