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Black Birders Week fosters diverse Northeast Ohio birdwatching community and outdoor family bonding

Birdwatcher stand with binoculars pointed toward the sky scanning for birds.
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
Birdwatchers scan the sky for birds at the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve on Saturday May 25, 2024 during Journey on Yonder and The Trust for Public Land's Black Birders Week hike.

Meet Camille Phillips, a Cleveland resident who's gotten very used to city life.

"I am not a nature person," she said. "I don't consider myself, like a nature person, but I'm five months with our fifth child and ... I want to identify as a nature person."

Phillips is at the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve on this cloudy Saturday morning with her boyfriend James Spikes and their two sons.

The family came out birding to get a relaxing start to what was expected to be a busy day, Phillips said.

"We have a lot of things to do today supporting our family," she said, "and this is like a great way to start the day with our kids [and] get outside."

Camille pointing upward to help he son spot a bird.
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland resident Camille Phillips points upwards toward shrubbery to help her son find a bird during a Black Birders Week hike on Saturday, May 25th, 2024

This trip was just the family's second time birdwatching. Typically, Phillips said, there are plenty of things that keep her away from the outdoors.

"I don't like to sweat, and I don't like bugs coming near me and, like, dirt and mud on my shoes," she said.

On this day, the trail is clear and free of mud, as it winds around a marsh and bends toward a clearing with a serene view of Lake Erie.

It's near the end of migration season, but there’s still plenty of birds. Warblers stop at the preserve to rest before continuing their migration, gold finches search for insects to eat and robins collect tufts of cottonwood pollen to cushion their nests.

Experienced birders, like Patricia Kellner, help Phillips and her family identify the birds and get close-up looks at them through their binoculars.

The goal is to help create a more diverse birding space by helping new birders, Kellner said. For her, a diverse birdwatching community is also a comfortable one.

"People are more comfortable if they're birding with people who look like them," Kellner said. "So I'm here just to be supportive."

Outings like this will continue to be a family affair, Spikes said, since it helps to bring them closer.

"It's just being one and being able to adapt to just this environment," he said. "Peace and tranquility is what we believe in, and that's just what I want to instill in my family, because there's nothing like peace and quiet and away from the city to go gather your thoughts."

A group of birders huddle around a telescope to catch a close-up glimpse of a bird
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
James Spikes takes a look at a bird through a telescope next to his son and wife during a Black Birders Week hike on Saturday, May 25th, 2024.

Black Birders Week became nationally recognized in 2020 after Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, experienced racial profiling and discrimination in New York City's Central Park. The incident kicked off a national push for Black representation in the birding community.

The Trust for Public Land cohosted the hike with outdoor advocacy organization Journey on Yonder. One of the goals of the trust is to get more Black residents outdoors, and birding is a great way to do that, Sean Terry Director of the Ohio chapter of the Trust for Public Land said.

"Being at the lakefront preserve like this, it's definitely a more immersive space it'll likely, you know, pick up bird still at the back end of the month," Terry said. "In an urban context, like regular community parks, maybe not as much activity toward the tail end of the month, but, I think that speaks to like, why is important to get folks to this destination."

It’s too soon to say if she’ll become an avid birdwatcher, Phillips said.

"I'm not a diehard yet. Like, the girl who identified the bird by its song, you know, I will probably never be that ... bird-fluid," she said. "But ... It has made me pay more attention to birds."

But for their family, Spikes said, this is a small, early step in their journey to get better connected with the outdoors.

"It takes one to change," he said, "and this is the start."

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.