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On a quiet Sunday morning in May, a small group of birders pauses on a path at the Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary in south Minneapolis, training their binoculars on a tiny bird flitting and bobbing aside a muddy, bramble-covered pond. It’s a Louisiana waterthrush, a dull-toned warbler that many people would not typically notice, let alone identify. But Melissa Acosta Michener is thrilled to add it to the life list of birds she’s seen.
“That’s a lifer for me,” she says. “It’s a good day already.”
Michener, a St. Paul woman of Mexican American and Guatemalan descent, is one of 12 leaders of the Urban Bird Collective, a group that aims to create safe space for birdwatchers in the Black, Indigenous, people of color, and LGBTQ communities. She’s here in this quiet patch of woods and wetlands north of Lake Harriet with three other leaders: co-founder Monica Bryand, Tess Rizzardi, and Loreen Lee. They’ve been joined by a first-timer to the group, Jocelyn Salimka of Roseville.
Bryand, a lesbian Latina from the West Side of St. Paul, helped start the group in 2018. The first spark was her interest in the natural world.
“I wanted to engage people around not only birding but the environment,” Bryand says. “So on Facebook, I started [posting] a bird of the day and talked about the different birds that I would see.”
She also got some good camera equipment and began to take her own photos. Bryand was further inspired by what she often heard from other bird-curious people of color.
“They would say, I would love to go birding, but I just don’t feel as safe out there, or welcomed. There were also folks who had wanted to have careers in natural resources, and they didn’t even feel welcomed there. So I decided with a few friends to start the Urban Bird Collective as a way to create safe space outside of the mainstream birding community.”
Nearly 300 people now follow the all-volunteer group’s Facebook page or engage in its online forums. Its leaders are back to hosting in-person outings, with COVID precautions, after the pandemic forced them to do more online meetups.
Among their favorite destinations are Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, Crosby Farm and Hidden Falls parks in St. Paul, and Afton State Park. They also often hit the trails at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where they have a strong partnership and where they hosted a gathering in May.
“I really enjoy bringing people outdoors and seeing them getting excited,” says Michener as she scans tree cavities at the sanctuary that could harbor owls. “Birding is about paying attention to your surroundings. It can make you feel like you’re not alone.”