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Nature is for everyone: Birder Melissa Hafting wants you to know we all belong outdoors

The Rough-legged hawk is a patient bird. It will perch on a pole, languish on a lamppost, hover over a haystack, waiting for prey to pass by. When it sets its sights on a lemming, a vole, or a small bird, it swoops down, talons extended, to catch it.

It's also Melissa Hafting’s favourite bird. “It’s a beautiful raptor!” she exclaims. “I love to watch them hover.”

Before the Rough-legged hawk, a  five-year-old Melissa (now a birder and founder of the BC Young Birders Program) was fascinated with chickadees. “The Black-capped chickadee was the bird that really got me hooked,” she shares, recalling frequent trips to the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta with her father.

“He bought me a field guide—Golden Field Guide’s Birds of North America—and we’d tick off every bird we saw,” she says. “We'd also bring seed and feed the chickadees,” she adds, and laughs conspiratorially, noting that some people frown on feeding birds. “I think it's okay in the right situations. I think it’s a good way to connect with nature.”

Today, Melissa runs the BC Rare Bird Alert website, documenting all the uncommon birds reported in the province, writes the Dare to Bird blog, and reviews bird sighting submissions for eBird and other citizen science projects in British Columbia. 

Spot A Bird, Tell A Friend

The next time you spot a bird in BC (perhaps a Townsend’s Warbler high up in a tree or a Northern Flicker hopping in your backyard), snap a few photos, record a few videos, and send it to eBird. It just might be examined and verified by Melissa.

For the Townsend’s Warbler, a songbird with a distinctive bright yellow face, she’ll watch your videos attentively, listening for the dreamy, buzzy sound this warbler makes. For the Northern Flicker, she’ll carefully inspect your photos, on the lookout for a white rump and the black belly spots that this woodpecker is known for.

Melissa has been using citizen science apps and websites for years and is still in awe of their real-world impact. With citizen scientists documenting and sharing the plants and wildlife in their environments, conservationists and researchers are further equipped to keep track of changes in biodiversity and measure their conservation efforts. 

The Tricolored Blackbird, she notes, was acknowledged as a threatened species with the help of citizen scientists. The gregarious bird received the state of California’s protection after data—partly contributed by eBird—showed a decline in its population.

Making Room Under Her Wing

Conservation is also a topic that comes up when Melissa is out with BC Young Birders, a mentorship program she founded for youth aged 12-18 in 2014, and received the Daphne Solecki Award for two years ago.

“We're not just looking at birds, we're also talking about them,” she says. “We talk about protecting their habitat, we talk about keeping a respectful distance when photographing them, we talk about bird populations that are declining in BC (like the Short-eared owl) and what we can do to help.”

“We even talk about what they can do professionally because these kids, they’re really passionate, and they want to study ornithology or environmental science, they want to make protecting birds their careers.”

One of Melissa’s Young Birders, Liron Gertsman, went on to study biology at the University of British Columbia and is now a nature photographer. His work has been featured in The Guardian and seen by guests at the Smithsonian in Washington and the Natural History Museum in London.

Watching past Young Birders accomplish great things makes Melissa elated. It means the program (which she founded to help create a community for the young birders she often noticed birdwatching alone) is fulfilling its mission.

“I wanted to create a fun, safe environment where young people could learn about birds together,” she says. “I'm a Black birder and I faced some barriers when I was starting out that I didn’t want them to have to deal with.”

She recalls instances in her earlier birding days where fellow birders didn’t trust that she could identify birds correctly and sought confirmation of her identifications from their white male peers.

Now, Melissa leads nature walks for people of colour, to introduce them to birds in different areas, like the Ruby-crowned kinglets and Double-crested cormorants at Jericho Beach and the American wigeon and Canvasback at Beaver Lake in Stanley Park.

A Cause Worth Crowing About

Three years ago, Christian Cooper, a Black birder, was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park when a white woman falsely accused him of threatening her. Many expressed shock at the news but for racialized folks who move through life witnessing microaggressions at school, work, and in the outdoors, it was no surprise.

Despite the black squares posted on Instagram, the racism-denouncing statements shared online, the calls for representation, and the promises to “do better,” Melissa stresses there is still work to be done by outdoor organizations to close the nature gap. 

“People get afraid and defensive when you talk about racism, but you need to do that internal work. You need to put action behind your words.”

She lists placing people of colour in decision-making roles, amplifying POC-led outdoor brands and organizations, and participating in anti-racist education programs, as steps that can be taken to create more tangible and lasting change in the outdoor space.

Watching a male Sage-grouse performing a mating dance to attract a female counterpart in Colorado, seeing rare birds on the island of Kauai, taking young birders on pelagic bird trips—these are moments Melissa thinks of fondly.

“When I’m birding, I’m at peace, I’m relaxed, I’m grounded,” she says. “It gives me joy to look at birds.” It’s a feeling Melissa wants everyone to experience. And it’s the reason she continues to advocate for diversity in the birding community in BC. 

Wanting everyone to feel welcomed in the outdoors and to believe that they truly belong there, is at the heart of what she considers her purpose. “I’m really about making birding more inclusive and diverse.”


Curious for more science of biodiversity?

Check out our series on what makes British Columbia the most biodiverse province, Nature, Nurtured.

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