Brianna Amingwa and Lamar Gore stopped in mid-conversation when their ears caught a trill above the marshland at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.
They quickly settled on the source: a warbling vireo, a tiny songbird with a big-throated sound that rises and dips as if asking the same question over and over.
While birding is a booming outdoor activity, Amingwa and Gore, both African American, fit into a much smaller slice of it that they hope grows.
The experience of black birders came to the forefront last month after a white woman called police on Christian Cooper, a black man who had asked her to leash her dog in New York City’s Central Park. Cooper was birding at the time.
While unrelated to his bird-watching, the experience motivated other black birders to unite and create an online community.
In response, a group of black scientists, including some with Philly roots, organized the first Black Birder Week, held May 31 to June 5. Within days, the group had 30,000 followers. Organizers encouraged participants to use the hashtag #BlackBirdersWeek to upload photos of birds they had spotted.
Amingwa, 27, an environmental education supervisor at Heinz Refuge, was one of the organizers of the national movement.
She said the goals were to make people aware there are black people actively involved in birding, as well as nature and science, and to start a conversation about what it’s like for “non-white folks to go birding.”
Gore, manager of the Heinz Refuge and a longtime birder, is a supporter of the movement. He’ll be hosting a live Facebook conversation on the topic and other issues Monday at 1 p.m.
Heinz Refuge is within the Atlantic Flyway, a north-south migration route for birds. It is a prime East Coast viewing spot, typically filled with birders toting binoculars, tripods, and heavy, long camera lenses. The refuge boasts 90 species of nesting birds and more than 300 species overall, including bald eagles. Amingwa’s favorite bird to spot at the refuge is the yellow warbler. “It’s bright yellow with red streaks on the chest. I love the pop of color," she said.
After the incident with Christian Cooper in New York, "we had a huge dialogue in a group chat about how that made us all feel,” Amingwa, of Drexel Hill, said. “People have no idea those kinds of situations happen.”
About 25 black birders across the country put together the weeklong social media event using the Twitter handle @BlackAFinSTEM.
“I was shocked how quickly it grew from the first tweet,” Amingwa said. “There were folks from all over the world putting up tweets.”
Black people who support environmental issues and enjoy the outdoors have a fraught history with being outside stemming from the Jim Crow-era when they could be harassed, or worse, if they ventured into woods or remote trails.
Amingwa, who has been birding since 2012, noted that there have always been black farmers, environmentalists, and hikers.
“That’s a story that hasn’t been told,” she said.
Reactions on trails toward black people can be overtly racist, but are mostly subtle, Amingwa and Gore say. They can range from a look of surprise at seeing a black person in an outdoor environment to deliberate actions to make them feel uncomfortable.
“It’s so subtle,” Gore said. “It’s like, ‘How did you get involved in this?’ Or, ‘Oh, you went to that school?’ These are all subtle ways of saying, ‘It’s weird that you’re here.’”
Birding organizations are mostly run and predominated by white people.
“I told them I’m not really accepted into this arena,” Gore said of a conversation with one birding group.
He said some groups ask why more black people don’t join. But he said the onus should be on the groups to reach out, not the other way around. Many black people won’t join unless they know upfront they will be accepted, he said.
‘Things can escalate quickly’
Corina Newsome, 27, who grew up in Germantown, was also one of the organizers of Black Birding Week. She is an ornithologist and graduate student at Georgia Southern University studying avian ecology.
“All my family is in Philly and that’s where I go home to for all the breaks and holidays,” she said. While living in Germantown, she attended the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr.
“My mom would take me and my sister to Chestnut Hill to get exposed to nature. Where I lived I wasn’t in touch with the natural world. There wasn’t a lot of greenspace,” Newsome said.
In high school, she interned at the Philadelphia Zoo, where she learned about animal behavior.
She once took an ornithology course that required her to recognize 200 birds by sight and 75 by sound.
“I got into it and really enjoyed it,” Newsome said.
But her parents worried for her when she ventured outdoors alone.
“That thing that happened to Christian is so familiar,” Newsome said. “We know things can escalate quickly and people assume you are doing something wrong because they are not used to seeing black people.”
Newsome said people can mistake birding as “creepy” if someone is walking around a neighborhood with binoculars.
“Adding blackness on top of that can make us feel particularly vulnerable,” she said. Newsome noted that she has never been bothered, but her experiences as a light-skinned black woman are different than that of black men, she said.
Though some smaller birding groups have not always been welcoming, Newsome said the National Audubon Society has been.
“There were way more supporters than naysayers,” Newsome said.
A black birder livestream on the Audubon Society’s Facebook page drew 200,000 viewers, she said.
For now, Newsome said the Black Birder Week organizers are discussing the possibility of forming a nonprofit and creating a permanent group.
“All of us have professional expertise,” she said. “Some are mathematicians, scientists, or bird people like me. We want to draw young black people into the STEM field. But what’s most important is for black people to see their own faces in the outdoor space.”