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Eight people stand in a line in a park, their backs to the camera, all looking up into a tree, where they are trying to spot a bird, which is not visible. In the forefront, is a man with a walking stick, green jacket, white cap, black camera slung over his right shoulder.

‘I carry binoculars with me everywhere’: Richmond bird-watchers not such a rare breed

on November 14, 2023

Richmond isn’t a widely known birding destination. 

While some birders know it’s a thrilling place to explore, others are working to draw in people who don’t have much nature in their lives. For some, it’s even become a calling.

Zaira Sierra, a birder, grew up in the Iron Triangle. As a child, she emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. and now brings visitors to observe hawks and other raptors in the Marin Headlands. 

A woman in a red puffy vest over a gray long-sleeved shirt, white cap, crouches on the side of a hill in black pants, gray sneakers and holding binioculars in her left hand. She smiles at the camera.
Zaira Sierra out birding (Photo courtesy of Zaira Sierra)

“It’s really become a passion and a hobby of mine,” said Sierra, programs manager at Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. “I carry binoculars with me everywhere, even on my dog walks every morning and evening.”

Bird watching has amassed a significant following online and in the natural world. On TikTok the term “birdwatching” has over 181 million views. It surged in popularity during 2020, when it became a perfect outdoor hobby during the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, it also gained national attention when birder Christian Cooper, who is Black, asked a white woman to leash her dog. According to published reports, the woman called the police and falsely claimed that “an African American man is threatening my life.”

“After that incident, birding organizations reached out to us,” said Blanca Hernandez, director of programs and partnerships at YES Nature to Neighborhoods

YES provides resources like transportation, language assistance and general knowledge about the outdoors to historically excluded communities in the Richmond area. 

“We frame it in that way to empower people to feel like they belong in the outdoors,” she said. “There’s a big immigrant community that might not know, ‘Oh, this is how you get to the beach or the Redwoods.” 

Richmond’s proximity to the Chevron refinery makes access to nature even more critical for vulnerable communities, she added.

Hernandez is partnering with Cathy Bleier, who chairs the Golden Gate Bird Alliance’s Richmond Initiative Committee, which works to expand birding in Richmond. Together, they hope to diversify the people who access Richmond’s outdoors, and both believe birding can be one way to do that.

“If more people are coming out now, great, and we’d like to encourage that. We know what California’s demographics are. Our future is with people of color and Hispanics,” Bleier said. 

Just look up

People don’t necessarily have to travel far to bird watch. Recently, birders have been flocking to Booker T. Anderson Park to glimpse a rare bird.

Birders often frequent Richmond’s shoreline parks. Sandwiched between the Interstates 580 and 80 in the Parkview neighborhood, Booker T. Anderson is not the usual destination for birding. But “surprises come up that people don’t know about,” said Dawn Lemoine, a member of the Thursdays Group, that meets weekly to bird-watch. 

The Thursdays group hopes to see an American redstart, a type of warbler usually found in Canada and the East Coast. No one knows why it’s here, but one guess is that it’s just in the “wrong place,” Bleier said. “There are also birds which, unfortunately, due to their radar or whatever, get turned around.”  

Bleier said birds seek riparian refuges — habitats near a waterway, rich with trees and vegetation. 

Baxter Creek, which stretches along Booker T. Anderson’s entrance is shaded in dogwoods, willows, and sycamores, among other varieties. These trees attract insects, which birds feed on.

And during an early fall morning, when the sun sat low in the trees, bird calls rang out: There was a downy woodpecker’s sharp, staccato chirp and the high-pitched “cheep” of a chestnut-backed chickadee.

“That’s what happens in the fall. That’s why people go out,” Bleier said. “You get to see these birds that you only get to see at little glimpses in the spring when they go that way and then in the fall when they come back.” 

Other native birds like red-shouldered hawks, Anna’s hummingbirds, and black phoebes are found in the park year-round.

Just like the birders at Anderson Park, Sierra tracks the birds she spots and keeps a wish list of birds she wants to see. Her “lifetime bird,” the one she most wants to see, is a barn owl. 

For Sierra, being an active birder equates to a healthier lifestyle. And the hobby is easy to access. 

“You don’t need any special equipment,” she noted. “You can do it right outside your door.”

(Top photo: The Thursday Group at Booker T. Anderson Park, by Elizabeth Santos)

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