Birding is a fun and leisure activity that experts Jason Hall and Mary Ellen Heisey hope to open up to a larger community.
To say that Jason Hall watches birds isn’t exactly accurate. It fails to capture the robustness with which he tracks, catalogs, photographs and teaches. Hall brings to birding the same precision and patience that’s required in his job as a principal scientist in vaccine and large-molecule commercialization at Merck. He’s worked with Merck in India, Istanbul, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
When birding, Hall focuses on Valley Forge National Historical Park, Binky Lee Preserve, Ridley Creek State Park and Fairmount Park. “There are a couple of hundred bird species that come through our area every year,” says Hall, who can identify different species by sound. “I love spotting them, then logging those sightings online and sharing them through websites like eBird, an international database.”
Mary Ellen Heisey has been a birder for decades. “It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t interested in birds,” says Heisey, who lives on Valley Forge Mountain.
A Valley Forge Park Alliance volunteer, Heisey has led bird walks in the park since 2013. “Scarlet tanagers are beautiful birds,” she says. “Everyone should see an indigo bunting. They’re such magnificent birds.”
From March through October, Heisey conducts bird walks the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, departing from designated spots at 7:30 or 8 a.m., depending on the seasonal sunrise. (Find the full schedule at vfparkalliance.org.) Walks can last up to three hours, although some people join for only an hour. The schedule attracts a crowd that’s mostly older, retired folks or those with flexible schedules.
While the majority of Heisey’s birders are white, people of Latino, Asian and Southeast Asian descent do attend. “I don’t recall ever having a Black birder,” Heisey says.
Dismayed by her statement, Heisey pauses to sort through her memories. “It could be that I’m not remembering correctly,” she says.
She’s probably correct, says Hall. The birding community is largely populated by older whites, and some can’t hide their discomfort when Hall is in their midst. “It can be as subtle as someone not saying hello when you greet them to being looked at with real fear just because I’m Black,” he says.
Hall has felt that way through most of his birding career, which stretches back to high school. That was long before the case of Christian Cooper, a Black birder falsely accused of attacking a white woman in Manhattan’s Central Park in May 2020. Cooper’s humiliation inspired Hall and other people of color to launch Black Birders Week. Held in June 2020, the social media movement encouraged and united Black outdoor enthusiasts, many of them scientists like Hall. As a result, his Instagram account @thebirdingbeardsman and hashtag #beingblackinnature have become focal points for Black birders and their allies. “The goal is for Black people to feel included in all outdoor spaces and to encourage people of color to get involved with birding and other activities,” says Hall. “And I want all groups—women, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, people with uncertain legal status—to feel safe and welcome in the outdoors.”
Hall’s advocacy inspired Valley Forge Park Alliance to form its own partnership with him. Starting this summer, Hall is conducting bird walks through the park. Anyone can join, but the hope is to encourage people of color. Hall will be leading other bird walks in Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties. “I’m deeply honored and excited to do this,” he says.
Heisey’s excited, too. “I’m hoping that Jason can encourage new people to get involved, because birding is for everyone at Valley Forge,” she says. “All you need is curiosity and a love of birds—and a pair of binoculars.”