Blogger media

Meet the bird guide and blogger on a mission to keep bird watchers safe

Content Disclaimer: The following story includes references to sexual assault.

Last February, Tiffany Kersten climbed the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque in her blue Chevrolet Spark. At some 10,000 feet, she set up her spyglass along Sandia Crest, where bird feeders provide a rare opportunity to see Pink, Brown-crowned, and Gray-crowned Finches together in one spot. The air was cold and thin, but that wasn’t why Kersten had quickly found herself struggling to breathe.

As she gazed through her telescope pointed at the feeders, a van pulled up and two men got out, dressed in jeans and tennis shoes despite the snow.

Kersten suddenly found herself on top of a mountain alone with two strangers and no cell service. The men were wandering about, and one of them lit a cigarette. “I was having a real panic attack at this point,” recalls Kersten, a sexual assault survivor. Finally, after a few minutes that seemed like centuries, the men left.

Kersten was at Sandia Crest for what bird watchers call a Big Year. In early 2021, she set a goal of seeing 700 species across the contiguous United States. She took that step in October and broke the previous big year record for the Lower 48.

But the anxiety Kersten felt at the top of the mountain gave weight to his larger mission for the Big Year and beyond: to make the outdoors safer for women. While hunting rare birds and local delicacies across the country, she distributed hundreds of personal safety alarms to women she met along the way and urged the birding community – through speaking engagements , one-on-one and online conversations – to recognize and respond to threats women face in pursuing their passion.

Kersten has no illusions that the alarms themselves will solve the problem, but she hopes her greater efforts can help create change. “I don’t have all the answers” she writes on the blog where she conscientiously recounts her adventures. “But I believe I can help by being the vehicle through which difficult conversations can be held and shared. It is the responsibility of all of us, men and women, to change the narrative here, to create a safe and welcoming place for all in this community.

Data on the safety of women in birding and the outdoors is scarce, but two-thirds of the more than 2,000 women Out magazine interviewed in 2017, said they did not feel safe and 53% said they had been sexually harassed during outdoor recreation. Men and the threat of harassment or assault were at the top of the list of safety concerns among respondents, far surpassing the second biggest fear: bears. A separate 2018 survey of female climbers found that about half had been harassed or sexually assaulted while playing their sport.

“It’s important for us as women to listen to our intuition and just be aware of our surroundings whenever we are in nature, especially alone,” says Kersten. “But it can be very difficult to do because when you are birding sometimes you are so focused on the bird that you don’t really pay attention to everything that is going on around you.”

As an ornithologist and assault survivor, Kersten emphasizes protecting women, but conversations safety in the outdoors can also benefit other marginalized groups. “Safety is number one, because if you don’t feel safe, you don’t go out in the first place,” says Karla Noboa, president of the Feminist Bird Club, a group of volunteers dedicated to providing safe and equitable access to the outdoors for those of all identities across sexuality, gender identity, ability, and more.

Kersten did not start 2021 with an ambitious project in mind. Last January, due to COVID-19, she lost her job as manager of a nature center and gymnasiums where she had trained for the American Ninja Warrior The TV show was closed. So she took a spontaneous trip to Florida with a friend and saw 200 species, including exceptionally rare stray species like the Cuban Pewee and the Red-legged Thrush. Back home in Texas, she quickly picked up 86 other species. When she rinsed off scaled quail on a February trip to Arizona, something clicked. Overflowing with encouragement from her friends, she decided to embark on a great year.

She had just started her new adventure when a Georgian writer published a detailed claim that a bird watcher raped her while they were observing together. The news brought Kersten back to his own experience. As she prepared to compete in the world’s biggest archery tournament in Las Vegas three and a half years ago, Kersten says her trainer assaulted her. “I quit archery almost immediately after that,” she says. Now she was wondering, “Am I putting myself in a situation where this could happen to me again?”

Despite her fear, she continued, but decided she needed a bigger mission than herself. A few days later, while searching for a Williamson’s Woodpecker in California, an ad for Birdie Personal Security Alarms appeared on his newsfeed. The alarms hang on keys or bags, and when their circular tops are removed, they emit a bright LED light and beep loudly (hence the name). The company also donates part of its revenues to organizations that support the empowerment of women.

Kersten immediately contacted the owners of Birdie who offered him a 50% discount on the alarms, which cost $ 30 each. Friend donated money for her first 100 alarms, Kersten set up a GoFundMe page to help buy another 200, and the biggest mission for his Birdie Big Year has merged.

While discovering rare items like a Yellow-faced Grassquit in Estero Llano Grande State Park in Texas and a California Condor in Pinnacles National Park are undeniable highlights of the project, Kersten’s favorite memories are to give the alarms. A beneficiary, in tears, gave Kersten $ 50 so she could buy one for another woman. “There are a lot of reactions like that,” Kersten says. “It was a really powerful experience not only for me, but for a lot of other women.”

Jessica Gorzo is one of them. Longtime bird watcher Gorzo had connected with Kersten on social media before meeting in October at the Cape May Fall Festival in New Jersey, where Kersten gave him one of the devices. “The alarm made me feel a lot better because I at least try to be alert when I’m alone in a remote place,” Gorzo says. “I’m really grateful that she came up with this and I think it’s going to make a world of difference.”

The big year also made a big difference in Kersten’s life. “I just really got to know myself,” she says. “I was able to move forward very consciously. It was absolutely amazing for my recovery from my assault.

This is not all she achieved. On December 18, Kersten broke the previous Lower 48 Big Year record of 724 species, set in 2020 by Jeremy Dominguez. After all of her travels, the bird that put her on top was right in her native county in South Texas, at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. And oh, what a bird: it was a bat hawk, the first confirmed in this country. “I had a group of friends there, so I had to walk the trail and cry a bit,” she recalls. “It was really moving.” While she missed the very rare Steller’s Sea Eagle that delighted birders in Massachusetts and Maine, she was able to add a Northern Lapwing to her list in New Jersey, finishing the year with 726 species.

With 2021 freshly behind her, Kersten hopes to continue raising the alarm as she enters the next chapter in her life: officially launching her own bird guide business in the male-dominated industry this month. “My hope in setting the Big Year record and starting my own business is to show women that there is room for us here,” says Kersten. She discovered that women often have to create their own opportunities, rather than waiting for someone to hire them. “So,” she said, “let’s start our own business. “