Melissa Hafting cuts a graciously authoritative figure as the BC Birder Girl. That’s BC for British Columbia, Canada. She writes at the blog Dare to Bird (which has a healthy following for its niche) where she writes trip reports (and I am talking thrilling solo trip reports ), bird identification guides, and conservation news from the region of Canada where she lives. She is also an accomplished bird photographer.
I first learned about her when reading her comments in the American Birding Association’s 2016 deep dive into female leadership in the North American birding scene. I thought, Wow, she’s young (she’s in her early 30s) and already quoted on this international stage, I gotta look her up! Plus, she’s a sister Salish Sea girl, residing a mere 200 miles north of Seattle (where I live), in Vancouver, Canada.
She birds all over British Columbia, but the Vancouver Metro area is her special birding scene. Hafting holds the record for most species seen in one year for the city, at 270. “I guess I’m a bit nuts,” she says.
Not nuts, dedicated. Her accomplishments represent time in the field, focusing on her passion. That’s how you get to be as good as Hafting is at finding, photographing and sharing the birds she sees.
In addition to her blog, she spends her non work time (she is a fisheries field biologist professionally) birding alone or with friends, promoting urban conservation, and leading the BC Young Birders Program, which she also founded.
Hafting and I emailed over June and July, 2019, and our chat is below. Some portions have been edited for clarity. All photos are courtesy of Melissa Hafting.
How did you get into birding?
I got into birding through my father. He used to take me on nature walks to places like Reifel Bird Sanctuary (south of the city near the U.S. border) and he would teach me about the different birds and animals we saw there and how to feed the ducks and black-capped chickadees on my hand.
He bought me a golden guide field guide which I would fervently look through when I got home to see and learn all about the different species I saw. That's how I learned bird names.
How did you hone your birding skills?
When I got older I built my skills by reading and studying books and photos of birds as much as possible. I studied photos incessantly so that I knew every detail of a bird before I got out into the field. This is a bit different from others who study the birds in the field and use the photos and field guide as an accessory.
Every time I got out with the real birds in the field it would help my skills to grow and I would notice all the stuff more vividly that I had seen at home in my books. The best way to learn about bird identification is really to get out there and see the bird in its natural habitat. I would notice the different behaviors and habitats of the various birds which was more vivid than in any book.
When did you start photography as part of your practice?
I did not start bird photography until 2014. My sister and father bought me my first DSLR camera then. It was a Canon T3i with 75-100m lens. I had no idea how to use it. I signed up for a bird photography workshop in Jan 2015 with Tim Boyer in San Diego, CA. It was he who really taught me what to do and how to use my camera and lens n 2015.
Since then I have not looked back! I now have progressed from that very basic camera setup to a more expensive setup of a Canon 7d mark II and 100-400 m lens plus I have the 1.4 X III converter and other smaller lenses. I feel now that photography really enhances my birding by providing tangible memories of special moments while out birding and evidence of rare birds for eBird and committees.
When did you start your blog and what has been your purpose with it? Have you achieved this?
I started my blog in 2016 and my purpose was for a way to share some of my birding adventures with others and also to highlight the young birders and the trips I do with them. I founded and currently run the BC Young Birders Program, and work with over 20 young birders across BC and in the community.
On my blog I also talk about current environmental issues and share birding community events. I also help by sharing my knowledge and providing identification tutorials.
What is your neighborhood like for birds?
I live in Metro Vancouver. My neighborhood although urban surprisingly gets a high number of birds. I have seen some strange species flying over like Sandhill Cranes, Black Swifts, Trumpeter Swans and Common Nighthawks.
In the yard proper I have nesting Black-Capped Chickadees, Bewick's Wrens, Red-Breasted Nuthatches and White-crowned Sparrows. Other daily visitors are American Goldfinches, House Finches, Northern Flickers and Downy Woodpeckers and Anna's and Rufous Hummingbirds. I get so many birds because my neighbors do not feed them and the birds find my home as a safe and inviting place.
Do you attract birds to your home?
Yes I attract birds where I live. I feed them put up nest boxes for them too. Very few (of my neighbors) do so I feel I should help out.
I also plant a bird friendly garden- a vegetable and flower garden. The hummers love to come and feed on the nectar and the sparrows eat the seeds. I try to sweep up the seed that falls to the ground. I use seed catchers to minimize rodents and I clean my feeders weekly. I also clean the hummingbird feeder every 3 days, to prevent mold and disease spread (such as conjunctivitis) between birds.
Where are good places in Metro Vancouver for birding?
Some of the best places to bird in Metro Vancouver are Stanley Park—particularly Beaver Lake for Red-breasted Sapsuckers and songbirds and in the winter huge rafts of Scoters and other seabirds.
Boundary Bay and Brunswick Point (south of the city center) is all mudflats which shorebirds love. (Those areas are) in Delta, where we all go during the shorebird season which lasts from the end of May to October.
North and West Vancouver have the forested mountains for birds like Sooty Grouse and Crossbills and Canada Jays.
Grant Narrows (northeast of the city center) is dykes, wetlands and marshes that swans and Pied-billed Grebes and waterfowl love. They also have deciduous forests that warblers like American Redstarts, Bullocks Orioles and Black-headed Grosbeaks love.
Burnaby Lake (for waterfowl one of the few places to get up close to Wood Ducks and Green-winged Teal and songbirds), Queen Elizabeth Park (hotspot for migrating warblers), Klootchman Park (for Marbled Murrelets and Surfbirds).
How do you get around to bird? Is there good public transportation?
I get everywhere by car because unfortunately the bus system is not very good to get to birding locations. There is no bus that goes anywhere near to places like Iona, Grant Narrows, Brunswick Point and even Reifel.
Are there city bird organizations or groups that offer walks if someone is interested?
Nature Vancouver offers free birding walks. They do free trips all over Metro Vancouver. Also free birding walks are held at Stanley Park (our equivalent to NY’s Central Park) by the Stanley Park ecological society.
Are you comfortable birding alone in the city? Why or why not?
I am comfortable birding alone in most areas of the city and find solace and peace birding alone. I feel I can more readily connect to nature than when I’m with others but often I prefer birding with a friend to share in those magical moments.
There are some areas I prefer not to bird alone especially as a woman such as lonely trails that have lots of bushes closing in where other women have been sexually assaulted or trails that have heavy bear activity. As women we have to be constantly aware of our surroundings and I’m much more nervous of other predatory men than any bear.
Who are the other birders in Vancouver? What is their demographic?
In Vancouver we have a healthy diversity of ages, sexes and races. Vancouver is a very metropolitan city and therefore the birders here reflect that. Still though (birding) is full of predominately older Caucasian men, which seems to be the norm across the birding world.
However the young birder program I founded in 2014 has many different sexes and races and it is nice to see many young women and minorities coming up in this field. They are giving us all hope and inspiration as they want to change the world and are so passionate about conservation of birds and their habitats. They also really understand the impacts of climate change and how dire it is to wake up do our part and change our ways before it’s too late.
You have an impressive count for BC, and for Vancouver! Tell me your so-far counts for Van, and what was the most unusual bird you've seen? what was the story behind it?
My high count so far for how many birds I’ve seen in one year in Metro Vancouver is 270 species. That’s the current record for anyone ever in Vancouver.
When I set out to do my Vancouver big year I was just hoping to see as many birds as possible not achieve the highest record. It was a very good year with all the finch species and many rarities so that helped me get a high number. I was really determined though to see everything I could so when a rare bird was reported to my website that I run “The BC RARE BIRD ALERT” bcbirdalert.blogspot.com I would run out the door and go see it!.
The coolest bird I’ve seen locally was in 2015 it was a White-tailed Ptarmigan right in Metro Vancouver on Seymour Mountain. They are excruciatingly rare in Vancouver so to see one in North Vancouver was so cool and we got him in full winter plumage (when they are all white). Sixteen of us did the hike together and when we found him all dressed in white it was a moment I won’t ever forget.
And your list for British Columbia?
My BC list is currently at 428.
It is really hard to pick a favorite bird I’ve seen in BC I’ve seen so many special ones. I guess the coolest bird I have seen in BC is a Short-tailed Albatross that I saw off a pelagic in Tofino. It gave us incredible views for three hours as it flew around our boat and a commercial fishing vessel. It was a bird I always wanted to see in BC and it was a lifer and it just uplifted everyone on board with its impressive size and pink bill.
You are very active, birding constantly, it seems. What’s your “normal” routine?
As soon as a bird I’ve never seen before in BC is reported the BC Rare Bird Alert (RBA) I go by myself or with friends as a carpool to see it. The long distance twitches are really fun to share the fun times and memories with others .
The furthest I have chased a bird in our large province was 13 hours to Bella Coola to see a Crested Caracara.
What are threats to wild birds in the Metro Vancouver area?
The biggest threats to Vancouver’s birds are urban development. New houses and industry are popping up everywhere and birds and animals have no places to thrive, feed and raise their young.
Our Barn Owls here are basically extirpated. They are so sensitive that they are hidden on eBird automatically when you enter them and declining at a rapid rate. They are declining here at the important northern limit of their range due to rat poison and loss of habitat. They are losing fields to hunt in and barns to roost and nest in. Lots of people have erected nest boxes for them which helps but if there are no fields that contain voles it doesn’t solve the problem.
Also we have had unusually harsh winters here which has killed off over 70 barn owls at a time which decimated our population. Barn Owls are the only owl which can’t regulate their body temperature, if it gets wet, so they easily get hypothermia and die.
Pollution and climate change are also major factors here. We have fewer bugs than we used to and birds like our already small population of Common Nighthawks, are having trouble finding enough food.
Climate change is also causing birds like our swallows to return to their breeding grounds here too early and they either die from cold or lack of food because they get here before the insects hatch and their nests fail.
Rat poison is a scourge.
It is a major problem here for our raptors and is killing many Barred, Barn and Great Horned owls. That substance should really be banned here. It’s a very slow death for the rodent and makes them wobble and walk slowly making easy pickings for an owl but sadly that owl then dies a slow and painful death.
What would you tell someone starting out birding for the first time?
I would tell a fellow birder to reach out and try and connect with other local birders and introduce yourself and get out there.
I know when I first got into the local birding scene I didn’t feel too welcome and (was) intimidated. I felt there was some cliques and I had to really push myself to interact and find my place in the community. This is the same I’m sure in any hobby when you are an outsider and a woman in any male dominated field.
Now though I get along with almost everyone male and female and I would encourage anyone who feels like an outsider to not feel discouraged even if you never truly feel accepted just get out there and bird.
Being outdoors with nature and with the birds is mentally stimulating and brings peace and relaxation. The one good thing about birds is they don’t care what race, gender or sexual orientation you are!
Thank you, Melissa!
Read about other urban girl birders in Buenos Aires, Chicago and Boston, Toronto, Brooklyn and NYC. And if you’re an urban girl birder in a metropolitan area anywhere in the world, please get in touch; I’d love to feature you here!