Bird watching in the Black Belt: How ecotourism can help west Alabama take flight
You can hear the excitement in Christopher Joe’s voice as he begins to tell you about the birds.
There are egrets, wood storks and great blue herons around the pond on the eastern side of his family farm. In the property’s hardwood forests, small, yellow birds called prothonotary warblers will flit from branch to branch. The real show comes in the summer months when Joe's father cuts hay and the tractor spews crickets into the air, attracting a flock of swallow-tailed kites that descend for a feast. These, with their large forked tails and gleaming white bellies, are Joe’s favorite.
“It’s amazing to see the birds following the tractor. Dad is on the tractor, they’re doing all kinds of aerial acrobatics catching crickets in the air. It’s not like any other bird you’ve seen,” Joe said.
Two years ago, Joe didn’t know the names of the swallow-tailed kites or many of the birds on his family’s ancestral farmland in western Alabama’s Hale County. And he certainly didn’t know that birding would attract tourists from across the South to a farm that, for three generations, has only made money from farming first vegetables and then Black Angus cattle.
“We have 200 acres, 600 miles of natural trails meandering through the property, a creek system on the eastern side of the property. It’s just a nice little habitat in the Black Belt,” Joe said. “I was thinking, ‘What can we do besides cattle farming to bring more income?’”
But Joe’s birding business, Connecting with Birds and Nature Tours, has now been off the ground for a year and a half. And besides being a new hobby and source of income, it’s also a model for sustainable ecotourism in Alabama’s Black Belt.
Alabama's Black Belt
Named for its rich, black top soil, the predominantly agricultural counties are now known more for a lack of economic opportunities and some of the nation's highest poverty rates; eight of the Black Belt's counties rank 30% or higher.
Still, Alabama is also one of the most biodiverse states in the country, and the early success of Joe's bird watching operation shows ecotourism can be "the new economy of west Alabama," said Rashidah Farid, a wildlife ecology professor at Tuskegee University who grew up walking the woods of rural Alabama.
"Ecotourism by a Black family in the middle of the Black Belt, a very undesirable region historically for tourism...it’s really huge," Farid said. "Most of these areas have lost industry. To think you can create a very lucrative industry out of what is existing on your property is pretty exciting."
In addition to offering tours, Joe promotes hotels and restaurants around the region in the hopes that visits to his farm will have a larger impact.
“The Black Belt of Alabama is still high poverty. But I’m showing that agrotourism is a ticket to bring in income,” Joe said.
Around the time that Joe began looking into birding, the Birmingham-based conservation group Alabama Audubon had been seeking a way to kick off a Black Belt birding initiative to broaden their reach, said Alabama Audubon executive director Ansel Payne.
“I kept saying we really need to make contact with interested landowners, and if we can get an African American landowner, even better. And low and behold Christopher found us,” Payne said.
Changing the perception of bird watching
While working in part with Alabama Audubon, Joe has attracted birders from as far as the Carolinas. On one tour, he said he had 125 people present to see the elder Joe cut hay. They audibly gasped when they saw the flock of kites.
“When you hear 70 or so people behind you exploding about a swallow-tailed kite coming overhead, those are the special moments,” Payne said.
Joe and Payne are conscious of the impact birding can have on the region economically. And environmentally, the tours are helping promote study of a bird population that hasn’t received much attention.
Painted buntings, for example, are small rainbow-colored birds that top Joe’s wishlist of creatures he hopes to spot through his binoculars.
“People say they’re not even a mile down the road from our property and I’ve yet to see one,” Joe said with a laugh.
But until recently, Payne said the painted bunting population in Hale County was relatively unknown. “Science didn’t know that until a few years ago, because it’s not a place a lot of people thought to go birding,” Payne said.
In a year marked by a global pandemic and protests against police brutality, there may be no better place to search for peace than the 200-acre Hale County farm. But Payne said Joe’s endeavor also represents progress at a time where birding is confronting built-in biases.
In June, the National Audubon Society launched an initiative called Black Birders Week to "promote diversity and take on racism in the outdoors." On Nov. 18, Alabama Audubon is hosting on online panel called "Black Birders in the Deep South" which will feature discussion between Joe, Farid and Christian Cooper, a black birdwatcher who was harassed by Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog in New York City's Central Park earlier this year. Amy Cooper was charged with filing a false police report.
“Folks in our membership have said it’s very meaningful to be a Black birder on Black-owned land in Alabama, a place where the land has a history both ugly and heroic,” Payne said. “Birding 20 years ago was very white, very class-based. That’s changed so much, and I think the Joes are leaders in that.”
Jason Ward, an Atlanta-based birder and host of “Birds of North America,” said there have been ongoing conversations about biases within the birding community since the video of Cooper being harassed went viral in May.
“The multitude of conversations people are having globally, birding hasn’t been exempt from that,” Ward said. “As a Black birder, I’ve had that twice over this year with the pandemic but also getting the splash of cold water in the face seeing the Christian Cooper video. Some of these spaces aren’t welcoming to people who look like I do, and I have to be conscious about that when I’m out there birding.”
Ward has now visited twice since Joe began offering tours. Like others, he marveled at the kites and wondered at the warblers. But he also appreciated the ground being broken in the region for future generations.
“When you see organizations like Alabama Audubon collaborating with the Joe family and amplifying their cause, it’s great for the Joe family but also for future conservationists and for people of color who may feel a career in conservation isn’t for them," Ward said. "They’re seeing that it can be.”