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Flight of Resilience

Male Wood Duck, Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Dexter Patterson
Male Wood Duck, Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Dexter Patterson

In the heart of Wisconsin’s sprawling landscapes, my journey into the world of birding began—as did this tale of resilience, self-discovery, and the profound importance of diverse social representation in outdoor activities. Join me on this expedition through the chapters of my transformative experiences, and the evolution of birding in the Badger State.

Whooping Crane at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Photo by Dexter Patterson

A Legacy of Listening

My foray into birding began with the wisdom of my grandfather, Ed Brown, a seasoned birder who always found solace in nature. Grandpa Brown, a father of eleven, made nature a cost-effective haven for his large family. Our family’s pursuit of recreation through state parks laid the foundation for my budding love for the outdoors. And Grandpa’s passion for eagle-watching on the Mississippi River and his whimsical tales of bully Blue Jays at his feeders became threads intricately woven into the fabric of what I like to refer to as my “Bird Nerd” identity.

My grandfather’s backyard bird feeders and binoculars were ever-present, ensuring he was always within reach of the captivating beauty of his birds. His humor, love for the outdoors, and meticulous care for his yard left an indelible mark on my soul. Inheriting his passion for the painstaking upkeep of my yard, cutting the grass, and pruning my flowers became more than chores; they transformed into a therapeutic escape. Hours would pass as I sat, mesmerized by the diversity of backyard birds at my feeder, binoculars always within arm’s reach. My first pair of binoculars, a gift from my mother, and once my grandfather’s, propelled my birdwatching habit to new heights.

Scarlet Tanager at Picnic Point in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Dexter Patterson

A Journey in Color

Despite my burgeoning connection with nature, my childhood experiences paled compared to my mother’s tales of outdoor adventures. As a man of color, the lack of representation of people like me in the birding and outdoor community left me feeling disconnected. Green spaces were scarce in our low-income neighborhoods, and individuals who resembled me were seldom seen reveling in the outdoors, let alone cherishing the marvels of bird life.

The turning point in my journey arrived in 2008, a tumultuous year for many in our country, when the economic crisis reshaped lives. As a hardworking family man, I suddenly found myself among hundreds of laid-off local factory workers. The abrupt shift shook the foundations of my mental well-being, casting me into a seemingly impossible darkness and depression.

Amidst the chaos, an unexpected lifeline emerged—my newfound passion for birds and the simple joy of birding. Nature became a sanctuary where I sought refuge from the storm of uncertainties that clouded my mind. In this turbulent period, my late grandmother’s voice echoed, encouraging me to harness my intellect and forge a path beyond the confines of factory walls.

American Redstart singing at Horicon Marsh. Photo by Dexter Patterson

A Mentor’s Example

Empowered by my family’s unwavering belief in my potential, I decided to return to school as an adult student. In this endeavor, Dr. Jeff Galligan, my academic advisor at Madison Area Technical College, played a pivotal role. A man of color and a passionate birder, Dr. Galligan wasn’t just an academic guide but a representation of inclusivity in the natural world that I had craved as a child. Jeff always says, “If you can see it, you can be it.” With that, I started my own migration.

Jeff’s shared love for birds and his prowess as a bird photographer became the catalyst for a profound shift in my life. Under his guidance, my journey transformed from a haze of uncertainty to a laser-focused pursuit of a communications profession. I began developing my own skills in nature photography and multi-media. Dr. Galligan’s steadfast support and faith in my abilities reshaped my self-perception, instilling a newfound confidence. I no longer feared sharing my love for birds; instead, I embraced it as an intrinsic part of my identity. The Wisco Birder was born.

Members of the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin exploring Horicon Marsh. Photo by Dexter Patterson

The BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin

My story was not just a personal triumph; it sparked a movement. Collaborating with Dr. Galligan, we created the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin in 2021. This community—Black, Indigenous, and People of Color—emerged as a haven for people of color and allies who shared a love for the outdoors and birding. More than a collective, it became a testament to the transformative power of shared passions and representation. We wanted to be a part of the solution. BIPOC Birding Club is a conduit and a safe space for people like us who want to let their Bird Nerd flag fly with pride. As members, we find solace in the camaraderie of like-minded individuals who cherish Wisconsin’s natural landscapes and its vibrant, feathered residents. This communal space became a celebration of birds and a testament to the resilience and strength ingrained in diversity, a core tenet of our mission.

Prairie Warbler at Carpenter Ridgeway Park in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Dexter Patterson

The Changing Landscape of Birding

With the COVID-19 pandemic, birdwatching experienced a significant upswing in nationwide participation as individuals escaped into the outdoors. The lockdowns that gripped much of the country inadvertently sparked a renewed appreciation for nature, prompting a collective realization that the outdoors could be a sanctuary for rediscovery and fulfillment.

As the community of bird enthusiasts, affectionately known as “Bird Nerds,” continues to flourish, the traditional image of a birder is transforming. Leveraging my @WiscoBirder social media platforms, I am actively reshaping and diversifying the perception of what it means to be a birder, emphasizing that these winged wonders are meant for everyone’s enjoyment. Over the years, my birding videos have amassed millions of views, each helping break stereotypes and dismantling cultural barriers surrounding the hobby. My grandfather would undoubtedly delight in the diverse flock of bird enthusiasts that have taken flight, particularly in the case of his grandson.

Members of the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin exploring Horicon Marsh. Photo by Dexter Patterson

Nature’s Inclusive Sanctuary

Reflecting on my bird-watching journey, I was struck by the profound connection between nature and the human spirit. In the feathered world and in ourselves, I saw inherent resilience. The diverse birdlife, each species with its unique melody and vibrant plumage, became companions in this adventure. Their wings, more than just tools for flight, symbolized freedom and the tenacity to weather life’s storms—a powerful metaphor echoing the strength in each of us.

I encourage you to begin your own birding journey. Let my example inspire you to discover the wonders that await. Join the harmonious dance of nature, marvel at the rich mosaic of life, and unfold a new chapter in your own story. Are you ready? Let’s go!

Members of the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin at its first birding event at Nine Springs in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Dexter Patterson

Celebrate Spring Migration: A Wisconsin Birding Adventure for All

As winter's chill retreats, Wisconsin transforms into a vibrant spectacle of birdlife during the annual spring migration. Whether you're a novice or a seasoned birder, our state's diverse landscapes provide an enchanting backdrop for our feathered friends. Join us as we explore renowned birding destinations in the Badger State, encounter captivating species, and equip you with everything you need for a productive and fun birding experience.

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge 
Located in Dodge County, Horicon Marsh is a migratory haven and one of the largest freshwater cattail marshes in the United States. In this pristine habitat, observe flocks of Sandhill Cranes, grassland birds, waterfowl, terns, and shorebirds. See the endangered Whooping Cranes that breed at Horicon Marsh and listen for the distinctive calls of the exotic-looking Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Milwaukee Lakefront 
Witness the vibrant transformation of Milwaukee's Lakefront into a lively migratory corridor each spring. Enjoy the sight of various warblers, sparrows, and waterfowl at prime viewing spots like Bradford Beach, Grant Park, and Lakeshore State Park. The Milwaukee Lakefront consistently welcomes unexpected visitors, offering rare bird sightings during the spring season, making it a must-visit destination for bird enthusiasts.

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge 
Discover tranquility at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Juneau County, a captivating sanctuary for bird watchers and nature lovers. Explore diverse landscapes, from wetlands to savannas. Encounter a variety of migratory and resident bird species, such as owls, eagles, warblers, and nesting Whooping Cranes.

Wyalusing State Park 
Nestled at the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers convergence in Grant County, Wyalusing State Park is a haven for raptors and songbirds, including the stunning Cerulean Warbler. Take a scenic hike along the bluffs, enjoying expansive views of the two rivers while discovering the vast diversity of birds in the park. While relishing Wyalusing's offerings, consider expanding your birding adventures to other state parks throughout Wisconsin.

Peninsula State Park 
Embrace the natural beauty of picturesque Peninsula State Park in Door County, where diverse habitats attract a variety of bird species. Explore wooded areas, shorelines, and open fields, spotting resident and migratory birds. High atop Eagle Tower, which is wheelchair accessible, take in a canopy view of migrants.

Crex Meadows Wildlife Area 
Crex Meadows, located in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, is a sanctuary for 270 bird species, drawing numerous visitors during the spring migration. Venture into the expansive 30,000 acres, where restored wetlands and grasslands offer an ideal habitat for wildlife. Look for the majestic Sandhill Cranes, and various waterfowl and shorebirds.

Picnic Point – Lakeshore Nature Preserve 
Situated along the shores of Lake Mendota within the University of Wisconsin—Madison campus, Picnic Point extends into University Bay and provides a serene wooded setting for birding enthusiasts. Witness a variety of flycatchers, waterfowl, woodpeckers, herons, and migrating songbirds in this tranquil environment.

Wisconsin Point Venture to Wisconsin Point in the city of Superior for a unique birding experience along the shores of Lake Superior. This scenic location—one of the largest freshwater sandbars in the world—is known for its diverse birdlife, offering opportunities to observe waterfowl, shorebirds, and other species. 

Black Tern perched on the boardwalk at Horicon Marsh in Dodge County. Photo by Dexter Patterson

Common Spring Migrants to Watch For:

Warbler Wonderland 
Witness a lively spring spectacle as trees burst into life with flocks of migrating warblers like the American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler. Wisconsin’s state parks and natural reserves, characterized by diverse habitats and old-growth trees, are exceptional locations for spotting these vibrant and colorful gems.

Raptors in Flight 
Experience the majestic flight of raptors at the locations above. Watch for American Kestrels, Bald Eagles, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawks, and Turkey Vultures gracefully soaring in the sky.

Shorebirds at Horicon Marsh, Crex Meadows, and Necedah National Wildlife Refuge 
These regions welcome a diverse array of shorebirds during migration. Sandpipers, plovers, rails, stilts, and killdeer congregate around the wetlands, providing fantastic opportunities for observation.

Young Barred Owl at Picnic Point in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Dexter Patterson

Essential Tools for Your Birding Quest

Invest in good binoculars that fit your budget for clear and detailed bird watching. Look for ones with 8x42 or 10x42 magnification for a better view. If you’re in the Greater Madison Area, you can borrow a birding backpack from the Madison Library. Also, many birding clubs have free binoculars for you to use at their events. It’s a great way to start your birding adventure without spending too much!

Field Guides 
Carry a comprehensive field guide specific to the region for deeper learning. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America or Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern & Central North America are excellent choices.

Birding Apps 
Download birding apps like Merlin Bird ID to enhance your identification skills. These apps provide real-time information and can help identify bird calls.

Camera or Smartphone 
Capture your birding encounters using a camera or smartphone. Documenting your sightings allows you to share these moments with family and friends and create enduring memories.

All photos by Dexter Patterson


Dexter Patterson is a multimedia professional, contributing as a freelance photographer, writer, and faculty member in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at University of Wisconsin—Madison, and co-founder of the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin.


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