Hiking and History: Honoring the Legacies of Port Chicago and John Muir

A foggy morning turned into a beautiful afternoon for a late November hike up Mount Wanda at the John Muir National Historic site.  Twenty-five outdoor afros and Cody the dog were treated to an enjoyable afternoon of history, community, and smiles.

Before we began our hike, Raphael Allen, Park Ranger at Rosie the Riveter/ World War II Home Front National Historical Park, welcomed everyone and provided a thorough presentation on African American of History Port Chicago. Ranger Raphael explained that Port Chicago, visible from the summit of Mount Wanda, was the site of a deadly explosion on July 17, 1944.

320 men, including 202 African American men, were killed due to unsafe conditions at the port. Following the explosion, 50 African American men were charged and tried for mutiny for refusing to report back to work. According to Ranger Raphael, this injustice caused African Americans to organize and to whisper among themselves  “Thurgood’s Coming” in reference to NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s involvement in the case. Ranger Raphael concluded his presentation by distributing trading cards to Outdoor Afro hikers and emphasizing the national park’s commitment to ensuring that Port Chicago is not forgotten.

 

With Port Chicago on our minds, we began our ascent up Mount Wanda.

Everyone settled into their own pace, with faster hikers taking the lead and the others keeping a moderate pace.  While the beginning of the hike was mostly shady and cool, the sun broke through the trees to warm us up as we got to our midway point.
Outdoor Afro Leader Cliff Sorrell pointed out the different trees on the hike including fragrant California Bay Trees and various oak trees, including the coast live oak and the blue oak trees. Cliff explained that you can tell the difference between the trees by noticing their leaves.
Several outdoor afros noted that we were joined on our hike by different bird species, including turkey vultures, Downy Woodpeckers, and a hummingbird.  We also discussed the legacy of John Muir and his significant role in ensuring that we can continue to enjoy national parks like Mount Wanda and Yosemite.

Outdoor Afros Carmen and Toure were the first to reach Mount Wanda’s summit.

As other members joined us, Outdoor Afro Leader Zoë Polk pointed out the location of Port Chicago.  She asked members to think about what the landscape looked like in 1944 and to think about the different reasons African Americans joined the Navy during that time. Zoë referenced Professor Robert Allen’s celebrated work, Port Chicago Mutiny, and noted that some of the men were outdoor afros of their time, joining the navy out of a sense of adventure and longing to experience the world’s natural beauty. She also asked hikers to contemplate what outdoor recreation activities the men of Port Chicago participated in, given that they had little ability to travel to Oakland, San Francisco, or other bay area culture centers for entertainment. Hikers took a minute to contemplate this history and the beautiful surrounding landscape before descending Mount Wanda.
We finished the afternoon by stopping by the John Muir House. The wonderful staff at the visitor center screened Into Forgetfulness, a short documentary film about the Port Chicago disaster and legal battle. The staff also led tours of John Muir’s house.
The Outdoor Afro leadership team celebrates all of the kind folks who joined us on Mount Wanda and looks forward to seeing everyone again at the next meet up!
For more information about honoring the legacy of Port Chicago, connect with the Friends of Port Chicago.

Cayman and John Muir

Service Day at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary

Check out this recent trip report from Outdoor Afro Leader Vi Ama out of Chicago!
Outdoor Afro Chicago volunteer day was held last Saturday at Montrose Bird Point Sanctuary. Montrose Bird Point Sanctuary is a hidden jewel located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The 15-acre property also known as the Magic Hedge Sanctuary was previously leased by the military.
Since the 1980s birders and the city of Chicago have transformed this park into one of the Midwest’s leading parks for bird watchers and migrating birds. The sanctuary includes a bathhouse, sand dunes, beach and pier. Over 300 species of birds migrate to the park during the spring and fall seasons.

What attracts these birds is the location of the park — the sanctuary prominently sticks out into Lake Michigan, which makes it easy for the birds to spot. The sanctuary includes a mixture of native plants, insects, and wildlife that attract migrating birds. The park is not only for birders and migrating birds, but also for artists seeking inspiration from the landscape and educational tours for kids attending local schools.
Upon our arrival to the park, lead steward, David Painter, notified us of a rare visit by a Burrowing owl at the point. This was Chicago’s second visit from a Burrowing owl; the last visit occurred in 2008. Using one of the birders’ scopes, we got an up close view of the owl (here is a great video of the owl’s visit and if you’re curious about this bird check out www.defenders.org which has a lot of cool facts).
Following the viewing of the Burrowing owl, we assisted in planting the Rose Bush and Hazelnut shrubs, which are both native to Illinois. We also witnessed one of the largest shrubs I have seen being planted, the witch-hazel shrub (see picture below). Following the planting of the shrubs, we received a tour of the sanctuary by head volunteer, Jo Martinec, who has been volunteering for 10 years. From our tour, we learned the city is focusing on restoring more native plants to the landscape. The landscape for the state of Illinois is highly diverse, including: prairies, wetlands, savannas, cliffs of sandstone and lime-stone, beaches, sand dunes and swales. The sanctuary includes prairies, wetlands and other native plants and trees. Restoring native plants assist in restoring the local ecosystem and creating a diverse wildlife.

Our day of service at the Montrose Bird Sanctuary turned into a great day of learning. We learned a part of Chicago history, picked up some planting skills and hung out with some birders. Look out for more Outdoor Afro Chicago activities.
For more photos check out the photo album, Service Day at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary.

June’s Bird of the Month

While standing on extremely long, thin, pink legs and sporting an elongated delicate-looking bill, this month’s bird appears to be the epitome of elegance and refinement.
This month’s Bird of the Month is the aptly-named Black-necked Stilt.

“Delicate”… “Elegant”… “Refined”…that is, while they’re undisturbed. But, when disturbed near their feeding or nesting ground, other words come to mind to describe the Black-necked Stilt. “Excitable”… “Noisy”… “Confrontational”…are more descriptive of this bird when it perceives a threat of some type. Intruders (including birdwatchers) are likely to be “dive-bombed” and scolded persistently while in the Black-necked Stilt’s territory. It feigns attack with its loud, sharp and grating…”yek-yek-yek-yek”…alarm while circling overhead!
There aren’t many Black-necked Stilts in Indiana, but from what I’ve read and observed, they seem to be making inroads in the Hoosier State. I’ve seen a few of them while visiting Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area down near Linton, Indiana and I’ve noticed that, on IN-BIRD, Black-necked Stilts have been regularly reported at this great FWA. And even though considered rare here in Indiana, these distinctive birds are easily identifiable when seen, with their sharp and contrasting black and white color pattern.
While flying, the legs of the Black-necked Stilt trail “far” behind, because of the extreme length of their legs. As a matter-of-fact, stilts have the second-longest leg length in proportion to their body size than any other bird, exceeded only by flamingos.
WHAT A WONDERFUL BIRD!

Douglas “Birdman” Gray has been birding almost all of his life. He grew up on a family farm near Clarksville, Tennessee, where they grew crops ranging from apricots to wheat, and most things in between. They also raised chickens, guineas, pigs, horses, and a cow named…….Apples. Doug’s grandfather identified the birds they would see daily on the farm.
Doug now resides in Indianapolis and works in Parenteral Engineering with Eli Lilly and Company. Most of his current birding takes place in Indiana, with a concentration on Central Indiana, where he leads bird walks for “Backyard Birds”. Doug can be reached at 317-255-7333.

December’s Bird of the Month


Douglas “Birdman” Grey, Outdoor Afro Contributor
As one who spends a lot of time outdoors, I’ve noticed that nature seems harsh at times. Even with birds, their lives can sometimes seem brutal. And some birds even appear to be equipped with “Weapons of War”. Keen and intense eyes, swept-back wings, sleek aerodynamic bodies, razor-sharp talons and menacing beaks.
But the Bird of the Month for this month, doesn’t possess any of these weapons of war. This month’s bird is the common, but not so commonly known, Ruddy Duck.
When it comes to ducks, we as humans typically consider them to be …”cute”. We are usually introduced to ducks even before we can speak. They animate our baby books. They cover our baby bibs. They float in our baby baths. They’re symbols of cheer for us, usually from an early age. And this is probably because they’re just so ding dang …”cute”.
The Ruddy Duck is an odd bird but it is, in my opinion …”cute”. I find the rattling sounds this bird makes during courtship a bit odd … but cute. During the breeding season the male’s bill turns a bright blue. I find a blue bill on a bird a bit odd … yet cute. They have an odd looking spiked tail, which is often times held straight up, which makes them look even more …”cute”.
While checking out a very large retention pond a few weeks back, I noticed a number of different species of waterfowl out on the water and among them were about 80 or so Ruddy Ducks. I spent almost an hour observing them, all the while thinking, “Awwww…those Ruddys…they are just soooo cute!”
(Just then a Bald Eagle swooped in, snatched one right out of the water, and carried it off for consumption. The life of birds can seem brutal at times.)

By Lynne Arrowsmith

Douglas “Birdman” Gray has been birding almost all of his life. He grew up on a family farm near Clarksville, Tennessee, where they grew crops ranging from apricots to wheat, and most things in between. They also raised chickens, guineas, pigs, horses, and a cow named…….Apples. Doug’s grandfather identified the birds they would see daily on the farm.

Doug now resides in Indianapolis and works in Parenteral Engineering with Eli Lilly and Company. Most of his current birding takes place in Indiana, with a concentration on Central Indiana, where he leads bird walks for “Backyard Birds”. Doug can be reached at 317-255-7333.

Bird of the Month

By Lynne Arrowsmith

Douglas “Birdman” Gray is one of my favorite birders, and he has agreed to share his “Bird of the Month” each month with the Outdoor Afro community. Birding is a hobby almost anyone can do no matter the age, and it can open up a whole new world of recreation and environmental stewardship. Birds are everywhere — from the tallest city skyscrapers to the remote backwoods! With Doug’s help, you can perhaps come to recognize birds found right where you live!
Bird of the Month
Douglas Gray, Outdoor Afro Contributor
Seen from a distance or in poor light, this month’s Bird of the Month just seems like a small, dark bird. But seen at close range and in good light, this bird’s appearance can be almost breathtaking. This month’s featured bird is the Indigo Bunting.
With such a pretty name, you’d expect a pretty bird…and you’d not be disappointed. The deep velvet blue feathers of the Indigo Bunting sets this bird apart indeed. (The deep velvet blue of the male…that is! So void of distinguishing field marks, the female Indigo Bunting hardly seems to even be a member of the same species of bird. Which is actually a very good thing, as the female spends her time trying to stay concealed as she incubates eggs and cares for the young. And indeed, she is not often seen, but even when seen, she is easily overlooked. I’ve added a second picture to this BOTM so you can see the contrast between the male and female.)
With his astonishing beauty, the male Indigo Bunting seems to know his beauty, and glorify in it, by singing persistently. At a recent picnic at Fort Harrison State Park, I could hear an Indigo Bunting singing nearby as soon as I walked up. (The mnemonic often used for identifying their paired call is, “fire; fire; where? where? here; here; see it? see it?”) I arrived at the picnic at about 11:30AM and that bird sang almost without ceasing until I left at 3:00PM.
An interesting piece of information about the Indigo Bunting is the fact that its color is actually not blue at all, but black…(believe it or not). The blue color is generated by the diffraction of light through their feathers which makes them appear blue. Because of this, they can appear as shades from turquoise to shades of black, depending on how the light hits them. So this beautiful blue-feathered display can actually be seen as a trick of nature.
~*~*~
Douglas “Birdman” Gray has been birding almost all of his life. He grew up on a family farm near Clarksville, Tennessee, where they grew crops ranging from apricots to wheat, and most things in between. They also raised chickens, guineas, pigs, horses, and a cow named…….Apples. Doug’s grandfather identified the birds they would see daily on the farm.
Doug now resides in Indianapolis and works in Parenteral Engineering with Eli Lilly and Company. Most of his current birding takes place in Indiana, with a concentration on Central Indiana, where he leads bird walks for “Backyard Birds“. Doug can be reached at 317-255-7333.

Outdoor Afro Featured in High Country News

Outdoor Afro is so thrilled to be featured in the latest issue of the High Country News Green Justice edition!
Writer Stephanie Ogburn captured the fun spirit of a recent birdwatching event, situated in a stretch of shoreline that borders an industrial zone and a large community of color in Oakland, California. The event was a collaborative effort between Outdoor Afro and Golden Gate Audubon of the San Francisco Bay Area. Most participants were first-time birders, and left the trip inspired to learn more about the birds and other wildlife found right in their own backyard. The full article is available for paid subscribers online or in print via retail outlets, but here is a sneak peak!

Douglas “Birdman” Gray

“African Americans have a somewhat unknown heritage in the historical realm of birding”

Outdoor Afro interviews Douglas Gray, an avid birder, who shares in his own words the gratification he experiences birding, and why it is an important and relevant activity for anyone.
How did you develop an interest in birds?
My interest in birds started as a young child.  I grew up on my grandfather’s farm outside Clarksville, Tennessee (actually Woodlawn, Tennessee, but “Woodlawn” is a lot harder to find on a map!).  Naturally I would see many birds on the farm, and I’d ask my grandfather, “Granddaddy, what’s the name of that bird?” My grandfather, who only had a 6th grade education, somehow knew the names of all the birds we would encounter on the farm.  I’m sure that’s what initiated my interest in birds.  I’ve been told I don’t “look” like a bird watcher, so this question is probably the most frequent question I get asked.
Where is your favorite place to look for birds? And where in the world would you like to bird you have yet to visit?

Many times I’m looking for a particular species of bird, so many times my “favorite place to look for birds” is the particular habitat of the bird I’m searching for. However, if I “had” to pick a specific spot, it’s going to probably be in the southern United States.  This past fall I went birding at a place called Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida…and had one of the best birding times of my life.  I look forward to returning there soon and often.  I like birding at National Wildlife Refuges across the US.
I would absolutely LOVE to bird throughout Central and South America, and also Africa. I’m also developing a good birding relationship with a friend who lives in Uganda, and will likely be going there next year.
Why should African Americans take an interest in birds and their habitat?
This is an interesting question.  African Americans, like everyone else, should take an interest in birding, because it puts you “outdoors” and anytime one gets in the Great Outdoors, it is a natural stress reliever. Being out in nature is possibly, I believe, the most calming, relaxing, and unwinding thing one can do.  It really helps put our sometimes fast paced and hectic lives into a better and more realistic prospective by slowing us down.  And while out in nature, what better thing to do than bird? Yes, I’m using “bird” as a verb; I suggest the book, “The Verb To Bird”.
And also, we African Americans have a somewhat unknown heritage in the historical realm of birding.  John James Audubon is the “Godfather of American Birding”.  Audubon’s mother was not well known.  The reason for this is because she was a Creole slave.  Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785.
Wow — that’s fascinating. So, if someone were to get started, what are the three most important things they need to have? Is it easy? What are some barriers (if any)?
I believe the three most important things to have in getting started birding are: 1) Binoculars, 2) Identification Guide, and 3) Desire.  Binoculars are important because birds have no particular interest in folks approaching them and observing them.  So the binoculars allow you to see birds up close, without actually having to be up close to them.  I usually tell folks to get a decent pair of binoculars.  You can get a decent pair of binoculars in the 60-100 dollar range.  A bird identification guide is a very useful tool also.  It will greatly assist in identifying the birds you do see…and just aren’t sure what they are.  And having a desire to see birds will never be extinguished.  Birding is a pursuit that will easily last a lifetime.  A very close fourth item is to go birding with more experienced birders.  Birders love passing along knowledge they’ve gained through experience.  Find a free bird hike in your area by checking out the National Audubon Society’s web site.

Birding can be both easy and challenging.  For example it can be easy identifying a bird as a “sparrow” that’s at your feeder, but it can be challenging differentiating the 3-5 different species of sparrows at your feeder, or the 20-30 different species of sparrows all within an hour’s drive of the feeder in your backyard at different times of the year.
Anybody can birdwatch.  There are no obstacles or barriers that cannot be overcome when the desire is there to see birds. (That includes obstacles like poison ivy and stinging nettle one may bump into off the beaten trail…lol.)  I’ve even had folks on some of my bird hikes who have been constrained to wheel chairs…and some of those have been my favorite and most memorable hikes.
What was the first bird to make your ‘life’ list? What bird do you hope to see in the future?
I’ll answer this question by mentioning the bird that reignited my interest in birds.  About 15 years ago I looked outside and saw a bird hopping around my yard and I had no idea what that bird was.  It led me to buy my first Bird Identification Guide since my high school years.  The bird was a juvenile robin.  The very common American Robin was the bird that pulled me back into the world of birding.
Name a bird species you hope to see in the future:

Wow…I can’t even answer this question, because there are so many birds that I hope to see.  I will say that it is my desire to see thousands of different bird species during my lifetime…and to enjoy and appreciate each and every one that I do see!

Douglas Gray resides in Indianapolis and works in Parenteral Engineering with Eli Lilly and Company. Most of his current birding takes place in Indiana, with a concentration on Central Indiana, where he leads bird walks for Backyard Birds.