Looking through a spotting scope, Ansel Payne could see across the Israeli boarder and into Egypt during a moment that will be remembered in history as the Arab Spring. It was 2011 and President Mohamed Morsi’s regime was still clinging to power, using strong-arm tactics to push back on the demonstrators calling for his ouster.
But Payne, a young man from West Virginia, wasn’t there to observe the impending military coup. He was looking for a Houbara Bustard, a solitary bird slightly larger than a chicken that Payne jokingly describes as a “dumb-looking muppet.”
“We were looking through our spotting scopes and we could actually see the tanks and guard towers on the other side of the border on the Sinai [Peninsula],” Payne recalled. “And there is this goofy bird just dancing around in our field scopes. I just remember that as being a moment where I was like, ‘I didn’t think a country boy from West Virginia would be looking at a bird on the boarder of Egypt in the middle of a major conflict.’”
Payne, who is the new executive director of the Birmingham Audubon, refers to that time in his life as “the year of young men pointing guns at me.” Having received his undergraduate degree from Harvard, and later a master’s from Tufts University, Payne’s initial focus was on insects, primarily bees and digger wasps. He did his PhD work on digger wasps at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which took him all over the world, often to “iffy” places where people usually had guns.
His wife, a historian, was offered a position as a professor at the University of Alabama. With only minimal knowledge of the Deep South — but a few preconceived notions of what to expect — the young couple relocated from New York City to Tuscaloosa.
“At this point, I didn’t really care what I did. She really wanted to be a professor… I thought maybe I’d write a novel or something because I had a lot of free time and a typewriter,” said Payne, a self-proclaimed Luddite who only recently bought his first smart phone. They made some trips up to Birmingham and felt drawn in by the old industrial charm. “We just fell in love with it here, especially after we started running with the Audubon crowd.”
In early 2016 Payne applied for, and later accepted, a job as an educator with the Birmingham Audubon. In two years he rose through the ranks and was named the new executive director in early May. When he got the job, he kept his office, which has large windows that look out on a blank cinder block wall. Not a lot of “birding” — a verb often used to describe the act of observing birds in nature — happens outside Payne’s low-distraction windows, but he likes it that way. He has work to do.
“It’s About a Sense of Place”
The Birmingham Audubon is one of nearly 500 chapters within the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit that incorporated in 1905 with the expressed intent to protect birds through policy, education, and conservation efforts. Oddly enough, the Birmingham chapter was formed in 1946 by three men, all of whom worked for industrial heavyweights of the day such as the Birmingham Slag Company and the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. Out of the slag and coal, the Birmingham Bird Club was born.
In 1947, the group voted to affiliate with the National Audubon Society; 70 years later, the chapter covers nearly the entire state of Alabama, a state that Payne was somewhat surprised to discover is a wellspring of geographic and wildlife diversity. “We have beautiful mountains. We have beautiful coasts. A beautiful Black Belt prairie, longleaf pine forests… The Black Belt is way underrated for birding. It’s just incredible,” Payne said.
Seated in a chair in his low-distraction office, Payne rattles off the types of birds he and his group have seen on some of their annual trips there — scissortail flycatchers, painted buntings, swallowtail kites, and so on. One of the challenges he hopes to address in his new position is to make sure that birding and access to the natural world are for everybody.
“Historically, birding has been an upper-class pursuit,” Payne explained. “The profile of a typical birder is someone who can afford good binoculars, people who are a little older, and it definitely skews more white. Let’s just say there’s a lot of khaki involved. One of our goals here, in this diverse city, is to make sure our activities and our reach reflect that. That’s not to say we’re targeting our reach to any specific group of people. I just want everyone to know that if you ever sit outside and what to know what that type of bird that is, there is a place for you in Audubon.”
An estimated 48 million Americans are considered to be “bird-watchers” according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. When asked why he loves to go birding, Payne paused for a moment and thought about how to put this primal communion with nature into words.
“To me, birding is about a sense of place,” he said. “You get to a place, wherever you are, step outside and you look for the local birds. You’re grounded somewhere. You’re not just in another mall parking lot that looks like every other mall parking lot. You’re enjoying the world around you. It’s a mindfulness and the joy of being present.”
Lawsuit and Legislation
While Payne is hesitant to talk at length about the ways in which environmental protections have been systematically rolled back in recent years, the National Audubon Society filed a landmark lawsuit on May 24 against the United States Department of Interior in order to defend the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Essentially, the lawsuit challenges the “unlawful, arbitrary and capricious” memorandum sent by the solicitor of the Department of the Interior that reverses the longstanding interpretation and implementation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). The memorandum, which is currently being implemented “declares that only activities deliberately intended to kill or take migratory birds (such as hunting) may be the subject of regulation or enforcement under the MBTA,” according to the lawsuit.
In terms of what this would mean for Alabama, if there is another catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, the resulting deaths of migratory birds could be categorized as “unintentional” and companies such as BP would not be subject to fines or responsible for subsequent remediation efforts under the MBTA.
“The [MBTA] is something that has been a bedrock for 100 years and Birmingham Audubon opposes efforts to undermine it,” Payne said. “One of the great strengths of having this diffused network of different chapters means we can respond to the facts on the ground where we are. So we figure out what are the fights that matter to Alabamians and bird lovers here.”
One of those recent fights has been to push back against the legislative effort to impose a tax on the Forever Wild Land Trust, which has secured more than 255,000 acres for public use in Alabama since its inception in 1992. The bill, HB 362, would have required the state land program to pay upwards of $500,000 in property taxes for the land it currently protects on behalf of the public. Eventually the bill was voted down by the Alabama House of Representatives for a second year after legislators were flooded with calls from avid hunters and environmentalist alike.
More often than people might expect, having access to nature – and by extension, birding – is something that crosses party lines, Payne said. “We’re about people who love birds. Those people come from every side of the political spectrum,” Payne said. “Here in Alabama, I go birding with people as far left and as far right as you can be. Having access to public lands that have an inherent promise of being there for our grandkids is very important to us. So when the time comes, you better believe our members are going to call their representatives and fight for that.”
Despite his new leadership role, Payne is still finding his own way forward. Considering the decades that some master birders have spent tuning their ears to the symphony of bird songs and filling their notebooks with rare species they’ve spotted, Payne said he still has much to learn. And he’s okay with that.
“On the first bird walk of my new tenure as executive director, one of our longtime members, a master birder, looked at me and said ‘Ansel, what’s that call right there?’ I said, ‘Is it a tananger of some kind?’ There was like 30 people watching. He just gave me this look and was like ‘No, man,’” Payne said, mimicking a tone of paternal disappointment. “That was a yellow-throated warbler.”
For more information about how to get involved and to find out about upcoming birding tours and events, visit birminghamaudubon.org.