Q&A with birder Melissa Hafting

Melissa Hafting has a long history with birds. Hafting, an ecologist and bird guide from Richmond, B.C., was introduced to birding by her father, eventually surpassing him in both enthusiasm and expertise. After he passed away in 2023, just fourteen months after her mother, she found refuge from grief in birding. 

This month, Hafting published Dare to Bird: Exploring the Joy and Healing Power of Birds, which pairs her photography with reflections on the lessons and insights she gleaned from observing — and protecting — birds. Below, she talks about how to make birding more inclusive, the impacts of climate change on birds and how aspiring birders can get started.

Melissa Hafting stands in a field wearing a yellow top and blue jeans, holding binoculars. Behind her is a pond and a cloudy sky
Author Melissa Hafting started birding with her nature-loving father before becoming, in her words, a “hardcore birder.” Photo: Alia Youssef / The Narwhal.

What first drew you to birding? 

My dad got me into birding when I was really young. He was not a hardcore birder or anything, not like me, but he loved nature and hiking and camping. He got me my first bird book and took me out to look at birds in the sanctuaries. He taught me how to feed birds at home and at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta, B.C. We would come home and tick off all the little birds we could see in my Golden Field Guide. 

It just grew from there. 

And when did your bird watching turn into bird photography? When did you first pick up a camera?

Actually, that was my dad again who bought me my first camera and lens for my birthday in 2014. Before that, I had a small point-and-shoot camera that I would take pictures with, but I used to bird with just my binoculars and a field guide. Then my dad got me a very rudimentary type of digital camera, and I did some photo workshops and practiced with it. When I first started taking pictures, I was terrible at it! It took a really long time to hone my craft. 

I love capturing birds for memories. Like, years from now, I can look back at a picture of a bird and remember where I was, what I was doing. Now I always go out with my camera because you never know what you’re going to see.

What’s the most surprising encounter you’ve had?

There have been so many. Once I was out on Boundary Bay [in Tsawwassen, B.C.], where my friend Kevin had found a little stint, which is from the Old World — a very rare shorebird here. And while I was looking at that, a snowy plover — which is another really rare bird — dropped down for about 10 seconds. If I hadn’t had my camera, no one would have believed me. It was amazing. To capture two rare shorebirds in the same day! But I’ve had tons of these encounters, where you’re just out and a rare bird flies by where you don’t expect to see one. 

A small bird with light brown and grey plumage perches on a branch against a vibrant green background.
A savannah sparrow spotted in the grasslands of Quilchena, B.C. Photo: Melissa Hafting / Dare to Bird

Have you noticed that you’re just constantly attuned to birds around you, compared to the non-birders in your life?

If I’m with my sister or my friends who aren’t birders, I’m always spotting things they don’t see. But I also do a lot of birding by ear. It’s nice when I go for a walk and can just count all the birds I’m hearing, even though I may not see them. Especially in the spring when they’re singing, because they’re nesting and breeding. Even when I don’t see them I hear them and that calms me. 

In your book, you document the impacts of the climate crisis on birds. What are you seeing?

I’m seeing a lot fewer birds around, period. It’s especially noticeable in swallows. I have a nest box project in the city of Richmond, B.C., to monitor tree swallows. I also [monitor] purple martins, the largest swallows in the world which come all the way from Brazil. And I’ve noticed the numbers are really low. On top of that, during the 2021 heat wave, I lost a lot of babies and a lot of adults. That’s not good, it’s not normal. I worked with the city [of Richmond] to retrofit all my nest boxes. I came up with the design of heat shields that we put on the boxes and we painted them all white and added vent holes. That’s helped to decrease the temperature inside of them by about five degrees Celsius. 

Sofi Hindmarch, who is a wildlife biologist here in B.C., was noticing the same thing in her barn owl boxes. They’re very endangered, and they’re at the northern limit of their range here in Vancouver. She has lots of boxes up, which helps them because they’ve had so much habitat loss; they basically exclusively nest in these barn owl boxes. And she’s found that in lots of those boxes, many baby owls were jumping to their deaths [during the 2021 heat dome] because they were overheating. They’re very sensitive to temperatures, and they huddle together in there, and they’ll suffocate and die in there. She’s since put heat shields on her boxes, and we’ll have to continue that going forward because it’s only going to get warmer. We should be planting trees to give more shade, because many of these boxes for barn owls and tree swallows, they’re in the middle of open fields with no shade. So we’re doing the best we can with what we have at the moment, but it’s a really hard thing. 

In addition to all that, I’m seeing way less of everything than when I started birding 30 years ago. There were more birds, more diversity, and it’s just really sad to see. I just went to Iona Beach [in Richmond] where ordinarily you’d see hundreds and hundreds of swallows and I barely saw any. It’s just devastating.

A close-up shot of a mallard duck, with a green face and yellow beak.
A mallard drake, or male duck, is a common sight in Vancouver, B.C., but it’s still very beautiful. Photo: Melissa Hafting / Dare to Bird

What can everyone — birders or non-birders — do to create refuges for birds?

Birds are up against a lot: habitat loss, the climate, pesticides. A lot of the marshes, where I have nest boxes, have dried up and there are no bugs in them for birds to eat or feed their young. On top of that, because the climate is so warm, birds are migrating back earlier, but if they return too early, there’s not enough to eat — the bugs aren’t back yet. They nest early, they can’t feed their young and then they die too. So even what we do in our own backyards won’t be enough.

But if you can, put up a nest box in your yard. I have one in my yard for chickadees. If you can, try to paint them white and put in vent holes. Add heat shields, if you can. And then, reduce your plastic use, reduce emissions. And hopefully we can stop logging the old-growth forest. 

Are any bird species doing well or making a comeback, despite the changing climate?

Bald eagles and peregrine falcons have made a huge comeback from the ‘70s when there was dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (a highly toxic pesticide commonly known as DDT, which was banned in Canada in the 1980s.) Bald eagles and their nests are also protected under the B.C. Wildlife Act. So that helped. But other than that, I can’t think of many examples, unfortunately. Wildlife surveys show that everything is declining, and birds are suffering everywhere across Canada. It’s not looking very optimistic at the moment but we still have time to change it around. 

In the book you write about how to avoid inadvertently causing harm while birding in sensitive ecosystems, like in Hawaii where you have to take care not to spread fungus on your boots. How can people ensure they’re respectful of nature while they’re out appreciating it?

It’s important to follow the rules. Don’t have off-leash dogs where you’re not supposed to because they chase the birds that are already under so much stress. Stay on the trails, don’t litter. If you’re trying to get a photo, stand in one spot and observe; let them come to you, don’t chase them. Make sure you give them their space. Also, some people use audio recordings to attract birds and that’s not good to use during the breeding season because the birds are already under stress.

Is there a good time for a new birder to get out? When will they have the most success?

You can bird any time of day, but the morning is usually the best, especially in the springtime when they’re singing. You can bird in the day, in the evening — but midday is the worst, because the birds don’t want to be out when it’s baking hot. You’ll still see birds but you’ll definitely see fewer.

In the book you write about experiencing racism as a Black birder, and share stories from others who have been harassed or targeted while birding. How can birding be made safer and more inclusive for everyone?

First of all, by acknowledging that there is a problem. It was hard to get that from societies and birding clubs when I first started. They would just dismiss it and say, ‘everyone is welcome.’ They’d be defensive. There are many experiences I didn’t talk about in the book, like getting racist emails and microaggressions, which were very upsetting. One of my young birders, who is Black, was harassed while birding legally in Iona [Beach Regional Park] and the police were called on him.

Then you need to make a real difference. Put welcoming statements on your website — which was a huge uphill battle for me to get organizations to do but now I finally see them doing it in 2024. But I’m happy to see it. Because you can’t assume anymore that people feel welcome. You have to make the effort to let them know. I lead a lot of walks with the Stanley Park Ecological Society that are for Black and Indigenous people and people of colour, or for the queer and trans community, and those weren’t a thing when I was a child or a teenager. But I’ve been told by the people who come out to them that this is the first time they’ve felt safe or included. 

When I started out, some people would ask me, ‘Where did you come from? You don’t look like a birder.’ Some wouldn’t say hello to me, or shake my hand. If I wasn’t so passionate about birds, I don’t think I would still be here. But I pushed my way through. I don’t want people to give up this hobby — because the more people protecting birds, the better it is for birds.

A reddish-brown and grey bird with a short beak is pictured against a brown background.
A veery, this one spotted in Peachland, B.C., is a type of thrush. It gets its name from its ethereal call: a distinct, descending veer. Photo: Melissa Hafting / Dare to Bird

For someone who wants to connect to a welcoming birding organization, where would you suggest they start?

Look at the Stanley Park Ecological Society because they’ve done so much work — they have inclusive walks and series that are free. They even give people binoculars when they come. The leader is usually person of colour or a member of the queer and trans community. You see people who look like you, which is important. When you’re the only one there — I was the only Black person when I first started — you don’t feel as included and nobody wants to talk to you. It’s very important that these walks are not exclusionary, that they make people feel more welcome. 

What about young people?

I started the BC Young Birders program in 2014, because I saw all of these young people birding alone. These kids were really keen. So I asked if they’d like to join a group, so I could take them to look at birds in different parts of the province, the ones you don’t normally see in your own backyard. I take them on field trips, like overnight boat trips off Tofino and camping trips up to the Okanagan. Now the first group from 2014 has all graduated [from] universities but lots of them are still friends, they still go on their own trips. Some of them are now biologists working in conservation, which is amazing to see. Especially after losing my parents, it’s been so nice to have that focus on working with kids.

Having young people involved is so important, because they’re the ones that are going to be the future stewards of this earth. And they’re the ones who will be left to protect the birds. So we want them to have a vested interest — and I find when you mentor a child it enriches your own life. They teach me so much about life, and about birds themselves, so it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve been really happy to see how many kids have come through the program, who love it and say that it changed their life. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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