In August 2021, journalist Adilia Watson traveled from Seattle to Greensboro, Alabama to attend the inaugural Black Belt Birding Festival. The festival is part of Alabama Audubon’s Black Belt Birding Initiative that works to bring the economic and environmental benefits of bird-based ecotourism to one of the country’s most economically challenged rural areas. Adilia wrote about the festival for The Daily Yonder. In this interview for Seattle Audubon, Adilia reflects on her own introduction to birding and her experience attending and writing about this unique festival. Adilia was interviewed by Seattle Board member Grace Rajendran. 

Do you remember what first prompted your interest in birds and birding?
My natural history class in my first year of college at Seattle University. I had to keep a nature journal and draw them. Sketching them out made me appreciate their beauty a lot more. 

What led you to Seattle Audubon?
I was a Doris Duke Scholar in 2019, and we did a birding tour in Seward Park. The birder giving the tour was very enlightening and led me to keep updated with events and education facilitated by the organization. 

When you were a junior at Seattle University, you were awarded a scholarship by Seattle Audubon to attend an international trip to Costa Rica. That trip was cancelled due to COVID and, instead, you then opted to attend the Black Belt Birding Festival in Alabama this year. What drew you to that festival? 
I am fascinated with understanding America and exposing myself to the diverse walks of life it has. To understand America, you have to reach the rural South. I was drawn to this festival because Black people engaging with nature and making their community more economically sustainable was a story of resilience that I wanted to witness myself. I was not surprised by the amount of grit and beauty at each field trip during the festival. 

Was it the first time you attended? Or heard of it?
Never heard about it before. I was already researching the Black Belt and the Seattle Audubon had shared it with me because of their partnership with Alabama Audubon.

 Can you speak a little about your experience as an early-career journalist covering the event?
It was great. I was always conscious about walking the line between participant and journalist, but to truly understand what the festival was about, people’s motivations towards attending, and why they value the festival, I had to immerse myself as a participant. People were happy to speak with me because I wasn’t being a creepy lurker. It made me appreciate my job a lot more. 

What are some of the things about that festival that have shaped and influenced your own thoughts about birding and conservation?
Conservation involves a lot of love, care, and mindfulness. Whether that be between people or people and birds. This world is shared, but humans have a larger conscious impact; therefore, we must be the ones to preserve the beauty we admire. With that extra love, care, and mindfulness, great things will come. I saw that walking around the Joe Farm.

The Wood Stork is one of the species that can be seen on The Joe Farm.
Photo: Joseph Przybyla/Audubon Photography Awards

What were the most memorable experiences from your trip? Did you have a favorite bird that you saw?
I drove through the night during a rain and thunderstorm through rural Alabama. I thought I’d be more scared given I’d just learned to drive, but it was oddly peaceful. 

What surprised you the most about the experience?
There wasn’t much surprising me there, I came prepared to experience something new. 

What would you say to someone from the Pacific Northwest who was thinking about traveling to the Black Belt for a birding tour?
Go! The West Coast is a hub of inspiration and wonder, but so is the South. There is a classic and home-y way to the Black Belt you can’t get anywhere else. Honestly, it gives you a bit of reality, but as a journalist, I try to be a bit more pragmatic about life. A birding tour is more than birding. It opens conversation about local economy, justice, racial equity, and what it takes to make change and support a community, and you can enjoy it while being in eating Southern food!

How do you think the experience supported your professional development and career goals?
Preparing for an interview triggers my anxiety. When I’m interviewing, my anxiety goes away because I’m talking to people. I want to dig for stories and understand what’s happening in the world, and connecting people’s experiences to history, facts, and data. I learned how to compile all of that and make it into a story and get people to care. I love being on the ground and putting the pieces of a story together. 

Swallow-tailed Kite/Donald Wuori /Audubon Photography Awards