Sebastian Moreno has always been interested in nature, but it wasn’t until near the end of his undergraduate studies that he realized wildlife was something he could not only study, but build a career around. A PhD student at the University of Massachusetts, Sebastian combines an array of interests in his studies, from birds and ecology to citizen science and environmental justice. Last year he also helped to start the Western Massachusetts Chapter of Latino Outdoors, to encourage a diverse community to explore the outside world. On the side, he practices falconry with a rescued American kestrel.
I was born and raised in New York City until I was 12 years old. My parents are originally from Colombia. They moved to the U.S. when they were teenagers and met here in high school. While I lived in the city, I didn’t spend much time exploring the outdoors. I did, however, spend a lot of time watching Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and National Geographic, and our family would sit down together and watch wildlife documentaries.
When I was 12, my family moved to the Poconos in northeast Pennsylvania. That was quite the shock going from the city to the middle of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. I spent a lot of the time in our backyard pretending to be some sort of survival expert like Les Stroud from Survivorman. I would cut down trees, build small fires, sharpen sticks, try to carve bows and arrows. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I really started exploring what the area had to offer. My friends and I would explore the local trails or take kayaks out onto the Delaware River. There are small streams all over the place, little waterfalls, small islands.
I had always been interested in science. In high school it was something that I excelled in and would hold my attention. I went to college thinking I wanted to be a pharmacist, ignoring the evidence that my entire life I had been interested in animals and nature. It wasn’t until about junior year of college that studying nature occurred to me as an option. I took an entry level ecology course. And that class really made sense to me. Everything that I was learning was interesting. The professors who were teaching the course were great.
There was a professor who taught ornithology courses, and he invited me to join a bird banding project in his backyard. That’s where I held my first bird. It was a downy woodpecker. That summer I did a whole field work season with him. I knew I wanted to work with birds, but I wasn’t experienced enough to get a job, so I decided to go to grad school.
I went to graduate school at the University of Missouri, and my studies focused on bird diversity in vacant lots in North City St. Louis. That was my first time working in an urban setting. St. Louis is a very segregated city with the majority of North City being Black and lower income. My research took place in an area that has been inflicted by systemic racism, social and environmental injustices. During my time there, I got to meet and talk to many of the residents of the neighborhoods I worked in. Everyone was always so interested in birds and nature.
I stuck out. I’m not Black, but I’m not white either. They’d kind of come up to me and say, “Hey, man. What are you doing? You don’t belong here. Are you lost? Do you need help?” I’d explain I was a graduate student and that I was looking at the birds and counting the birds, and it always led into these very interesting conversations. Some people would start reminiscing about high school and the courses they took and that one teacher or one class where they learned about animals. Or they would tell me what birds they were seeing. Some people would tell me about a pair of northern cardinals they had in their backyard every summer that would build a nest in the same tree every year and have babies, and these people had this emotional attachment to this one pair of cardinals. And they saw themselves as responsible for those cardinals and their offspring. I feel like these individuals knew that where they live is viewed a certain way. They knew the crime that was around. Sometimes at my sites I would count more bullets than I would count birds. But they still saw the silver lining in these circumstances.
As I started learning more about ecology, urban ecology, and environmental injustice, I wanted to make sure that people with similar backgrounds to mine knew from an early age that nature was all around them. Growing up in New York City, I was very much under the impression that I did not live around nature, but you don’t have to drive a car countless hours to be in nature. In Springfield, for instance, the Berkshires are not far away, and there’s a giant urban park – Forest Park – in the city. It’s a personal, academic, and professional achievement if I can motivate and inspire younger generations in urban areas to get involved with nature and conservation at earlier ages.
My dissertation focuses on identifying what motivates participants of long-term citizen (community) science programs to stay engaged and ensure that the data quality remains high. If data quality starts to slip, then scientists are not getting a true reflection of the ecological events occurring. Secondly, my work looks at identifying barriers that prevent underrepresented groups from participating in such programs. Many citizen (community) science programs are interested in the effects urbanization has on wildlife. However, not a lot of participants are coming from urban areas, most are from the suburbs. In our country, urban areas tend to have the most diverse population. If we engage minoritized groups that live in urban areas in citizen (community) science, we are not only creating a more inclusive space, but we are collecting ecological data that will provide a better insight to our questions.
When I was in St. Louis, I learned about Outdoor Afro. It was awesome to see that there was an organization that inspired and connected Black people to the outdoors. When I moved to Massachusetts, I learned that a large portion of Springfield and the surrounding area’s population is Latinx. I thought it would be cool if there was an Outdoor Afro, but for Latinx people. A few days later, someone I follow on Instagram shared a post of Latino Outdoors. I immediately started doing some research on the organization and thinking how awesome it would be if Massachusetts had a chapter. I sent an email, learned about the start-up process, and here we are now.
The goal of Latino Outdoors is to inspire, connect, and engage the Latinx community in the outdoors as well as create spaces where these communities can enjoy nature as a safe, inclusive, and welcoming place. I think this goal is incredibly important, now more than ever. 2020 was a year that exposed many of the injustices people of color endure when trying to enjoy the outdoors. Latino Outdoors is a small sliver in the continuing efforts to ensure that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) can have access and enjoy the outdoors like our white counterparts. It’s really hard when there’s not a lot of representation, when you can’t see yourself in a space. Especially younger generations – they can’t see themselves in the person who’s telling them that nature is for everyone. Here, in Springfield and Chicopee and Holyoke, where there’s such a large Latinx population, I belong. Working with younger generations and with people who can see themselves in me – if this guy can be a birder, if this guy can get a job in conservation, if this guy can go to graduate school – I can too.
The pandemic has posed a challenge for us to host outdoor events. However, we have been very creative and, like everyone else, have been making good use of technology to help us stay connected with the community. In December, we hosted an “Intro to Birding” event in Springfield’s Forest Park and co-hosted a Christmas Bird Count at the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club. This month, we are hosting a virtual tour of the Harvard Forest in Petersham. We hope once the vaccine is more readily available, that we will be able to host more in-person events with the various partners we have made. We want to have hiking outings, teach people how to camp, go on an overnight camping trip, river clean-ups, kayaking/canoeing, and anything else that our community is interested in.
I’ve always been interested in education. When I lived in Missouri, I was on the education committee for Quail Forever and for the University’s raptor rehabilitation center. We would take our ambassador birds and go to events and teach the audience things like what a turkey vulture is and what they look like up close and what makes them special and why we should care about them. We’ve all seen turkey vultures, but they’re normally way up in the sky. Seeing a turkey vulture three feet away from you – that changes everything.
When I moved to Massachusetts, I was a technician for the Smithsonian Neighborhood Nest Watch, which is a community science program. That was my first experience with community science, and I just fell in love with the concept. I was a scientist, but I was also an educator. Going to people’s backyards, banding birds, and having a small audience who could bombard me with all these questions and see the process of how I was catching a bird, why I was banding a bird, why it was important that I weighed the bird, what I was learning from it. Showing a 5-year-old kid how to hold their hands up a certain way so I could place the bird on their hand and watch their reaction when the bird took off – it was rewarding.
I’ve been a falconer since 2017. While at the University of Missouri, I volunteered at the raptor rehabilitation center as part of the education committee. We would go to local events and bring our ambassador birds. At one of these events, I met a falconer. I was always under the impression that falconry was for people with expendable income, but when I learned that a lot of the gear and equipment can be made and it didn’t cost as much as I thought, I started the application process.
Working and caring for a falcon is difficult but rewarding and I wouldn’t change it. The biggest challenge is remembering they are not pets. My schedule revolves around the bird. I have to make sure that I have time, at least five times a week, to go out and fly him. I have to know his metabolic rate and know how much he weighs at all times. The bond I build with these birds is incredibly special and I am grateful that I am able to do so. I use Instagram to show people what falconry is all about for me and what goes on behind the scenes.
This content was originally published here.