The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
In this bonus episode, Tammah Watts, LMFT shares how her life took an unexpected turn after suffering a neurological injury following a routine surgery, which left her unable to return to the work she loved. She opens up about how birdwatching became therapeutic for her, allowing her to connect with nature, practice mindfulness, and find purpose and joy in observing birds. She also gives us a peak inside her latest book, Keep Looking Up: Your Guide to the Powerful Healing of Birdwatching.
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Executive Producers: Dennison Bradford & Maya Cole Howard
Producers: Fredia Lucas, Ellice Ellis & Cindy Okereke
BONUS: The Mental Health Benefits of Birdwatching
Dr. Joy: Hey, y’all, thanks so much for joining me for this special bonus episode of the Therapy for Black Girls Podcast. We’ll get right into our conversation after a word from our sponsors.
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Dr. Joy: Today we have special guest, Tammah Watts, a licensed marriage and family therapist with an inspiring story. Tammah shares how her life took an unexpected turn after suffering a neurological injury following a routine surgery, which left her unable to return to the work she loved. However, through this challenging experience, she rediscovered her passion for birdwatching. In today’s episode, she opens up about how birdwatching became therapeutic for her, allowing her to connect with nature, practice mindfulness, and find purpose and joy in observing birds. She also gives us a peek inside her latest book, Keep Looking Up: Your Guide to the Powerful Healing of Birdwatching. Tammah’s story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of nature. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession or join us over in the Sister Circle to talk more in-depth about the episode. You can join us at Community.TherapyforBlackGirls.com. Here’s our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Tammah.
Tammah: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Joy: I’m very excited to chat with you today. If you feel comfortable, can you tell us a little bit about you kinda started birdwatching after a surgery. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and what life was like for you, in the immediate aftermath of the surgery?
Tammah: Yes, certainly. The best way I can answer that question is to say how my life was because that’s what I feel like created a descension for me descending into a deep, deep depression and other related conditions. I was very busy. I was a mental health administrator working 60, 70 hours at a time. And even though I didn’t identify myself with what my profession is and what I do and give back as part of my profession, I realized that after the injury following the surgery, needing to abruptly stop work (it wasn’t planned, it was sudden) really created a loss of what it was I was doing in my profession.
Yes, I’m a mother, grandmother, but for some reason, that immediate loss of that 60, 70 in need in terms of offering care for others and support, I came into a deep depression. In addition to that was the severe pain of the condition that I had, which is chronic regional pain syndrome. It’s still considered rare. When I first contracted it, it wasn’t fully understood, it was still emerging as acceptance of what it was. And so I went through a lot of trials and errors and that’s with medical visits and medications that just further descended me in a sense of hopelessness, like there’s nothing that can be done, I’m doomed.
And so that’s where I was. I had shame associated with not being able to function as I used to. At one point I couldn’t even hold a pen without shaking terribly or pick up, I say a stray dime because it was flat on the surface, or brush my teeth even, just carry a pan of water. Things you take for granted quite often, I lost that. And so it was very apparent to me how debilitated I was, and that further descended into more depression and stress and anxiety because of the loss of everything in my mind. At that time, that’s what it felt like. And it became very dark for me and very isolating. Like the world was continuing to go on, that I was in this house. I didn’t see it as a home, it was just this space. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t exercise like I used to. It was a lot. It was a lot.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. And so one of the things you turned to, it sounds like, was birdwatching. Can you talk a little bit about, do you remember your first time when you went birdwatching? Was it an intentional kinda thing? Did it just happen? What do you remember about that first time?
Tammah: I kinda have two aspects about my connection with birds and birdwatching. So I have my connection as a young girl growing up, early on with chickens and my duck, my pet duck. So I had that, I fell like that was the root or foundation that was always in me, and both my parents spent time outdoors, took us outdoors as children. And so I feel like that was in my cells and contained in me, even though beyond that in adulthood I was so busy here, there, and everywhere. I didn’t pay attention to birds at all during a number of years. So then in later years, in the more recent times I would say, because of the debilitating pain, depression, the anxiety, the loss – and there was a lot of loss and grief about all of this. One of the days, it was in the morning, I was trying to fill a medium-sized pan of water and it was shaking in my hands, but I was doing it. And I happened to look up out of my kitchen window, up at a tree. And we have a tree that early on, we moved in here, we planted a little tree. So I happened to look out and there was this yellow moving through the trees. And so at first I thought it was those yellow blossoms on the tree. But something different was moving, and I looked up, and I saw it was this little yellow bird. At the time I didn’t know what it was called but it’s called a yellow warbler. They’re buttery yellow and then they have a little bit of red streaking on their chest, the male birds do. And that’s what that was.
So there’s this yellow sticking out, moving around, coming to drink. And it happened to look at me just for a split second probably. It could have felt like time stopped. It felt like it just stared at me, it casted beams of sunshine all over my soul. Because literally in that second there was this different connection that created a connection to life, to possibilities, to see outside to, like, there is life. Part of this is me processing this after, but at the time it caught me like this. And then I began to notice it come. And so every time I would go to the kitchen, which for me I’m in the kitchen a lot, maybe more than I should. But I’m in the kitchen looking and I started to look up every single time, and it became a habit over many weeks and months. And I would see it and I would see it again. Now I know this was during spring migration when the yellow warblers come through in southern California. So it really drew me outdoors, and I went outside, I was curious. I began to notice other birds, many that now live all the year round, like doves, house finches (for folks who may or may not know about those) and they tend to be more browns. When you start to notice, you notice all kinds of variations. And so that began to help ease me out little by little, a minute at a time, ease my way outdoors and noticing birds. And so that’s the connection.
Dr. Joy: What a beautiful story. I wonder if there was also a connection to your childhood, when things were simpler and less complicated since you already had a connection to birds.
Tammah: Right. And the interesting thing is my mother was always ahead of her time. She is a maverick woman, beautiful, and she’s still alive with us. She’s 91 years. Then, she was way ahead of her time. The daughter of an AME minister, she was all over the place doing other things unconventionally. So she wanted us to have a farm. And so this little yellow duck when I picked it out at the feed store, it was bright yellow. And I didn’t make that connection really but I feel like that’s why I shared that originally. I think the foundation had been set way back, so then I could then have that much-needed assistance.
Dr. Joy: So can you say a little more about what the birdwatching did for you trying to manage the chronic pain? You’ve already said it kind of helped to draw you out. In what other ways do you feel like it was helpful to you?
Tammah: It reduced the amount of time that I was inwardly focused on the dark spots and spaces of what I had lost, of my losses. And it really created a lot of curiosity, and that there was these unknown appearances that were coming. And when that happens, that really is diversion from your energy and focus away from what isn’t going well, what isn’t happening for you. Necessarily like for me, I speak for myself in that regard. And in doing that, we now know neurologically, physiologically, we can reduce the sensations of pain and symptoms of depression in that process. So that’s what it has done for me. And that’s in the home space. I then became so curious that I got a guidebook to kinda figure out what are these birds I’m seeing. And then I began to feel confident enough to walk around in my neighborhood, so I began to go outdoors and move my body, even a little bit, in the way that I could. I’m not running, I wasn’t walking briskly like maybe other folks. But for me to go out and get in that fresh air that we now know is also helpful for reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress. Even a few minutes versus staying indoors all the time made a difference.
So doing that over time, and not necessarily going for a walk. I was going to go see what birds I could find – I’m walking, I’m moving, I’m staying out a little longer. And if I have to pause and lean up against a fence or sit down on a stoop or something, I do that without feeling you’re not doing it right or you can’t go the full way. It’s like I go in the way that I can. So that allowed me to develop more physical stamina. So at the same time, I’m kind of getting the benefits of both and I’m seeing other birds. I began to feel more confident, and this is over a number of years because of my debilitation, that I was beginning to improve and improve. I finally decided I’m gonna join a local Audubon Chapter. And Audubon is a bird conservation and environmental organization. They’ve been around since the late 1800s, early 1900s. And so in different states, they have local chapters throughout the states. And so I wanted to join one. I thought how am I gonna do this? I don’t wanna just show up. I’m not a birder, I don’t look a lot of these folks. This is uncomfortable. But yet I wanted to be able to learn more and be in a community with others that had similar interests.
And so I decided to attend what’s called the Christmas Bird Count. It’s an annual event where, all over North America, people join in teams and they count the birds they see during a designated two weeks, in December usually. All of that is tabulated with researchers and scientists to see patterns of what species may be in decline, what rarities may be showing up because of climate change, weather, whatever the reasons. It really gives a picture, a snapshot of what’s going on. So you’re contributing to a broader, greater space than yourself. And then being in community, the power of community is profound. And so being with folks that maybe some of them or a lot of them know more than you do, a lot of them, when I first started, they knew all the birds. And I was just finding joy in just being around others and in that space. Now I’m basically a bird lady for sure. But that’s how it grew and grew, is that feeling of connection, that the birds invited me to go further out and to connect more and more and more.
Dr. Joy: And some of that community science that you’re talking about I can imagine kind of filled some of that need to give back in the same ways that you were doing in your practice.
Tammah: Exactly. It’s like you just know and it’s what you can do, and that you’re one of several. And that’s what I talk about in the book, is like a flock is one of many. And then a flock, birds will fly, like if you see geese flying in that V formation or pelicans, certain species of birds, there’s one in front, and then you just have the V, so that they can cut the wind... Well, that one in front is leading the rest but then it gets tired. It can slip back into place and another one will take its place and carry the journey on for the group, and so that’s what I say. And flocks will flock together with different species, some that eat on the ground, some that eat in the trees. And so those in the trees can look for predators and warn the ones on the ground. And when they’re mixed together, there’s more numbers in a flock so they present safety for themselves against predation from other predators, animals, and whatnot. So the power of community, which is why I named that chapter "birdwatching in your community flock," that powerful sense of belonging is huge. And we know that that too helps with reduction in depression, stress, all kinds of benefits of being in community.
Dr. Joy: So besides the power of community, what other kinds of lessons do you feel like the birds have taught you?
Tammah: So many. I'm learning all the time, every day about them too. They’ve taught me to really accept me and myself. They’re non-judgmental is how I see birds, that they’re non-judgmental. Now, they might not like you storming out ‘cause they’ll take flight if you come storming out, but they’re not judging you, they’re just responding to you. I feel like birds represent that. It’s a reminder for us to just pause and take notice of what happens to come by, whether that’s a fly-by, a landing on a balcony ledge, or in a bush, or up in a tree. It’s just a reminder to say just take a moment and notice what is around. It really is for me a reminder of gratitude, of self-acceptance, just like we’ll accept you how you are. Sometimes I’m out there in my pajamas, the birds will accept you anyway. And they’re everywhere so that reminder can be for everyone.
So that’s what for me birds remind us that we belong here just like they belong here. Part of it is when you feed birds and offer them water, it’s a sense of also doing self-care. There’s a sense of a beneficial, mutual relationship that you develop when you feed birds. But even the little hummingbird feeder, usually the same little hummingbird will come over time so you develop this relationship of caring. And trust me, a hummingbird, if it goes empty, if anybody has a hummingbird feeder and it goes empty, those little hummingbirds are looking zippy, like where’s our food? Where are you? We need you. So it really does reinforce a sense of being needed, there’s benefit to it. And so like I say and conservationists say, when we do better, birds do better. So those are some of the reminders.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Tammah after the break.
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Dr. Joy: You’ve already kinda outlined a couple of the mental health benefits. So you talked about a reduction in stress, reduction in the pain. What other mental health benefits have you found related to birdwatching?
Tammah: I find that a lot of folks that I talk with feel a sense of reduction of their depression. Also, a sense of there’s something more beyond you, the person going through a dark time. And like I said, and you can show up to notice it just how you are. So if you can’t get up off the sofa right now, you can look through a window, hopefully, or look through a door. It also creates a sense of belonging like we’ve talked about. And there’s new research that shows that birdsong does help with the symptoms of reduction in stress. A sense of calm, that the sounds of birds creates a sense of calm for us that kind of is linked to our natural sense of the natural world. Green spaces, blue spaces. And so hearing birdsong particularly in the afternoon has been found to be really beneficial for those kinds of symptoms of mental health, depression, anxiety, stress. So those are some of the benefits. And spending time just noticing birds in the afternoon as well. So that’s one of I think a benefit, that you don’t have to just go look at birds in the morning. Some people think you have to get up early at dawn and do it. Not necessarily.
Dr. Joy: So what does your birdwatching practice look like? Is this something that you do daily, weekly? What does it look like?
Tammah: It’s definitely daily, and it takes all different kinds of forms. I think I’m considered a hybrid type person. And that’s part of what I want to share with folks, that you could do birding the way you wanna do it, it doesn’t have to stick to this concept that you have to have the hat and certain colors and certain ways. But every day I go out and sit with the birds. Sometimes it’s ten minutes, five minutes, and other times it’s a couple of hours. When I can, I’ll even work outdoors when I’m writing or working on a project that I can just take my laptop out there and do that at the table outdoors, I’ll do that. And I’m watching birds as I’m working. So to me that’s the best office space that I can get. If not, I’ll look through the window and notice ‘cause I have a hummingbird feeder hanging out near a tree near our window.
And then I’ll also at times go on outings that are sponsored by the local Chapter of Audubon that I’m a member of. It helps invite me into spaces that I may not know about otherwise. So I learn about new trails, new parks. And a lot of the guides are very knowledgeable and so they may say there’s this species coming through that’s rare. Like there’s birds that get flown off course and they’re very rare in certain regions, depending on where you live. And so people may not otherwise see it, so this is an opportunity to go do that. And that’s called chasing a bird, going after the bird, like specifically I wanna go see this one particular bird that’s only here. Like for me to see a cardinal would be a huge thing. That would be stop everything, go see the cardinal. Like here’s an example. Early January did you hear about the snowy owl that was in Orange County, California?
Dr. Joy: I did.
Tammah: Yeah. It was international news. So I went up ‘cause I live in San Diego county. I took my granddaughter. And so that’s the other piece of this that’s beneficial. When I can, I will take… my granddaughter is my birding buddy that I can coax into going with me. And so she’s kinda got the bug too. But this was like a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a snowy owl that normally is up way north, like Alaska, way north in North America. And during this period of time, it might descend in the lower parts of Canada, but here it was in LA County, Orange County. So many people were literally, I hate to use this term, but they were flocking. I mean, they were in the street, they were all over the sidewalk. So to be a part of something that really was historical, so you’ll find me doing that kind of thing.
So there’s like a blend. And that’s the thing I like. It’s like when I choose to do it, I’ll sometimes go with somebody else. A lot of times I’ll walk on a trail where I live and just see what I see by myself. And then when I want to, I can join a full community of people. I do volunteer for Audubon in a couple of capacities as well. So it has grown to me in terms of how I contribute back. So there might be an event, like a wetlands event down in main part of San Diego county to really restore that back to the indigenous lands, which also benefits birds and habitat as well. So that might bring hundreds of people, just like the snowy owl brought hundreds of people, and events around that. So you can pick and choose when you wanna lean in more or just decide to do it as a solitude and just do something that’s just for yourself. I know that was a long answer.
Dr. Joy: No, that’s fine. But I am curious, though. For people who are enjoying the conversation and they wanna get started with birdwatching, what do you do? Do you just go outside in your neighborhood? How do you actually get started birdwatching?
Tammah: Okay. Well, first I would have just said don’t worry about feeling as though it’s for old folks ‘cause a lot of people think that birding is just for old folks and it’s not. So I just wanna start there, that it’s for every age. Birding is accepting of everyone. So to really get started, honestly, you just need a few minutes of your time. I say give yourself at least ten minutes if you can. And if you can go outside, just please step outside where the birds are. You don’t have to go far. So for if you're staying at home, step out and wait. And you just sit, I would say sit unless you wanna stand. But try to do so as quietly as you can. Just enter the space as though you’re an uninvited guest. Because the longer you sit outside or spend time outside, the birds will start to emerge because they start to feel like everything’s quiet and safe, and then you’ll notice even more birds come forward for you. So the longer you can be out there, you’ll start to notice more movement and sounds come forward again. There you are and you’re birding. You’re enjoying birds.
And then for someone maybe you can’t go outside but you look out of the window and just keep looking out, you’ll eventually maybe notice a bird that way because your mind’s thinking about, I’m gonna look and see if I see any birds. And then you probably will notice one or you might hear one. A crow, maybe it’s a raven. It’s hard to sometimes tell between a crow and a raven. But you’ll hear that or a dove, or finches. I wanna invite folks to see that as you have started to engage with them ‘cause you’re taking notice in the way that you can. I sometimes notice when I’m driving somewhere, I’ll see a big bird sitting up on a lamp post or a light or something. And I’ll look and say, what is that? So you can do it in different ways but to get started, that really is what you need, is time.
And then if you really wanna be in a little more, then I would invite you to consider buying binoculars because binoculars allow you to see the birds in more detail. And someone like myself, I have poor vision, so it really helps me to see a lot of details. Which helps for more appreciation of a bird that you might think, oh, it’s just a plain old brown bird. Then you’ll begin to see, no, there’s three or four different colors or shades of brown, or there’s some other color in there that you hadn’t seen. And it lets you see birds further away from you as well. Brings them up close.
So whatever your budget and what you’d like to spend, binoculars range across the board and you can just go from there. I invite folks if you want to, there’s apps that you can download that are free. eBird, Merlin, that’s for sounds and ID. Audubon has an app. And those can help tell you what kind of birds you’re looking at if you wanna start getting curious that way and kind of broaden it. Or you can actually get a book, a guidebook, which has pictures of the different birds, where you can find them. So it becomes almost like a detective story because you try to figure out was it this bird or was it that. And that’s a great way to engage children, too. Not for long at first. It’s piquing their curiosity, like I wonder what kinda bird that is? That’s how you get started.
Dr. Joy: Can you do this in the city as well? Or do people need to travel to the countryside or a more rural area to do birdwatching?
Tammah: That’s a great question. And the answer is yes, you can bird anywhere. Anywhere, anywhere. And I know not a lot of people feel like that because there’s sounds and movement and too much moving and not as much green space or water around, so that it feels like it’s just a lot of not that, so then the birds aren’t there. It is true, birds are attracted to trees and bushes. But birds still are around so you will see them. You really will see them in all the spaces. And that’s what I like about birds. They’re accessible around the world, they don’t care what you do or do not have, what you look like, what you are wearing for the most part. But again, if you’re out there in a white T-shirt and that’s what you wanna do, it’s fine. Birds are still gonna come. And they’re free. They’re flying free, and they’re free to us to notice and get the benefits from them, and that mutual exchange.
Dr. Joy: You mentioned, if possible, to wear more muted clothes ‘cause that may help you blend in more to the background. Is there anything else we should be mindful of? You mentioned entering an environment quietly. Any other suggestions around how we’re supposed to interact or behave around birds?
Tammah: I think those are the two. If you can wear colors that kind of reflect the natural environment, like you’re saying, that’s why you see folks dressed that way because you’re blending in or you’re acknowledging the earth elements, if you will. And then if you’re going out into a space, if you can, just remember to walk out slowly like an uninvited guest who’s just being like let me enter this space, so they can get used to knowing who I am. Because the birds over time will get to know you, they do get to know you. I’m able to walk slowly where the birds don’t necessarily fly away because they say, oh, it’s her, especially if you feed them.
Dr. Joy: Are they knowing you through smell? How are they developing a relationship with you?
Tammah: I think just from sight. They see like if you have a bag with the bird seed or peanuts. Crows like peanuts, by the way. In the shell, no salt. But anyway, they’re very smart and so they do see that. They make that association like, oh, this is the food lady. So if you move gently around, and I tend to walk on the perimeter on the edges of my yard sometimes, they won’t take off. If I walk very slowly. So they kind of help me slow down and so that’s how they build in that mindfulness for me. It’s almost like you can kind of do it as an experiment. Like let me see if I can walk from here to there, and not have – the doves are a good one to use – and not have the doves fly off. And at first, you know, until they get to know you.
Dr. Joy: Got it. So Tammah, I do wanna talk a little bit about black people and our relationship to nature, specifically birding. We know that there was a pretty well-advertised incident of a black man in New York birding who had the police called on him. And so I do think that that kinda contributes to some of our reluctance to engage in these kinds of spaces. What kinds of things do you think are important for our community to really know about our relationships in nature and birds specifically?
Tammah: That’s an important question. Yes, it is unfortunate that that happened to Christian Cooper. Sadly, that wasn’t the first time. So we know there’s a message being sent that we shouldn’t be in certain spaces. And what I wanna say about that (and I’m pulling this also from my own immediate ancestors, etc., and our people) is we have a right to be in these spaces. Our ancestors are who gave guidance as to how to be on the land, how to tend the land, how to care for the land. And we have to remind ourselves that is our given stance. With that, yes, we need to keep ourselves safe. And so if that means not going by yourself, if that means creating a buddy system and going together so you feel safe. I really wanna emphasize that you have to go out in the way that each one of us feels safe. What might feel safe for me may not feel safe for you, may not feel safe for another person. Rightly so. Each of us. And it’s to acknowledge that there are folks that feel threatened from us in terms of their insecurities, their constructs. It’s their problem that ends up making it ours.
But what I wanna encourage folks, just to have that acknowledgment. I’m not saying being naïve about risks to us as people. At the same time, I really wanna underscore the importance for us to remember what our ancestors represented and gifted to us in terms of their knowing, that we have in us that same knowing we have a right. And really I wanna say, almost a necessity to take care of selves by being back on the land, go outside, be outside. You’re supposed to be there. And this is why I’m wearing this. I don’t know if you can see it but it’s the sankofa bird, which represents casting back to our ancestors. I got this in Mali, it was gifted to me. This is important. You have to remember that our connection with the land, with birds, all, domesticated and otherwise, goes through history and time beyond us.
Dr. Joy: And besides traveling in groups or bringing a buddy, are there other things you would suggest for safety?
Tammah: If you wanna go yourself, letting someone know what your plan is, how long you anticipate to go. Carry your phone with you for sure. Carry a whistle if you’d like. If you’re going to a park, a state park for example, checking in with the ranger station is another layer. Take the time to do all of these. And that doesn’t take long to just sign in on the sheet that you’re there in the park. We’re talking state parks and whatnot, where you might wanna venture out on your own. Or even with others. I really highly recommend just go in to the ranger station, sign in so they know you’re on the property somewhere. And there’s usually some valuable information that you can get while you check-in. There might be a certain bobcat sighting or bear sighting that you need to be aware of so that you adjust your course. There might be other information that’s helpful for you to enjoy spending the time there or some special offering or event that you might not have known if you hadn’t checked in.
Check before you leave your home. Go online and look at the space you wanna go to. Do they have the things you need? For some folks that have additional needs that they have, do they have a bathroom? Is there accessible parking? What are the types of roads or trails? Are they steep? Are they flat? Is it smooth? There’s some folks that use wheels, and by wheels, I mean everything from wheelchairs to strollers to bikes – can you do that? If you advise someone who’s going with you for the first time, I also really emphasize reduce the amount of time you do it the first time because there’s time spent getting there, planning, being there, and then time to get back. And so you wanna account for all of that. Do you need your medication? Do you need layers of clothing depending on the weather? So checking some of that. And it’s not to feel like all of that’s all burdensome. You can do that very quickly online a lot of the times. And you can get in the habit of doing it so it doesn’t take away from the fun. In doing that, it prepares you to have even more fun.
And then if you’re really traveling distances that you’re unfamiliar with, there are people that can be your guides, that you can pay a small fee for, and some of them are offered free, you just have to reach out and try to coordinate with someone that can go with you that knows the terrain, knows the area. If you’re wanting to connect with birds in particular in addition to maybe spending time now in other wildlife, but you're really wanting to see birds, people that are local to an area. Let’s say you’re traveling to Costa Rica or somewhere, to another park that’s outside where you normally live, connecting with others. And a lot of people will volunteer their time because when they come to your space, they’ll ask you, could you show me around in your city, your town as well. So again, it’s that reciprocal relationship. And then that can increase your sense of safety because you’re with someone that knows, and they also know what they’re looking for, so it will also increase your enjoyment.
Dr. Joy: Got it. Thank you for that, Tammah. More from my conversation with Tammah after the break.
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Dr. Joy: I have a couple of rapid-fire questions that I wanna ask. And you’ve already answered a couple of these so I wanna see if you have some additional insight to give us here. Can you tell me the rarest bird you’ve seen? Was it the snowy owl or something else?
Tammah: That’s a good question. I think it might be an owl, the snowy owl. And I also saw an anis, it looks a lot like a raven. And a raven looks like a bigger crow – the beak is a little different but they look so close, but just imagine a big, big crow, like a raven. But this one had an oddly shaped beak and that bird is really from deep in South America, and it was up here at a local park. And it was hard to find. The people kept saying we have to go several times, and I found it. So before, I would have said maybe that bird before. Now the snowy owl. So you’re right, if I have to only say one, I guess I am going to say the snowy owl.
Dr. Joy: Okay. So tell me when you set off on an adventure to find a special kind of bird, was this also the snowy owl? Or what other adventures have you gone on in search of a particular bird?
Tammah: So yes, the convenience of the snowy owl, yes, it took me two hours to get there. I’m in San Diego County, it’s in Orange County, so that was a bit of a trek. But that wasn’t too much. And I talk about this in my book in the chapter called Migration Birdwatching In My Environment. And I kinda mean that environment meaning travel, when you really start to go further out beyond your home and your neighborhood. And so I talk about in that chapter, because each chapter opens with a story of mine. And so the story I chose to share in that was to see the tufted puffins that come in once a year or about four and a half months. They fly into Oregon, on the coast of Oregon in a town called Cannon Beach. And they land on this large monolith that’s grassy. And for generations, these birds come from sea, they spend the rest of the time out at sea. People don’t really even know what they do at sea. They spend the whole time out. And then around April, they come in to nest. And they usually have one little bird, which is called a puffling, and it’s a cute little ball of fur. And then around July, August, maybe September, they fly back out to sea again. And then they repeat that the next year. So to catch them, you have to go at a certain time, throughout this huge monolith which is difficult to see. I mean, there’s abundance of them at certain peak times of the year.
And so as a little girl, I always thought they were the most interesting little birds. For folks that may not know, a puffin looks almost like a penguin but with more white in its face and like a reddish, orange and yellow triangular type shaped beak. And they kind of look very odd, kind of penguin-esque type. So as a kid, that was so appealing to me. I’d see it in the National Geographic. And most puffins are in Icelands and other locations far, far away. So I thought one of these days I am gonna go see one, I’m gonna have to find a way to go to this far, far away land. And like I advise in my book, when you’re going on a trip, why not take a look at your route and see if there’s any bird sanctuaries, state parks, something along the lines that you might find that there’s birds there that you wanna see along the way. You might take 15 minutes out of your day or a couple of hours on your way to your journey.
And so I did that. I was taking my son up to eastern Washington, the state of Washington, to spend some time at a family property for him to work on it during the summer. And so I thought, what sanctuary, what parks, what wildlife place can I stop along the way and see? And so then I thought, well, I have to come back down south again to California, so what’s along the coast over there? And that’s when I learned that there’s tufted puffins there. So I made a whole plan and trip around fulfilling my childhood dream of seeing these birds. And so that’s what I did. I had an ocean view, I made sure to get a nice little suite, had a little fireplace in there. It had a patio, so I could see right on the beach. It was a couple of days, it wasn't long once I got there. But I just said, you know what, I’m gonna give myself… it was self-care. It was like my own retreat, just a little time away by myself. And I walked around the little town and met up with a guide. I planned ahead and I called a non-profit organization that helps you learn about the puffins. It’s called Haystack Rock. And so I connected with her, Jessie, which she’s mentioned in the book. And she was able to show and guide me and help me see the birds and understand about them, because I really wanted to make sure I did. And so this is something that everyone can consider too. It was a really nominal fee to be able to have a deeper appreciation for this childhood dream I had. So I also recommend that again, some will volunteer to do it. And that’s what I did.
Dr. Joy: Nice. What a beautiful experience. So we’ve already talked a little about the book and kind of gotten a beautiful story behind the name of the book, Keep Looking Up. What can we look forward to in the book, and how do you want readers to actually use the book?
Tammah: Thank you. So the book, I really do have to say, there hasn’t been a birdwatching or a birding book like this before. I guess I want folks to approach this though as more than it’s different than just your traditional birding book. It is a narrative memoir. The power of story is very important to me. I know that that is a connector, soul to soul, for us to really have opportunity to share our stories is part of healing. Which is why in each chapter, it opens with a personal story of mine related to that chapter’s topic. Each chapter has a topic and it has a subtitle topic related to the bird that really emphasizes and reinforces that connection between us as humans with what birds are and how they can gift us and vice versa. There is a part of it that has some guidance in it. So there is a part that is like a mini guidebook per chapter. And then at the end of each chapter, there are reflective exercises. So this is where the clinical mental health therapist part of me came forward and really wanted to invite folks to help deepen the reader’s connection with the chapter you just read. How does this apply for you? How can you integrate this in for you and have this relationship that’s only unique to you and personal to you, which is so powerful? How does this reinforce and lift your story? That’s what the reflective exercises are for, is to connect in that way too.
And there is that piece of it that I’m really wanting to emphasize a way of acknowledging depression and stress and loss and grief of loved ones, anxiety. All of those that often have a lot of stigma attached to them. I was called, I felt like I was called. The stories came up, it was not easy to write about them. And then including regarding my mother with her Alzheimer’s. But I know too many people I speak to that know someone or they are the caregiver, and what that is about, and there’s the joy and the love in that as well as the challenges caring for a loved one. I wanted to address these real life experiences in a way that invites others to feel that they can too, and how the connection with birds is what can really invite you to. As you choose to. It’s another strategy or tool. As therapists, we talk about what does your toolbox look like? What is in your toolbox? When you’re feeling depressed, what can you reach in the toolbox and pull out to help you? Is it take a walk? Is it to journal? Is it to take a nap? Is it your medication? And so I say, can you take a few moments and notice the birds? Because again, we now know that that can help. Just take a moment, be in the present moment instead of worrying about what you didn’t do yesterday or a few moments ago or what you’re going to do. It helps you get mindful now.
Dr. Joy: You’ve answered that beautifully. Thank you for that.
Tammah: Yes, and you can use it in different ways. And there are exercises that you can go back and use, that’s the other thing. Thank you. You can go back and use the exercises time and time again. That’s the other piece that I really wanna emphasize, that it’s not a one time and it’s done. You can go back and use it as much as you like.
Dr. Joy: Perfect. I think that’ll be a beautiful addition for a lot of people’s toolbox so I’m really glad that you wrote it and shared those stories with us. So where can we stay connected with you? What is your website as well as any social media handles you’d like to share?
Tammah: My website is TammahWatts.com. I spend a lot of time on Instagram. Well, not a lot of time but that’s where I am. I’m still trying to get comfortable on social media. And I am connected, I am on the board of Audubon California. So I cross over in those spaces. You’ll see me offering webinars, like on Mindful bird sit coming up. It’s a four-part series through Audubon California in conjunction with WEC, I'm associated with that. But I think going to TammahWatts.com is a great way to just keep up with where I am at, what’s offered. I try to make sure to share that information for folks that might wanna partake some of those webinars to kinda get a sense of what birds are about, will have that opportunity.
Dr. Joy: Okay, and where can we find the book? Can we also grab that from your website?
Tammah: The book is anywhere you buy books. So if you like to buy your book at a particular indie bookshop, please order it through there. Amazon. It’s in trade paperback, it’s in eBook, and now the audio will be released and I narrate it (so it’s great.) And there is a meditation in there, mindful meditation in the book too, that I narrate and they can listen to it. So anywhere you buy books. Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, everywhere. It’s being released worldwide.
Dr. Joy: Got it. We will definitely include all of that in the show notes. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
Tammah: Thank you. It was fun. I love talking about birds and especially with you Dr. Joy. Thank you so much.
Dr. Joy: Thank you for being with us. I’m so grateful to Tammah for joining us today. To learn more about her incredible work or to grab a copy of Keep Looking Up, visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/birdwatching. And don’t forget to text two of your girls to tell them to check out the episode as well. If you’re looking for a therapist in your area, check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. And if you wanna continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It’s our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis, and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y’all so much for joining me. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.