August 2015

Vol. 43, No. 4

Musings from the Blind Birder: Birding Paraphernalia

Martha Steele

Being a blind birder, I usually do not bring anything with me when I go birding, given that I can no longer see well enough with binoculars to locate a bird, never mind actually see something with enough detail to identify the bird. My walk out the door only requires that I have appropriate clothing given the weather conditions and a heightened attention to bird songs or other vocalizations. Occasionally, I may bring along a tape recorder to record songs or field notes that I do not want to forget.

But for some birders, the checklist they walk out the door with may not be just a list of their local birds – they may also have a checklist of all the accessories they want for their day of birding. Many of us may ask ourselves as we prepare to go birding: Have I got my binoculars? My scope? My tripod? My cell phone? My charger for the cell phone? My camera? My zoom lens for the camera? My memory card for the camera? My Internet-accessing device? My Global Positioning System (GPS) device? My screech owl and other bird song tapes? My printouts from the Massbird listserv with addresses to chase a particular bird?

It is of course not surprising that birders can take advantage of new technology or devices to enhance their birding enjoyment. Digital cameras, for example, have long supplanted cameras with film that must be processed at your local photography store. It is nonetheless amusing to me sometimes to watch others, such as my husband, load up before heading out to bird. Sometimes, one trip to the car is not enough, and many times, he needs assistance opening the door, as his hands and shoulders are occupied by his various birding accessories.

With all of these devices to think about, the act of going birding can turn into a nerve-wracking experience, especially if you are running late. Well, you may be running late because it has taken much more time than you expected to pull all your stuff together. Have you ever backed the car out of the driveway, only to realize that you forgot something very important, such as the attachment to your smart phone that allows you to take terrific photos through your spotting scope? You have to go back and find that attachment, thereby further delaying your start, for which you are slightly annoyed. But if you do not realize until 30 minutes later, as you approach your first birding destination of the day, that you forgot something you really wanted to have, it may be more than a little annoyance and obsession that can quickly detract from the excursion.

Okay, so let us say that you successfully left the house without forgetting anything. The next challenge is keeping track of all of one’s accessories, the loss of any one of them potentially causing unbridled panic. When you have more things to keep track of, there is a higher probability of misplacing an item when your attention is drawn to a cool bird. Who among us has not placed something on the roof of a car and driven off completely oblivious to whatever was on the roof? Who among us has not misplaced our smart phone and frantically searched every nook and cranny of the car (maybe four or fives times over), the pockets of every piece of clothing, the ground you were just walking over before you finally find the (expletive) thing? Who among us has not gotten word of a great bird a mile away, scrambled to grab everything, and later discovered that something was lost in the mad dash to the bird?

Have you ever impulsively concluded that the loss of a particular device may be good riddance? I confess that I have, as I am technologically challenged, and if my device does not work, especially when it must work, I am inclined to throw the thing in the ocean, or into a tree if an ocean is not available (I know my husband will smile when he reads this). I love these devices when they work; I have no patience and cannot stand them when they do not.

Having a number of devices to deal with can require excellent coordination and deft hands in the field. Watching someone swiftly and smoothly switch from binoculars to camera to smart phone to scope and back again can be a thing of beauty. But not all of us are so fortunate. We may see a bird we want to photograph, but wait, the camera is not turned on nor is the correct lens attached. Worst yet, the fingers may be cold, and they cannot work fast enough to properly set up the camera. Once ready, you need to go back to the binoculars to re-locate the bird. With luck, you do, and once again, you switch to the camera slung on your shoulders. But now, your fingers are so cold, you cannot find the correct button to push, further delaying the photo opportunity.

All I can say is that I am glad I do not have to worry about a myriad of different pieces of equipment when I go birding. I would surely lose or break my share of equipment, especially given my vision issues. I am perfectly content with simply concentrating on listening to the birds. Listening to birds, by the way, is made possible for me by one of the greatest technological devices of all, the cochlear implant. It is the one device I will never forget.

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington.

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