It's a New Day

February 2015

Vol. 43, No. 1

Musings from the Blind Birder: Birding, a Way of Life

Martha Steele

Birding is not just a hobby, it is also a way of life. It often dictates our days depending on the season, the weather patterns, the presence of unusual birds, or the calendar of annual bird censuses. It also bonds us to one another and engenders an instant social network across the globe, never mind locally. When we arrive at a local place to bird, we often find other birders whom we know. Our search for birds is interspersed with catching up with one another. Even if we are disappointed in missing a bird, we can always take solace in reconnecting with fellow birders.

When I think of how birding has influenced my life, I can start with my husband, Bob Stymeist, whom I met through our mutual passion for birds. Casual encounters in the field, serving as staff volunteers for Bird Observer, and being part of larger groups on birding trips to Latin America all served as easy and relaxed circumstances to get to know each other better over time. Going birding together spawned many wonderful moments, such as finding Bohemian Waxwings in Wellfleet on a November day, or during a furious and frigid January weekend in western Massachusetts, adding 10 communities to Bob’s quest to record a Carolina Wren in all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns.

If you want to raise eyebrows among those watching a developing relationship, consider our Labor Day weekend of 1998. We planned to head to my parents’ home in northern Vermont on Saturday morning for Bob’s first visit there. On Thursday night, Bob asked me if it would be okay to make a slight diversion for a rare bird— a Broad- billed Sandpiper. “Sure,” I said, “where?”

“Jamaica Bay in New York City,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “a slight diversion? When do you plan to get to Vermont?” “By dinner,” he replied.

“Sounds good to me,” I said.

When I explained our itinerary to my mother, her simple response was an incredulous what? My parents must have wondered then, what was their daughter getting into?

We started out from Arlington on Saturday at 2:00 am under a bright, full moon and arrived at Jamaica Bay at dawn. Although we missed the bird, we enjoyed up close and personal looks at scores of Black Skimmers and a Concorde climbing into the sky from nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport. By mid-morning, we headed to northern Vermont and, as promised, we arrived in time for dinner. This story is now part of family lore. We were building birding memories and our lives together.

Although these birding moments illustrate our obsession with birds, our friends and family accept our passion and peregrinations, however convoluted. But birding may not have always been considered a socially desirable pursuit. I once listened to Bob, Wayne Petersen, and Allan Keith recall how they sometimes hid their birding hobby from their high school or college peers. As Allan said, it was decidedly uncool to be a birder and being one was a closely guarded secret. In Allan’s case, although his fiancée had an inkling that he was interested in birds, she did not realize the depth of his passion for birds and birding until after they were married.

It was arguably not until after the momentous sighting in 1975 of the Ross’s Gull in Newburyport Harbor that birding came out of the closet. Said Paul Baicich,

The provenance of the not as important as was its impact on birders. It was not simply the discovery of an ultra-rare bird by birders that was important; it was the discovery by birders of each other that was so crucial. Numbers of birders came through Newburyport by the hundreds that winter, perhaps by the thousands. Birding had arrived. (Baicich 2008)

Still, we get our fair share of strange looks from passersby as we search for birds. What are you looking at? they ask. Birds, we respond. Oh, and they drive away with indifference, as if to say, what is so exciting about birds?

To that, we say, much more than you will ever know. We cannot wait to share our sightings with one another. Smart phones send instant notification to a network of birders of an unusual bird and transmit instant verification of bird identification through photographs. A relaxed summer evening can quickly change to a mad dash to a nearby rare bird, where hordes of birders have already assembled, thanks to text or listserv messages. Such was the case in July 2012, when Bob and I were drinking wine on our front porch in the early evening with our neighbor when a text message about a Black-bellied Whistling Duck came in. We excused ourselves, put the wine back in the refrigerator, grabbed our optics, and took off to Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord. We arrived to find many birders already on the scene, and many more soon to join us.

Wikipedia (2014) defines a flash mob, first coined in 2003, as “a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, before quickly dispersing.” It could be argued that birders have been forming flash mobs for decades, though we would take issue with describing our spontaneous assemblages as unusual or pointless. We do not want to miss anything, and frequently check our devices for the next mad dash to a hot bird.

Friendly and good-natured competition is an integral part of birding. Who will spot the unusual bird? Who will get the most species in a given county, state, country, or some other geographic level in a year? Who will get the highest bird-a-thon species total? I confess that I participate in, and indeed enjoy, these competitions. Bob and I crisscross northeastern Vermont in search of yet another species, and that search intensifies as the final months and weeks of the year slip away. We want to have the highest species count for Orleans County and strive to finish as high as possible in Essex and Caledonia counties. There is something about the thrill of the chase, the achievement of a goal, or the satisfaction of finding more species than anyone else.

As we all know, the integrity and validity of bird reports is dependent on our honesty in reporting what we saw. The care taken by birders in reporting their sightings is extraordinary. It would be easy to report seeing common birds on a bird-a-thon day, when we missed something we expected to see. Yet, we do not report what we do not see. We simply shake our heads and ask, how did we miss that? How, for example, did Bob and I miss Wild Turkey and Nashville Warbler during our 24-hour mid-June blitz in Orleans County in Vermont? Miss them we did, and we had to settle for a species total minus these common birds.

We can certainly make fun of ourselves as we search for birds but in truth, we are deeply connected to one another in our pursuit. We tell one another of the presence of birds, we share our optics, we help one another locate a flitting bird in the canopy, we visit with one another while watching birds, we travel together to find birds, we commiserate on missed opportunities, and we build sweet memories with one another on our extraordinary experiences with birds.

I often think of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” Where would I be today if I had not chosen birding as a hobby nearly 30 years ago? “Way leads on to way,” and many choices in life reflect that truism of Frost’s poem. For me, birding was a road taken that led to an entirely different place than where I might have been otherwise. I am connected so fundamentally now to birding and to those who bird. I cannot imagine life without birds or birding. Yes, birding is a way of life, where way will continue to lead on to way, and I cannot wait to see where that goes.


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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