October 2015

Vol. 43, No. 5

Musings from the Blind Birder: Personal Encounters with Memorable Birds

Martha Steele

Birding can be many things to many people, but ultimately the common denominator is the bird. We all must have some fundamental connection to the birds themselves to search for them from our backyards to halfway around the globe.

But sometimes the connection to the bird turns very, very personal and transcends any objectivity that we may have about them in general. We all have stories about such personal encounters that never leave our memories and indeed fuel our passion even more. These are stories of not just a memorable bird but a bird that provoked an entirely different level of emotion, awe, disbelief, or admiration. Here are a few examples of such individuals for me.

It was a blazing hot midday near Beaumont, Texas, and Bob and I were driving in an open expanse of grassland and barbed wire fences. Bob noticed what he initially thought was a bird perched on a barbed wire along the side of the road. When we drove closer to the bird, we realized that it was hanging from the wire, apparently lifeless and hopelessly entangled in the barbed wire. We stopped the car, got out, and walked toward the bird. As we got closer, we were startled by its sudden movement, still alive and struggling to free itself. It was a Sora. We had no idea how long it had endured its predicament, but we set forth to try to free the bird. Bob first attempted to unravel its feathers from the barbs, gently holding the bird in the palm of his hand. I placed myself between the sun and the bird to try to give it some relief from the heat of the midday sun. After a few minutes, Bob and I switched positions and I continued to work on freeing the bird, trying hard not to damage any part of its body or wings. After several minutes, we were able to free the bird, now firmly in the palm of my hand. I bent over and released it on the ground. Unbelievably, it ran away quickly and disappeared into the grasses.

This bird did not say thank you, nor did it exhibit any sort of acknowledgement to us, of course. But still, our efforts to free a struggling bird hanging in the hot sun for an unknown amount of time elicited a profound sense of connection to this specific bird as we tried to help. We have no idea if the bird ultimately survived its injuries and our clumsy handling while freeing it, but we knew that at least we gave it a chance at life when otherwise, it had no chance. I will never forget that bird.

At the other extreme of weather, I take myself back to late January 2004, when Bob and I arrived at my mother’s house in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It was late afternoon, and Bob, walking straight to the window to look at the bird feeders, exclaimed, “There’s a Barred Owl!” Indeed, sitting in a bare tamarack tree near the feeders in plain sight was a beautiful Barred Owl, quiet and serene. In the nearly two decades of feeding winter birds at the house, no one had ever seen a Barred Owl perched just yards away from our window. We stared at the owl with excitement and wonder, and the owl appeared to stare back, seemingly with no fear. As night fell, the owl was still perched in the same spot.

The next morning, we quickly checked to see if the owl was still there. It was. It remained throughout the day, occasionally disappearing from its perch on the tamarack tree but always returning. We called our neighbors to come see the owl. What made this particular bird a bit surreal was that it made its appearance exactly one year to the day of the death of my stepfather, Erland. Coincidence, of course, but our being at the house that particular weekend was precisely because we wanted to be with our mother on this potentially difficult anniversary. Instead, this individual owl brought us joy and gave us a reason to celebrate, indeed, even to fantasize that it was Erland returning to say hello. The last day of that weekend, the owl disappeared, never to return to its perch. Since then, every time I hear a Barred Owl in the woods of our property—and we hear them often—I think of the Erland owl.

Seeing a living bird can engender plenty of emotion but so too can an encounter with a deceased bird. Bob and I were walking along the road adjacent to the Moose Bog Trail in Essex County, Vermont, when he spotted a roadkill along the side of the road. We picked it up, and it was a male Nashville Warbler, still warm and supple in our hands. It seemed in perfect condition, no obvious sign of any injury. I felt the warm bird in my hand, stared at its beauty, and just started crying. I cried for the fact that we humans had inadvertently killed this bird that was simply trying to fly here or there in its territory and unaware of vehicle danger. I cried for the fact that it survived such a long migratory journey only to meet its demise through human machinery. I cried simply for the loss of such a beautiful bird that met an untimely death. I fully realize that not every bird is going to make it and death from predation, humans, disease, or other causes is just the way it is. Still, the death of this particular bird seemed so senseless to me and was difficult to accept at that particular moment.

These are but a few individual birds that are etched into my memory. They do not include the individuals who seem to appear in the exact same spot every year on our Vermont property, such as the Wood Thrush, the Winter Wren, and the Common Yellowthroat, all taking up residence year after year. I sometimes walk into the dense woods where “our” resident Winter Wren resides, find a soft place to sit, and close my eyes to listen to the magnificent song of this little bird reverberating around me and penetrating into my soul. I find myself wanting so badly that the little guy will find his mate, have a successful breeding season, navigate the rigors and challenges of his southward migration, and find his way back to this very same spot so I can enjoy his company the following spring. Birding is after all about the birds themselves and our very personal connections to them.

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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