April 2016

Vol. 44, No. 2

Musings from the Blind Birder: The Paradise of Memories

Martha Steele

Eastern Meadowlark. Photograph © Shawn P. Carey.

Bob, Alvin (my new guide dog), and I recently visited our friends Jan and Helen in Arizona. The trip was primarily to catch up with old friends and do some sightseeing in the Phoenix area. We did do some birding, however, including attending a four-day birding festival, Wings Over Willcox, that celebrates the wintering Sandhill Cranes in southeastern Arizona.

Jan and Helen are not hard-core birders, but they are interested in birds and are avid outdoorswomen. Helen in particular knows her local birds, and both clearly enjoyed the casual pace of birding we did with them. We birded areas near their home, including the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, as well as several locations in the Willcox area. For me, birding with them revealed an interplay between my memory of birds that I can no longer see and Jan or Helen’s descriptions of what they were looking at, such that I could attempt to identify the bird in the resulting connections.

This interplay was particularly striking for me during an outing to one of our favorite locations in the Willcox area, the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, a wide, open marsh of the high Sonoran Desert in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains. Jan, Alvin, and I were walking slowly, separated from the rest of the group, which was spread out among the many small ponds and marshy spots looking at waterfowl and other birds. Jan saw a perched bird and excitedly noted how yellow it was. She then added that the bird had a black spot and that it was stocky, roughly the size of an American Robin. She asked me what it was, knowing of course that I could not see the bird. Thinking quickly of the habitat and rummaging in my memory, I suggested that it might be a meadowlark, though I could not conjure up the visual difference between the Eastern and Western meadowlarks, both of which occur in this location. Another birder passed by and confirmed that it was an Eastern Meadowlark.

Now, that bird may have been easy to identify by description, but it made me think of how many birds I could identify by someone else’s description of what they see. It also made me wonder if I could accurately describe birds from my memory. I think the answer for both questions is not as well as I would like, which suggests that I have a new challenge to work on. I should more often ask Bob to describe what he sees so that I can try to identify the bird by description. For example, he was looking at a photo of what he described as a rare bird that showed up on Nantucket in late January 2016. I asked him to describe the bird, and he said, “Well, it is colorful, has about four colors to it, including a yellow breast, blue, and red...” Before he could complete his description, I suggested a male Painted Bunting, and indeed it was. I was definitely proud of myself, even if this is perhaps an easy bird to describe and identify from words.

I have strong memories of many birding experiences and visual images. It may be a little unusual for a birder to learn birding visually without the ability to hear birds (in my case, due to hearing loss) and then, some twenty years into my birding avocation, switch from visual to auditory identification thanks to cochlear implants. The Arizona trip highlighted my desire to better commit to or strengthen my memory of what birds look like along with what they sound like. I believe that would also help me remember many wonderful circumstances of seeing a bird, as well as aspects of the bird’s natural history. At Jan’s description of the meadowlark, I immediately thought of our Eastern Meadowlarks returning to New England, with specific images of birds teeing up near our home in Vermont every spring. I thought of its signature song and how thrilled I am at hearing them, a sure sign of our returning migrants. After celebrating the Arizona Sandhill Cranes, Bob and I reminisced about one of the best birding trips we have ever taken, to the Platte River in Nebraska during the truly spectacular spring migration of this species.

I realize now that I have a lot to learn about remembering the field marks of specific birds. When it comes down to it, can I describe from my memory the difference between a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a Vesper Sparrow, or between a Black- backed Woodpecker and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker? I confess I will need to work some more! But at least this trip clarified for me the need to do more studying and my desire to have Bob or anyone who is birding with me take a moment and describe what they see so that I can have a chance to participate in identifying what is there. Perhaps that will hone all of our skills in describing a bird and in enhancing our mutual experiences now and in the future.

The effort of remembering what birds look like, particularly those that I so enjoyed looking at, reminds me of a quote attributed to an 18th and 19th century German writer, Jean Paul (pseudonym for Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) (, February 2, 2016): “Memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be driven.” Yes, I am sometimes saddened by the loss of my ability to see my birds, but I retain many memories of seeing them and the circumstances of so many specific experiences with birds and the people I was with. And I certainly remind myself that, despite my vision loss, my birding career is far from over. I have a lot to learn in auditory identification. It is absolutely thrilling to hear a song, a call note, or other vocalization and know what bird I just heard. I had a similar feeling when my friend described the meadowlark and I was able to suggest what bird it likely was.

There are multiple ways to be a birder regardless of your visual, physical, or auditory capabilities, and we will all go through adjustments as we age with concomitant declines in vision, hearing, or other physical attributes.

Remember, birding is not just about seeing a bird. It is everything about the circumstances of the experience that goes well beyond what you actually see. As Jan enjoyed looking at the meadowlark, I enjoyed her excitement, the wide open expanse of Sonoran Desert, the warmth of the sun on our faces, and the distant sounds of Sandhill Cranes in flight. Jan’s eyes were pinned to her binoculars, but mine were closed, soaking in a moment that I will not soon forget and listening intently to anything I could hear.

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. Martha can be reached at

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