December 2016

Vol. 44, No. 6

Musings from the Blind Birder: New York, New York

Martha Steele

Virginia Rail. Photograph by Bob Stymeist.

Bob, Alvin, and I visited New York City in early September 2016 for a Thursday evening event at the Museum of Modern Art. We stayed that night at a nearby hotel in Times Square and then took a morning walk in Central Park, several blocks from the hotel.

The morning was hot and muggy, the sort of morning where you search for every available shady spot to avoid the scorching sun. We were taking in the sounds and sights of this surreal city that truly never seems to stop its hustle and bustle, even in the relatively serene Central Park. As birders, of course we were listening and looking for possible migrants moving through but the intense heat and humidity of the morning were not particularly conducive to birding or, for that matter, any other outdoor activity. Still, we pushed on exploring this 843-acre jewel in the heart of Manhattan.

We had no map and we were just walking the paths, randomly going this way or that when we arrived at a more densely wooded area. A sign indicated that we were entering The Ramble. Bob immediately recalled that this was one of the best birding areas in all of Central Park, especially for spring and fall migrations. It certainly looked the part: the paths narrowed, the denser woodland enveloped us, and we descended into the hilly area. The path soon opened at its base into a small clearing with a short bridge over a stream that emptied into a marshy pond. In the opening were several birders, binoculars around their necks and cameras at the ready. Neither Bob nor I had binoculars, and we looked the typical tourist types.

We asked what they were seeing. We got a typical, somewhat distracted and perfunctory response that serious birders give to nonbirders, thinking that we are looking at something like a deer or moose or other large animal, “Oh, not much, just looking at birds.” We smiled, and then asked if there had been any warbler movement that morning. One of the birders perked up, realizing that we probably knew something about birds and said no, but there was a Virginia Rail out in the marsh and everyone was looking for it. That led to a conversation about Virginia Rails, how common or not they were in migration, how we see them often in northern Vermont, and then on to the general topic of how the fall migration was going. I am sure there were a few dubious glances sent my way, given that I had a guide dog by my side, but I did not attempt to enlighten anyone about my birding background.

We stood around with the birders for a few more minutes but decided that waiting for a Virginia Rail was probably not the best use of our limited time in New York City. We continued walking up and out of The Ramble and soon encountered more birders—some in business attire—hurrying down the path, talking about the rail as they went. We smiled and said, “This must be a good bird for the city.”

We were also smiling at the knowledge that no matter where we go, it is always possible to run into birders. At the time, we looked like typical tourists and the birders we encountered had no reason to pay any attention to us, as they had no idea of our birding interest or skills. They were focused only on trying to see the bird and chatting with other birders that they knew. When we said something that identified us as birders, they became more engaged and inclusive of us in the search of the bird. This is one of the nice things about being a birder: you are immediately part of a community that embraces you no matter where you are.

Being part of the birding community led me to meet the man who I would ultimately marry, Bob Stymeist, as well as to forge many deep and lasting friendships. It is important to me to feel part of some community, as I think it probably is for all of us. We can easily strike up conversations, share our passions, joys, or disappointments at the birds we are searching for, and make new friends. Birding connects us to languages, cultures, and across geographic areas around the world. Because birders tend to get outside to search for birds as often as we can, we are connecting with oen another every time we step outside.

There are many communities, of course, that people can be part of, an infinite array of choices before us, be they related to our recreational pursuits, our religious beliefs, our political leanings, our social advocacy passions, or others. Belonging to the birding community combines some of my core values: environmental protection and preservation, love of animals and wildlife, and respect for all life forms that must share the planet with Homo sapiens. I am pretty sure that my core values are in sync with those of many birders, which only adds to the intricacies of the web of our relationships.

There, in the heart of New York City, I could feel a bit uneasy, out of my element, overwhelmed with the noise and sea of humanity, but then in an instant, I was back in the familiar and comfortable embrace of birders, excited about trying to find a bird and eager to share their pursuit with us who, despite being total strangers, were accepted and swept into the local birding scene and the chase.

We were soon back into the world of people, cars, sirens, vendors, and just general controlled chaos (to my ears) as we continued our walking of the sidewalks of the city, stopping at famous attractions, such as Macy’s, the New York Public Library, and the location of The Today Show. The brief interlude of birders looking for a Virginia Rail in the middle of Central Park quickly faded but was not forgotten. Exciting as New York City can be, there was something calming about accidentally running into birders doing what we all do: chase a good bird. Perhaps this is one reason that belonging to the birding community (or any other community, for that matter) is comforting, even more so when you are in an unfamiliar city, state, or country. So I will remember our few moments in The Ramble because those moments epitomized in a small way what it means to belong to the birding community.

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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