December 2017

Vol. 45, No. 6

Musings from the Blind Birder: Travel

Martha Steele

The author with her dog  Alvin, staring at a Spruce Grouse. Photograph by Bob Stymeist.

As another New England winter approaches, many birders turn their attention to distant and warmer domestic and international birding destinations. As a birder, you have likely done a lot of traveling and your destinations have been carefully chosen to maximize your opportunities to see the most species possible or your specific target species.

I am often struck by conversations shared in the field that include stories from recent travels. Although sometimes there may be heard a tinge of boasting on the part of the traveler, most often the stories are fun or fascinating. Among the dozens of birding trips that I have taken around the world, some memories stand out, and they often do not focus specifically on birds. I will not soon forget, for example, a late afternoon effort in Tanzania with our safari vehicle to guide a lone young wildebeest back to its herd. We drove slowly, cajoling the youngster to follow us until we eventually found the herd. We cheered and clapped as we watched the little one run to its mates. It is certainly possible that the wildebeest would have found its way back on its own but that did not dampen our spirits over the rescue effort.

It is also striking that birders often visit places that would otherwise not enter our minds were it not that the location happens to have terrific birding. One can think of many New England places that might otherwise hold little appeal, such as Moose Bog in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, one of the best places in the region for easy access to boreal bird species such as the Spruce Grouse. If not for birding, I doubt I would visit Texas much, if ever, but being a birder I have visited Texas many times and plan to do so many more times.

But the heart of travel to me has always been the people that I am traveling with. I find birding is often a solitary pursuit in your local area but very much a group pursuit on birding trips, with your experience enhanced by those traveling with you and sharing in special, even spectacular, moments.

During my first Texas trip I visited the Edwards Plateau with a tour group of a dozen other birders. One day, the tour company arranged for our group to be the only people in an otherwise closed Texas state park. We enjoyed a spectacular day of birding, including scope views of a male Painted Bunting, my life bunting. That evening, we were set up for a picnic dinner at the mouth of a small cave opening in the ground. We stood at the opening of the cave and then experienced one of the greatest spectacles of my life. Millions of Mexican free-tailed bats came streaming out of the cave, whizzing by every part of our bodies with nary a collision, spinning an ever wider trail into the early evening sky as they dispersed for the night. I had thought that the Painted Bunting would be my day’s highlight but instead all of us were treated to one of the most memorable evenings of our lives.

There is something invigorating about travel, be it within New England or to the other side of the world. Travel expands our horizons, makes us feel more alive, often brings us closer together, sometimes tests our patience with each other, and nearly always produces good stories long after the trip has ended.

Still, our tastes for travel change as we age. When we were younger, we tended to bird longer days, include post-dinner nocturnal forays, stay in more basic accommodations, and cover as much territory as possible. As we get older, the length of the birding day might shorten, we may want to include a social hour before dinner, opt for more lush accommodations, and choose to sign up with bird tour companies rather than guide ourselves.

We can also hope that our appetite for good birding destinations helps conserve the habitats of these locations. We are careful to tell any local person, be it a guide, a service provider, or a passerby, what we are doing and why we are there. In this way we educate locals about the potential economic benefits to them of habitat conservation that would continue to attract birders or other wildlife enthusiasts to their region.

We share our earth not only with other humans but with so many other forms of life. Our travels heighten our appreciation of the complexity and relationships of the earth’s inhabitants, and perhaps give us pause to reflect on small things we can do to conserve places we enjoy visiting for birds and other wildlife. Traveling fundamentally is also a time of connecting with those we are traveling with, free of the minutiae of everyday life. This is true whether it is a bird club getaway to a remote New England region or an otherworldly voyage to Antarctica. Yes, we go for the birds, and yes, it is a whole lot more fun when you can enjoy the birds with family or friends, old and new.

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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