June 2018

Vol. 46, No. 3

Musings of the Blind Birder: Connecting, Calming, Centering

Martha Steele

The start of 2018 was a challenging one for our family with respect to medical issues. I am thankful that full recoveries are expected, and I can turn my attention to the coming spring migration that, as of this writing, has already been sprinkled with early arrivals. These family crises do, however, heighten my appreciation of living in the moment and taking some stock of where I have been and where I am going.

What does all this have to do with birding? Birding is and will continue to be a big part of my life. The sheer pleasure of and fascination with birds permeates so many aspects of my life from planning daily activities to traveling around the world in pursuit of our avian friends. Although I started birding late in life, it was an extension of my bond with the natural world that centers and grounds me. It is a physical and emotional connections to birds and ecosystem diversity that help define my worldview and nourish my soul. Ascending high peaks for magnificent vistas, finding serenity in quiet woods, listening to gentle rustling of autumn leaves, staring at neatly outlined animal tracks in the snow, or standing in utter solitude letting the beautiful song of a Hermit Thrush fill me with joy, observing nature and its inhabitants provides a constant source of curiosity and wonderment.

I have had the unique perspective of starting my birding avocation able to see birds but unable to hear them, only to have these capabilities reversed as my vision declined and I received cochlear implants that opened the world of bird songs for the first time at the ripe old age of 58. Fortunately, birding is not just a visual experience and indeed, it is often primarily an auditory experience, especially when birding habitats favor hearing birds much more than seeing them. In some respects, if I had to choose one sense versus the other, I would choose being able to hear bird songs at the expense of seeing them rather than the other way around. It requires effort to identify a bird, by sight or sound, but so much less effort to just stand there and listen rather than struggle to find a small bird in dense foliage or stumble over obstacles to get a better angle on a flitting bird that you may be lucky to see for a second or two. By contrast, a bird's song fills the entire space around you, momentarily drowns out all other senses, often lasts longer than visual connections, freezes you in the moment, and can allow for more focused and lingering attention on the singing bird.

Still, I would not be honest if I said that I never miss seeing birds, particularly the more spectacular ones or those closest to our hearts.

Many of us are entering older decades of life, ever more aware of our mortality and increasing risk of personal issues that may affect our birding enjoyment. But precisely because we love to bird, our passion helps us navigate through the ups and downs of personal crises. I have so often gone birding or just for a walk outdoors to help me distract from whatever may be going on and to help lift my spirits. Even if our habits for birding change with age, be it finding contentment in local and regional birding or thirsting for global travel to see as many birds as possible, our deep-rooted love for birds and birding never wavers regardless of our personal situations or affinities for birding locations.

For birders in the Northeast, there is no match for brightening our dispositions than the arrival of spring. Each spring is a re-awakening with the burst in song and the ever-increasing stream of migrants continuing ancestral practices carried across millennia. As bird song crescendos through the spring into early summer, so too does my overall outlook on life. Even as I recognize the challenges that bird populations face from human activities, I take great solace in their presence in the here and now, reveling in the return of "our" Wood Thrush in the exact same spot as previous years, or in "our" Northern Waterthrush returning to a specific marsh near our Vermont home. A dormant and silent winter gives way to a renewal of frenzied activity and bird song, a nonstop din of early morning hormonal activity, with birds flying here and there to set up territory, mate, raise young, and perhaps begin all over again for another brood before heading back south again.

There is no end of wonderment about what our migratory birds do, and there is no end of the extent to which they can lift me from valleys forged by life challenges to peaks of excitement and optimism. Of course, not everyone shares values of bird and habitat conservation, nor does the sight or sound of a bird stir in everyone unexpected connections to the bird. But for me, as I contemplate where I have been so fortunate to have gone and think about what lies ahead, birds, birding, and the natural world have been and will continue to be a common thread linking so much of my life together. I just love walking with my husband or birding friends when we simultaneously call out the name of the bird we just heard. These moments, unassuming yet special, are ones to savor and truly appreciate and try not to take for granted, especially as we move through our later years. Connecting, calming, centering, and grounding. Such are birding and outdoor peregrinations for me.

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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