April 2019

Vol. 47, No. 2

Musings from the Blind Birder: The Road Taken

Martha Steele

My work colleague, at a recent retirement gathering to celebrate his 32 years at the state health department, reflected that he had no great plan that resulted in him standing in front of us that day. As a college undergraduate, he was majoring in microbiology at an Ohio university when he needed a single credit to complete graduation requirements. He selected a course with the word epidemiology in it but had no idea what the course was. He became so smitten with the subject that he went on to pursue a doctorate in epidemiology in his native Philadelphia. He then set out to look for a job, saw an opening at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, interviewed, and landed the job in a city and region he knew little about.

Think of how vastly different his life would have been had he not breezily selected a course with little expectation of anything useful coming of it. And think of how different his life would have been had he not seen and applied for a job in Massachusetts.

Many, if not most, times we do not have any great plans, any idea of where we may be headed or how we move forward in time. But so many choices, whether made after careful deliberation or on the spur of the moment, that we make at various junctures in our lives have huge consequences on our futures. The start of my birding avocation is a perfect example. A casual decision to tag along with work colleagues on a May morning bird walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery sent me down the birding road to vastly different destinations than whatever road awaited me had I just decided to go directly to work.

As a child, my greatest interest lay in athletics, an interest that I parlayed into competitive school and amateur sports teams. In college, I discovered wilderness camping and climbed many New England peaks as well as other mountains in the United States and Canada, including a spectacular climb in January 1971 to the peak of one of Colorado's 14,000-foot-plus mountains. As a young adult, I lived and worked for nearly three years in Colombia, traveling throughout that country as well as Ecuador and Peru, including hiking in the Andes and lowland rain forest.

Through all of these travels, only two trips left spectacular memories of birds but neither turned me into a birder. The first was a 1977 voyage to the Galapagos Islands, a high-water mark in my life, full of fascinating and intimate encounters with birds as well as sea lions, iguanas, dolphins, turtles, and other wildlife. The second was a 1979 two-week canoe camping trip to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, where I was enchanted by Common Loons. We were treated to, even soothed by, daily haunting wails and stirring tremolo calls, often as the only human witnesses to their presence.

But still, my experiences with the wonderful birds in the Galapagos and the loons in Minnesota did not start me on my birding path. Perhaps it was that those experiences involved large birds easily seen without binoculars, given that I was practically standing next to or swimming with boobies, penguins, albatrosses, or frigatebirds. Perhaps the Galapagos wildlife or Minnesota loons were overshadowed by the spectacular landscapes of nearly unimaginable beauty and serenity in exotic and remote areas. It would be another ten years before that morning bird walk ignited a spark that literally changed the course of my life.

What specifically caused that spark on that day? The Mount Auburn walk was just a short break before heading to work in a busy though beautiful urban area. The important catalyst was that I saw a very different type of bird for the first time.

I joined the group without any binoculars. Fortunately, my friend Martha Vaughan, who was leading us on the walk, had an extra pair. Through the lens of the binoculars, I saw magnificent little birds called warblers. They came in a kaleidoscope of colors, such stunning specimens in tiny bodies. It was hard to imagine that I had never really known of their existence. How could I have done so much camping and hiking throughout the Americas and not noticed these birds? At that time, I had narrow peripheral field but 20/20 central vision, so I could not entirely blame my vision. Due to my hearing impairment, I could not hear the birds with few exceptions, including those wonderful loons in Minnesota. But warblers, wrens, orioles, thrushes, vireos, or sparrows? They were beyond my hearing range and even though I must have walked through forests screaming with songbirds, those walks were silent save for the sound of our feet, other hikers, running water of trailside streams, or the rustling of leaves in gentle winds.

But here we were on that beautiful May morning, and I could not believe what was on the other side of those binocular lenses. I was most definitely hooked.

Almost immediately, I found myself wanting to shift my weekend forays and travel to locations noted for their birds. Where before I traveled for scenery or wilderness camping or other recreational trips, such as downhill skiing in the western mountains, I now ramped up the travel with new destinations such as Texas, southeast Arizona, Alaska, Nebraska, the Caribbean islands, Central and South America, Africa, Australia, and many more.

And then there is the matter of the birders themselves. New friendships and an instant community are revealed when birding. And for me, birding eventually led to another life changing event, marriage to my husband Bob Stymeist.

Like my work colleague, I had no plan either, only a medley of choices throughout my adult years that have led me along the path of life. I often reflect, not with remorse, but with wonderment, on how little choices are, in the end, so influential in where we end up going. What if I had chosen a different company to work for before choosing the Harvard Square company where I eventually joined a morning bird walk at Mount Auburn? I may never have discovered birds. Oh my goodness, how the roads we choose to take, sometimes with nary a passing thought, have such a huge impact on our lives.

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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