June 2019

Vol. 47, No. 3

Musings from the Blind Birder: A Day in the Life

Martha Steele

Chestnut-sided Warbler. Photograph by Sandy Selesky

It was 5:30 in the morning in mid-June 2018. I was sitting on my deck in our northeastern Vermont home, sipping a hot mug of coffee and enjoying the warm sun on my face. I was beginning to compile my list for the day. The deck overlooks a 5-acre meadow, sprinkled with apple, spruce, and larch trees, as well as patches of thickets. The meadow is bordered by a pine forest on two sides and a hardwood forest on the other sides, part of our 120-acre woodlot that is contiguous with state forest land. A small stream flows near the edge of the field, discharging several hundred yards down a steep slope to Lake Willoughby.

In just 15 minutes on the deck, I heard eight species of warblers, and an additional 18 other birds representing the different microcosms of habitats surrounding our house. An Eastern Phoebe pair was busy beneath me going back and forth feeding their nestlings above our back door. A Blackburnian Warbler was singing along the edge of the pine forest that lay just yards from one corner of our house. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was vigorously tapping on the metal roof of our barn, and a Black-billed Cuckoo surprised me with its staccato series of toots from somewhere along the edge of the field.

I was starting my day as most birders do, especially in the spring: rising early, grabbing something quick to eat, and heading out the door eager to learn who was out there for us to enjoy. I went downstairs, put the harness on my guide dog, Alvin, and started down our long driveway to begin a seven-mile walk. Because Alvin is so familiar with the area, having done all or parts of this morning’s route dozens of times, I could focus on listening for birds while Alvin focused on staying on course.

We birders tend to sample varied habitats to maximize our species total, and this morning’s walk was no exception. Our walk, all on rural town roads, would lead us past coniferous and hardwood forest edges; open fields ranging in size from several acres to a hundred acres or more, most of which had not yet been mowed; tiny ponds, small wetlands, and vernal pools; a beaver pond and small boreal bog invisible from the road; and small wet spots with thickets that could yield good birds.

Our quarter-mile driveway runs through a mixed hardwood and coniferous forest. Our first new bird for the day’s list was a Winter Wren. A little farther down, a Hermit Thrush chimed in just before a Magnolia Warbler announced its presence with its short, rolling whistle.

We then walked out into a clearing, where a Chestnut-sided Warbler and Song Sparrow were singing, among others we had already heard. I continued down a hill back through mixed forests and added a drumming Pileated Woodpecker followed by the explosive sound of a Ruffed Grouse that we accidentally flushed from the side of the road. At the bottom of the hill and now about a mile into our walk, I could feel the sun’s warmth as I left the shade of the forest and entered the open countryside that would be our habitat for the next two miles.

We first passed by an active dairy farm with a bustle of House Sparrows and European Starlings to supplement its odiferous manure smells. Red-winged Blackbirds were plentiful as well. We continued along the road hearing Savannah Sparrows and a voluble Indigo Bunting, with its sharp whistle evoking a what, what, where, where, see it, see it pattern. Soon, I came to a large pasture and heard Bobolinks, some so loud as to seem to be perched on my shoulder.

At about the three-mile mark, we encountered a short stretch of forest on both sides of the road where the Westmore Town Forest is located. This particular stretch of about 200 yards is usually hyperactive with birds in the spring. The mellifluous song of a Veery stopped me in my tracks for as long as I could stand the buzzing black flies around my head. Nashville, Black-and-white, and Canada warblers could be heard as well. Around the corner and now approaching a small wetlands, at least two Northern Waterthrushes sang across the road from each other, joined by Swamp Sparrows with their rich, slow trills. We turned around, retraced our steps about a mile, and then took a turn that continued a rolling, open country loop that would bring us back to our house. From our left came the familiar che-bek of a Least Flycatcher. Overhead, a Common Loon, likely flying from its nesting place on May Pond in Barton to Lake Willoughby in Westmore, was voicing its characteristic tremolo call.

Over the next mile, the plaintive, high-pitched whistle of a Broad-winged Hawk startled me, several Alder Flycatchers grabbed my attention, and Eastern Bluebirds let me know they had returned to their nesting boxes on our neighbor’s property. We then approached a small wet area with thickets and short tree growth. We stopped, waited, and then heard the musical song of a Lincoln’s Sparrow with its trills, gurgles, and buzzes. This bird is regular but uncommon, and thus I considered this individual the best bird of the morning.

It would be another two miles before we reached home, with a Scarlet Tanager providing the exclamation point to the morning. I daresay that not more than 30 seconds passed where I didn’t hear at least one bird of some species or another. Such is the wonder of June birding in the Northeast, diametrically opposed to the utter silence, save for an occasional chickadee, of the exact same walk done in midwinter. We likely missed many other species that were along the walk because they did not vocalize at the time that we pass by. Alvin is not much help as he seems totally uninterested in birds, just in other dogs or the horses and cows that follow us along the fence lines. So I cannot rely on his eyes to tell me something is there, signaling that I should stop and listen.

The morning’s tally ended up being 54 species that I heard, not bad for someone who ten years ago could not even hear the vast majority of birds never mind identify them by song. Now hearing birds with artificially created sound produced by cochlear implants, it seems to me that every year the sounds get a bit more natural, a little less tinny, a bit more robust and full. The improved sound quality should help me learn more songs and calls in the coming years. For now, however, on this particular day, Alvin and I would rest before going back outside to work on our vegetable garden. Although I heard nothing new that afternoon, I frequently smiled at the constant checking in of so many birds going about their business just as I was going about mine. I would end the day after dinner standing near the edge of the woods and listening to the beautiful fluting songs of Swainson’s Thrushes cascading through the darkening forest before they too called it a night.

This was a typical and unremarkable June day in terms of the birds that I heard. It was also a typical day in my life as a birder, being keenly focused on the presence of birds. At this time of year in particular, my friends and family may ask what I did on such and such a day. “I went birding.” What are you doing today? “Going birding.” And tomorrow. “Birding, of course.” We all have a chuckle even if they cannot understand our passion. But it is so true: we do indeed go out birding day after day. As I went to bed that night, I was just as excited for the next day as I had been that morning. Yes, we will rise early, sip our coffee, listen to who is there, and head out to fill our insatiable desire to go birding.

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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