October 2019

Vol. 47, No. 5

Musings from the Blind Birder: The Conversation Might Go Like This

Martha Steele

We birders tend to spend a lot of time in our vehicles, often slowly driving along rural or conservation area roads listening for birds. Especially during spring and summer in the Northeast, we may be in our vehicles for hours at a time, periodically jumping out to investigate something we just heard or to walk a trail. So, one might ask, what do we talk about during the many hours in our vehicles?

The conversation rarely strays from birds or birding. We might start the day's vehicle peregrinations by sharing our excitement about what birds we will see during the morning's exploration. But sometimes, the enthusiasm might be tempered by the conditions outdoors. Birding while riding in a car requires open windows to listen for birds. If the temperature is in the upper 30s or lower 40s when you start out on an early spring morning, a cold wind may be blowing through the car in one open window and out the other. These circumstances may necessitate a change in strategy such that one of us might need to close our window to prevent frozen hands, face, or feet. At this point, there is little conversation other than cursing the weather, and optimism falters.

But then, that first Winter Wren starts singing and we focus again on the task at hand: listening, without other birders in the vehicle saying anything to distract our focus. As we move along, we mutter to each other the core of birder conversation in a moving vehicle: "Ovenbird," "Chestnut-sided," "Red-wing," "Black-throated Blue," "Yellowthroat," or "Indigo," and so forth.

As we move along, the driver might speed up a tad, say, from about 10 miles an hour to 15 miles an hour. "Is there someone coming up behind you?" I ask the driver. "No." "So, why did you speed up?" I demand. "You think I am going too fast?" "You could slow down a bit, just in case that peewee calls," I mutter, as we complete our first significant conversation of the morning.

Soon, we reach a busier stretch of road and need to speed up. Before further conversation, one person rolls up the window to be immediately followed by the other window or windows whirring up to close. It is amazing how, in a vehicle with birders, the windows are well synchronized, rolling up or down one right after the other following the cue of the lead window.

We turn onto a dirt road to head into a park of mixed deciduous and coniferous trees. The synchronized windows roll down and we resume our listening. "Red-eye," "Ovenbird," "Scarlet Tanager," "Black-throated Green," and more. I exclaim, "Stop!" and the driver slams on the brakes, and as we lurch forward Alvin lifts his head in the back seat. "What did you hear?" "Listen." The bird calls again. "Oh, I hear that. Let's get out and listen." "It's not a warbler," I surmise. The bird calls again. "Brown Creeper!" "Oh, I don't know that song well. Let me play it on my phone," I say. Like all good birders, I pull out the phone, tap on a bird song app, and find Brown Creeper. I play the song and nod my head in agreement. We high five each other on getting a new year bird for the county and jump back into the car to continue our snail's pace through the thick forest.

This road, like so many that we all traverse in our birding lives, is a familiar one. We have been on this road several times and have enjoyed good birds. We soon approach one spot on the road. "This is where we had a Swainson's Thrush the last time we were here," I say. So, of course, we expect to hear one again in this very same spot, even though it had been several years since we heard one here. We stop the car in great anticipation but fail to hear the bird. We are disappointed and we wonder if the bird made it back from its wintering grounds. Still, I can guarantee that in future months and years, when we pass that spot, we will tell each other that we saw a Swainson's there and we should listen for this bird right here.

After we come out of the forest and drive onto another busy road to our next destination, the conversation turns to a summary of what we have seen so far that morning. What are we missing for year birds in the county? Where should we go to get what we are missing? What do we need to accomplish for the rest of the day? Should we check eBird to see who has been birding where, and what they have seen this morning? It is all about figuring out where to go next and for what reason, which can include, of course, checking a favored location for whatever birds might be there.

It is also amusing how often birders say "Let's go to the (name the bird) spot." Geographic locations with perfectly good names, such as Indian Ridge Trail at Mount Auburn Cemetery or the corner of Cook and Lakeview roads near our Vermont home are renamed by birders with names of memorable birds that were seen at the referenced spot. For example, after a long walk with Alvin, I might recount to my husband, Bob, that I heard Common Loons flying overhead at the Lincoln's Sparrow spot, and Bob will know exactly where I was. Similarly, a birder in a car may want to describe where he or she thinks we should go next and finds it easiest to say, "Let's go to the Bohemian Waxwing spot," and all in the car will nod their approval. For years to come, even if the bird was seen only once at that spot, it will still be the Lincoln's Sparrow, Bohemian Waxwing, or other bird spot.

Other conversations may include chatting about a bird we just saw, sometimes reminiscing about past sightings or opining about specific characteristics of the bird. Recently, after driving away from a feeder with hummingbirds, Bob launched into an animated monologue about the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. They are so mean, he proclaimed. The male mates with multiple females, then abandons them to do all the work in raising the young. To add insult to injury, the male repeatedly drives away females from feeders every time a female approaches the feeder. For goodness sakes, Bob fumed, at least allow the female access to easy food, but no, the male wants it all, he indignantly concluded.

When moving slowly along in a vehicle, there is always plenty of conversation to share. We give each other tips for identifying what we just heard, share expertise in photography or smart phone apps to enhance our birding experience, and simultaneously yell with excitement upon the sighting of a good bird. At the completion of another fun and successful day of birding, we can look back on how much we enjoyed each other's company as we roamed the countryside.

Young, old, or in between, you can be sure that when birders get together to bird, there is plenty of conversation all around and plenty of commonalities in our styles of 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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