April 2020

Vol. 48, No. 2

Musings from the Blind Birder: Seeing While Blind

Martha Steele

People often convey their admiration for how I cope with being blind and how I refuse to let my vision loss interfere with my passion for birding. Nonbirders raise their eyebrows when I tell them I am a birder. I can feel their skepticism and confusion, wondering how I can possibly bird when I cannot see the birds. Perhaps some birders wonder the same or even feel a little sorry for me, watching my guide dog, Alvin, and me walk quietly listening for birds.

Yet, I rarely get questions about my blindness, particularly in the context of birding. Most often, the few inquiries come from little kids, curious and uninhibited. "Why do you bird when you can't see anything?" That might be followed by a parent whispering into the child's ear, presumably admonishing him for his "impoliteness." My response is to welcome such inquiries, "That is a great question." We can then proceed to have a wonderful discussion about how a blind birder can enjoy birding as much as anyone with vision.

Vision dominates our perception of the world around us, and sighted individuals often cannot imagine life without vision. In fact, many surveys have found that most people fear losing their vision more than any other health issue even though blindness is not a fatal diagnosis.

In the face of vision loss, however, it is remarkable how one learns to maximize other senses, most particularly hearing, touch, and smell, to compensate for the loss of sight. When you cannot see, you are much more aware of other clues in your surrounding environment. The sound of your footsteps or the tip of your white cane differs depending on the surface or the proximity of buildings, which create slight echoes as you walk by. Particular smells, such as food from restaurants or flowering bushes, alert you to your exact location on a familiar route. The direction your body faces, whether moving in a car or standing in place, is oriented based on your auditory and tactile information. Is the traffic moving from left to right? Is the strip of grass between a sidewalk and curb parallel or perpendicular to your body under your feet.

To illustrate, I was riding in a car on Route 2 heading west to the exit to go south on Route 128. My friend took the exit but I could feel that the car was not doing a slow, wide right turning loop to go south. Instead, my friend had taken the exit heading north. I said, "I think you took the exit heading north, not south." My friend was astonished, first that she had taken the wrong exit but more pointedly at my ability to identify her mistake before she could. She was the one with vision, but I was more acutely aware of my environment, always paying attention to what I hear, smell, and feel to give me the information that sighted people take completely for granted.

As all birders know, birding does not rely on sight alone. Fortunately for me, the world of birding is exquisite and marvelously complex by sound. I am constantly challenged to learn what bird just made that vocalization, an immensely satisfying pursuit. Even in winter, when bird sounds are much reduced or even nonexistent, I can have a memorable experience.

In early January 2020, I took Alvin out at 6:00 am, or well before sunrise, at my mother's northeastern Vermont home to relieve himself. As I walked out into the cold darkness, I heard something that I did not recognize coming from the edge of the woods near our house. I stopped and stood still silencing the crunching sounds of snow under my boots and heard a low, raspy gonk, gonk, like a deep two-note knock. What was that? I quickly pulled out my phone and texted Bob back in our bedroom, "Step outside on our bedroom porch and listen." I then recorded the sound on my phone's voice memos app. The bird called several more times before quieting, and then suddenly, from the location of the low knocks, I heard the classic call of a Common Raven, the gurgling, deep, and slightly musical croak. The bird had taken off, its call fading off into the distance as it flew away.

Both Bob and I heard the two-note knocking call many more times over the following weeks, and sometimes, we heard two ravens calling back and forth to each other. It was so cool, literally and figuratively, to listen to this newly recognizable call in absolute winter stillness and darkness in the forest that was otherwise utterly silent.

Bob could not use vision any more than I could for this memorable experience. Vision will not help you identify a bird that vocalizes but refuses to show itself. In addition, your auditory skills are required sometimes to identify birds that you see well but are indistinguishable from others without hearing their songs, e.g., the Empidonax flycatchers.

I am in a unique position in that I started birding while I still had vision but could not hear the birds, and then transitioned into now hearing birds but not seeing them. In all honesty, if I had to choose one or the other, I would probably choose to hear the birds. I hear so many more birds than I ever saw, and I consider their songs often transcendently beautiful, as awe-inspiring as their striking visual beauty. Bird songs can often be piercing, filling the spaces around you, and lingering in your soul long after they stop singing. You most certainly do not need to see birds to enjoy them.

Birders use many tools to sharpen their skills and to find where good birding spots or birds may be. Technology enables me to use the same apps and websites that sighted birders and others use. I regularly open the Sibley Birds app on my iPhone to listen to vocalizations of specific species to try to help me identify what I just heard. I occasionally use eBird to record my sightings and learn about hotspots in our area. I write articles and emails as well as listen to birding books and articles using the VoiceOver app on the iPhone and Job Access With Speech, or JAWS, on my laptop, both of which use artificial voices to read content aloud. I have had extensive training on how to use these programs to navigate apps and computer applications. For example, using an iPhone for a sighted person usually involves simply using your finger to tap or swipe to navigate. For the blind user, however, we may use double, triple, or quadruple two-finger, three-finger, or four-finger taps in various combinations to result in different commands. We may also use one-finger, two-finger, or three-finger swipes while continually adjusting the VoiceOver rotor (a type of control panel) to swipe by headings, characters, words, lines, paragraphs, message, links, or any number of other features.

Being blind is but a small part of who I am, one of many characteristics that define how I conduct myself and how I interact with others. We are all composites of many physical and mental attributes, and the more that we can get beyond regarding our exterior physical characteristics as defining features, the better we can relate to and share our lives with each other.

In the end, I do not see much to admire about coping with blindness, nor should feeling sorry for someone who is visually impaired necessarily be warranted. Fundamentally, I don't really see much choice in coping with blindness or anything else that is out of your control. Either you move forward and do the best you can with your circumstances, seeking out and learning strategies to confront your challenges, or you retreat into yourself. The degree to which we successfully face our challenges varies widely, of course, and many struggle mightily. On a small, interpersonal scale, however, we can all help each other by at once acknowledging and accepting each other for who we are while also having similar expectations for everyone we know, regardless of any perceived limitation. Thus, as a blind birder, I should be held to the same expectations of acquiring good birding skills and being informed about the birds themselves as sighted birders are. I am like any other birder, trying hard to identify birds, learn more about their behaviors and life histories, and helping in conservation efforts for their futures.

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