August 2020

Vol. 48, No. 4

Musings from the Blind Birder: The Spring of Covid-19

Martha Steele

Black-capped Chickadee. Photograph by Nate Marchessaul.

We will remember 2020 as the year of Covid-19. I spent the spring of Covid-19 at my mother's house in northeastern Vermont helping her and keeping her company during the emergency phase of the pandemic. Her house sits on 120 acres of mixed hardwood and coniferous forest, with her nearest neighbor a half-mile away by road.

When I arrived in Vermont on March 3, our fields were covered in nearly 20 inches of snow and some snowbanks piled by plows throughout the winter reached ten feet high. The only birds we heard were the usual winter residents, such as Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, Common Ravens, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. All the lakes and ponds were still frozen.

On March 11 the National Basketball Association shut down and the President announced restrictions on air travel from Europe. From there, the country rapidly entered its lockdown phase. In another week, my husband Bob would return to Boston to take care of our affairs back home while I stayed in Vermont to help my mother. More than two months would pass before Bob and I would see each other again.

I had never spent the entire spring at my mother's house, which gave me the opportunity to take note of new arrivals or commencement of song. Because of the shelter in place directives, my world from mid-March to mid-May was reduced to what Alvin and I could cover on foot, taking daily walks ranging from just under a half-mile to over seven miles on rural roads where we never encountered another pedestrian and only a few passing vehicles.

The stress of the pandemic was lessened by focusing on the coming migration, walking out the door every day wondering what I would encounter on our walk. Not surprisingly, Red-winged Blackbirds started the procession of spring migrants, singing on March 14. Soon after that, I heard my first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which would eventually grace our early mornings throughout the month of May with its characteristic drumming on our garden shed. Although American Robins were arriving in numbers, I did not hear a full song until April 1, two days after hearing my first Song Sparrow. Another early arrival was the Eastern Phoebe, which I first heard on April 8.

On April 9 I walked out with Alvin at 6:15 am to the unmistakable song of a Winter Wren, seemingly perched directly above my head. An Eastern Phoebe, Dark-eyed Junco, and Purple Finch rounded out the chorus. I was so excited knowing that there would be many more days like this in the next few months as more and more birds arrived.

But as can happen in far northern Vermont, winter's grip was not easily loosened. On April 21 wind chills hit seven degrees and the bitter winds continued for three days before a slight warming trend moderated the air over the weekend. On April 27 we awakened to another white landscape, and I put sunflower seeds on our second-floor deck, out of reach of bears but not of birds. That day, in the late afternoon while waiting for Alvin to do his business and clothed in my heavy winter jacket and hat and trudging along in Sorel boots, I was warmed by one of the most beautiful songs in the northern woods, that of the White-throated Sparrow. As I often do, I whispered, "Welcome back."

The first significant song heard was on April 29, a day in the 50s and sunny most of the morning. Newly arrived birds included Savannah Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, and Northern Flicker. American Robins, Song Sparrows, and Winter Wrens were everywhere.

But did I mention that winter was not going away anytime soon? The following week was cold and windy and song was nearly nonexistent. Early May saw chilly temperatures and frequently high winds, and some mornings that first week of May, I heard no birdsong at all, not even Blue Jays or Black-capped Chickadees. The next mini-wave of song occurred on May 6 when I heard a Brown Thrasher and Ruby-crowned Kinglet to add to the list of new arrivals. But, as of May 8, I still had heard only one warbler species. The weekend of May 9 and 10 saw high temperatures in the mid-30s and low temperatures in the mid-20s, definitely not conducive to birdsong or birding for that matter. And then came measurable snow early in the week of May 11 and birdsong was at a standstill yet again. I did finally hear my first Common Yellowthroat on May 13 and my first Ovenbird on May 15, a day where warmer temperatures finally started to take hold. We still had snow piles waiting to melt away and our road was still a bit muddy and soft. It was not until May 17 that birdsong burst out, and my regular walk to our town forest resulted in a total of eight warbler species and 30 species overall. Bob returned to Vermont on May 20 and we enjoyed spectacular days of birding the latter part of May.

During those initial two months of the shutdown, my mother and I leaned on each other and used Facetime and Zoom to stay connected with Bob and other family and friends. Together, we went through the illnesses and eventual deaths of two beloved and geriatric cats as well as various health issues, consulting with my mother's medical team via telemedicine. Worries about the long-term consequences of the pandemic only added stress that was difficult to address given that so much related to Covid-19 was out of our control.

Once again, birding came to my emotional rescue. Going out to bird offered a safe and enjoyable activity in the midst of confinement and worry. It anchored my feet to the ground even if the rest of me was unsteady with uncertainty. It gave me something to turn to after facing and absorbing the realities of the pandemic and its stunning social and economic impacts.

The novel coronavirus had managed to bring humanity to its knees, from where we will slowly get back up. But the birds pay no heed. They are going about their business, finding food and shelter and reproducing to extend their genetic lines. And I listened to them as I do every spring, absorbing our connection born out of familiarity with their annual comings and goings.

In the face of what seems to be an increasingly troubled country and world, I take refuge in the birds and the natural world. To walk the woods, listening to birds and smelling the moss and the decaying leaves on the forest floor, or hearing the rustle of a nearby animal reminds me of the beauty and complexity of life around me and how I am bearing witness to something much larger than myself. I am constantly reminded of the tenuousness of life and how important it is to be present, to engage with compassion, courage, and thoughtfulness, and to live in the moment. My forays outdoors to listen for birds or just enjoy tranquil solitude repeatedly help me refocus and recommit to my core values. I hope that together we find common ground and our way forward, just as our avian friends and other wildlife find theirs.

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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