April 2021

Vol. 49, No. 2

Musings from the Blind Birder: Birding Solace

Martha Steele

I am anticipating the 2021 spring migration perhaps more than any that preceded it, given how long we have been in the isolation of the pandemic and how desperate I am feeling for some sense of normalcy to return. For the past year, we have had to think carefully before deciding to let anyone come into the bubble of our house in northeastern Vermont and whether we ourselves could venture safely from it. Sometimes we have had to refuse proposed visits from family or friends. I have had frequent Zoom calls with family and friends, and although enjoyable, they were not the same as in-person visits and contact. For walks outside, I continue to check that my mask is secure, and when I heard footsteps approaching, I turn my head away and dig my chin deeper into my chest, trying to minimize any moments of shared air with the passerby. The pandemic has greatly restricted everybody’s movements, most notably travel on any public transportation, including aircraft. Now, as I write this in early February, I just want this entire pandemic affair done and over with, even as I acknowledge that we cannot let our guard down and that we are much luckier than many given our financial, housing, and food security.

The commencement of widespread vaccinations gives me hope that the coming spring migration will indeed be more normal or at least experienced with a bright light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Anticipating spring reminds me once again of how important birds and birding are to my spirits and how they help keep me connected beyond the confines of our walls. The hardships of a pandemic and of a long New England winter will soon give way to the joys and renewals of the spring migration. The return of our birds in all their breeding plumage glory and bursts of song will perhaps be more intensely felt this year than usual as they carry our spirits on their wings into a more hopeful future.

But for me, this spring holds more to look forward to than just coming out of a pandemic and the return of our avian friends. It also will mark more than a year of living with my mother in northeastern Vermont. My husband Bob and I came to visit her on March 3, 2020, intending to stay for a week or two. I have barely left since then. During this long year, I have watched my now 96-year-old mother go from being a fairly independent woman to one deeply affected by her age. A year ago, she was able to take care of her finances; make phone calls from her landline; get her own breakfast and lunch; do her own laundry; walk without any support; be fully alert and engaged in conversations in person, on Zoom, or on the phone; go up and down a flight of stairs; do some limited house cleaning; and walk down the road to the mailbox nearly a half mile away. Today, in just the span of a year, she can no longer do these tasks or activities. She can still walk, but with a walker and very slowly and haltingly. But what is most challenging is that she is prey to periodic episodes of anxiety that seem related to confronting her mortality and worries about her children after she is gone.

What does all this have to do with birding? In truth, not much, but I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences and that many of you, like me, continually find solace in birding. Over and over again, I walk outside the house with Alvin or Bob and already feel better and reenergized, ready to put my own worries on hold and listen to any bird who cares to announce itself. Even in the dead of winter in northern Vermont, when there are precious few birds beyond birdfeeders, I listen attentively for any bird vocalizations. The croak of a Common Raven; the chick-a-dee-dee of a Black-capped Chickadee; the nasal sounds of White-breasted and Red-breasted nuthatches; or the soft tapping of a Hairy Woodpecker—all calm me, even in the minutes following a particularly difficult experience with my mother’s state of mind. All keep me grounded in the vitality of the world around me, the here and now, the continuity of life and death, the normal ebb and flow of time and seasons, the very core of life itself.

And so, I will welcome once again the joys of the coming spring even as I grieve the decline of my mother. I will cry tears of joy when I hear my first American Woodcock, White-throated Sparrow, Winter Wren, Veery, or Wood Thrush even as I cry tears of sadness at the pain my mother suffers as a result of her anxieties and infirmities. I will wake early in the morning eager to hear what birds arrived overnight even as I contemplate the march of time for all living creatures on earth. It is a time of so many emotions intertwined, with joy and sorrow countering and balancing against each other. But of one thing I am certain, birds and birding are never far from my thoughts and soul and will always be a source of wonderment, curiosity, connection, and just plain happiness. It is found not just in birds’ beauty or their songs but also in their fascinating behaviors as they go about surviving and passing their genes on to their offspring. No matter what is happening, I will always love to walk outside and embrace the world of birds, who do far more for me than I do for them.

(Ruth Reid Gjessing, 96, died in her Westmore home on March 9, 2021. Among the many causes she supported was environmental conservation, also embraced by her three children, Timothy, Bradley, and Martha Steele. Over the past two decades, Ruth enjoyed the many birders who came to visit with Martha and her husband, Bob Stymeist. For more information about Ruth’s remarkable life, please go to

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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