Birding from the accessible gazebo at Longmeadow Flats. Photograph by Steph Almasi.
Many folks are content limiting their birding to the abundance of spring. Seems like a smart decision. I live in small-town and rural Massachusetts, where the climate can create dangerous outdoor conditions for the six months that we split between Thanksgiving blizzards, actual winter, and faux spring. Tall snowbanks block crosswalks and views. Parking lots that are plowed on a somewhat predictable schedule are unpredictably left unsalted. Black ice surreptitiously creeps up on you when you least expect it. And even on the most popular “accessible” birding trails and bike paths, you must fend for yourself once frozen precipitation hits the ground. When you get out the door, the subzero temperatures and wind chill will surely turn your limbs into ice. And these are just the barriers that nondisabled birders experience in northern winters.
“Winter in the Northeast often instigates extra exhaustion for people like me who navigate painful, fatiguing chronic illnesses and related disabilities,” says Jacqueline Raposo, a birder and journalist based in New York City. “The same distance crossed during warmer months requires extra physical effort because of snow or ice; regulating body warmth and temperature requires more attention; gray skies trigger headaches, etc.”
Even though my personal mobility fluctuates significantly from day to day, birding is still the most potent tool for me to keep my post-traumatic stress disorder at bay. I drag myself outside every day of the year with the hope of finding a bird. I have to be resourceful and creative in order to make my own winter birding adventures safe, as well as organize intentionally inclusive and accessible outings for the Feminist Bird Club and the Anti-racist Collective of Avid Birders. I want to share some of my personal experiences as well as what I have observed and learned from other disabled birders, including what they have confided in me about their wants and needs. Anyone can become disabled overnight, so exploring how to include disabled birders is a way all of us can invest in our future.
The first thing I do before I go out birding, especially between December and April, is check my weather app. My health is significantly impacted by temperature, air pressure, and precipitation, so after learning about the forecast, I make sure I am dressed accordingly and am overprepared. I try to stash extra layers, boots, ice-stabilizers, rain gear, hand warmers, snacks, and hot beverages in my car or in my birding backpack. I fill my water bottle with warm water because it will inevitably cool during my outing but never freeze.
Deciding where to go can be tricky because I cannot safely drive on many days. Some days I can only walk partway down the sidewalk, and others I have to be content with what I can find through my window. If you can safely put birdfeeders up in the winter, I highly recommend it—they are such a joy. A friend of mine, who is homebound in a housing complex that does not allow feeders, scatters nuts and seeds outside their porch, which can be especially effective after a snowstorm.
My knowledge of and comfort in various birding hotspots in western Massachusetts comes from experience and repeated visits made on better health and weather days. Unless I am going with friends, I almost never visit a new location during the winter or early spring. I am also well connected in the local birding communities, which makes it easy to inquire about trail conditions from other birders, who have more familiarity with or proximity to local patches.
Some roads take a couple days to become accessible to me after it snows, and others take weeks. Most farm roads are off-limits for me during these months, because they are usually not cleared of snow, and are often slushy or muddy. I often miss out on rare geese, longspurs, Short-eared and Snowy owls, and other birds that haunt large tracts of seasonally abandoned farmland.
Still, I prefer to visit certain trails immediately after a snowstorm. Fresh snow is much easier and safer to walk through than packed or partly melted snow.
For asphalt roads near my favorite birding patches, I try to monitor plowing and salting schedules after it snows. Many groundfeeding birds congregate along cleared roads after a heavy snowfall. An overlook to the river is on a residential street, and I have noticed that it gets cleared of snow within an hour of a snowstorm, thus becoming accessible for me.
Despite my best efforts, some days I am too fatigued or too cold to be outside, so I often car bird in the winter. (This significantly amps up my gas bill, but no one said being disabled was inexpensive.) It also needs to be said: leaving the car and the heat running while you are stationary birding is okay. As an environmentalist, it used to bother me until I realized this is a safety and access need.
Car birding at the Turners Falls Power Canal, February 2022. Photograph by Bruce Kanash.
Emerson Milam, whose chronic illness is exacerbated by the cold, has found a way to counteract her limited winter birding opportunities. “I don’t make plans; I practice spontaneous birding. Whenever there are small pockets of acceptable weather, I jump at the opportunity… And the other day, while I was driving home from picking up my prescriptions, I noticed ducks on the river, so I quickly pulled over and had some bird time.”
Here in inland Massachusetts, there inevitably comes a time in midwinter when I find myself driving around looking for any remaining unfrozen bodies of water. Predictably, I find patches of open water near power plants and dams, and in the water bodies that are the widest or have the strongest current. Scores of strange waterfowl and gulls congregate in these compact and often easily viewable locations during the coldest months. Moreover, they sit still, so we can take a while to distinguish subtle field marks and gawk at mind-boggling plumages.
One of my favorite ways of birding, especially in winter, is what I fondly call the “I am a thicket” approach. I seek out a brushy area at the intersection of several different habitats, scoot as close to the foliage as possible, and then focus on my breathing and relax my body. It is a unique way to practice mindfulness. I have become remarkably good at standing still until the birds around me no longer seem to remember that I am human. Chickadees fly right up to me to investigate, juncos peck away at my feet, and once, a Sharp-shinned Hawk landed beside me and spent over 15 minutes preening before flying away. This approach works sitting down, too. I will never forget the thrill when a duetting pair of Winter Wrens chased each other into a forest clearing, while I perched next to them on the portable stool I carry to make longer excursions accessible for me.
In winter, I feel especially grateful for this way of birding, because it allows me to preserve precious energy during a season when I find myself more fatigued than usual.
Standing still also reduces the sensory issues some of us experience from wearing too many layers outdoors. Emerson agreed, “Lots of layers equate to feeling the thickness, stiffness, and different pressures on my skin, and when that’s all constantly shifting and changing, it can get overwhelming.” Some of us have to prioritize comfort over practicality—I have been caught birding while wrapped in a blanket. Emerson always has a change of clothes—a comfy pair of sweatpants, fuzzy top, and slippers— to change into when she gets back to her car.
Navigating the quieter, more isolated outdoors in the winter is a reprieve for some of my chronic symptoms such as hypervigilance and sensory processing issues. The silence associated with winter landscapes allows me to hear birds from even a mile away, and those intricate differences in chip notes become more pronounced when I am standing still. Jacqueline concurs, “I find winter perfect for honing birding-by-ear skills—with fewer leaves rustling, a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s squeak, a Blue Jay’s screech, or a Carolina Wren’s melodic trills become that much more robust and satisfying.”
Winter birding can also be much more accessible for birders—like me— with visual processing disorders or low vision. With fewer kids running around and the frenzied activity of flocks of spring warblers but a distant memory, visual input feels more homogeneous and predictable.
No matter how knowledgeable and prepared we are, we might be disappointed. A parking lot next to a brush pile might accumulate snowbanks that are too high to see over. A path that is salted might develop a patch of black ice overnight. Sometimes we must err on the side of caution and call it a day—that House Sparrow outside the window might still preserve our eBird streak.
Organizing accessible bird outings in the winter and including everyone who wants to attend requires additional forethought and planning. We tend to perceive paved trails or urban pathways as synonymous with wheelchair accessibility, but that is far from true, especially in northern climates. While scoping out an event location, I hypothesized that an urban park—especially one adjacent to a school—would be regularly cleared and could be considered reasonably accessible. However, giant snowbanks blocked curb cuts and tactile crosswalk indicators, black ice was everywhere, and in a couple of places, no one had removed the snow.
I wondered whether this had something to do with particular neighborhoods in Holyoke, which has a history of redlining, lower incomes, and higher rates of unhoused people—perhaps not so coincidentally, demographics that have historically been excluded from outdoor recreation. With a bit of digging, I found that the park in question lay on land that had been redlined in 1937 (https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:00000x598).
To learn more about spatial equity in birding, look into urban ecologist Deja Perkins’s research (https://youtu.be/Aq_ySNK5fMI). There is no way to be sure why the park had been so poorly maintained several days after the last snowfall, but I hope we all take some time to consider the relationship we have with both the current residents and the indigenous stewards of the lands we use for recreation.
It can be difficult to objectively assess trail conditions and determine what information is most relevant for accessibility purposes. Consider if certain characteristics of a proposed event are flexible depending on participant interest and their access needs. The most important thing you, as an organizer, can do to include disabled birders is to make available accurate, specific, and current location information. Include potentially difficult or dangerous conditions folks might encounter. Some of us do not think twice before walking through small puddles or a dusting of snow, but mobility aids such as electric scooters or power wheelchairs are not waterproof.
Trail conditions are constantly in flux. The most responsible way to verify the accuracy of your knowledge is to scope out the location ahead of your proposed event. Do not rely on the trail description in a guidebook, ask a colleague what the trail was like last year, or visit only a section of the trail. Follow the entire route you plan to take during your event—ideally, during similar weather conditions. Go more than once if necessary. The amount of effort that scouting a location takes will be much less than the amount of pain and danger misinformation can potentially inflict on disabled participants.
Trust disabled birders to determine what they need for a bird outing, whether that be more information, a modified event, or a mobility aid. Provide contact information in the event description and invite disabled birders to share their access needs. Then, listen. Even if you are unable to provide the modification at this time, you will learn a bit more about how to make your next event more accessible. For example, following a medical procedure, I reached out to the organizer of a local bird walk to see if the event could accommodate me. Given the potentially dangerous weather conditions, I needed to be extra cautious about any surface I walked on. But the follow-up questions regarding the extent of my mobility and prognosis felt invasive and irrelevant and might have dissuaded a new birder from joining future events.
Winter weather is rarely predictable. Make sure that your inclement weather policy specifies the conditions in which events would be modified, rescheduled, or cancelled—and make that information easily available for the general public and in a format accessible to those with print disabilities. You might have to post often before and including the day of the event to ensure accessibility of current, accurate, objective information that allows participants to make informed decisions about their safety. Consider how you might modify your event so it can still be safe for the majority of participants if there is snow or ice on the ground. Factor in potentially dangerous commute conditions and visibility, including complications due to precipitation, fog, and tree cover.
Finally, do not forget to think through pandemic precautions and ways to protect immunocompromised individuals, which can be extra challenging for the event formats described below.
In general, if scheduled between November and March, there are only three kinds of events to which I feel comfortable affixing the term “accessible”. These are: birding from an indoor space, stationary birding, and car birding.
Birding indoors: Through a window or a computer
Every year, the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, Amherst, capitalizes on their large windows—positioned next to feeders— by scheduling a family-friendly Christmas Bird Count. This stationary event is a safe, low-commitment way to introduce children to birds, and the building is also wheelchair accessible. You can expand this approach to reach even more people by modifying it into a virtual program that folks can tune in to from home on Zoom, Instagram Live, or Facebook Live. Georgia Audubon and Birdability created a series of Virtual Accessible Field Trips last year by broadcasting from several birders in the field (https://youtu.be/UKbWQ4th5o8).
Another great example of a virtual birding program was a 2021 collaboration between the Massachusetts chapters of the Feminist Bird Club and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which livestreamed an in-person outing to introduce viewers to the songs of breeding birds in the Connecticut River Valley (https://fb.watch/hiU6ekcw2b/). The Massachusetts Young Birders Club also started a trend of creating virtual birding spaces centered around pre-existing livestreams from nest cams, feeder cams, and bird baths across the world. The Feminist Bird Club has now adapted this approach to create affinity spaces for disabled birders across the country (https://youtu.be/rLYjGYTe3f). At our October virtual birding event, over 70% of attendees indicated that they usually cannot join in-person bird outings because of a disability, and several indicated they were primarily bedbound. Positive testimonials from that event further drove home the impact intentionally inclusive spaces like this can have.
Many disabled birders have expressed a desire for more stationary birding opportunities. As Jacqueline says, “I need more sit-in-silence opportunities— basically, to be in a comfortable place where I can wait for birds rather than move to seek them out.”
I love organizing stationary outings; they really challenge me to expand my creativity and make our programming more inclusive. One of my all-time favorites was the intentionally inclusive Bird-a-thon Big Sit I organized for Mass Audubon in May 2021. Even Little Sit outings require more research and planning in the winter. Is there a lookout along a parking lot or asphalt road that has low traffic during certain times of the day or week? These places tend to be prioritized during snow removal, and you might be able to fit in an accessible, stationary bird outing during quieter times of the day. You can reduce participants’ exposure to the elements by birding from a covered blind, gazebo, or overlook. If your event location is not adjacent to a regularly maintained— plowed and salted— parking area, you can use portable mobility mats—such as those used for beach access—to create an accessible path to your birding site.
With the Covid-19 pandemic still in flux, car birding may still be best when done alone. However, it is possible for organizations to plan wheelchair-accessible bird outings that involve car birding.
There are many factors to consider when planning for a procession of cars to follow you to several birding sites while navigating regular traffic. How can birders communicate notable birds they find to folks in other cars? What is the backup plan in case certain vehicles get lost or left behind? Are you prepared to make and transmit quick decisions if road conditions are suddenly not what you anticipated when you scouted the area?
Limit yourself to roads that are safe to drive and stop on, and consider if folks can participate in the outing without stepping out of their vehicles. Distributing maps, walkie-talkies, and real-time text threads are all methods I have seen employed during lengthier car birding events.
Our car birding event in February 2022 was far from easy. Still, the turnout—on a day after a snowstorm—was fabulous and the effort felt especially worthwhile after hearing comments from participants who had been unable to attend any other bird outings in a while, or neurodivergent birders who were able to keep their anxiety levels and sensory sensitivities under control as a result of having a private space—their cars—to intermittently retreat to. Meanwhile, I was too distracted by my lifer Iceland Gull and the unexpected Black Vulture flyovers to notice that those hours were the longest I had spent upright in the weeks since my surgery.
Last but not least
Although the idea that you might be able to include everyone is a myth, I want to conclude by reminding you to challenge yourself every time you think that disabled birders would rather be inside during the winter. You will find me taking calculated risks to be with the birds, rain or snow or shine. What can ever compare to using my car as a blind while hundreds of larks and buntings feed on the road right next to where I have pulled over, beside fields freshly shrouded in snow, and the thrill of watching the songbirds scatter when a Merlin dives in out of nowhere? Winter birding is magical and so, so worth the additional preparation and effort.
Meghadeepa Maity (they/them) grew up birding in India and now lives in so-called western Massachusetts, where they continually navigate the challenges of exploring the outdoors as a neurodivergent, Bengali, queer immigrant, and a trauma survivor, with multiple invisible disabilities. They have been a persistent voice championing safety, accessibility, and belonging in birding spaces across North America, and currently serve on the Board of Directors of the Feminist Bird Club (feministbirdclub.org). You can follow Meghadeepa on Instagram @meghadeepa.m