Legally Blind Birding

Testing the Patience of Birding Guides Around the World

I’ve been a serious birder for 24 years, and I’m legally blind. This is due to Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a genetic condition which destroys peripheral and night vision. Presently my central field is less than 15 degrees wide, and even moderate darkness is like having no light at all. RP makes birding much more difficult and sometimes downright maddening. Yet, I’m lucky. Many RP victims lose their sight entirely. I’ve still got a little left, and I intend to use it in the best way possible: seeing birds.

I was first aware of RP in my mid-20’s. Astronomy was a hobby when younger, but I had no time for it during college – until one evening at a ‘star party’, where a local astronomy club had telescopes to share. A mammoth scope trained on the wispy, challenging Veil Nebula gave a view that was getting rave reviews. But when I peered through it, I saw nothing. Odd, I thought, not understanding what this meant. One doesn’t suddenly notice their poor eyesight one day. RP creeps up on you, while giving occasional hints. Years later, after driving into a fence and noticing odd light patterns and floaters, came an examination and diagnosis.

The interest in birds began around the same time; just before meeting my wife Claire, while starting my physics Ph.D at Colorado State. I recall studying at a local park, when a woodpecker feeding on the ground captured my attention. I realized that with a field guide, I would know what this strange creature was. It seemed essential that I pursue this knowledge, so I bought a Peterson guide to western birds. The Northern Flicker became my first lifer and the instigator of this obsession. When Claire told me one evening that she had spent the afternoon birding with the local Audubon group, I knew I would have to marry her.

We live in Twin Cities suburbs and have two sons studying at the University of Minnesota. Time for birding had been scarce during the last 24 years, but our efforts have been accelerating recently.

My plan is to exceed 5,000* life birds despite the visual disability. There is profound appeal to saying “I have seen or heard the majority of bird species on the planet.” November 2017 marked a halfway point to this goal, with Piping Hornbill in Ghana being species number 2,500. I cannot know how long I will have even my currently terrible vision, so I am making a concerted effort to meet the goal by the end of 2020. A year with a vision-related ring to it, no? A year with a total solar eclipse, visible in Chile and Argentina, in December – which is where we plan to be to end this birding quest.

This site is not meant to be about my life list or my bad eyesight. Rather, I hope to provide content of interest to birders and to provide some awareness of, and maybe even help for, the subset of us that have to deal with some physical disability, visual or otherwise.

* Once I get to 5,000, I’ll determine the exact halfway mark based on Clements taxonomy; I’m guessing around 5,300 or so – then try for that. I also plan to add at least a 1% ‘margin’ value, to account for any incorrectly identified birds. I’m sure there were some, and there will be more. Only by adding some margin can one be certain about the “majority of species” claim.

 eBird profile page

michael claire

Black Forest, Germany, July 2016