I’ve been a serious birder for over 26 years. I am gripped by an abnormal preoccupation with all things avian, and a compulsion to see or hear as many bird species as is humanly possible. When not outdoors seeking them, I am planning to find them, reading about them, drawing them, or studying their calls.
I am hardly alone in this – certainly there are others even more bewitched by these little plumed dinosaurs than I am, but… I’m pretty damn obsessed.
I am also legally blind, as I suffer from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a group of a genetic diseases which result in the loss of night and peripheral vision – or the loss of all vision.
Bird fanatic. Legally blind. Not an ideal combination.
It is easy to describe the loss of night vision: there is simply nothing to see in the dark. It means that a low-light condition – such as what one finds in a dimly-lit forest, for example – is like having no light at all. Twilight might as well be midnight when you have RP.
What does it mean to lose peripheral vision? Try this: extend an arm, straight ahead, palm up, fingers together – as if someone was going to place something in your hand. Focus on the tip of your pinky. Now wiggle your thumb up and down while still looking at that little finger. You will, of course, still be able to see your thumb moving, as well as many other things even further to that side of your extended hand.
When I do this, I can see four fingers, but not the moving thumb. Or anything else off to the sides, or above, or below. This is sometimes called ‘tunnel vision.’ One can quantify this in terms of the width of the visual field, which for healthy eyesight would be a bit under 180 degrees from one side to the other. My visual field is less than 15 degrees wide; such a narrow range is one way in which legal blindness is defined. I am fortunate that I am not totally blind, but trust me, tunnel vision is not fun. You would not like it.
RP makes birding much more difficult – sometimes it makes it damn frustrating, and I’ve been tempted more than once to throw down my binoculars and give it up. But I don’t, because obsessions don’t just go away. I’ve still got some vision left; many RP victims lose their sight entirely. So I will use what is left of my eyesight in the best way: for seeing as many birds as I can, while I can.
My eyesight used to be good. At age twelve, I discovered astronomy, spent every clear night searching out celestial treasures, and was a devoted member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society:
In college I traded gazing at stars for staring at physics textbooks, and only became aware of a gradual change in my vision during my mid-twenties, at a ‘star party’ with a local astronomy club. One large telescope was directed at the wispy Veil Nebula – provoking rave reviews from everyone – but when I looked, I saw… nothing.
Several years later, I would drive into a fence that suddenly seemed to have popped into existence. I started seeing patterns of light flashing with my eyes shut. Night was getting darker. I got the official diagnosis of RP at age 29.
But I was 26 when I discovered birds, around the time that I had started my physics Ph.D program at Colorado State University. I was studying at a park one afternoon when I saw a woodpecker, feeding on the ground. I don’t know why, but I needed to know what this strange creature was called. I headed directly to a bookstore, bought a Peterson Guide to Western Birds, and learned that a Northern Flicker would be the instigator of this compulsion. Several months later, I would meet a comely, wildlife biology graduate student named Claire – on our second or third date she would mention, off-hand, that she had spent the afternoon out birding (birding! there was a word for it!) with the local Audubon group. I knew then that I would have to marry her.
Presently we live in Twin Cities and have two sons at the University of Minnesota. Time for birding had been scarce during most of our 26 years together, but our efforts have accelerated recently, as the nest is now essentially empty.
My goal is to reach roughly 5,400 life birds, despite the visual disability. Why this number? Because I want to be able to say “I have ID’ed the majority of the bird species on this planet.” Currently, the Clements-based eBird species total stands at over 10,700. My goal is based on half of this number, plus a 1% margin factor (in other words, 50.5% of all species). I cannot know how long I will have even my currently terrible vision, so I am making a concerted effort to meet the goal in the next few years.
The site is not about my life list or bad eyesight; I hope to merely provide content of interest to other birders, such as playing with eBird data (what would the world look like if country size was proportional to the number of bird species?) – I also hope to raise awareness of the issues facing that subset of us that have to deal with some physical disability, visual or otherwise, while birding.
Contact: hurbenm at gmail.com