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. 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’m using it in the best way possible: seeing birds.

I became aware of RP in my 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 large scope trained on the wispy Veil Nebula gave a view that was getting rave reviews – but when I peered through it, I saw nothing. Odd, I thought, not understanding. You doesn’t suddenly notice poor eyesight one day. It creeps up on you, giving occasional hints. Years later, after driving into a fence and seeing light patterns and flashes, came the diagnosis.

Just before meeting my wife Claire, while starting my physics Ph.D at Colorado State, I was studying at a park when a woodpecker feeding on the ground captured my attention. Inexplicably needing to know what this strange creature was, I bought the Peterson Guide to Western Birds; the Northern Flicker thus 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 and have two sons at the University of Minnesota. Time for birding has often been scarce during the last 24 years, but our efforts have been accelerating recently.

The plan is to exceed 5,000* life birds despite my visual disability. There is profound appeal to saying “I have seen or heard the majority of bird species on the planet.” 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.

The site is not about my life list or bad eyesight. 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.

* Still need to 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