Legally Blind Birding

Testing the Patience of Birding Guides Around the World

I’ve been a serious birder for 24 years. I am also legally blind, due to Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a genetic condition which causes the loss of peripheral and night vision. My central field is less than 15 degrees wide, and even moderate darkness is equivalent to having no light at all. RP makes birding much more difficult and sometimes damn frustrating. Yet, I’m lucky; I’ve still got a little vision left. Many RP victims lose their sight entirely.  So I’m using what is left of my eyesight in the best way possible: for seeing as many birds as I can, while I still can.

I became aware of the vision problem in my twenties. Skygazing 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. Several years later, after driving into a fence, and having increasingly frequent episodes of seeing odd light patterns and flashes, I got the official diagnosis.

I became aware of birds in my twenties also, when I had just started my physics Ph.D program at Colorado State University. I was studying at a park one spring afternoon when a woodpecker feeding on the ground captured my attention. Inexplicably, I needed to know what this strange creature was. So I bought the Peterson Guide to Western Birds, and the Northern Flicker thus became my first lifer and the instigator of this obsession. Several months later, shortly after meeting my wife-to-be Claire, she told me how she had spent the afternoon birding with the local Audubon group. I knew I would have to marry her.

Presently we live in Twin Cities and have two sons at the University of Minnesota. Time for birding has been scarce during the last 24 years, but our efforts have been accelerating recently, as the nest is essentially empty.

The plan is to reach 5,238 life birds despite the visual disability. Why this number? There is profound appeal to saying “I have seen or heard the majority of bird species on the planet.” Currently the Clements-based eBird species total stands at 10,372. 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 by the end of 2020.

The site is not intended to be about my life list or bad eyesight; I hope to merely provide content of interest occasionally, 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.

 eBird profile page

michael claire

Black Forest, Germany, July 2016