Birding Despite Disability

Obsessions Don't Care About Limitations

How I Got my Life List to Five Thousand Species

The first time I put a bird on a list, it was the spring of 1993, and the entry was Northern Flicker. A common bird in a city park, an unlikely spark of obsession. Thirty years later, to the month, more or less, I ticked lifer number 5,000, under singular circumstances and with a singular species: from the rooftop restaurant of the BK Boutique Hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, overlooking the Sea of Marmara, with squadrons of Yelkuoan Shearwaters moving past in the distance.

Barely visible, these birds were flowing up and down from the Bosporus Strait, moving at a hefty clip, low to the water, executing the familiar flap, flap, glide… flap, flap, glide. Dark above and white below, they seemed to flash on and off. During the time we spent having lunch, watching them among the Yellow-legged Gulls, thousands must have moved past. I’d never seen a shearwater from any shore before, much less from atop a building in a hillside. But it is a well-known behavior for this species as they move between the Black and Mediterranean Seas.

A strange place to see shearwaters

It was a nice milestone, but I’m not done. I need another 400 or so species to reach the point where I feel I’ve utterly defeated the dragon of my visual disability. I promised myself that I would identify at least half the species in the world and demonstrate that a legally blind guy can earn a place in the world of competitive birding.

The shearwaters didn’t provide much to photograph, appearing like a line of white dots just over the water

We were only in Turkey for an afternoon and a morning, a stop on our return home from several weeks in Africa. (I was expecting lifer number 5,000 to come in Uganda, but bad weather and a road wiped out by landslides curtailed our efforts there. My next post will detail the pros and cons of gambling on rainy season in East Africa.) Despite the short stay, Turkey is obviously high on my lift of favorite places now, and not just because of the shearwaters. What was Constantinople is a city of immense beauty. And it isn’t just the architecture, old and new, or the varied geography. As with the various other Muslim countries that we’ve been fortunate to visit, there is an auditory component to the landscape, in the form of the calls to prayer that punctuate the day. I don’t know why they are so moving to hear. It is just something you have to experience. To me it sounds like an expression of the deepest reverence for… everything. Something ancient and holy in world trivialized by TikTok.

I also associate that sound, and now the place, with gratitude. I specifically mentioned our hotel not just for the birding, but because it is staffed by some of the kindest people we have ever met, including a good Samaritan named Yakup who saved us from disaster. For the first time in our 22 years of international birding travel, Claire and I had the gut-wrenching experience of misplacing a passport. We were approaching the airport – a good hour from the city – when we realized it was not with us. Turning back to the hotel would likely mean missing the flight.

Yakup meanwhile was already trying to reach me via WhatsApp to let me know that we’d left it in the room. He then had his brother come get it and deliver it to us at the airport. We made a big ATM withdrawal and gave it to them as thanks. They didn’t need to help us like that. The hotel is fantastic, by the way, so if you are thinking of visiting this city, please consider staying there. These people are the best. And you’ll see some shearwaters while you enjoy the great food and coffee, too.

The Hagia Sophia mosque, also visible from the rooftop

Main photo credit: Alexxx Malev Wikimedia Commons.

4 responses to “How I Got my Life List to Five Thousand Species”

  1. OMG, Michael, this is the most wonderful post ever! I wanted to put a little heart by every paragraph. I loved the way you wove together the themes of beauty, kindness, gratitude, and adventure. You are truly an inspiration!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Shelley!

  2. Massive congratulations!
    Wonderful achievement and I’m sure you will get the next 500 to complete your quest. Mind you I think 500 is probably my life total (but I have seen many thousands of shearwaters of several different species from land😉)

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