I’ve been a serious birder for over 28 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.

I am hardly alone in this. There are likely others more bewitched by these little plumed dinosaurs than I am, but… I’m pretty damn obsessed.

I am also legally blind, due to 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. Bad combination.

To lose your night vision means more than simply seeing nothing in the dark, because even a low-light condition – such as what one finds in a dimly-lit forest, for example – can be like having no light at all. Twilight might as well be midnight when you have RP.

As for the loss of 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, 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 constriction 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. Especially when you are trying to see birds.

RP makes birding much more difficult – sometimes it makes it damn frustrating. I’ve been tempted more than once to throw down my binoculars and give it up. But obsessions don’t just go away. I’ve still got some vision left, and many RP victims lose their sight entirely.  So I will use what is left of my eyesight to pursue as many birds as I can, while I can.

My eyesight used to be good. At age twelve, I discovered celestial treasures and was a devoted member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society:

Large and small astronomical telescopes, standing near a white observatory dome. One adult to the right, on the left, a child with a telescope taller than him, frizzy brown hair, blue t-shirt, bell-bottom jeans and sneakers. Late afternoon sun, mountains in the background.
I must have been about thirteen at the time of this photo, taken at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex west of Salt Lake City. I cannot recall what was on that t-shirt but it sure does look like a bird. My telescope, a Focal from K-mart, was more amenable to birding than astronomy, too, as it had an “alt-az” mount instead of an equatorial mount, like all the others in the photo.

In college I traded gazing at stars for staring at physics textbooks. I 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.

I was 26 when I discovered birds. Studying at a park one afternoon, I saw a woodpecker feeding on the ground. I don’t know why, but I needed to know what this 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 lovely 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. Time for birding had been scarce during most of our 28 years together, but our efforts have accelerated recently, as the nest is now essentially empty.

My goal is to reach 5,400 life birds, despite the visual disability. Why this number? Because I need 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).

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.

 eBird profile page

Man with gray goatee, black cap, glasses, next to woman with black hair, standing in front of a forest.
Michael and Claire, Black Forest, Germany, July 2016

Contact: hurbenm at gmail.com

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