Birding Despite Disability

Obsessions Don't Care About Limitations


I’ve been a serious birder for over 30 years. I am a physicist by education*, but as enthralled by ornithology as by quantum field theory. I am gripped by a compulsion to see or hear as many species of little plumed dinosaurs as is humanly possible.

I am also legally blind, due to retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a group of a genetic diseases which destroy retinal rod cells, resulting in the loss of night and peripheral vision.

Low vision is not exactly optimal for birding.

To lose night vision isn’t simply to not see in the dark. Even low-light conditions, such as in a dimly lit forest, for example, can be like having no light at all. Twilight can be like midnight with RP.

As for the loss of peripheral vision, try the following. Extend an arm, straight ahead, palm up, fingers together – as if someone was 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 see your thumb moving, as well as other things further to that side of your 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’ and is quantifiable in terms of visual field width, 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 – and sometimes 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. As long as I have some vision left, I’ll keep trying to see as many birds as I can.

My eyesight was once good. At age twelve, I discovered stars and planets 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. And when I was in graduate school, I suddenly 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 it was called. I headed directly to a bookstore, bought a Peterson Guide, and learned that a Northern Flicker would be my instigator bird. Several months later, I would meet a lovely wildlife biology graduate student named Claire. On our second or third date she would mention, offhand, that she’d 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.

Within a year, I realized my vision was failing.

So far I’ve gotten just over 5,000 species on my life list, and I’m hoping to soon say that I have identified at least half the world’s bird species. I’ll need a few hundred more, at least.

The site is not about my life list or bad eyesight; I hope to rather provide valuable content for other birders. I’m particularly interested in audio recording and various interesting physics phenomena associated with birding equipment, such as described here and here.

* I earned my PhD in physics from Colorado State University in 1996. My work has focused on magnetic excitations in solids, including spin waves and magnetostatic waves; ferromagnetic resonance and loss mechanisms that involve scattering from inhomogeneities in both bulk and thin thin film materials; spin-stand characterization of magnetic recording systems for noise and distortion; written track microscopy techniques; and digital signal processing such as that used in high data-rate Viterbi channels.

Contact: hurbenm at

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