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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Birding by Ear

Air Date: Week of

Bill Gette of Mass Audubon leads the Blind Birders.

There’s a lot more to bird watching than meets the eye. Members of the Lowell Association for the Blind learn to tune in to nature and bird by ear. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman went along to see,and hear,how it’s done.


CURWOOD: America is going for the birds. Literally. According to a survey by The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, bird watching is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the nation. More than 50 million Americans report that they watch birds. But as Living on Earth’s senior correspondent Bruce Gellerman learned, there can be a lot more to birding than meets the eye.

Bill Gette scoops up some salt marsh muck. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: An hour north of Boston, on Plum Island, is The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a 46 hundred-acre birder paradise.

GETTE: It’s one of the most spectacular birding areas on the east coast.

GELLERMAN And Bill Gette should know. He’s Sanctuary Director of Massachusetts Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center—just up the coast from the national refuge.

GETTE: It includes marshlands, saltwater marshes, ocean beaches, some upland forest on the mainland side. We have a lot of nesting birds, including the endangered piping plover and least tern. So people come into this area to view birds throughout the year.

Bill Gette of Mass Audubon leads the Blind Birders. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN And then there are people who come here once a year who don’t view birds.

DONOVAN: I used to think birding was all watching with binoculars and everything. That’s what I used to think.

GELLERMAN: Dorothy Donovan is a lifelong bird lover…she’s been coming to the national refuge every year more than a decade, but she’s never seen a bird.

DONOVAN: I’ve always liked birds. My mother used to have us watch the birds in the yard. We’d all go out and she’d tell me what was going on and I would listen to them sing. It’s always been a part of my natural world.

GELLERMAN: When did you lose your sight?

DONOVAN: I was one of those premature babies who got too much oxygen.

GELLERMAN: so you were born without sight?

DONOVAN: Basically, yes.

The salt marsh boardwalk. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: Dorothy Donovan is with the Lowell Association for the Blind. The group has been part of Mass Audubon’s Birding by Ear program since it started 11 years ago.

GETTE: Ok, we’re going to meet over here….

(car horn)

GELLERMAN: The blind birders gather in a parking lot at the national refuge.
Bill Gette leads the group slowly down a dirt path into a maritime forest filled with 30-foot pin-cherry and birch.

(sfx Yellow Warbler)

GETTE: Ok why don’t we do this folks. We’re going to move up…a little bit…there’s a little bit of a hill…but if you listen to your left hand side…there’s a Yellow Warbler. And it’s singing sweet sweet sweet…I’m so sweet or sweet sweet sweet sweeter than sweet…Oh do you hear the Towhee?


GELLERMAN: The path pitches down. It’s slippery. Some of the blind birders use canes, but not all.

GETTE: Just go slow, haha - just don’t make any rash moves.

GELLERMAN: Bill Gette discovers something at every step. He stops, and waits for the group to collect.

GETTE: When we go on these trips we’re birding by ear but we also make an attempt to show and have them smell as many different things, so use as many senses as possible.

GELLERMAN : There’s moss, honeysuckle and bayberry. Gette snaps off a twig from a low bush.

GETTE: This is certainly a nice one smell that.

GELLERMAN: Oh, smells like a rose - that’s a rose?

GETTE: Yes, that’s a rose. A beautiful rose, pink color, rose and the thorns. Folks, I’m going to pass back a rose. It has little thorns so you’ll want to be careful of that but smell the flower. ItÂ’s a beautiful Rosa Rugosa.

CINASVICH: Oh, you find a lot of this on Cape Cod near the beach.

GELLERMAN: Sharon Cinsavich has macular degeneration — and just had cataract surgery in both eyes. But she wouldn’t miss the birding by ear field trip for the world.

CINSAVICH: It’s very important because I have a lot of faith and it makes me feel closer to God’s nature and that’s good.

Bruce Interviewing Sharon Cinsavich. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)


GETTE: Oh there’s a Redstart, that real squeaky song - and a Catbird. Oh, the Redstart is really quite close. Let me just – psst - sometimes when you make that noise you can actually attract the birds come closer – pssst - psst.

GELLERMAN: Bill Gette can hardly finish a sentence without identifying a bird. He’s a world-class birder and naturalist. The Birding by Ear program for the blind was his idea.

GETTE: Can you imagine being blind? OK? I can’t imagine it. And I can’t imagine not being interested in natural history either. Its part of my soul or whatever you want to say. So we so enjoy it but we also think it’s a really important part of the Massachusetts Audubon mission, to get out and try to get as many people excited about the natural world and conserving it as we possible can. That’s what we’re in the business to do.

GELLERMAN: Mass. Audubon volunteers lead the birders out of the steps down the forest path onto a narrow boardwalk stretching out over the Merrimack salt marsh.

VOLUNTEER: Yeah, we’re going left again. Now there’s a little lip, not a step just a little lip, about an inch down.

[canes tapping]

GELLERMAN: Violet Santamaria tap, tap,taps her cane, to make sure she doesn’t fall into the salty muck. She has a little vision in one eye, but her hearing is sharp, and she quickly identifies the song of the marsh wren that Bill Gette describes as a burst of bubbles.

GETTE: It’s a small bird only about the size of a chickadee.

SANTAMARIA: Oh, oh, oh! Hear that bird! I’ve never seen a marsh wren. But I can hear it – haha! – chip – chip – haha! Chip – chip – chip!

George Desmaris with a branch twig. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

DESMARIS: It’s so peaceful you don’t even hear traffic. Just nature – haha!

GELLERMAN: 84-year-old George Desmaris wears thick, thick glasses but navigates without a cane.

DESMARIS: Well, between cataracts and macular degeneration, I’m almost legally blind.

GELLERMAN: Do you feel like you’re missing anything not being able to see the birds?

DESMARIS: Well I can hear them - ha ha! It doesn’t feel any different. I just can’t see them as well but I enjoy it just as much as I did before.

GELLERMAN: HereÂ’s a step.

DESMARIS: Yep, it is a little frustrating not being able to see all the finer points of it as I once could but hey - it’s beautiful.

Violet Santamaria goes birding. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN The day is crystal clear and warm. Tall green grasses and cattails line the boardwalk as it cuts a path through the salt marsh. It’s a wonderful sight even for those with just peripheral vision.

HESS: See, I have an advantage! See the dark green? YouÂ’ve got a white boardwalk down through the center - more or less it’s bleached - and I can see it.

GELLERMAN: Ed Hess lost his most of his sight to macular degeneration 6 years ago but he’s a birding by ear veteran.

HESS: I enjoy it - it’s about my 5th trip here with the blind. Thoroughly enjoy it.

GELLERMAN: I see you’ve got a camera.

HESS: Yeah.

GELLERMAN: So you take pictures?

HESS: Yeah, always took pictures. I enjoy photographs.

GELLERMAN: So even though you can’t see so well, you still take pictures?

HESS: Yeah, I aim in the general direction and then I go to one of these stores where you can adjust the size and what scope you have on it and all like that. I still have a very expensive camera I can’t use with a telephoto lens. I can’t see what I’m homing in on.

GELLERMAN: Photographer Al Trudeau has his sight. He’s come to the refuge to take photos. His expensive camera is perched on a tripod; a humongous lens points to a distant tree but Trudeau isn’t having much luck spotting birds.

TRUDEAU You hear it. You locate it. You try to get the visual. My end result is visual.

GELLERMAN: Can you identify the sounds of the birds.

TRUDEAU: IÂ’m not good at it….hahah!

GELLERMAN But Bill Gette sure is.

GETTE : We had the Catbird, the Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat….

GELLERMAN: He ticks off the birds we’ve heard this day. He says not being able to see the birds isn’t a handicap.


GETTE: In some cases actually to survey birds, it’s better to listen for them because you’ve seen 2 birds but I’m sure there are at least 20 that we’ve already experienced but we’ve only seen 2. Right behind you there’s a Redstart. There’s a Towhee again singing drink your tea, hear that song.

GELLERMAN: The birds will be in full voice throughout the summer but Bill Gette warns stay away until mid-August - or the greenhead flies will eat you alive.

GETTE: But in the fall you should come back sometime in the evening when we have 30 or 40 thousand Tree Swallows here. It’s a natural history wonder, it’s just fantastic.

GELLERMAN: A gift for the ear, the eye, and all the senses. For Living on Earth I’m Bruce Gellerman.



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