The Aging Bird Watcher

I’m going to be turning 60 years old in March of 2015. For some people this is one of those mile-stone birthdays, however for myself the only thing I’m looking forward to next year is my much anticipated trip to the Rio Grande Birding Festival. This trip will be my birthday present to myself, and when you reach such an age I think you should be able to splurge a little. However this post isn’t about my upcoming trip to Texas. It’s about our abilities as aging birders when those sensory and physical attributes we used to poses in our younger years diminish with age.

If you’re a loyal reader of this blog you’ll hear me talk about my friend Jon as we go about birding all over hither and yawn. Jon’s a great birder and a good friend, but the one thing I’ve noticed about Jon, (and rather envious about) is his ability to hear the smallest, high pitched, distant bird call or song in a forest of noise and chatter. At one time in my not so long life I to was able to hear such sounds. However as myself and others get older trying to discern and pick out those smallest of bird calls from all the others can be a challenge. I’ve lost count on how many times Jon will hear a bird call, where I’ve missed it. We stop to listen again, now more intently. You finally hear the call way off in the distance and feel somewhat relieved  that you’re not totally deaf. This kind of experience which can be common place with the aging birder, and rather humbling. We as birder rely on our auditory skills to ID, or to locate birds that give us only a “chip” note as you walk by as the only clue to it’s location.

How many of you have gone birding with a large group of other people from your local Audubon Society, or your local bird club? Outings like these can be a great way to meet other like minded people, or become involved if your new to bird watching. Exploring a new place with a group is a safe haven for those who would never go there by themselves in the first place. I still go out with groups from time to time. Even the last 2 outing I took to Boone County Cliffs and Adams County were with large groups. But there is a draw back when birding with groups that I’m finding out. Idle talk. If you have a difficult time hearing birds at certain decibel levels, people talking to each other using their normal voices creates this gray noise that’s hard to filter out. And I’m not one to tell others to tone it down either. Whenever a situation like this happens I tend to hang either in the front of the group or the back. Sometimes these older ears need to be away from a crowd to be able to pick up those faint songs.

Granted, birding in a large group with experienced leaders can be very rewarding with great birds and maybe a “Lifer” or two. And I can guarantee you I’ll be joining large groups before my birding days are over, but nothing beats birding by yourself or with one or two others. Jon and me know when to shut up and pay attention. We both have good abilities at stalking birds we hear, and so we compliment each other with our natural skills. It’s just he has better hearing than me.

We’d all like to go birding in perfect conditions. The solitude of the forest. The windswept prairie, or the desert southwest. However the urban birder who have those elderly ears is faced with other obstacles to deal with. Particularly planes, trains, automobiles, playgrounds, dog parks, and the list goes on and on. A couple of my go to spots for Vesper Sparrows and Rough-legged Hawks are right under the flight paths of local airports. And don’t get me started about trains. Why is it that some of the best birding spots are near railroad tracks? If you don’t have the bird sighted in visually as a train starts to roll by, birding by ear is next to impossible.

It’s these background noises, along with the vocal pitch of some birds that constantly remind myself, and I’m sure others, that we’re not as young as we used to be. And if it’s not the fading ears that’s bothering you, how are those joints holding up after a full day of birding? I don’t about you but at times I have to take a therapeutic dose of Advil if I know I’m in for a full day.

For myself I have to blame it on a Golden-winged Warbler. You see while walking rather briskly to catch up to a group who had located this bird at Ottawa N.W.R. I inadvertently stepped into a hole with my right foot. Which in turn almost sent me to the ground with sharp pains in my knee. This was several years ago and one surgery later it still gives me fits when I’m out in the field for a long time. Even if the older birder doesn’t have any preexisting issues, over time the articulating surfaces of our joints begin to wear away, and then the pain sets in. Does this effect where a birder might go on his or her next field trip? Sure it does. My recent trip to Boone County Cliffs involves a strenuous climb in the beginning of the trail. When this field trip was advertised it stated that fact so if you were physically unable for such a climb then you might consider not going. So now the aging birder needs to understand their own abilities when setting off into the field for a day of birding. A great day of birding could lead to joint pain with ice packs in the old Lazy Boy at the end of the day.

Even though I work in a hospital I can’t make any kind of recommendation as to what the answer for might be, however to quote Clint Eastwood, “A man should know his limitations” ring true when the older birder ventures out into the field. I do have to hand it to the handicapped bird watcher though, who takes to their scooter and powers their way along. Every year I see several handicapped birders along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh in May. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ambulatory individual not allow a handicapped birder have access to a particular bird sighting. Granted the scooters do take up a fair amount of room on the boardwalk. And if you’ve ever been there in May you know how crowded it can get. But birders are naturally patient and allow them to move about at the pace they need to.

With such conditions hampering our ability to go birding as we age, the last thing we should have to worry about is our eyesight, right? Well next to our ears and extremities, our eyesight ranks right up there in importance. Fortunately for us there are many ways to correct ones vision either with corrective lenses or surgery, which now a days can be done on an out patient basis. Sure there are conditions that the older birder might need to deal with as their vision fades, but with anything medical every person is different, with different challenges we have to face. We then need to adapt to meet these challenges so the aging birder can continue with their passion.

For myself I can see at a distance just fine. However I need to take reading glasses with me wherever I go. There’s always going to be a need to reference our field guide while we’re out birding, so if you can’t see the picture well enough, or see that range map, there’s no use in carrying it, right? And if you’re a person who wears glasses, as lots of aging birders do, does your binoculars have adjustable eye cups? If they don’t, then there’s another thing you have to think about. Those bins you’ve owned since your 30’s might not be what is needed now as your eyes age. And since most birders love to upgrade their binoculars, this is one thing you might need to consider when purchasing your new bins. Will these binoculars work for me when I get older? Should I spend a little more to make sure they have adjustable eye cups when I wear my glasses?

I don’t know anyone who enjoys getting older, however knowing your own body and it’s limitations, we as aging birders should be able to bird to a ripe old age. I’m sure the stimulation and hard work we put into this past time also helps with the aging brain. The companionship with others is vital for a healthy mind and body as well. We as birders need bird watching as much as a junkie needs a fix. It’s what makes us tick. And as we age I think we need it more than ever, So be mindful of your body changes and what your plans will be to adjust. Sometimes we can’t do a thing about medical conditions we have, but as a species we’ve been able to adapt to changes for the most part. But if your able to make adjustments as you age, then there isn’t an excuse to not go birding.

So once again I’ll be up bright and early one day this weekend, pop a few Advil with mu morning cup of Joe, and head out into the field while I’m still able. I hope to see you as well.




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