Friday, March 25, 2022

Accessible Birding - and Anti-Racist Too!

A closed road side is an accessible birding
hotspot at a water treatment plant.
    Spring is emerging and birds are returning! Some of my favorite places to birdwatch are in Massachusetts State Parks. Accessible birding locations I enjoy include Belle Isle Marsh Reservation in E. Boston, the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Amherst/Hadley, and the Canalside Rail Trail in Turners Falls. In addition, I highly recommend Plum Island in Newburyport, Constitution Beach in E. Boston in winter, several ponds accessible via carriage roads in Borderland State Park, and Crosby Landing in Nickerson State Park on Cape Cod.

    As part of my job with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) Universal Access Program, I have fond memories of birding with people with disabilities back in 2005-2010 and developing techniques to help more people use optics. Some of these techniques included the use of a monopod with binoculars and starting new birders in places with easy-to-view birds like waterfowl and herons. With changes in technology since then, I'm sure more strategies have emerged for providing the best experience possible for birders with disabilities.

The ACAB meets up in a parking lot in Turners Falls. 
    In recent years, birding is becoming more accessible thanks to adaptive birding groups popping up - in particular Birdability on a national level promotes accessible birding locations and events. Local to western Massachusetts, the Anti-Racist Collective of Avid Birders includes people with disabilities.  

   This winter I paid a brief visit to a birding program hosted by the Athol Bird and Nature Club and Anti-Racist Birders in the Turners Falls area. It was a cold day with snow on the ground and a persistent breeze. I was surprised to see about two dozen people show up, some from as far away as Arlington! Though I couldn't stay long, we enjoyed the antics of a lot of robins and a mockingbird in the parking lot. I was happy to learn that as the group carpooled around the local area, they had some excellent sightings for February, including Black Vultures and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Check out a report of the outing here. The ACAB offers birding outings seasonally and are currently on the lookout for Woodcocks and are birding the urban wilds of Holyoke this March.

The most recent flyer of the Anti-Racist
Collective of Avid Birders shows seagulls and pigeons
in the city.
    Meghadeepa Maity is the voice of the ACAB - as an immigrant, international student, and a birder of color, she takes her avid interest in avifauna into the realm of social activism to include everyone. Meghadeepa has created an online presence and passion for creating space for people with disabilities to get out and bird together. She has her own disabling conditions to contend with and somehow finds the time to plan and coordinate birding experiences. Find out more about ACAB on Instagram.

    I have not spent enough time yet with the ACAB to know how they might help aspiring birders with disabilities work out adaptations for successful experiences. Here is some additional advice I can offer to anyone who has a disability and is interested in birding:

Woman uses a scope with angled eyepiece while 
seated in a wheelchair near the water.

    Certainly find a local group you can bird with - it really helps to go out with experienced birders and there is a lot to be learned in the company of others, especially for identifying bird sounds and faster moving and small birds. Bird clubs exist in every state and your local Audubon chapter can help connect you. Make sure you choose birders that travel at a slower pace and are open to taking the time to help out. Many experienced birders are very focused at their skill level and pace and may not be patient with newcomers in the quest to find species that might be in an area.

    Accessible birding locations are key to a good experience. Be aware that weather and seasonal conditions may change accessibility. Rail trails are a good bet, as are many wheelchair accessible locations. Quiet roads and roads closed off to traffic are great choices too, if they are adjacent to wetlands and varying types of habitat. There are many places to choose from on websites and by word of mouth. Massachusetts Audubon has over a dozen All Persons Trails at their sanctuaries around the state.

Using a monopod to stabilize binoculars.

  If you are looking for help with birding equipment, as with any adaptation process, it helps to communicate both your functionality and what is difficult for you. Birding scopes with angled eyepieces can work more effectively for short or seated people. Binoculars with lower magnification will be better for those who have hand tremors. Binoculars with a wider field of view will help people locate birds easier. Lightweight binoculars will be best for those who  experience arm fatigue easily. Some binoculars can be fit to monopods or tripods for more stable viewing - and some even have internal stabilizers to offset hand tremors. Bringing along folding chairs will help those who need to sit in areas where benches are few. Some people may prefer not to wrangle with optics and simply enjoy the birds as they experience them.

    Meghadeepa is a proponent of birding from one place and letting the birds come to you. This is a wonderful way to enjoy time outdoors and let nature resume itself around you. Pick a spot that has varying heights of vegetation or changes of habitat, such as where a field meets a forest and a wetland, and you'll encounter a greater variety of birds. Start with birds you know and enjoy them more fully. Get to know their songs. There are plenty of apps now to help with birdsong identification. I recommend Cornell University's All About Birds for more information about each species including their songs and calls. I learn bird song best when I locate the new singer and observe both song and bird together. As you hear new sounds and see birds you don't know yet, you may find yourself becoming a birder - or a more advanced birder -  in the quest to solve each mystery!

Monday, January 31, 2022

Accessible Trails and Parks Along the Neponset River in Dorchester

Winter snowless view of trail with distant pavilion.
I have been visiting Pope John Paul II Park Reservation on the Neponset River in Dorchester over the past few months. The park offers open space with big sky, views of the water, and an urban exploration of nature. A paved series of loop trails allows for wheelchair access and fitness opportunities. Restoration and protection of the urban wild along the river gives nature lovers a chance to enjoy birds, especially in winter.

        Pope John Paul II, or PJP II, was once a landfill, and this is evident in the rolling terrain with a prominent hill. This is a specific park linked along the riverway to several other parks via 10 foot wide paved walkways and the Lower Neponset River Trail. From PJP II, located on Hallet Street in Dorchester, it is possible to achieve a summit experience, with 2 accessible shelters atop the grassy hill with picnic tables. A paved trail with very modest grades (<5%) make this hilltop very accessible. I hear its a great place to fly kites.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Adaptive Nordic Skiing Equipment and Techniques

A woman with a brain injury in a ski lesson. 
        You have to be willing to exert yourself for cross-country, also known as Nordic, skiing. This sport really separates out those who like to work for the benefits of exercise from those who are compelled to the extreme thrills of downhill skiing. I enjoy Nordic skiing for the tranquil connection to nature and the great cardio workout in fresh air. I relish exploring the landscape as I pole and glide along. The downhills are especially satisfying as you've earned them!!       

Nielsen sit-ski seats and frames without skis.

        To get off to a good start with adaptive Nordic skiing, some specialized equipment is necessary. For those with mobility impairments, a seated ski is usually the way to go. Like all equipment, sit-skis come in a variety of styles and sizes. For years in our adaptive winter programs we have used sit-skis designed by Bob Hall and Colin Dye, both athletes with disabilities. Recently we have added to our fleet to provide updated high performance options, and now offer a couple of Neilsen sit-skis as well. With all these designs, the ski is usually built custom for the individual, so we have had several on hand to best match up the right one for each skier.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Walking Sticks for Adaptive Hiking and Fitness

Three people prepare to walk with sticks.
        It occurred to me recently that the walking stick may be the oldest, and indeed most ancient, of adaptive equipment. What early human, or even creature, picked up a stick and used it to aid balance? That moment is for sure shrouded in the mists of time. 

        A natural, sturdy stick can be used as a crutch or a staff, providing balance for anyone, regardless of age or ability, while hiking on rugged or slippery terrain, or purely to stay upright and assist motion. The human history of walking sticks is quite interesting - for further info, click here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Ellisville Harbor Easy Walk to Rare Coastal Views

A flat, dirt trail through the woods.
Guest Post!
With permission for our Easy Walk friend, Marjorie Turner Hollman, here is her excellent post about an opportunity to experience an undeveloped coastal area and observe seals near Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Please note this is not a wheelchair accessible trail but does offer an easy walk to an overlook.                                                                                                                                      
This was 
our second visit to Ellisville Harbor State Park in Plymouth, MA. On our first visit in August, we were led to believe the path to the shoreline was at least a mile. Since my “on foot” range is about two miles, this would leave no energy for actually walking on the beach. We chose to head on, and ended up at Shifting Lots Preserve, another open space quite nearby. We returned to the state park on a cool day in December, and decided to try reaching the beach. Turns out, the trail is closer to a half mile out, well within my capabilities when the weather is cool outside.

Monday, November 22, 2021

A Wonderful Micro-Adventure in Story Walks

The Story Walk begins with the book cover.
        I just discovered a new Story Walk at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls. Perfect for Thanksgiving, though unrelated, the featured story is "Thank the Animals", a Native American tale shared by Passamaquoddy storyteller Allan Sockabasin.

        If Story Walks are new to you, this family-friendly concept combines children's stories with short walks. Storybook pages are presented in sequence on posts for a reasonable distance that can be on a lawn or along a sidewalk or trail. Walking as you enjoy a story is a welcoming way to exercise, or warm up for a longer walk. The Story Walk Project was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT, in 2007 and developed in collaboration with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. Now they can be found all over the U.S. and beyond.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Walking Up Wachusett Mountain with Waypoint Adventure

Seated hiker with helper in front and behind.
     This first week of November I had the pleasure of joining a Waypoint Adventure hike on Mt. Wachusett! It was our first DCR Universal Access Program hike on this prominent peak that dominates central Massachusetts. I was especially interested in seeing the TrailRider in use for two participants who cannot walk. This environmentally-friendly one-wheeled rig seems like a cross between a rickshaw and a wheelbarrow. Designed in Vancouver, Canada, it first seems lengthy and cumbersome but is fantastic adaptive equipment when plenty of help is available to assist seated hikers.

     Wachusett Mountain is a scenic state park with rugged hiking trails and spectacular views. A visitor center at the bottom of the mountain offers indoor exhibits and restrooms and is a great place to stop prior to entering the park. From here you can drive to the top via the auto road, however it is closed after October 31st and re-opens Memorial Day weekend. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Cape Cod's Crosby Landing - A Special Spot of Natural Beauty


Cairn and vegetation along Namskaket Sea Path.
       A lesser known part of Nickerson State Park in Brewster, MA is Crosby Landing. While not a designated accessible area it is worth considering a visit, especially if you have someone to assist you if you use a wheelchair. You may be surprised to find that just past a short stretch of soft sand there is a natural hardpacked trail that parallels the beach for a half mile or so, with spectacular bayside views of marsh and tidal flats. It is called the Namskaket Sea Path. The trail width is just wide enough for wheelchair passage though dune vegetation.

        To get there, almost opposite the main entrance to Nickerson State Park, there is a short drive to the beach parking lot at the end of Crosby Lane. Along this paved lane, you'll pass a beautiful old estate, Crosby Mansion. In the lot there is one designated accessible parking space. 

Monday, October 4, 2021

Natural Riverside Stroll at Bradley Palmer State Park

A curve in the boardwalk through a wetland.
         One of the nicest accessible trails can be found at Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield, MA. I visited last week to check for damage after a summer of heavy rains and found the trail in great condition overall. I hadn't been there in 5 years or so and it was refreshing to stroll this natural setting along the Ipswich River.

        The half mile trail starts just inside the park entrance at 40 Asbury Street. After you pass through the stone wall entrance, take your very first left down a short lane past a house to the trailhead and a small parking area with two paved accessible parking spots designated.      

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Visit Skinner State Park for a Big Perspective

People stand on deck overlooking river valley.
        September is a great month to visit Skinner State Park. October will be even better for fall color. I have been twice in the last two weeks - weekdays offer far fewer visitors than weekends. The wheelchair accessible Summit House perched on Mt. Holyoke offers a chance to appreciate a historic structure and some 19th century history. What everyone comes for is the scenic view of the surrounding Connecticut River valley. The entire outdoor walkway around the old hotel is fully wheelchair accessible. You can also contemplate some big perspective from atop the Holyoke Range.