Sunday, October 25, 2009

Birding with Jerry - A Blind Date

A glorious May morning after 10 days of rainy weather matched the calendar date I had made with a friend to go birding. We met at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, a long drive for me but the ideal meeting spot for Jerry, who is blind and lives nearby. Jerry arrived by taxi cab and after a brief discussion about the catbird singing near the parking lot, he took my arm and we ventured onto the sanctuary trails.

Leaves were popping out in the tall trees all around us, about halfway to full canopy, so I still had a chance to see many birds. Almost immediately as we headed down trail a scarlet tanager began to sing. We stopped to listen. "Have you heard the scarlet tanager before?" I asked Jerry. "Just on recordings’, he replied. "I think of it as a robin with a sore throat. It also has a ‘chip - bur’ call too, doesn’t it?"

"Yes," I answered, and within a few minutes, the distinctive chip-bur call began high overhead. As we continued our walk, we heard several scarlet tanagers singing and calling throughout the riverside forest. We also heard rose-breasted grosbeaks and robins. All three birds have similar songs and offered us the chance to compare and contrast. Jerry hadn’t heard the rose-breasted grosbeak live before either. "This one," he said, "I think of as a robin who has taken singing lessons." His references come straight out of Peterson’s field guide text, which provides handy ways to identify and remember some bird songs. As we stood and listened, a scarlet tanager flew down to eye level and dazzled me with a view of its electric red body and black wings. I had to remember to keep breathing.

Several other birds began to make themselves known. An ovenbird pumped out its "teacher teacher teacher" song. This was a warbler that Jerry had encountered before. As we passed near it, we stopped so Jerry could make a recording. He had brought a large microphone designed for capturing bird sounds which fit easily into his jacket. He also wore to microphones clipped to his cap, each one near an ear, for a more dimensional sound effect.

The sun filtered through the tree tops and we navigated a rocky stream crossing. Jerry held my arm just above the elbow and followed a half a step behind me, feeling how I was moving and following suit. I offered occasional comments on the level of rocks along the rocky passage, the mud puddles we were side stepping, and low hanging branches. It turned out to be quite easy to be Jerry’s sighted guide even on complicated terrain. Having been blind since birth, Jerry is adept at moving through his environment with guide dog, cane, or human support.
Orioles were calling throughout the forest too. Although we were hoping to hear a great crested flycatcher, we only heard orioles giving short phrases that sounded similar to the flycatcher’s voice. We stood still a few times, trying to decide who the real singer was, until the oriole would sing a longer phrase or move into view and reveal its identity.

Deciphering mystery singers on the spot can be difficult. Being able to find the singer visually and observe it singing is the ultimate clear identification. Relying on memory can be misleading. Some birds sing a consistent phrase or have a truly distinctive voice that can be remembered from year to year. Others have such a wide variety of vocalizations that it may take awhile to sort out and some songs may never move beyond mystery status.

An American redstart, a showy orange and black warbler, landed on a branch above and peered down at us. I let Jerry know the bird was there, but its silence gave him no way to perceive it. We continued along the trail a short way and were riveted by a mystery bird that was singing from one hidden spot high up in the half leafed trees. No matter how I repositioned myself along the trail I could not find the bird in my binoculars. The song varied a lot but we both agreed it had to be a warbler. One phrase was an ascending burry emphatic trill, another was a choppy series of notes with the same tone. Was it a blackburnian warbler, cerulean warbler, or the American redstart? In migration many birds are possible even outside of their breeding habitat. Jerry recorded the singer to compare to recordings on CD at home and we continued uphill to some power lines. Here we had the satisfaction of hearing the blessedly consistent and easy-to-identify trill of the prairie warbler, a new bird for Jerry.

All around us on this May morning birds were singing and calling. Wood thrushes, American goldfinches, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, tufted titmice, grackles, cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds could also be heard. After awhile the brain rebels against focusing intently on so much audio input. "I know we heard that earlier. What was that?" I asked Jerry."I don’t know," he admitted. "All these songs are suddenly cancelling each other out." "Yeah," I answered, "I think we’ve reached overload." "I’m glad I’m not the only one!" laughed Jerry, as we headed back to the visitor center.

Jerry can often be found at the Broad Meadow Brook visitor center on Saturday mornings. He birds from the deck and talks with visitors, sometimes confirming identifications through their eyesight. He welcomes the chance to walk with others on the trails of the sanctuary, whether you are an experienced birder-by-ear or want to get started. Jerry posts recordings on line at

A few days after our walk, Jerry emailed me with his identification of our mystery singer. In his email he attached a brief recording from our outing plus a clip from a bird song CD. There was no doubt about it. We had heard a northern parula warbler singing a joyous solo on that spectacular day.

Location: Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, 414 Massasoit Ave, Worcester, MA

Fees: Massachusetts Audubon members, free; non-members $4 adults, $3 children/seniors.
Wheelchair accessibility: Visitor Center is wheelchair accessible. Trails from the visitor center head downhill and are challenging and not advised without support. The North Link trail nearby is wheelchair accessible and offers views of the brook. A bird blind near the visitor center is in progress towards complete accessibility and plans are in the works to make more of the trail system accessible.


jerry.berrier said...

I'm still birding, although I don't make it to Broad Meadow Brook much these days. I recently got a device that I'm very excited about. It's an IPod Nanno, combined with a product called Birdjams from I purchased the IPod and then added speech output by turning on the speech output feature which uses my computer's SAPI speech engine to insert speech output into the IPod. Then I imported the Stokes Field Guide CD's for the north-eastern U.S. Next I ran the Birdjams program, which modified the Stokes recordings and separates them into alphabetic listings and habitat listings. I also purchased a small set of speakers which the IPod fits into, so I can listen either with a headset or speakers. I now have easy access to over 300 bird sounds, and I can quickly find just the one I want to hear. This has given me a level of access that I never dreamed I'd have. into

Anonymous said...

I tried to follow to your rss feed, but i had a error adding it to google right ascension