Cyndy Chamberland shares her recent process getting comfortable with birding outdoors on her own as a power wheelchair user. Without natural places that offer accessibly designed landscapes, this would not be possible for many people with physical disabilities. Thanks Cyndy for offering your experience to inspire others with disabilities to explore their local resources! Thanks Mass Audubon for your dedication to making nature accessible to all!
Recently on a cool but sunny late morning I met up with my friend and former colleague, Marcy Marchello, at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary for a little birding expedition and to check out their accessible sensory trail. Arcadia is a Mass Audubon property practically in my own backyard. It's located off the Manhan Rail Trail in Eastern Massachusetts. Yet while it is so close, I have only ventured there just a few times in my twenty-something years living in Easthampton. Why is that? Well for starters, as I am quadriplegic and use a power wheelchair, so I am leery about going into the woods and on trails unless I am sure the trails are accessible. It isn't pleasant when you find out that the trail or outdoor site has obstacles such as steps, boulders, logs, streams etc. that restrict wheelchair users and other persons with physical and visual disabilities from accessing the trails and area. We don't always know if a place is accessible to us even when it is in our own neighborhood or town.
A few months ago I saw that Arcadia was featuring Saturday morning birding programs, something they offer during fall and spring migration when there is a flurry of bird activity. Since I had been thinking of re-discovering birding I made a pledge to myself to attend. I was a little apprehensive because I wasn't sure if the program would be accessible. I called to pre-register and let them know I would be using a wheelchair during the program. The day before the program I scoped out a couple of trails in Arcadia to determine how feasible it would be for myself using my power wheelchair. I was pleased to find an accessible trail but also to discover that some of Arcadia's other trails are navigable with a power wheelchair, though I wouldn't call them "accessible". This gave me some additional confidence to attend their birding program. It also gave me a renewed appreciation of nature and feeling of heightened independence to actually maneuver in a beautiful wooded area, particularly alone. And even on that day I saw quite a few busy black-capped chickadees and nuthatches flying from tree to tree along the accessible trail.
I attended the Saturday early morning birding "walk" there this fall and found the people and program to be friendly and accommodating. I was the only person with any obvious disability. We ventured from the parking lot on to a trail that took our small group into a wooded area, to an overlook of the Mill River, past a garden of ripened bell peppers and tomatoes, down to a road that passed the Oxbow, and finally to the meadows. As I wheeled along in my Permobil wheelchair I found I was able to access almost the entire trail with the exception of the overlook. I was unable to hike down a fairly steep hill to the water where there were some ducks and killdeer, plus a Cooper’s hawk perched upon the top of a dead tree across the river. Nevertheless I was able to see a variety of birds. Besides the ones at the water, we saw tufted titmice, cedar waxwings, a northern harrier (hawk) hunting in the meadow, a kingfisher, a red-bellied woodpecker, a pair of bluebirds and more. The group experience was very positive and made me yearn for more! It also demonstrated to me that there is a wonderful natural place so close to my home where I can traverse by myself as long as I am careful where I wheel. I can pursue my love of birding and the outdoors!
Marcy and I enjoyed a lovely November morning looking for and at birds. I had recently purchased binoculars that are light enough, have a large focusing knob that turns easily and were within my budget. They are Pentax 9 x32 DCF BC. I was still getting used to using them when I met Marcy. She showed me how the eye piece can open out which makes it more snug for seeing.
As we walked and wheeled along the trail, we began to listen for the sounds of birds. Typically in birding the bird sounds can direct where to look or even help identify the bird by it's sounds. We recognized the “dee dee dee” call of the chickadee and the squawking of a blue jay at first. Marcy recognized the calls of some other birds – nuthatches and a tufted titmouse.
One bonus about my wheelchair for birding is that it has a tilt and recline feature that allows me to rest back and use my binoculars. This minimizes any shaking of my hands and is more comfortable than straining my neck and head to look up. Marcy spotted a female flicker using her bill to dig out insects from one of the trees. Since the flicker took her time, I was able to tilt and recline back some to take a good look at her. Woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds and this flicker was the first sighting for me. I can add it to my list with other woodpeckers I have seen.
We took our time moseying along the trail, looking at the trail's access features as well as birds. There are ropes on the outer perimeter which enable persons with visual disabilities to guide themselves along the trail. The ropes have knobs which alert blind persons to stopping points. Each stopping point has braille signage telling which habitat is being focused upon and is featured on an audio tour and map. The trail heads past a small pond below. There is an observation area with a box for wood ducks suggesting that the pond area would be appropriate habitat for their nesting.
From the back deck of the visitor center, we wanted to check out one of Arcadia's other trails but in order to do that we had to go into the visitor center as there is not a ramp connecting the back deck to the foot trails there.
After exiting the visitor center we veered off to the trail I was familiar with from the birding program. While it has a lot of roots to watch out for, and was covered with leaves, I was able to move along well enough. We ventured out to the now plowed pepper/tomato field. The birds like the trees and shrubs off to the left. We saw robins, jays, white-throated and song sparrows. It was nice to be out and watching the birds feeding and moving about on a nice fall morning.