Tag Archives: birding

Using Sight for Song: A Deaf Birder’s Life Hack

If you’re an avid birdwatcher, nature lover, or even just enjoy going for a stroll near your home, you’d probably be thrilled to see a yellow warbler whizz by or hear its cheerful “sweet- sweet- sugary- sweet” song ring through the trees.

Yellow warbler, photo by Tom Teztner

While many of us enjoy wildlife encounters like these, the experience isn’t the same for everyone.

Generally, avid birders and ornithologists rely on calls and songs to identify nearby birds just as much as they use their sight. But for birders who are deaf or hard of hearing, birding by sound can prove a difficult, or even impossible, task. In an effort to overcome this challenge, Ron Popowski – who is deaf – and former U.S. Forest Service colleague in northern Arizona, Hans – who is hearing- have developed a helpful life hack to help deaf birders better locate birds for identification.

With a series of hand signals and motions, Hans tips Ron off to a bird when it vocalizes. With his knowledge of ecosystems and bird behavior, Ron is able to deduce the general habitat and locate a bird for a species-specific identification. This way, Ron can still enjoy the same challenge that comes with identifying birds without simply being told what it is.

For example, Hans may hear a “tap tap tap tap” in the woods and therefore signal “woodpecker” for Ron. Ron can then determine the general habitat, height, and possible direction to visually locate the woodpecker. From there, he can determine it is a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

The spelling and ASL sign for ‘woodpecker’ video by ASL Stem Forum

This silent code proved beneficial for data collection when Ron and Hans created it in the 1990s. The pair were working on several analysis areas in Coconino National Forest to collect baseline data, and their code allowed Ron to expand his data collection to record bird species. They worked in diverse habitats, including treeline and tundra, ponderosa pine and spruce-fir forests, pinyon-juniper, chaparral, grasslands, desert scrub, riparian, and marsh and open water.  Some of the species included Clark’s nutcracker, doves, poorwill, warblers, wrens, sandhill crane, Northern goshawk, and Mexican spotted owl.

It’s helpful to remember that everyone’s needs are different. Some alternatives to Ron’s Manual may be more beneficial for birders with limited hearing. For example, bird songs are often given phonetic spellings or mnemonics, to assist hearing or hard of hearing birders alike to remember and identify songbirds. To some the red-eyed vireo may sound like it’s saying “look up, over here, see me, up here.” Giving words to notes could help some to better distinguish sounds.

Additional tools are available for those with high-register hearing loss, or presbycusis. While costly, devices like SongFinder are available to lower the pitch of bird calls without slowing them down, allowing a birder to detect its pattern and rhythm in a lower, audible register.

We are always looking for more tips and tricks that can be useful for recreationists to enjoy the outdoors. If you have helpful tools or strategies that improve your experiences in nature, we’d love to learn from you. Please comment and share!

Ron Popowski is Endangered Species and Conservation Planning Assistance Supervisor at the New Jersey Field Office.

Where bird biologists ‘Give Wing to Their Wild Side’

In honor of National Wildlife Refuge Week, I asked two of our Region’s bird biologists to answer the question, “When you go birding, which National Wildlife Refuge do you like to visit and why?” As you can see from their responses, picking just one proved to be impossible! Read on to hear some of the amazing experiences they have had while birding on America’s beautiful National Wildlife Refuges!

Mitch Hartley


Hartley looks on while a student examines a tufted titmouse. Credit: Bennett Gould

Asking me what my favorite refuge is for birding isn’t a hard question…  It’s an impossible question!  It’s a bit like asking me which of my children I love the most.  To me, birding is about experiencing the wonder and diversity of nature in its many forms.  I have more refuge birding memories than I can count, many of them uniquely special and irreplaceable.


A puffin swimming at Seal Island NWR. Credit: LightHart via Flickr

That includes seeing Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills up close on Maine’s Seal Island NWR, hearing–and feeling–the force of hundreds of wingbeats as flocks of shorebirds poured over my head (a Peregrine Falcon in close pursuite) at Montezuma NWR in New York, and waiting patiently to get a great look at one of the more secretive–and rarest–birds on the Atlantic Coast, the tiny Saltmarsh Sparrow, at Parker River NWR in Massachusetts.


The elusive saltmarsh sparrow. Credit: Brian C. Harris

I was lucky enough once to visit some of the hundreds of potholes that make up the refuge system’s Wetland Management Districts in North Dakota, surely some of our most productive “refuges” on a per acre basis.  I had more exciting and satisfying duck hunting in a few days there than I had experienced over twenty five years in other states.


A duck takes flight. Credit: Ryan Moehring

The joy of birding is seeing new species, seeing something you haven’t seen in a while, or just getting a great look at something unusual.  I’ll never forget the first rail I saw in the open, walking along the edge of the marsh at New Jersey’s Forsythe NWR.  But it’s nearly as exciting when a Whimbrel lands near you on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, or you get really clear views of a Magnolia Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Blackburnian Warbler in the same conifer forest at Umbagog NWR in New Hampshire.


Hartley scanning a Connecticut field for birds.

Each visit to a refuge is another great chance to have one of these unexpected moments, where I get the thrill of feeling like I am connected directly to nature.  I look forward to those encounters every time I’m birding, whether they involve a relatively common bird or a rarity from far away.

Caleb Spiegel


Spiegel spotting piping plovers. Credit: Craig Watson

During 20 years as a wildlife biologist I have been lucky enough to spend numerous hours watching and studying birds, both on and off the job. Some of my most memorable bird experiences have been on National Wildlife Refuges across the country. Here are a few of my favorites:


The forest at Hakalau NWR. Credit: David Patte/USFWS

Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, Big Island of Hawaii: Some of the rarest birds in the world find sanctuary from threats such as avian malaria and habitat loss among the massive native koa and o’hia trees on this jewel of a refuge. One of my favorite birding experiences was at Hakalau while helping to lead public birding tours during a refuge open house. Many species of native forest birds fluttered from tree top to tree top, from the flame orange ‘Akepa, to the long-billed ‘Akiapola’au.  I can’t think of another refuge where you can see so many incredible endemic forest birds in one place.

The flame orange ‘Akepa. Credit: HarmonyonPlanetEarth via Flickr

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Amidst the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco Bay area, this refuge provides critical habitat to a huge variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and marsh birds…Not to mention bird lovers. In 1996, while a Student Conservation Association Intern at Don Edwards, I lived in a staff trailer only feet away from one of the most beautiful brackish marshes I have ever encountered. Every day after breakfast, I’d grab by binoculars, climb down the steps of my trailer, and stroll the boardwalks of my ‘home’ marsh. I really got to know the birds that lived next to me.  This experience helped solidify my career path.
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge: Many miles of ever-changing sands and marshes of Monomoy refuge jut off the ‘elbow’ of Cape Cod and out into the ocean as far as the eye can see. A great number of breeding, migratory, and wintering birds call this spectacular place home. Since 1998 I have had the opportunity to go out to (and even fly over) Monomoy several times to help hard-working Refuge Biologists and other partners study shorebirds and waterbirds, including the listed Piping Plover and Roseate Tern. My times on Monomoy have always been memorable, from watching the sun set over a tidal flat with several hundred foraging Red Knots, to the cacophony of thousands of Common Terns circling above my head.

Spiegel releasing a common tern. Credit: Pam Loring/USFWS

 If you would like to go on a birding adventure at a nearby Refuge, plan your visit on the Northeast Region National Wildlife Refuge System website!
Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

Another Successful Blending of Birds and Bagels

Kim Snyder is a writer by trade and a biologist at heart. She is currently working as an Outreach Intern at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Kim Snyder is a writer by trade and a biologist at heart. She is currently working as an Outreach Intern at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Birds and…bagels? This annual opportunity, hosted by Dr. Susan Adamowicz, allows seasonal staff a chance to see wildlife — mostly birds — in a setting we don’t normally explore. And besides, there’s free breakfast. Now in its 6th year, this tradition is a delight to newcomers and returning birders alike.

The day was bright and warm, an ideal early-summer opportunity for heading out at first light and endeavoring to make a perfect record of the morning. Seven of us: four seasonal staff members, two refuge volunteers and Susan, all started from her home, surrounded by towering white pines and red oak trees, and walked down the road to a nearby utility right-of-way.  New powerline structures created a long corridor through the woods, bordered by tall trees, but with a covering of dense shrubs in the understory.  The sky was clear and open, the sun burning away clouds and providing us an unrestricted view of a bright sky. Perfect for bird spotting. Refuge volunteers Sue Keefer and Steve Norris acted as our expert bird guides, eagerly sharing their seemingly-infinite knowledge of the avian community.

Cedar Waxwing. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

Cedar Waxwing. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

We ambled slowly down the powerlines, our progress constantly distracted by distant calls or flashing glimpses of movement in the shrubs.  Searching for warblers in dense shrubs is a Herculean task. But careful listening was well-rewarded: a red-eyed vireo singing in the distance, American restarts chipping to each other, common yellowthroats defending their nests, chestnut-sided warbler fledglings practicing their songs. We often had to pause and listen, the first call catching our attention and the second or third helping us to identify the bird. But sharp eyesight gave us rewards too: Steve spotted an indigo bunting perched high on the wires, Kim caught a glimpse of a blue-headed vireo darting from a bush, Ben found a pine warbler flitting in the canopy of pines, and Sue Keefer found us a black-billed cuckoo sitting silently in the thick canopy of an oak, forcing us to play hide-and-seek to identify him. There was too much to see. As focused as we were on birds, we still managed to spot several mammals including dashing chipmunks and a loping gray fox.

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Steve Norris/USFWS

As with most forays into nature, time got away from us and we had to rush back to Susan’s house for coffee and bagels. While eating, we decompressed and reviewed our species list, excitedly recounting our favorite finds.

38 species in fewer than 2 hours: a new record for our Birds and Bagels trip! Many species from previous years (such as eastern towhees, red-tailed hawks, and cedar waxwings) made appearances along with new visitors like the black-billed cuckoo and wild turkey. For many in our group (myself included) it was a marvelous snapshot of summer birding in Southern Maine.

See the entire bird list from our trip on eBird: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30369918

Seasonal staff enjoying the birds. From left: Refuge volunteer Steve Norris, Salt Marsh Intern Bridget Chalifour, Outreach Intern Kim Snyder, Salt Marsh Intern Drew Collins, Outreach Intern Ben Bristol. Photo by Susan Adamowicz/USFWS

Seasonal staff enjoying the birds. From left: Refuge volunteer Steve Norris, Salt Marsh Intern Bridget Chalifour, Outreach Intern Kim Snyder, Salt Marsh Intern Drew Collins, Outreach Intern Ben Bristol. Photo by Susan Adamowicz/USFWS