Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Birding With Disabilities

One takes so much for granted in this world. Walking, for example.

Towards the end of his life my father couldn’t get around very well because of Parkinson’s disease. He walked unsteadily but would use a wheelchair for longer distances or attending a family function. One day when I was visiting I decided I would wheel him over to the waterfront four long blocks away, to get him out of the house.

It was an eye-opener for me. The sidewalk cracks and ruts I could cross with nary a thought would get the wheels of the chair stuck, forcing me to strain to push the chair out and jostling him around in the process. Curbs - few were adjusted for wheelchairs as they are now - were another hurdle to be carefully surmounted.

He never complained - we eventually did get to Sheepshed Bay and later I rolled him back home in the street, which was more dangerous but smoother - but I know he would’ve preferred being driven. Even when he could walk better he preferred driving to walking, including to his medical office a block away.

I thought of my father recently when one of my friends happened to mention going up to New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman refuge in Bernardsville to get something from the store - seed, a feeder, I can’t remember - and had taken her uncle. He is another man who won’t go very far on foot (although he doesn’t have Parkinson’s) and so uses a wheelchair. My friend wanted to get him out of the house and away from the television. While she was inside shopping, she said, her uncle had stayed in the car.

If you enjoy birding or even just taking a long walk, anything that limits your independence can be terrible, and having a disability can be the worst thing to happen. But it can also be a challenge to spur you to overcome it - if you want to do so.

At Scherman Hoffman the handicapped have their own entrance to the education center, from the upper lot to the second floor. From there they go to a classroom or can take an elevator down to the store or up to the outside platform. My friend’s uncle could’ve gotten out of the car and gone, slowly, into the building. But he felt safer in the car.

I contrast him with a woman I’ve met in my birding travels who also can’t get around very well but has a completely different attitude - she birds from her car. She drives to an area and just sits with her binoculars and waits for the birds to come, sometimes for hours at a time. She told me she has seen quite a lot that way, and she is happy with that because otherwise she would not be able to go birding.

Considering the hilly area where it is located, going down the Scherman trails and into the woods is impossible for those who need wheels or are unsteady on their feet. There are no boardwalked trails as can be found in state or federal nature areas such as the Great Swamp or Cape May Point State Park. The older people I see using the trails at Scherman are steady on their feet and not in wheelchairs.

Luckily, a lot of organizations know that as those of us of the Baby Boom generation get older, we don’t want to be kept captive by our disabilities. If you go to a search engine such as Google and type in “birding tours for the handicapped” you will find a host of websites providing tours for those in wheelchairs, the disabled or the elderly. There is even a group, “Birding for All,” with chapters in the UK and the US, that seeks to “improve access for people with disabilities to reserves, facilities and services for birding.”

This is a wonderful thing. Since we can’t make ourselves younger (at least physically; mentally is another matter), if you can’t take yourself out to the woods for a quiet stroll the next best thing, I think, is to go on a tour with others like you who have good (birding) and bad (the pain, etc.) in common and are equally focused on retaining their independence.

I haven’t tried these services linked below, but I might have to once I get too old to get around much anymore. I put them out there for what you can learn from them.


It is a scary thing to lose one’s independence and mobility. I guess that’s one reason people like to look at birds soaring aloft, defying gravity and so free. Icarus wanted to fly so he built wings held together by wax but got too close to the sun, the wax melted and he plummeted to Earth and died. The Wright brothers wanted to fly and created what has become a big silver bird that is such a hassle to get to and ride in that I’d rather drive or take the train.

There are times, like the other day, when I take a long hike with my binoculars and long-lensed camera around my neck and after a while feel very tired. Then something flies over - is that a redtail? - and I get my second wind.

I’d rather be tired on my feet walking than sitting inside at my desk staring into a computer.

Would my father have grown to share my interest in birds had I been a birder back then and driven him to the Bay and sat with him and my binoculars, pointing out gulls and other birds? I’d like to think he’d have at least tried to see and expand his horizons through learning something new, as I did when I pushed his wheelchair so long ago.