Birding by Ear Continues to Delight Birders of All Abilities

A group of birders standing on a path through the woods.

Birding by Ear (BBE), an annual educational event the Council hosts in collaboration with partner organizations, helps people understand that sound is just as important as sight when birding. Each bird has unique sounds, and experienced birders know that being able to differentiate between these sonic cues is important to properly identifying birds in your area. BBE is also a prime example of the idea that with the right adaptations, birding and so many other outdoor recreational activities can be enjoyed by almost anyone, regardless of their physical and sensory abilities, including people with vision loss.

In May, the Council once again teamed up with our partner organizations to present Birding by Ear. An enthusiastic group of participants of all abilities, ranging from avid birders to total newcomers, gathered at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center (ALNC) for this year’s edition.

The Southern Wisconsin Bird Alliance (SoWBA) (formerly Madison Audubon) has been one of those partners from the beginning. SoWBA Director of Outreach Brenna Marsicek has helped organize Birding by Ear events since 2018.

“We at the SoWBA are so grateful for the wisdom and good cheer the Council brings to this event,” Brenna says. “We are so lucky to have everyone be a part of this effort with us. We feel so strongly that birding is and should be for everyone, and Birding by Ear really showcases that.”

Birding by Ear looked a little different this year. For starters, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona was not just the location of this year’s event; they also signed on as our newest partners in presenting the project.

Sarah Voss, Community Program Manager at ALNC, considers the event a complete success. In total, the groups heard songs from 47 different species of birds, from Eastern Bluebirds to Northern Flickers to Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks.

“Partnering with the Council for this event was wonderful,” Sarah says. “We knew right away that this would be a great fit for us because we are always trying to improve access to nature for everyone. We want everyone to be able to come to our nature center and have a great experience.”

Sarah says that Center staff learned from the event too. Before, when giving tours and teaching classes, she says that they hadn’t given much thought to people who may not be able to see what they were pointing at. Sarah says the class taught them how to better communicate with people with vision loss about the natural world, and why using descriptive language to explain where and what to look for is so important.

“I look forward to our annual Birding by Ear event because it brings together both sighted birders and those with vision loss in a natural environment for shared learning,” Council Executive Director Denise Jess says. “This year was especially wonderful. In addition to our long-standing partnership with Kerry Wilcox and the SoWBA, teaming up with the Aldo Leopold Nature Center was a wonderful addition. Using their indoor education space for the class and then walking the beautiful trails through the woods, prairies and near the pond was such a cohesive experience, and rich in learning for all.”

Another new addition this year was a training course to teach people how to lead accessible birding outings. Held in April, the course helped new volunteers learn to lead Birding by Ear field trips and make birding more accessible to all.

Kim Kreitinger works with the nonprofit Natural Resources Foundation (NRF). Kim took the April training course and then served as guide for Birding by Ear the following month.

“NRF would like to expand our audience and include people of all abilities,” Kim says. “This experience made me realize how much of my language around birding is visually based. I really enjoyed the focus on sound and being more intentional about how I was describing what I was hearing.”

Thank you to everyone who participated BBE this year, whether you joined us in-person or virtually via Zoom. We hope you found the experience enjoyable and inspiring. We would also like to thank everyone who helped to put on another amazing event, especially our wonderful partner organizations. Together, we will continue to help more people get connected to the great outdoors and remind folks that visual impairment need not limit one’s ability to enjoy the natural world.

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