Jan 23, 2023

Birding Blind: Identifying Birds by Song

Beacon Stories

Martha Steele has been birding for over 30 years, but the way in which she birds has changed over time. Martha has Usher syndrome, with her central vision declining rapidly in the early 2000s and receiving her first cochlear implant in 2010. Now she birds entirely by ear and has learned the songs of about 150 bird species.

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Martha Steele outside birding with her husband, Bob Stymeist, and her guide dog, Alvin.

When springtime arrives in late March, Martha Steele is filled with excitement to hear that first bird song of the season. Born and raised in Vermont, Martha’s second home in the Northeast Kingdom has well over 100 bird species within the property line alone. Martha’s been birding for over 30 years, but the way in which she birds has changed over the years.

Martha was diagnosed with severe hearing loss at the age of five. Subsequently, she received hearing aids and attended for her first-grade year a school for children with hearing impairments, which was about 70 miles away from where her family lived, so she stayed with a foster family while attending school. Throughout her childhood, Martha also experienced night blindness and issues with her peripheral vision. But it wasn’t until she was 25 years old that she was also diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. After attending a Foundation Fighting Blindness VISIONS conference almost 13 years later, Martha discovered that she had Usher syndrome. Later genetic testing revealed that she had mutations in her USH2A gene.

As she gained more information about her disease, Martha became more involved with the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Martha is now the Boston Chapter President, chaired the Boston VisionWalk for several years, and participates in the VisionWalk every year, raising around $25,000 annually and a total of about $350,000 over 14 years. She’s also been a National Trustee since 2013 and Board Director as of July 2020.

Martha outside walking in the snow with her guide dog, Alvin, leading her.

“I’m very passionate about the Foundation’s mission,” says Martha. “As a scientist, I’m pretty realistic, so I realize finding treatments and cures will take a long time and persistent support. I often encourage others in the vision loss community that if we don’t support the research, then we can’t expect others to do it instead.”

While remaining involved with the Foundation, Martha also had a successful career working for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) for many years. In 2015, she retired from her position as Deputy Director of the Bureau of Environmental Health at MDPH.

Over the years, Martha’s vision has changed drastically. In the early 2000s, Martha’s central vision began to decline, and it became difficult to see people’s faces or lips, which can be challenging for someone with a hearing impairment. In 2010, because of increasing difficulty reading lips to help her understand speech, Martha received her first cochlear implant and then got her second one in 2015.

Martha is also on the board of directors for the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts, where she received her vocational training to gain general independent living skills.

“There are many stages to vision loss, and those stages are different for everyone,” says Martha. “Many people don’t understand legal blindness or that blindness isn’t just black and white. I just want to be a part of that education to teach people vision loss is a spectrum.”

Now 70 years old, Martha has given up some activities, such as scuba diving, because they are dangerous. But the one activity that’s been steady in her life for the past 30-plus years is birding. Martha and her husband, Bob Stymeist, met while birding. Bob is one of the top birders in New England, so he’s been a great teacher for Martha.

Martha and her guide dog, Alvin.

When Martha first started birding, she could see the birds but not hear them. But since she received her cochlear implants and her vision declined to total blindness, Martha now birds entirely by ear and has learned the songs of about 150 bird species.

“Sighted birders actually bird a lot by ear and use what they hear to better locate a bird visually,” says Martha. “So, birding is one of those avocations where a blind birder can actually be better than a sighted birder who is not very familiar with identifying birds by song.”

During the height of bird migration in the spring, Martha and Bob are outside almost all day birding. Birding is calming and grounding for Martha, and she loves being focused on just that moment.

“Very often, you can hear a bird, but you can’t see it, especially in a dense forest,” says Martha. “So I’m able to identify them by ear without ever seeing them. It really levels the playing field; birding is a hobby that someone blind or visually impaired can do as well, if not better than others. It always feels great when I’m out in the field with a bunch of sighted birders, and I can tell them what bird just sang.”