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A participant in the 2009 Birding for the Blind program at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland touches a live duck — a Lesser Scaup — held by Brittany West, education intern at Patuxent.
A participant in the 2009 Birding for the Blind program at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland touches a live duck — a Lesser Scaup — held by Brittany West, education intern at Patuxent.
Credit: Ed Grimes, USFWS
Participants in the 2009 Birding for the Blind program at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland touch stuffed birds and feathers held by park ranger Michelle Donlan
Participants in the 2009 Birding for the Blind program at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland touch stuffed birds and feathers held by park ranger Michelle Donlan
Credit: Nell Baldacchino, USFWS

Birding Rewards More Senses Than Just Sight

The wildlife observation that drew millions of visitors to National Wildlife Refuges last year encompasses more than you might think. Consider that some of those "observing" birds and animals were people who can’t see well — or at all.

In Texas, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge has welcomed members of the Rio Grande Valley Blind and Visually Impaired Birders; Outta–Sight Song Birder teams even participate in the Great Texas Birding Classic competition, held every spring. And for the third consecutive year, Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland will host a program in May to promote interest in birds and nature by visually impaired people and their families.

The Patuxent Refuge program will lead participants through a series of education stations featuring both mounted and live specimens of bird species found on the refuge; in 2009 one station included wood duck chicks that could be touched and handled. Bird experts also plan to take participants on trails and on an electric tram ride, as they did last year, to identify refuge birds by sound.

The program has triggered an informal partnership with the Maryland School for the Blind. Before last year’s event, a recreational therapist there counseled Patuxent staff on working with people who are blind; she now bring groups to the refuge for environmental education — including touching fuzzy leaves and smelling mint in the butterfly garden. Refuge staff offer programs at the school as well.

"The whole experience was rewarding for the refuge staff and volunteers as well as the participants," said program leader Michelle Donlan at Patuxent Research Refuge. "It’s a novel way to bring birds to diverse audiences. Perhaps this is another reason to call the pastime 'birding' and not 'birdwatching.'

This year’s free Patuxent Refuge program for the visually impaired is set for Saturday, May 15, from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m.

Experts advise orienting visually impaired birders by using hours of the clock to identify the position of a bird’s call ("Did you hear that kiskadee at 3 o’clock?") and by teaching participants to identify birds by their calls before heading out on a trail.

To register for the program, contact 301-497-5630. For more general on the refuge, visit http://patuxent.fws.gov/ or call 301-497-5772


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