This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of The Urban Audubon.
By NYC Audubon Board Member Elizabeth Norman
Birdability is an exciting and relatively new movement that seeks to ensure that birding is more accessible to people of different abilities. Founded by Texas birding guide Virginia Rose, the campaign was inspired by her experiences birding as a wheelchair user with her home chapter of Travis Audubon. Birdability employs outreach, education, and advocacy to pursue its mission and, in partnership with National Audubon, has created and published a map of accessible birding sites.
In New York City, we are fortunate that many parks are accessible to people with limited mobility, including many listed in NYC Audubon’s Birding by Subway brochure, viewable at nycaudubon.org/bbs.
(The next edition will indicate which parks have wheelchair-accessible subway stations nearby.) NYC Audubon offers some programs that are accessible to people with limited mobility and is working to better coordinate and expand these offerings. Other plans to grow accessible programming include closed-captioning functionality for upcoming online presentations and a spring birdsong event for those with low vision. NYC Audubon is committed to further progress as part of its dedication to equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility.
As a NYC Audubon board member, I appreciate that active birders of limited mobility are part of the communities we serve. During the pandemic I met birder Ros Steinberg, who recalled the joys of birding with her late partner of 40 years, Bonnie Berman. Ros recently found bird lists in which Bonnie had recorded close to 100 bird species she’d seen in New York State. Ros is in her early 80s and is fairly mobile with a rolling walker. She birds from her balcony and sometimes watches gulls and other birds at the South Street Seaport. She and I talked of joining NYC Audubon Guide Gabriel Willow on a walk in The Battery in the coming months.
In response to my suggestion of a walk with Ros, Gabriel shared “I’d love that! The Battery is totally accessible—as is Bryant Park, where a birder in a motorized wheelchair has joined my walks. That’s one benefit of birding in NYC: probably the most ADA- (Americans with Disabilities Act) compatible birding anywhere, except for the general lack of curb-cuts or subway elevators that folks with wheelchairs or walkers have to deal with in general.”
Sri Nandula is a NYC Audubon member who has enjoyed birding all over the world. I met Sri a few years ago on a trip to Nickerson Beach with NYC Audubon Guide Tod Winston, and I was impressed that Sri did not let birding as a deaf person slow him down. Sri notes that online classes can be difficult to follow when transcription or captioning services are not available, but reported, “My experience birding has been incredible both in general and on NYC Audubon walks. I enjoyed observing the birds through my binoculars and checking the Sibley field guide with Tod.” Sri has been taking a comprehensive bird biology course with Cornell Lab of Ornithology to develop his advanced skills.
Around the nation, parks and organizations are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of accessibility. Some trails and birding locations are installing paved paths or level boardwalks. In June, on a birding day trip to Mount Greylock State Reservation in the Berkshires, I was impressed to see a woman with a rollator walker on a dirt and gravel trail. She was on an outing with the Brookline Bird Club, which advertises some limited-mobility trips. Denver Audubon also recently established a Birding Without Barriers program, which has mapped Denver parks that allow those in wheelchairs to enjoy nature.
We have a long way to travel to make birding truly accessible, but it’s heartening to see momentum building to make the enjoyment of birding open to all. Birdability is paving the way. Visit birdability.org for resources such as the Birdability Map of accessible birding sites, as well as content for people with mobility challenges and those who are neurodiverse, hard of hearing, or with low vision.