Birding for Accessibility

Birding for Accessibility

by Eric Clow 

It’s a bright, breezy morning in the Texas Hill Country. Sure to top 100°, but for now, it’s pleasantly cool with wispy clouds drifting past. As we descend the rugged, scrubby landscape of Reimers Ranch Park, which at this hour is illuminated in a golden light and devoid of any traffic, we soak up the natural beauty emanating all around us.

A wild blend of juniper and oak amidst boulders and limestone cliffs. Grasslands of prickly pear cacti and wildflowers waving gently in the wind. The delights aren’t purely visual, either: we drive with the windows down to take in bird songs—Painted Bunting, Lesser Goldfinch, White-eyed Vireo, the omnipresent Northern Cardinal—all resonating in the air as if someone had strung speakers along the sides of the road.

Photo of Pedernales River winding through the Hill Country.
Pedernales River winding through the Hill Country

My interest in birds arose three years ago when I read How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. The book extolled the virtues of public space and non-productive time and why they’re essential to our mental and spiritual health. While not specifically a book about birds, Odell described the grounding, meditative qualities of birding; a practice that dictates, quite literally, doing nothing. Or, put another way: a practice that requires paying absolute attention to one person’s immediate surroundings.

I can do that, I thought, as I considered the constraints of my disability that necessitate a largely sedentary lifestyle, spent mostly at home. Thus began a little assignment that would transform who I am and how I perceive the world: get to know my backyard birds.

Photo taken over Eric’s shoulder as he descends a crushed granite trail in his power wheelchair at Reimers Ranch Park.
Eric birding at Reimers Ranch Park

To say that a single book launched my birding career would be an oversimplification because what the book actually did was nudge me down a path, in which the further I traveled, the more my interest became an all-encompassing passion. This love grew primarily from the magic of birds themselves as well as the fascinating, like-minded humans who constitute the birding community. But other, more personal factors also bear mention.

My initial bird noticing coincided with a daily journal habit that found me writing about the birds I’d see and which in turn inspired me to pay even closer attention. The birding and writing were mutually-reinforcing. Then, the pandemic nixed the few occasions when I would leave the house and thereby compelled me to devote more time to these practices. Finally, I tend to view birding as a spiritual substitute for music, which I quit playing for the exhaustion it caused. Disparate though they may seem, both music and birds foster creativity and a profound joy that comes from being fully present.

Birding reconnected me with parts of myself that withered in the wake of progressive muscle weakness. It’s infused my life with a sense of adventure, a willingness to take risks, increased confidence, and tenacity. Three years into this hobby, I now have adaptive birding equipment strewn across our dining room table, I’ve embraced a community of new friends and allies, and I regularly spend hours in the healing arms of the outdoors.

a photo collage of four birds.
A Lark Sparrow (top left), Painted Bunting (top right), Bewick’s Wren (bottom left), and Vermillion Flycatcher (bottom right)
Nature Belongs to Everyone

Today, I’m venturing into the open country west of Austin not only to bird (though anyone who knows me would tell you that I’m never not birding). I’m also here to test a survey developed by our ATXgo project to assess the accessibility of the various city, county, and state parks in Central Texas. The survey covers an array of services and access items, including parking, bathrooms, trails, drinking fountains, picnic tables, playgrounds, adaptive sports, and more. By providing this information to people with disabilities on our website, we hope to make it easier for folks to plan their next outing around the parks that best meet their needs.

Studies abound of the positive health impacts of time spent in nature. My experience birding speaks to this tremendous therapeutic power. While countless parks have made admirable strides toward inclusion, it’s not unusual that I’ve shown up somewhere to discover obstacles that prevent me from enjoying a space. Often, it’s because I couldn’t find the information online. It isn’t frequent, but it’s enough to understand the value our resource will bring.

I pause in a paved, covered patio with a wide view of meadows wending around the woodlands of Reimers Ranch Park, which I’m happy to report met most of our accessibility criteria. Not perfect, mind you, but it provided what I needed to indulge my passion for birds and to re-center my mind and body in the present. It’s a revitalizing experience that belongs to everyone.

Volunteer for ATXgo!

We are seeking volunteers to help us survey parks and music venues in Central Texas. If you enjoy exploring new areas in and around Austin, then this opportunity is for you! If you’re interested in surveying parks, you can join our team by filling out this form. If you want to assist with venues, you can send me an email.

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