Saturday, October 28, 2017

Birding with My Ears

When guiding new birdwatchers, I always say that birding involves not only our sense of sight but our sense of hearing as well; that in birding we both open our eyes and our ears. I guess I never really understood and appreciated the concept until I met Aga.

Born Mark Joseph Casidsid, he was nicknamed Aga because he was born two months too soon ("aga" means early in Filipino.) He was diagnosed with an eye disease that affects premature babies which meant that he would completely lose his eyesight as he got older. This happened before he turned 20 years old... I can only imagine how he felt, but after some time, he was able to pick himself up and got involved in running. This path brought him to join marathons and to his application to join the UP Mountaineers (UPM.) (Read more about Aga here.)

Part of the UPM's activities for its applicants is a birdwalk, usually in the UP Diliman campus. Birder friend and UPM member Fredd asked if I could volunteer and help guide Aga during the birdwalk. Admittedly, at first I was unsure... how could I guide a person with visual impairment on a birding trip? I closed my eyes and tried to visualize how I could do it. After a few minutes, I told Fredd to count me in.

Djop and I met up with the rest of the WBCP volunteers and the UPM at their tamabayan in UP and we were soon off to bird! I introduced myself to Aga and Gabo, Aga's running coach and navigator, and we followed Prop Jerry, our group's lead guide.


I brought out my iPod and earphones which I loaded with the calls of the birds commonly seen in UP: Yellow-vented Bulbul, Black-naped Oriole, Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, Colasisi, Golden-bellied Gerygone, Lowland White-eye, Pied Triller, Philippine Pied Fantail, Brown Shrike, and other birds. I would let Aga listen to the bird call of the particular bird the group was looking at so he was still actively involved in the experience. Most of the time though, the birds themselves sang live 😊


The birds really did not disappoint! Even the flowerpeckers were out and calling as they fed on some mistletoe, to be joined by Olive-backed Sunbirds. Aga's sense of hearing was very keen and he could easily determine where the sounds were coming from. His recall of the different bird calls and their names was also amazing.

I almost forgot about my binoculars because I had become so focused on listening. Suddenly, I could hear even faraway gerygones and sunbirds and I would discuss them with Aga. Many times, Aga would ask me about a bird call he was hearing and I had to keep still before I could pick out the sound among all the other noise around me.


Our group spent some time in front of the Marine Science Institute when a Colasisi/Philippine Hanging Parrot perched on a high tree and called noisily. It gave both a great visual and auditory show! Soon, we were walking back to the UPM tambayan. We took some group photos and chatted a bit about the bird walk. The applicants had a tree walk lined up next and the birders had to go.

It was a unique experience for me, focusing on sound more than the visual. It's easy to take for granted all other things when we are too busy looking and looking. That bird walk was different. Suddenly, visuals were not enough. When we encountered a bird, I silently willed it to call and sing so Aga could experience its presence. 

It was an honor to have met such a brave and determined person. I taught him the birds he was hearing, and he taught me another level of appreciation for them. He taught me a new way to really experience and appreciate them. I hope you continue to go birding, Aga! And I hope to go birding with you again soon 😊

Gabo, Aga, me, and Djop after the bird walk

PS I wrote an article for the WBCP's online newsletter about 10 common urban birds and I included some bird calls in the article. Read it here.

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