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Atlaser Spotlight: Larry Michael

By Carrie Becker September 30, 2017
Larry Michael eBird

The Atlas couldn’t happen without its volunteers, and every atlaser brings a distinct set of talents to the project. Our team is truly as varied as the bird species they observe, and the truth is you can be any age, live anywhere, and need only an interest in birds to participate.

Case in point is this month’s spotlight: As a blind birder, Larry Michael did not think he had anything to offer the project. After reluctantly joining, it turns out that not only is he making important contributions birding by ear, but he’s having a great time doing it.

Larry Michael

Horicon, Dodge County


Number of years birding:
About 30

Larry Michael’s favorite bird is the Chestnut-sided Warbler. When he first saw one he thought he had discovered a new species, and it sparked his passion for birding.

Other citizen science experience:
Christmas Bird Count
Midwest Crane Count
Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas I
Federal Breeding Bird Survey
Great Lakes Owl Survey
Wisconsin Marshbird Survey

Favorite bird:
My favorite bird is the Chestnut-sided Warbler, hands down. Seeing my first Chestnut, I thought I had discovered a new bird species. It pushed me into birding.

About seven years ago I lost my eyesight, and it changed how I birded forever. But I soon found out that being forced to bird by ear is no less rewarding.

I never thought about a favorite “heard only” bird. The American Robin song always brings back fond childhood memories, and for me is the start of spring. I have a hard time atlasing without hearing a robin’s song. Simple in song as well as beauty. You gotta love ‘em.

Motivation to atlas:
I hate to admit this, but at first I was not motivated to atlas and did not do so for the first two years. I felt that a blind birder had little to offer to a project like this. But after reading again and again the breeding codes that fell into the “heard only” category, I soon began to question my thoughts. After talking to Ryan Brady and county coordinater Matt Herzman, I finally changed my mind. They told me that a blind atlaser could provide plenty of important data and that they would be more than happy to accept any observations that I could provide. That was all the motivation I needed. Thanks, Ryan and Matt.

Primary atlasing location:
Priority blocks Horicon CE and Mayville South CE, both in Dodge County.

Larry Michael can tell you that you do not need to see an angry Eastern Screech-Owl to understand that you have encroached upon its nest. It will let you know, very loudly.

Most exciting atlas find:
Let me first “set the stage.” I do all of my night time stationary atlasing alone. So, while I was sitting alone listening to the night sounds I was startled by very loud barking, chuckling, rattling, hissing, bill snapping and spine chilling screeching just ten feet away. This went on for over five minutes. I knew right away that it was an Eastern Screech-Owl. I must have set up too close to its nesting cavity. I do not know who was more surprised or frightened. Exciting? That is an understatement.

Most rewarding part of atlasing:
The easy and simple answer would be that I am helping birds. But I have found in just one year of atlasing that I am reaping rewards far greater. Atlasing has given me a more complete picture of a bird’s life cycle. I have heard birds sing the very first morning back from their wintering grounds, and male birds fighting over some unknown territory. From “romance” songs, to alarm calls for some impending danger, to chicks begging for food or just-fledged young “demanding” to be fed. Atlasing has taken me into the daily life of birds. For that, I thank the atlas.

How has atlasing changed the way you bird:
A bird song is just a song, and a call is a call. Well, no more. When I now hear a bird I try to understand what is going on. From what that bird is trying to “say,” to what the other sounds in the area might be. Birding and atlasing have become more than just hearing a bird species, checking it off the list, and then moving on to the next one. I now stop to really listen. Birding for quality, not quantity is how the atlas has changed my birding.

Advice for someone “on the fence” about participating:
It must have been said before: “if I can do it, anyone can.”  This is coming from a birder who is blind. Even if you have less than desired sight or hearing, there is a place for you in the atlas. They will welcome you with open arms.

Always remember that you do not have to go it alone. Ask a friend who has an interest in birds, or contact your Atlas county coordinater for help. Tag along with fellow atlasers. The rewards are great and it is fun. Also, I would be remiss if I did not give a “shout out” to the very best birding partner, my sister Karen. She is the bridge between me being just a blind birder and being a blind atlaser. Thanks, Karen.