Song Sparrow | Monique McClure
by Monique McClure
Hi there, new bird friend.
Very often what comes to mind with bird photography is hiking, miles of walking, sitting in all elements of the weather, heavy gear, or extensive travel. What about bird photography when you’re disabled? Well, it’s going to vary based on the individual. We’re going to get really serious, really fast here, and then have some bird pictures. Look, I’m an introvert, so getting to the heart of the matter is what I do.
My obsession with birds started in 2016, when I was recovering from a major surgery. While sitting on my apartment doorstep a swarm of tiny gray birds came through the driveway bushes. At that moment I fell in love with the Bushtit and bought a used camera from a friend. Over the next year of rehabilitation when my mobility was limited, many hours were spent taking pictures of any bird that would come close enough.
Monique’s front doorstep, where she often observes and photographs birds, including the “Common Cuties”
A year ago, I experienced a major health crisis, which was prolonged for months due to medical negligence. Finally, I was able to receive proper testing and diagnosis, but by then I had already developed depression and anxiety from medical trauma, and not knowing what was happening with my body. I share this only because it’s important to me to be real in case it helps someone feel less alone in their experinces with mental health. Pretty bird pictures are great, and destigmatizing depression, anxiety, and disability at the same time is just a bonus!
We bring our whole selves to everything we do, including how we photograph or watch birds, or even write an article. I can’t separate disability from any part of my life or experience, and I also don’t do things “despite” my disability. I simply use my body and mind how I can, just like you.
Sometimes people ask me why they don’t see more disabled birders and photographers, and what I think they mean is “visibly” disabled. Approximately 25% of the U.S. has a disability, most of which are invisible. I’m confident we have all encountered a disabled birder even if they were not using any visible mobility aids. There are a lot of birders who would likely benefit from scooters or power chairs, but they are expensive and not always covered by insurance. At this time, I use a mobility scooter outside of my apartment for everything, and have limited mobility indoors. I’m not sure if I will need my scooter permanently, or temporarily, but my desire to admire birds is permanent.
Now, about that photography. I can operate lightweight cameras and lenses, cell phones, binoculars, or a scope, although I don’t have one. Some folks need to modify or adapt these depending on hand dexterity, balance, and arm or upper body strength. It’s even possible to attach optics to a wheelchair. My little Canon T7i and 55-250mm lens weigh about 2 pounds and I bought them used for about $400. A little heavier is possible, but not those big lenses or a setup that’s 10 pounds. So, I typically photograph the birds that will come close, which I call our Common Cuties.
My doorstep is the easiest birding destination because I’m lucky to have a few trees outside my second-floor apartment. I’m still trying to make friends with the crows even though I don’t feed them. They remain unimpressed. Or, I will bird and take pictures from other people’s apartments or homes if they have a backyard. Like this sweet Dark-eyed Junco (below) that I photographed through a dining room window when I was visiting family in North Carolina. On those days when I was most sick or depressed, if I could look out a window or hear a bird song, those would give a few moments of relief or even joy.
A lot of folks with chronic illnesses also bird from their windows, watch live streams, or research birds online. All are meaningful ways of admiring birds.
I’ve joined remote watch parties with other disabled birders and thoroughly enjoyed the companionship and birds! There’s a thriving community of disabled birders on Instagram, too. We love to support each other.
Dark-eyed Junco in North Carolina, photographed through a dining room window and cropped to remove iron fence in the foreground | Monique McClure
Most often I’ll go to local accessible locations when I’m feeling up to scooting. Places with reserved disabled parking spots and paved trails are generally best like Seward Park, some of Magnuson, the Arboretum, Green Lake, and Juanita Bay Park. In many places I’ll just sit and wait for birds to come by, like this lady Spotted Towhee. Seattle Audubon offers a monthly accessible Neighborhood Bird Outing with volunteer, Roniq Bartanen, at Green Lake Park.
Female Spotted Towhee photographed from a park bench | Monique McClure
Car birding is an option when I’m not up to lifting my scooter in and out of my car. As a cisgender-white woman with moderate income, I have the privileges of owning, driving, and parking my car with relatively few fears so long as I respect private property and no trespassing signage. I’m less likely to be reported by a passerby or harassed by law enforcement even if I am loitering in a car, looking through binoculars, and taking pictures. There are some well-known car birding locations that many people go to frequently like the Samish Flats, and the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in Cle Elum. Residents in the Skagit area are quite used to seeing birders along the roads. The photo below of the Black-headed Grosbeak is from leaning out my car window at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in Cle Elum.
Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds, Cle Elum | Monique McClure
Black-headed Grosbeak photographed from vehicle | Monique McClure
For a shorter drive, I have found that cemeteries can be interesting. Locally, Evergreen Washelli off of Aurora Avenue is a favorite. It’s huge, beautiful, and never really busy. There are water features on both sides that attract birds. On warm days you can find crows splashing in the fountains. The photos below of the Northern Flicker and Black-capped Chickadee were taken from my car but I’ve also parked and used my scooter on the wide and flat roads, or just had a picnic on one of the benches. In the mornings you may even see other birders.
Black-capped Chickadee in Evergreen Washelli | Monique McClure
Northern Flicker in Evergreen Washelli | Monique McClure
All of the birding and photography in the last year have been from my doorstep, a scooter, sitting or lying on the ground somewhere, from my car, or in a friend’s backyard or home. There have been a few new birds and some Common Cuties I’ve gotten to know better. Disability has given me more awareness of when I need to slow down, and take a mindful approach to being in nature or watching birds. Noticing small details and admiring what is right there, right now. Does that mean I’ll get as excited over seeing a Dark-eyed Junco as experiencing a new bird? No, but also I’m never bored watching my neighborhood birds. All of our birds are precious. It is always about the love of birds, and photos are just a bonus if it works out. I hope that by sharing Common Cuties and information about disability and accessibility on Instagram, that it will help people feel less isolated or more connected. To honor that, we all can help with conservation, even if it’s not out in the field or climbing a mountain. Sharing photos of everyday birds is a great way to spark new or renewed interest in birds and activism to protect them. We need as many people interested as possible, working in as many different ways as possible. Maybe your picture of a local bird will inspire someone to get involved, or help them feel included in birding communities.
Finding accessible locations can be a challenge, but you can help. Many park websites and the information on map apps can be decades outdated, or say they are “ADA” accessible but are not. Birdability is an organization working to map accessible birding locations across the U.S. so disabled birders can find detailed site information, and anyone can learn about considerations for accessible birding locations.
I don’t work for Birdability, but I do contribute to the map by doing site reviews any time I find a great location. How can you help? Please reach out on this survey if you have an idea for a car birding location in WA state, or a very accessible location for folks who use wheels.
Thanks for spending time with me today! I hope to see you out at a park one day, or on Instagram for however long people might use that still.
About Monique McClure
I have a full-time job that gets in the way of birding and photography. Outside of that I consult on accessibility, disability inclusion, and anti-ableism. Over the next year I hope to organize some accessible bird outings, or accessible online events. You can find more bird pics and info on accessible locations I’ve visited on my Instagram @moniquemcclurephotography, or on my new Vero @moniquemcclure.
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