Birding with the Blind

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 6.26.42 AM I just spent several days digging through three boxes of personal family photos. Among the photos were news articles my mother had saved for me, including one entitled “Birdwatching for the Blind.” It took me back to 1974 when I was a naturalist-interpreter managing a Visitor Center at Giant City State Park in Makanda, Illinois. A former student, Kay Roney, had been in a biology class when I was a Teaching Assistant. She came through the center and we had a great conversation.


She reminded me that I had mentioned in class years earlier that blind people could birdwatch by listening to their songs. She explained that she worked for Illinois Children and Family Services as a counselor for the blind. She had glaucoma and cataracts and had serious visual impairment herself. She wanted to organize her clients into a class that would include trail hiking and an explanation of how they might “birdlisten.” It was a great program idea for both of us so we agreed to a plan.


Over the next year we organized a variety of outings that included the opportunity to touch birds and listen to their heartbeats while we banded them. Some who were born blind commented that they had not had any concept of how fragile a bird’s wing was. They were amazed by the rapid heartbeat of chickadees and titmice.


I also used commercial recordings of the 20 most common birdsongs of the area and developed a cassette tape that included the birdsong and a description of what you could learn about the habitat from hearing the bird. A wood thrush tells you a mature forest with leaf litter is nearby. A prairie warbler song tells you you’re in an old field or prairie area with grasses and scattered trees. I attempted to convey a sense of place for our blind students based on cross-referencing the songs being heard. They enjoyed the outings and I learned a great deal about their challenges in going to the outdoors. One outing to the nearby wildlife refuge allowed them to touch Canada geese, a great contrast to the tiny songbirds.


We built a blind-accessible trail with an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant near the visitor center. From planning to implementation, the blind students advised us and completely changed our ideas of what a trail for the blind should be. They wanted a cassette player for interpretation, not the braille guide we had planned. They preferred ground texture cues to follow the trail with gravel strips indicating steps instead of a kick rail along the path for using a cane. Our assumptions about their needs were wrong and their solutions were actually easy to implement and much appreciated.


The program attracted national attention in the visually impaired community. Two blind people from Chicago, journalists for a specialized audio magazine for the blind interviewed us out on the trail. The program ran its course over a year or so and eventually ended but it was a stimulating experience for all involved.


Finding the article from 1974 led me to use a search engine to see if birding with blind people was being done other places and more recently. Texas Parks & Wildlife lists six tips on birding with the blind that are useful. Several stories were posted in 2013 by CBS and Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology on a program entitled Michigan Bird Brains by Donna Posont, Donna, the teacher, is blind and so are her students. They explore nature by touch, scent and sound together.


I learned it’s always best to test your accessibility ideas with people who will actually use them. Birdwatching or birdlistening can be a very engaging program for blind people in your community and an opportunity to put sighted and blind people together in nature to learn from each other.


– Tim Merriman



Six Approaches to Being Present

Created at

Created at

Those of us who work or have worked in service roles know the erosive effects of seeing lots of people in a day, often asking or being asked the same questions over and over. Soon our eyes glaze over and we listen minimally just for the most basic cues needed to do business, but we must remember that every conversation is an opportunity to turn a customer into a friend, a supporter, and an advocate for our natural or cultural heritage site. It won’t happen if we are not truly present. Here are a few thoughts on training staff to be present, not just physically but with sincere focus on each and every guest. Encourage your staff to:


  1. Look at each guest as you talk and do not move your focus to other people or transactions as you chat. People in service roles often move their eyes to focus on other people or activities, which tells a guest that he or she is the lower priority. Being present requires holding focus with a guest throughout a conversation, not just intermittently. If you must change focus for a brief moment, excuse yourself before doing so and apologize when you return your focus to the guest in front of you.
  2. Have real conversations with the customers, clients or guests. “Do you have big plans for the weekend?” is intrusive and sounds artificial. Asking questions is a good start but they should be more respectful. Requesting personal information not needed in the transaction is too pushy. Asking “Have you been here before?” is usually a better starting place.
  3. Use the name of the guest or client if you have it, but be respectful. We all perk up when our name is used and pay more attention to the conversation. Ask how people would prefer to be addressed. A good rule of thumb is to start more formally when addressing people by name and switch to first names or nicknames if they invite familiarity. Although an informal approach may work in the U.S., many people from other nations expect to be addressed more formally by people they don’t know well.
  4. Listen carefully to the person’s answers. When you hear a person answer your question, build the conversation from there and repeat back what they say in a different way to confirm you heard correctly. “So you’ve been here before, but you’re looking for new things to do? Is that correct?”
  5. Be thinking how you might assist them beyond their expectations. Do they need additional information? Have you shared options they might enjoy based on what you heard? Are there things to see or do or pricing options that they might overlook if someone doesn’t point them out?
  6. Don’t close with clichés like “Have a nice day” over and over. People hear what you say to others and know when they are being “handled” but not heard. Be sincere and say what seems appropriate. It never hurts to say, “It was very nice to chat with you. Let us know if we can be of further help.”


Some of these work better if the work environment and responsibilities are supportive. A person greeting guests should not be taking phone calls during a conversation that make the guest wait. We once stood in line to rent a car and heard the guy behind us calling the clerk in front of us because he could tell phone calls took precedence over people at the desk.


Training all staff to be good hosts is a critical need when you hire people. Being present is a matter of sincere focus on the guest, not just minimally available to do business.


Call us at 970-231-0537 or visit our website at to learn more about how we can be of assistance in designing or delivering customized host training for your staff.


– Tim Merriman

Capacity Building with Computers

Dr. Beth Kaplin delivered the two laptops recently to Gilbert in Rwanda.

Dr. Beth Kaplin recently delivered two laptops to Gilbert in Rwanda. He expressed his thanks to donors.


We have made several trips to Rwanda to provide training and interpretive planning in two national parks. The dedication of the guides we have met in Rwanda is inspirational. They are deeply committed to the conservation and care of the spectacular park resources of their nation.


Last January we asked the guides we trained in Nyungwe National Park about their access to the Internet as a resource for continuing education and communication with professional colleagues. Most had some use of a computer through a park office, library or classroom but no personal access at home. The few who did have their own computer had old models without much power or software. Many of the guides are working full-time while also going to school to complete a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree and supporting additional family members. Though computers can be purchased in Rwanda, they are more expensive than most park guides can afford on an annual salary of roughly $3000. Unlike the situation in the US, Internet service is very inexpensive once you have the hardware for access.


We offered to help guides obtain laptops or iPads and have spent the past nine months inviting friends and colleagues to help out, either through purchase of new models or through donation of gently used models. Within a few months, we sent three laptops and an iPad to Jules Cesar Dushimimana, Ange Imanishiwmwe, Niyigaba Protais and Kambogo Ildephonse. Donations of funds and computers were made by Nicole Deufel, Mike and MaryJane Swope, Pam and Mike Neely, CarolAnn Moorhead and Luke George, Marji Trinen, Tobias Merriman, Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman.


Prudence received his laptop and shared a photo and his thanks to donors.

Prudence received his laptop and shared a photo and his thanks to donors.

This past June Lisa and I went to Australia to do several training events with the assistance of colleagues Claire Savage and Rusty Creighton. They personally donated funds to purchase a new laptop for a guide. Claire also asked the Forum Advocating Cultural and EcoTourism (FACET) to help and they funded another laptop. Emily Jacobs was kind to donate funds to support software installation, shipping and backup flash drive costs for the new laptops.


The second round of equipment was recently delivered by Dr. Beth Kaplin of Antioch University New England to Gilbert Muhawenimana and Harudy Prudence Uwitonze, who are working on Master’s degrees. Dr. Kaplin has been doing tropical forest ecology and restoration research for many years in East Africa and travels back and forth several times a year. We are grateful for her kind assistance in transporting equipment to the guides.


Capacity building is often identified as training and advanced skills development, but we think it must also include improving access to appropriate technology. If you would like to help us purchase the next two or three laptops to donate or have a second generation or newer iPad to donate, please call me at 970-231-0537. A new laptop is $250, but a contribution of any amount helps. You can make a real difference in the professional life of a colleague in Rwanda.


– Tim Merriman





Ecological Restoration – a Story Worth Telling


We live next to the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colorado. It meanders out of the Rocky Mountains toward the Platte River, which eventually joins the Missouri River and travels onward into the Mississippi basin at St. Louis. More than a century of agriculture and community development have led to numerous water diversions and flood control levees that have changed the nature of the river for wildlife, plant communities and people.


spotlight_image.phpThe City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department has developed Poudre River Projects with the collaboration of several surrounding communities and water districts. The result is that the river is being restored to behaving more like it did before agricultural development and housing needs changed the landscape. Levees of lakes by the river have been lowered, a major water diversion was removed and floodwaters now rush into wetlands and lakes to absorb heavier water flows. Creating a healthier river environment for people and nature is the theme of an interpretive brochure they developed. It is on the city website and at trailheads on entry signs to explain the plans and objectives of the project. It is helpful but you have to search for it to find it.


Despite educational objectives in their Draft Master Plan, we have yet to meet anyone among neighbors and trail users who knows the details about the project and its idealistic objectives. As a homeowner adjacent to the property, we have received nothing explaining the work. There was a community meeting, but since it was held while we were out of town we were unable to attend and could not find any written summary of that meeting. Small and, for the most part, unreadable signs (laminated sheets of paper printed in 14 or 16 point type, were put up in the areas where major construction or restoration activities were done. The brochures are good but generally unknown to most folks. I am not a critic of the resource managers doing this great work, but it does make me think about what is missing.


North Shields ponds adjacent to the river now absorb floodwaters, lessening the damages from high water.

North Shields ponds adjacent to the river now absorb floodwaters, lessening the damages from high water.

I can think of five great benefits the community and Natural Areas Department would gain from better public relations at the start of and throughout this kind of multi-million dollar project to improve river management and flood control. They are:


  • Increase advocacy for natural areas budgets to support even broader ecological restoration projects.
  • Decrease criticism when trails are blocked for construction. The public lost access to some of the most popular trail areas for weeks with little or no explanation.
  • Sharing the story with other communities promotes the leadership of this community in doing these projects and encourages others to take a better approach.
  • Achieve educational/interpretive objectives as construction occurs, not just after completed.
  • Involve local stakeholders in citizen science to monitor the short-term and long-term changes as and after restoration work is done.


I am impressed by what has been accomplished with this project. It is an amazing step toward riparian management and flood control that respects the power and dominance of the natural forces of nature. I have read the management plans prepared for this work and it mentions some interpretive programming and signage, but it would provide great benefits to both the agency and the community or natural area to integrate more engagement of the public in the development and research phases. A more in-depth interpretive plan integrated with this extensive resource management plan and process would have provided a more broad-based approach to helping those in the community understand the very dramatic changes underway, but the results of this effort are dramatic and will be much appreciated in the community. Ecological Restoration is an important approach to river management and this is a story worth telling.


-Tim Merriman


Compensation Matters

Created at

Created at

We get paid in sunsets! That’s always been the insider joke for people who work in parks, forests, nature centers, marine sanctuaries and other outdoor settings. It’s another way of saying, Don’t expect to get rich here. You will start low and slowly move up, some day making a good living wage or salary if you can stick with it long enough.


Many people may think the current discussion about the U.S. minimum wage applies only to food service and retail jobs, but it has direct implications for the heritage and tourism fields as well. I worked three jobs for a period of several years in an effort to support my family, when the professional salary I received was little more than the minimum wage. Despite requiring college degrees or even advanced degrees, many jobs in our field do not pay well.


Here are five things to think about when considering compensation for your staff:


  1. Every worker should be sustainably compensated. If your entry level workers cannot support themselves for the pay you offer, they may have to find a second or third job, which means they may get less sleep and come to your job tired and trying to balance schedules between two or three places of work. At best, productivity suffers, but at worst, imagine sending your customers or their children out into field, forest, or ocean environments with a tired or stressed worker. It’s an accident waiting to happen.
  2. Your investment in training may not pay off if a better paying job appears for your worker. Turnover is a great indicator of poor pay and benefits and the hidden cost is continual retraining. Unfortunately, many employers use this as an excuse to do no training at all rather than understanding that training AND competitive pay with benefits are crucial to holding onto valued staff members.
  3. Health insurance, disability and other benefits are critical components of a balanced compensation program. Benefits can and should include enrichment opportunities such as support for professional memberships, assistance with tuition for advanced education and renewal costs for certifications.
  4. Staff loyalty revolves around more than the paycheck and sunsets are a part of that. Quarterly performance reviews are a great opportunity to have serious discussions with employees about balance in their workload. “How can I help you perform better?” can be a good question to initiate a discussion rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong. Do they need a schedule that creates access to advanced education? Would working four ten-hour days work better with their commuting situation? There are many ways to improve work compensation that are not reflected in the base pay.
  5. Openness, transparency and respect can all be considered part of the compensation. Those regular staff meetings, discussions of the potential for raises and/or improved benefits, and staff involvement in decision making also matter. Being treated respectfully is part of the compensation in a great work environment. Open, transparent work cultures encourage collaborative work and entrepreneurship.


As a manager, what are your indicators for sustainable employment practices? Level of use of workmen’s compensation, tenure of service, use of sick days and many other subtle indicators let you know how your staff feels about where they work. Real conversations on a regular basis may help you understand worker satisfaction, but they may not tell you if your style is repressive or punishing, especially if your workers have any fear of retribution if they lodge a complaint.




We do get paid in sunsets to some degree. It’s great to work in the outdoors, but sunsets will not repay student loans, build retirement funds or help you weather a severe illness or recession. Sustainable management practices include a thoughtful approach to total compensation of talented staff.


– Tim Merriman