Can hearing aids make you a better birder?

I had just stepped out of the car at the Reed Bryan Farm parking lot at Mercer Meadows, anticipating the usual gaggle of European starlings that congregate in the large tree near the barn beside the lot. I hadn’t even opened the back-seat door to fetch my camera and binoculars when I heard the loudest, clearest call ever of an Eastern meadowlark.

It had to be close, almost certainly overhead in that big tree. Even as I strained to spot the lark, my thoughts were preoccupied with a question: were the hearing aids I got the day before making an immediate difference in my birding?

The process that eventually brought me to an audiologist for a hearing test earlier this month was long in developing. I’d had a hearing test in a mobile lab several years ago. I had only the slightest hearing loss then, almost certainly attributable to cranking up my stereo at home and several amps-at-11 gigs in a garage band.

Now that I’m eligible for senior citizen discounts, I started thinking I should get my hearing checked again. I gradually realized that I’ve increasingly had trouble hearing across the table at crowded, noisy restaurants, and my wife and I often find ourselves shouting “What?” from room to room at home.

But what pushed me to deciding to get tested was birding.

This pastime/obsession of mine started primarily as a visual exercise: see bird, ID bird. But the more I learned about birds, the more I came to appreciate their songs and calls and to take pleasure in hearing the variety and differences.

Although I’ve trained myself to listen more attentively while on bird walks, I’ve known that I’m missing out on a lot of the activity, particularly the higher-pitched calls. I use the wonderful Merlin app virtually every day, and even allowing for the occasional false positive, I can see there’s a gap between what my iPhone and my ears pick up.

As blue-gray gnatcatchers have returned to New Jersey during spring migration, I’ve seen Merlin light up with them many times. I know I’ve heard them in the past, but this year I hadn’t heard them at all, even as a friend pointed one out in the woods the other day.

All of this is to say that I convinced myself a couple of months back that for the benefit of birding alone, I should get my hearing checked.

After checking my benefits through work, I made an appointment at the Penta hearing office in Princeton and the audiologist gave me a thorough test. The result was not a surprise: although my hearing for normal ranges is OK, my high frequency reception needs a boost and I need help filtering out background noise.

That diagnosis brought a recommendation that I invest in a state-of-the-art pair of Starkey brand hearing aids, which I picked up Monday afternoon. I’m still adjusting to having them in my ears. I have noticed and sometimes been startled by what I’m hearing and hearing more clearly.

The clack of the keyboard as I type this post. The plop of my bare feet on the wood floors in the house. The squish of the carpet as I enter our suite of offices at work.

I even heard the clatter of a guitar pick as it bounced on the floor below my feet the first night, and this morning I heard our deep freeze humming in our pantry for the first time.

On the trails at Mercer Meadows yesterday, it was hard to judge just how much of a difference the hearing aids made. I am reasonably certain I was hearing distant calls that I probably wouldn’t have heard the day before, and that I was alerted to nearby rustling in branches that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.

As for the meadowlark, I finally spotted it on a branch near the top of the tree, but it flew off (of course!) just as I raised my camera. However, as I returned to the parking lot about an hour later, from fairly far off I could hear the lark’s call again and spotted one (I’m betting it was the same bird) in the same spot as before.

I was able to walk up the trail, come around the corner of the barn and snap a few shots, the best of which perches on top of this post.

I will make mental notes in the coming weeks of how these newfangled computer-chip hearing aids affect my birding, but I’m already convinced they will be a big help.

I knew I had some hearing loss and I acknowledge the inevitable effects of aging, but if anyone asks me what led me to get hearing aids, I will reply truthfully: It was for the birds.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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