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Birding After LASIK

EyechartI was chilled out on Valium when it happened, but I remember distinctly that  everything went very blurry, almost black, when a laser sliced a flap from the front of  each one of my eyeballs near the crux of the LASIK corrective vision procedure earlier  this month. It was unnerving to stare at the ceiling of the surgery room but no longer be  able to see it. Birders are well attuned to their sight.

By the time my interest in birds coalesced in the fifth grade, I was already wearing  glasses full time. When I first learned to use binoculars, I had trouble seeing the entire  field of view, so I learned to whip the frames off my face with one hand while  simultaneously lifting optics with the other. Glasses were irritating. They constantly  fogged up, got scratched, and got lost.

After a decade of struggling with glasses, I reached my limit on a spray-drenched pelagic trip off the Oregon coast. So much salt kept crusting my lenses that I broke one of them trying to wipe it clean for the hundredth time, and ended up staring at blurry specks  instead of albatrosses for the rest of the afternoon.

Enough was enough; I got contacts. But even contacts cramped my adventurous style. I had to put them in every morning and take them out each evening, and remember them  on trips. When I spent a summer in a remote Antarctic field camp, contact solution filled half my tiny suitcase, and I had to stuff bottles of it inside my sleeping bag to  prevent the stuff from freezing at night. I hiked the entire 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail  last summer while packing contacts, and, though I got pretty good at jabbing the delicate lenses in my eyes with dirty fingers each morning while using a flashlight to illuminate the mirrored back of my iPod inside my tent, I  dreamed of perfect vision.

Well, that dream is attainable these days—for a few thousand dollars. After years of contacts, I went for LASIK. It’s a relatively quick, laser-assisted procedure to reshape the corneas of the eyes so that they focus better and provide clearer vision.

For me, it’s been a mixed experience. Before the procedure, my corrected vision was near 20/10. A month afterward, it’s blurry at 20/20. That’s a big difference, especially when you’re trying to pick out field marks on shorebirds a half mile away. Everyone reacts differently, and some  patients take a long time to stabilize—I’m still seeing halos around lights after dark—so my vision might still improve further, but, meanwhile, I’ve been pondering the implications of eyesight for birding.

What’s the difference between 20/10 and 20/20 vision? A 20/10 person can see from 20 feet what an average 20/20 person can see from 10 feet. Those two people can be looking at the same bird and see the same field marks while one is standing 20 feet away and the other is twice as close.

20/20 is average, and many people see in the 20/10 to 20/15 range (the limit of human sight is about 20/8). But that means that 50% of our population is on the other, blurrier tail of the curve. Next time you’re in the field, take a look around: Many birders are physically seeing a  significantly different world than you are.

NoahglassesThese numbers might seem like splitting hairs, but acute vision matters for birders who  are forever straining to spot minute differences in plumage and nuance. Eagle-eyed sight gives a real edge to those blessed with it. One study of professional baseball players found that the average major leaguer has 20/12 vision, and suggested that 20/20 is just not good enough to recognize the path of a fastball in time to decide  whether or not to swing at it. I wonder if some birders are quicker than others simply because they have better eyesight.

Of course, vision doesn’t affect birding by ear. I do about 70% of my birding by sound  alone. Birders with below-average sight might compensate by paying more attention to  auditory clues. And small differences in vision probably don’t much affect the view  through binoculars or a scope, which effectively bring birds right into the foreground.

Post-LASIK, I haven’t noticed a huge difference in birding. I can pick out Semipalmated  Sandpipers, Willow Flycatchers, and Vaux’s Swifts just as well as ever. But I  occasionally can’t quite sort out little specks, like distant raptors, as clearly as before,  and I sometimes go for my spotting scope sooner. On a recent camping trip, though, it  was thrilling that after I went to bed I could see … the stars!

I’m not complaining. LASIK has freed me from a lifetime of glasses and contacts. And  that, my friend, is so uplifting that it could be a MasterCard commercial.

Binoculars: $1,000

LASIK: $4,300

Spotting a lifer with your own two eyeballs: Priceless.

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Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker, Associate Editor of Birding magazine, is author of Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica (2011) and The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human (2014). In 2015, Noah completed the ultimate big year, traveling through 41 countries to see 6,042 species of birds between January and December.
Noah Strycker

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  • Rob Parsons

    Great post, Noah! I have heard some people who regretted having the surgery, but it clearly has simplified your birding, and life in general.



  • Anita Strycker

    Thanks for your newsy update! I sure wish this proceedure will give you wonderful vision for the rest of your long life! Take care. Grandma

  • Oh, how I wish my eye conditions would allow for this surgery! Instead I must settle for one step back – contacts. Great post.

  • Noah – one correction to your final comment above is that you will almost certainly have to use reading glasses at some point in your life due to age-related presbyopia. This presents a challenge and a bit of a conundrum for those of us at that age who may also have considered refractive surgery (for all the reasons you mention above). Refractive surgery may even accelerate this process (or at least the timing of using reading glasses since it becomes harder to focus on objects near and far). It’s a matter of trade-offs and obviously many people feel it’s still worthwhile. For the time being I’ve opted for multi-focal contact lenses and can still operate fairly well without reading glasses and they are fine for birding. Also like many birders I often wear sun glasses and of course these are available with prescription glass and reading inserts. Thanks for the post – it’s a good topic and I would think of interest to many birders.

  • Noah Strycker

    Hi Chas – Yes, LASIK doesn’t stop anyone from needing reading glasses if their eyes change later in life (though you’d also need reading glasses without LASIK). The surgery was less straightforward than I expected – more trade-offs than I’d originally envisioned – but overall I’m happy with it. I do like being able to wear regular sunglasses, no prescription required. Multi-focal contacts must be interesting!

  • Hi Noah,
    I’m glad your lasik surgery went fine. Do you experience any dryness?

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