When Bob Bell goes bird watching, something remarkable happens: his pain disappears.
The Ancaster resident becomes so engrossed in nature that he forgets about his chronic Lyme disease.
When her symptoms were at their worst, Bell used a cane and “couldn’t walk more than a few hundred yards.”
“Now I go bird watching and I can walk eight to ten kilometers a day,” he said.
“I’m not trying to say that birdwatching is a cure. It’s a coping mechanism.
Bell spoke about the mental and physical benefits of birdwatching as he sat in his garden facing the Dundas Valley Conservation Area on Monday. He scanned the skies for a rare black vulture that had been spotted that morning in Toronto’s High Park and was thought to be heading west.
“The birds saved me,” Bell said.
“Every morning it’s not a question of what I’m going to do, it’s where I’m going to go today? What path do I want to walk? And I’m leaving. It gave me a real spark and purpose in life.
Bell does not know how he contracted Lyme. His work as an exploration geologist took him around the world, and in the fall of 2013 he was bitten by several unknown insects while in Southern Africa.
Shortly after returning to Canada, he walked through tall grass where he may have unwittingly encountered a Lyme-carrying tick.
Her symptoms began soon after, with high fever and body tremors.
He felt better after a few days and “forgot everything”. But about a month later he was hit with “a whole cascade of weird symptoms” which included “horrible” muscle aches, crackling sounds affecting his joints and profound fatigue.
“Obviously something really drastic was afoot,” said Bell, who was in his late 50s at the time.
Bell said his doctors were skeptical about Lyme disease. They ruled out other conditions with similar symptoms but had “no interest in trying to figure out why I had what I had”.
He eventually made it to the United States, where he was diagnosed with Lyme, took ‘huge doses’ of antibiotics and was told to avoid sugar, starches and other foods that may interfere with medications.
Bell said he developed severe societal anxiety that made crowds and noise unmanageable, and his cognitive abilities were hampered to the point that he sometimes had trouble counting change to buy a newspaper.
He knew his days as a top-flight mining executive were numbered.
“It was really frustrating. I was doing a job that I loved: getting paid to go on a scavenger hunt,” said Bell, who took sick leave before retiring in late 2015.
He spent the first winter of his enforced retirement staring out the window at the feathered visitors who frequented his bird feeders.
“I love watching the birds go about their lives. They work so hard and they are so diligent,” Bell said.
“The more you learn, the more you can only be impressed by birds and in love with them.”
As an unexpected bonus, he added, “While I was so focused on thinking about the birds, my mind was out of my aches and pains.”
He joined the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club and went on a birding trip the following spring. From then on, Bell said, “I was just hooked.”
He dabbled in bird photography, participated in citizen science efforts like Project FeederWatch, and began lecturing on birdwatching, speaking to hundreds of people on Zoom during the pandemic. as part of an effort to have Nature Canada designate Hamilton as a bird-friendly city.
“If I had been interested in birdwatching when I was working, I would have been fired because I would have been so distracted,” Bell said with a laugh.
As well as exploring his bird-rich territory, Bell “makes the pilgrimage” to Long Point in Norfolk County several times a year, particularly during the spring and fall migrations when tens of thousands of birds pass overhead. .
He is especially grateful to other birdwatchers who have taken him under their wing.
“I didn’t think at my age I would make new friends,” he said.
Bell tells his story in a new book, “Out of the Lyme Light and Into the Sunlight: Birding as Therapy for the Chronically Ill,” due out Nov. 15 by Hancock House.
The first-time author hopes her story will inspire chronically ill readers to seek their own joy.
“I wrote from the heart,” Bell said. “My goal is to share my passion and give them hope.”