Monday, October 26, 2009

Idaho Birder: Jim Holcomb

Jim Holcomb
Nampa, ID
How and when did you get your start in birding?

It seems that I have always been interested in birds, growing up in rural Michigan with woods and lakes a big part of my childhood memories. It wasn't until my junior year in college in 1961 and after completing a course in ornithology that I began keeping a list of birds seen.

How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?

In April and May I go looking for birds 3-4 times a week. During the rest of the year it is less frequent, but I try to get our at least once a week.

Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge is the place I go most frequently as it is just a few miles from home. If I only have a couple of hours, I go to Wilson Spring Ponds in Nampa.

Where is your favorite place to bird in Idaho? In the U.S.? in the world?

Deer Flat NWR is my favorite place in Idaho.

My favorite place in the U.S. is extreme southeast North Carolina along the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean.

Do you have any secret birding hotspots that may be yet unknown to Idaho birders that you would finally be willing to share with us?

No secret hotspots, but a new area of interest for me is the sagebrush desert of Owyhee County and its riparian zones.

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A "watcher", a "lister", both, or something else?

I think I am equally both a bird watcher and a lister. I keep a life list, state lists for 4 states and a year list. The year list helps motivate me to get outdoors for a walk, hike or a drive to places where I can find birds.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I carry my Nikon 60x20-40 spotting scope almost everywhere I go. I have learned to appreciate the fine detail of a bird as seen through a spotting scope. I also have Nikon Monarch 8x42 binoculars.

How do you keep track of your bird observations? And why?

I keep a small spiral notebook of all my bird outings which consists mostly of the bird list, but also of other interesting observations. I do this to support my formal bird lists, to establish dates and places when/where I might look for the birds in a subsequent years, and for reliving some great birding times.

What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?

There are lots of favorite sightings such a the first time seeing the Snowy Owl, the Painted Bunting and the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, but an awesome sighting was one which occurred here in Idaho on the Snake River. I was participating in a goose nest survey on the Snake River islands with US Fish & Wildlife Service and went ashore on one island which had a dense growth of mature trees and brush. Not until I stepped on the shore did I notice it was rookery and densely populated with all of our herons and egrets including Cattle Egrets and more than 400 Black-crowned Night-Herons. It was a scene one might better expect in the tropics and one that left me breathless.

Your experience at the rookery is amazing. How can folks sign up to participate in survey's with US Fish & Wildlife?

To volunteer for the goose nest survey at the refuge, people need to be registered as a volunteer with Deer Flat NWR. The refuge has an extensive volunteer program which includes many activities such as wood duck nest box maintenance, staffing the Visitor Center on Saturdays, doing weed control, doing youth educational activities, etc. The refuge has an email newsletter which it distributes regularly and anyone who is interested can call the refuge at 208-467-9278 to be placed on the list and then will know when various volunteer opportunities exist.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

My favorite guide is the National Geographic Birds of North America. The drawings are large, artistic, and the text has more information than identification.

What do you have in your home library birding reference set?

My first bird guide was a 1961 printing of Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds (Eastern) which I still enjoy looking through, and my references include the 1957 Audubon Bird Guide 3 book set, several of the Bent books in the life history series (reprints from the 30's and 40's), most of the contemporary bird guides, several special guides such as for warblers, shorebirds and hawks, several state guides to birdsing, Sibley's Guide to Bird Life and Behavior and the National Geographic Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America.

Your 1961 Peterson guide is now selling for $300 as a collectors item. I'm sure your other books have similar values.

I think each of my old bird guides or references had a role in my developing interest and activities with bird watching, they are kind of milestones. One book on my shelf, Bird Guide Land Birds East of the Rockies, goes back in my family two generations. It is a small leather covered pocket sized book (6"x3") published in 1905 and written by Chester A. Reed. About the Ivory-billed Woodpecker it says the range " now confined to a few isolated portions of Florida and, possibly, Indian Territory."

(Free electronic versions of this Chester Reed Bird Guide are available here online)

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

I studied wildlife management at Mich. State Univ., to include courses in zoology, waterfowl science, ornithology, and several botany and ecology courses which give bird observations meaning as they establish a context.

What is/was your career?

I was a park ranger with the National Park Service, with the privilege of working in places likeYellowstone, Crater Lake and Yosemite.

If a fellow birder had a question about a bird, do you consider yourself an expert (or at least proficient) on any specific family of birds?

Proficient with most North American birds except Empidonax Flycatchers and immature gulls and sea birds.

Any other thoughts on the past-time of birding? What do your foresee in the future of birding?

The computer and the internet has drasticaly changed bird watching and birding. There is such a vast wealth of bird information and pictures on the internet along with information on good places to bird. Many more people are seeing more unusual birds because of the bird alerts, maintaining their interest in wildlife and strengthing the national voice for the preservation of wildlife habitat.

With all this new technology, do you see a down side or negative affects on the bird watching hobby? Birding associations?

Yes, there is a down side to bird watching with the current computer technology. There are so many more very mobile birders now and when a rare bird is found or its in season at one of the eastern or southwestern birding meccas, the number of birders which come almost trample the birds, certainly creating more stress for the bird. With birding associations, the new technology has given birders more independence to do individual birding, with less dependence on bird clubs for education and group bird watching.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

Board member of Southwestern Idaho Birders Assoc. and member of Golden Eagle Audubon Soc.

I know you volunteer a lot of time at Deer Flat. Can you share with us your history and involvement there?

I started volunteering at Deer Flat NWR about 9 years ago when I noticed that the Wood Duck nest boxes on the north side of Lake Lowell were in poor condition and it seemed no one was looking after them. Inquiring about them with the refuge staff, I learned that no one was maintaining them and I volunteered to do the job. Other volunteer opportunities came along about the same time to help with the goose nest survey and the waterfowl banding projects. Deer Flat NWR has one of the nicest Visitor Centers in the refuge system, but it was noticed that the staff was too small to keep the center open on the weekends. The Southwestern Idaho Birders Association formed a small pool of volunteers and the refuge management gave us the job of staffing the Visitor Center on Saturdays. That was several years ago, and the birding group is still doing it. My other current volunteer activity at the refuge is to present a wildlife education program to brownies and cub scouts on Scout Day (1st Sat. each month). I am a member of the Friends of the Wildlife Refuge which works to support the refuge in clean-ups, special occasions and at Canyon Co. public hearings regarding land development along the refuge boundary.

What is your nemesis bird?

My nemesis bird changes every couple of years, the last one being the American Bittern which was finally seen in 2008 at Malheur NWR. (eBird map of American Bittern sightings in Idaho and neighboring states in the last five years)

My new nemesis bird is the Pinyon Jay. (eBird map of Pinyon Jay sightings in Idaho and neighboring states in the last five years)

Anything about your family you'd like to share with us?

My wife Beverly enjoys bird watching, but not too much. After a few hours she is ready to hunker down with a book. Our two grown sons live in the east and it is nice to see them develop an interest in birding as much as their busy schedules allow.

As a life-long Scouter myself and boy who practically grew up on the edge of Lake Lowell and now as a birder, thank you so much for all that you have done and are still doing Jim!

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