Monday, November 2, 2009

Idaho Birder: Steve Bouffard

Steve Bouffard
Boise, Idaho
Steve Bouffard on the right at Yellowstone, with Attila Bankovics, a visiting ornithologist from Hungary.

How and when did you get your start in birding?

I started around 1960 when I lived in Vermont. I was interested in animals from day one. My parents owned some land in northern Vermont and I roamed the woods as much as I could. Following undergrad college I did a few years in the US Navy stationed on a ship in Gaeta, Italy. Unfortunately, I did not bird while I cruised the Mediterranean, visiting most of the countries adjacent to the sea except those in Africa. I do remember seeing White Storks on rooftops in Turkey. Now it would cost me a fortune to retrace those travels.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

I’ve been birding in Idaho ever since I moved here in 1984.

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

I don’t make trips (even locally) very frequently now. My most concentrated efforts are when I am travelling in other parts of the country. But where ever I am and whatever I am doing, I am always aware of the birds around me, mostly by their calls.

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

I’m partial to Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge since I lived there for 8 years. I birded almost daily there, sometimes rather casually, like walking back & forth to the office. If I wasn’t wearing binoculars I was always listening. I try to make it back several times every year.

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?

I don’t have any secret spots. I would share any locational info with other birders, unless I thought that the presence of people would be detrimental to the birds.

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

I guess I am more of a watcher. I keep ABA area, Idaho, and Minidoka NWR lists, but I don’t keep annual lists. One of these days I am going to put together my world list. I sometimes chase rarities, but not too far. However, I do seek out new species avidly when birding new areas.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

Brunton 7.5X43 Epochs & Brunton 8X32 Eterna for a backup. I have a 80mm Fujinon and a 60mm Kowa scope. I use the bigger stuff when birding from the car and the smaller stuff when I travel by plane. I like the Bruntons because they focus down to 3-4 feet which is useful for butterfly ID. I also have a BirdJam with NA bird songs.

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

So far I have just used notebooks & checklists. Most of my records are presence rather than numbers. I need to get my act together and get the info into eBird – might be a good winter project.

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

It was in September 2001 in southeastern Siberia at Daurski State Biosphere Reserve. I sat in a blind from before light to around noon. It was a beautiful sunrise and I watched & photographed thousand of ducks, geese and cranes as close as 30 yards. The highlight was having 5 species of cranes in the field at one time; Demoiselle, Hooded, Common, White-naped and Siberian. There are few places in the world where that is possible. I was there under the sponsorship of the International Crane Foundation on a mission to suggest ways to reduce crane depredations on grain crops. Some 55,000 cranes and thousands of geese and ducks stage there every fall. Our advice was successful in reducing crop damage in subsequent years.

That sounds like fascinating work. Can you direct us to any publications or websites to learn more about your work with the International Crane Federation related to crop depredation?

Here are the literature citations for my publications dealing with crop depredations and cranes. Only the one from the African Conference is on-line at the International Crane Foundation. The other two will probably be added to their on-line publications in the future. I have a PDF files of the other papers if you want them.

ICF website is

See also North American Crane Working Group

Bouffard, S. H. 1996. Crop depredations by sandhill cranes. pages 545-552 in R. D. Beilfuss, W. R. Tarboton, and N. N. Gichuki, eds. Proceedings 1993 African crane and wetland training workshop. Internatl. Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI.

Bouffard, S. H., J. E. Cornely, and O. A. Goroshko. 2005. Crop depredations by cranes at Duarsky State Biosphere Reserve, Siberia. Proceedings North American Crane Workshop 9:145-149.

Goroshko, O. A., J. E. Cornely, and S. H. Bouffard. 2008. Reduction of crop depredations by cranes at Daursky State Biosphere Reserve, Siberia. Proceedings North American Crane Workshop 10: 65-70.

For the past 7-8 years I have been a speaker and tour guide at the Othello (WA) Crane Festival held every year in late March.

Which birding publications, websites, blogs do you read and recommend?

Publications: Birding and Birder’s World (others are good too just can’t afford all of them)

Listserves: IBLE; Birding Community E-Bulletin from the National Wildlife Refuge Association
(there are other sites that I browse now and then)

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I like Sibley’s guide, but it is too big to lug in the field so it usually stays in the car. In the field, if I bring a book, it is Kaufman’s or National Geographic. I especially like Kaufman’s since it fits in the back pocket of my blue jeans. I also like his Spanish version; it has come in handy for leading field trips at Minidoka NWR several times.

Do you speak Spanish?

No I cannot – I just used Kaufman’s Spanish guide when I have tour participants who cannot speak English.

Let me know if you are having a tour with Spanish speakers and I'll come!

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

I have a 7x4 foot bookcase overfilled with bird books on kinds of all avian topics; field guides, where to bird guides, books on specific families, basic biology, bird song, and more. I tell my wife that birders can never have enough bird books! We have an agreement - she doesn’t complain about my books and I don’t complain about her iris and other flower books!

Other than field guides, what top five books would you recommend that beginning birders have on their shelf?

a. Kaufman’s Advanced Birding
b. Birder’s Guide to Idaho
c. a guide specializing on gulls
d. a guide specializing on shorebirds
e. a guide to sparrows (or maybe warblers?)

Do you have any formal bird-related education background? If so, what is it?

BA in Zoology from University of Vermont and MS in Wildlife Ecology from Colorado State. I’ve had courses in Avian Biology, Waterfowl Management, and Game Bird Management. I never had an actual course in Ornithology, although the avian biology course was about as close as you can come to it.

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?

I’d stop short of calling myself an expert. I can identify most of the local birds by sight or sound, but if comes down to the stage of molt, accidental species, or hybrids, I might have to defer to others.

What do your foresee in the future of the birding past-time?

Birding is only going to increase. It’s a great way to get away alone, or with friends and family and enjoy nature. You can do it anywhere with minimal equipment. There’s no license needed, no seasons, no bag limits and it still has the thrill of the chase. It can be rigorous or leisurely, competitive or relaxing. Plus the guide books are getting better as we learn more about the birds, their molts and migration patterns. At some point we may have to limit access to some certain areas to reduce disturbance to birds and habitat – but by the time birding becomes that popular, birders will have become a major economic, political & environmental influence on resource management issues.

The National Wildlife Refuge System has begun placing more emphasis on serving the birding communities the past few years and we will see more benefits of that effort in the future. We also need to involve more people. Kaufman’s Spanish bird guide is a great start, as is the ‘birding for the blind’ program I started at Minidoka NWR.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations? If so, which ones?

Audubon, SIBA, Peregrine Fund, The Trumpeter Swan Society, International Crane Foundation, IBO, National Wildlife Refuge Association , North American Crane Working Group

What is your nemesis bird?

There’s more than a couple I’ve missed a time or two, but the ones that stand out are Montezuma Quail and Brown Jay. I’ve searched for the quail multiple times to no avail. Missed the jay a couple times also – last time after driving for 3-4 hours at the crack of dawn, we arrived to have other birders say the jays just flew across the Rio Grande 5 minutes ago. Oh well, if every bird was a sure thing, it wouldn’t be as much fun, nor would I have as good an excuse to go back!

Map of eBird sightings of Montezuma Quail.

Map of eBird sightings of Brown Jay.

What is/was your career?

In college I worked for Vermont Fish and Game & Colorado Department of Wildlife on temporary jobs. In Vermont it was with Wood Ducks and other cavity nesting waterfowl; in Colorado it was with Pelicans. I worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service from 1977 until 2008, when I retired. From 1977 – 1984 I was biologist at Ruby Lake NWR in northeastern Nevada. There I worked mostly with Canvasback & Redheads, but also with cranes and swans. From 1984 - 2000 I was biologist for the Southeast Idaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Pocatello, working at Camas, Bear Lake, Grays Lake and Minidoka NWRs. During this period I became involved heavily with cranes and trumpeter swans. The last few years of my career I was manager at Minidoka NWR.

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

My wife is not a birder, but she appreciates and likes to watch all wildlife, and that is fine with me. Everyone should be free to appreciate nature however it fits them, as long as they do appreciate nature.

What are your plans for retirement?

My wife is still working so I do most of the gardening (flowers & vegetables) and whatever housework gets done. My wife wins ribbons and medals for her irises. We take care of our granddaughter every weekend and occasionally during the week. With another grandchild on the way this effort will probably increase. I do some limited volunteering – I don’t want to lock myself into a schedule – I just left a daily schedule. I’m still ivolved with conservation issues at Minidoka and other refuges. When I can play hooky from domestic chores I go birding, butterflying, or visiting old friends. I do several 4th of July Butterfly Counts (analogous to CBCs) every summer and am the coordinator for the Camas & Minidoka NWR counts. For exercise I go for walks, where I have occasionally been known to stop for a pint of ale to fight off dehydration!

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

About 15 years ago Marty Collar and I made a trip to Arizona. While birding in the Paton’s yard in Patagonia we scoped out some birds in the trees around their place, checking out his one particular kingbird that didn’t look quite right, which we eventually agreed was a Western. This lady next to us called it a Tropical Kingbird. We politely pointed the field marks the made it a Western and promptly got soundly and loudly berated for our ignorance of bird identification. We just looked at each other, chuckled a little and went back to watching the hummingbirds. We agreed that the lady needed a Tropical Kingbird for her life list and by golly, that was what it was going to be. If you know Marty, he is very conservative about calling out an ID unless he has studied it up and down and knows exactly what it is. Well 4-5 years later Marty and Greg Rice found a Tropical Kingbird at Camas NWR. I called Marty and asked him if it was the Patagonia subspecies of Tropical Kingbird – which got a good laugh out of him. I later told Greg the story and got another loud laugh. Greg wrote a story of finding the bird with Marty. It’s a riot – it reads like the Keystone Kops of birders. That they got somewhat excited trying to get documentation is an understatement. (Greg's amazing and hilarious story can be found here on IBLE post 4761 from 2002)

Birders definitely should have to be studied into a rare sighting rather than talked out of one. Interestingly enough, I too had my own funny birding identification experience in Marion Paton's backyard in Patagonia, Arizona. You can read about it here.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about? Your mission in life as birder?

I started a “Birding for the Blind" program when I was at Minidoka. It was all by sound and the participants loved it – so did the tour guides. Ask Chuck Trost & Mike Munts how they felt after leading a trip. Lately I have been putting my efforts into getting the program going throughout the Refuge System, rather than leading field trips. Some refuges are doing it, but I need to start it around here again. We ran one tour at the MK Center several years ago and it went OK, but it is not a good site – too much background noise & too many other people. I need an agency or group to sponsor the program and a safe walking path – relatively quiet, fairly level, no obstacles, no bikes etc. Anyone interested in helping?

The Birding for the Blind sounds like a wonderful program. Can you tell us more about how and why you started it?

In summer 2000 I was invited to lunch at an outdoor training session in Lake Walcott State Park sponsored by LIFE (Living Independently for Everyone), a group dedicated to keeping people with disabilities active and mobile. Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Walcott State Park had worked with LIFE before, cost-sharing a wheelchair accessible fishing platform the previous year. The training session was on recreational things people with visual impairments could do with their families - stuff like large print playing cards, Braille Scrabble, etc. Except when sleeping, I am never not birding, so while I was waiting for lunch and listening to the presentations, I was mentally clicking off the birds singing in the Park around me. Suddenly I was struck by the idea birding by ear was a perfect family activity for visually impaired people. This group is among the most sedentary segment of our population, but there was no reason that with a little help they couldn't enjoy being among nature as much as anyone else. I didn't mention it to anyone until I thought it through and in 2001 submitted a challenge-cost-share grant proposal to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service which was funded. We started the program in 2002 and continued it till through 2007 when I retired. Everyone (participants & tour leaders) loved it.

How can more of us Idaho Birders (and hopefully birders worldwide that are reading this) help out and promote this program?

It is easy to do. You need a safe place, that is relatively quiet and has singing birds. You need a cooperating agency to find and get the participants to the site. You need 4-6 tour leaders and some props for 'feel and tell'. At least 1 or 2 leaders should know the local bird songs. Start with introducing the tour leaders, then an intro to the site, an intro to birds using the props, and an intro to bird songs, followed by the field trip. This program can be done relatively cheaply with volunteers anywhere. I have some guidelines that will help anyone wishing to start such a program and will talk over the phone or email with anyone who is interested.

Thanks for the interview Steve. Your responses have been fascinating, informative and inspiring!

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