Monday, December 7, 2009

Idaho Birder: Jay Carlisle

Jay Carlisle
Boise, Idaho

How and when did you get your start in birding?

When I was 17, I went on a month-long backpacking trip with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) in Wyoming and Montana. The scenery was impressive enough for a punk kid from Connecticut but what really impressed me (though I resisted ‘birding’ a bit on the trip – even though a couple of the instructors knew their birds – as I was more just psyched about being out of suburbia as opposed to putting names on things) was a pair of adult Red-tailed Hawks soaring/displaying to one another over some recently burned forest near Yellowstone NP. They were really impressive and I was struck with envy – how cool would it be to fly like that! It took a few months to sink in but soon enough I started noticing hawks back home in CT and then I started devouring everything I could about birds of prey and it went from there ….

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

I first lived in the state when I moved to Stanley for the winter with a few friends in 1995-96. I still remember the Northern Shrikes, Common Redpolls, and American Dippers!

How often do you go birding?

I pretty much bird anytime I’m outside ;-) – always hearing call notes/songs. I enjoy birding as much as I can and try to go weekly for at least a few hours if not a full day. I’m lucky in that my work involves conducting bird surveys in a variety of locations – thus, I get to bird for work too!

Where do you regularly go birding?

During fall, I’m usually working/living at Lucky Peak (Boise Foothills) so I do most of my birding there – an awesome spot during fall migration!! Otherwise, a place that’s recently become a favorite during fall & winter is along the Snake River plain up and down from CJ Strike reservoir: so much potential for waterbirds, raptors, and sparrows especially makes this a great place to spend a cool late fall day.

Where is your favorite place to bird in Idaho?

Other than CJ Strike & Lucky Peak (see above), other favorite sites include Hagerman, American Falls reservoir, Camas NWR, Mountain View reservoir/Blue Creek wetlands, and Indian Creek reservoir.

In the U.S.? Wow – that’s tough. Arizona (fringe of range of many Mexican species plus great habitat variety) & California (ocean, shore, amazing habitat diversity) are hard to beat but I also really like the hardy species that can handle the cold – anything from finches to Gyrfalcons – so I enjoy birding along the N edge of the US too.

In the world? Whoa … EVERYWHERE!? Lately, I’ve focused my international excursions on Latin America because of my dual interest in 1) learning Spanish (I now speak decently but need A LOT of work to be fluent) and 2) learning about what North American breeders are doing on the wintering grounds. I’ve visited Mexico (3x), Guatemala (language school plus birding), Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Argentina, and Venezuela. It’s been really fun the last couple winters to have had a chance to visit former IBO field assistants in their home countries – Argentina in Jan/Feb ‘08 and Venezuela Dec ‘08 to Jan ’09. In Argentina, I was able to help former IBOers Maxi & Miguel with a study of the Crowned Eagle and also a landbird study near their hometown. In Venezuela, I helped Gabriel with a study of wintering Cerulean Warblers and also traveled with Carlos. Both were an awesome mix of birding (over 500 species in Venezuela) and engaging with local folks.

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?

Hmmm … not sure any are secrets but not too many Idaho birders take advantage of birding Lucky Peak. I think that local reservoirs in SW Idaho (esp Indian Creek and Mountain Home) are potential treasure troves from May thru September and are great places to learn shorebird ID. Kathryn Albertson Park in Boise is a great spot (wintering Varied Thrush in some years) to see a diversity of landbirds within city limits and then you can check out all the waterfowl across the street at Ann Morrison Park.

I have to credit Harry (& other birders) for encouraging me to venture out this fall but the combination of Mountain View reservoir and the nearby Blue Creek wetlands (downstream of the dam) south of Riddle is a ridiculously rich birding area with lots of potential … in my first fall birding there, we’ve seen such birds as Sabine’s Gull, 2 Surf Scoters, 2 Black-bellied Plovers, and a likely Gyrfalcon among thousands of waterbirds (and we’ve largely ignored the landbirds there due to lack of time). If it were closer, it’d be dangerous b/c I’d want to check it every day!

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, all of the above, or something else?

Definitely all of the above (I’m ‘chasing’ a Black-tailed Gull in Washington on a stormy/rainy day as I write this!). I’m lucky in that both my vocation and avocation involve watching and ID'ing birds (I do like doing other things but I’m not that well balanced in my life ;-). As I began birding, I resisted the temptation to ‘list’ for a while (fearing that it would take away from my ‘being in the moment’ and enjoying birds for what they are as opposed to what they mean on a checklist) but I now am a happy lister – I just always remind myself to enjoy/appreciate Red-tailed Hawks, American Robins, and other common birds (even if I struggle to appreciate introduced species like starlings and collared doves ;-). I keep a US (ABA area list) as well as trip lists whenever I leave the country. I’m usually not too keen on keeping daily checklists but have recently gotten into using eBird and I think that’s a really valuable resource/tool. The main thing I do is keep a year-list (starting on Jan 1 each year) – usually for the ABA area since I usually travel back east to see family each year. The new twist in 2009 has been keeping an Idaho-only year list for the first time (along with Heidi) – that’s gotten me out birding more often, more consistently, with more birders, and to more places in Idaho during the entire year and it’s been really fun.

If you haven’t already mentioned it, do you have birding mentor or birding buddies that you regularly go birding with?

Not sure if I can name a particular mentor but many people have influenced me in a very positive way … if I had to name a couple, I’d say that Brian Woodbridge (now with USFWS in CA) and Christy Cheyne (USFS in CA), who were my supervisors for my first bird job (studying Northern Goshawks in California), were awesome to have as first bosses in the bird world b/c they appreciated my enthusiasm and helped give me the confidence to keep progressing – and encouraged me to initiate a study of Loggerhead Shrikes. The shrike study allowed me to get my feet under me as a young and aspiring conservation scientist b/c I had to make the big decisions of what to do and how. Since that time, I’ve learned A TON from so many people it’d take up a couple pages …

In general, I really enjoy mixing it up and birding with different people – in part because I enjoy different people’s perspectives and I can always learn from other birders. Thus, I enjoy getting to bird with the many SW Idaho birders around here as well as joining up with folks like Cliff Weisse, Chuck Trost, Darren Clark, and other E Idaho birders or folks like Terry Gray or Charles Swift further N…. Of course, in 2009, I’ve really enjoyed birding and working with Heidi Ware – both b/c the blog/birding competition really exploded ;-) but also b/c we both have a similar level of passion for birding and bird ID challenges.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I’ve spoiled myself with Swarovski EL 10x42 binoculars that I bought 8 years ago and have never regretted it (and I generally hate looking thru other peoples’ binos!). And, though I’d rather use a higher-quality scope (like Swarovski or Leica), I’ve been mostly happy with my Fujinon 60mm, 20-60x zoom.

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

Pretty haphazard as far as my life list and trip lists but I’ve tried to stay a little organized using an Excel file. Lately I’ve started using eBird more … I’d need to be more diligent (and spend more time playing catch up) for it to serve as my clearinghouse for list info but I think it’s a great resource – mostly b/c it centralizes info from 1000's of birders (citizen science) and might be able to inform us about changes, threats, or population recoveries.

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

In January, I joined up with a German birder (Joe) living in Venezuela for a couple days of birding in the Venezuelan Andes. On day 1, we were birding along the San Isidro road in the eastern foothills - a site famous for a diversity of landbirds - when we looked up and had several brief views of an Accipiter that we could never ID with certainty (Tiny or Semi-collared). That was pretty torturous b/c I’ve never seen either but that got us paying attention to the sky as well as the branches … Soon enough we spotted a huge raptor gliding towards/over us from the direction of a taller, forested hill. With binoculars trained on the bird, Joe & I exchanged a few words – mainly to confirm that we both agreed that this was an adult Crested Eagle (the slightly smaller cousin of the Harpy Eagle)!! A few minutes later, we caught another quick glimpse of the bird as it made a couple of turns above us… Not only was this a major lifer (Joe had had one previous & unsatisfying glimpse) and a bird I’d wanted to see for years but it was at least 300 miles from its mapped range in Venezuela!!

Seeing and catching a Gyrfalcon at Lucky Peak last year (story on IBO blog) has to be at the top of the list too!

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

Most frequently, I use (as well as IBLE) to check on regional sightings. I used to subscribe to ‘Birding’ (a great resource) but I haven’t prioritized reading that in a while – except for particular articles I hear about – mostly due to lack of time.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

National Geographic hands-down – it’s what I learned on so I’m biased but I’ve always felt that it does a great job of presenting a lot of useful info (especially including the habitats in which you might be likely to see certain species – really useful for beginning birders) in a small amount of space. Of course, Sibley (the only other N American, ‘all-bird’ guide I use with regularity) has great drawings and the in-flight depictions can be really useful. I appreciate the Peterson series for the innovations made early in the birding craze …. Outside the US, I really enjoy using Howell & Webb’s field guide to Mexico and northern Central America.

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

A LOT! Many from the list that Cliff submitted as well as field guides to the birds of many Latin American countries. As for taxa-specific books, I especially use Paulson’s shorebirds and Rising & Beadle’s sparrows.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

B.S. Ecology from The Evergreen State College; Ph.D. Biology from University of South Dakota (studying several aspects of songbird migration in Idaho; published articles from my PhD work can be found on the IBO website)

If a fellow birder had a question about a bird, do you consider yourself an expert on any specific family of birds?

I started with raptors and that’ll always be a passion but I really like all birds and, over the years, have come to particularly enjoy the harder-to-identify groups such as flycatchers (especially the Empidonax group), sparrows, shorebirds, and gulls. As for gulls, I can’t claim to be as big of a ‘Larophile’ as Cliff or RL but I’ve learned a lot from both those guys (in particular, Cliff has taught me to pay attention to structure as much as or more than color patterns) and have developed a twisted habit of spending hours at the garbage dumps or other gull hot-spots.

A quick tangent regarding how difficult most people find the Empidonax flycatchers to be: after working for years to increase my Empid skills, I was on a trip in Asia 5 years ago and was lucky enough to see at least 7 species of Phylloscopus warblers. HOLY CRAP! – they were like Empids to the nth power of difficulty for me but it was awesome when I finally figured each one out (and I definitely had to just shrug at a number of individuals), on one occasion after watching a single bird forage for at least 15 min at close range before I finally caught a glimpse of its crown (!!).

What future birding plans do you have?

I’d love to visit all countries in Central and South America eventually and I really want to spend more time in more places in Mexico (the core winter range for many of ‘our’ breeding species). I’d love to be able to enjoy birds pretty much all over the world but Australia/New Zealand, Israel (spring migration is apparently phenomenal!), SE Asia, and Africa are all places I daydream about.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

IBLE and Golden Eagle Audubon Society. Professionally, I’m also involved with Partners in Flight (Western Working Group) – an umbrella organization working to coordinate bird research and conservation across state and national boundaries – as well as the Cooper Ornithological Society and American Ornithologist’s Union.

What is your nemesis bird?

I can’t really think of one that’s been eating at me lately … it used to be Black Rail but I finally heard a singing bird in Colorado last spring (still want to see one but I don’t want to go trampling their habitat to do it). Within Idaho, I’m really itching to see Yellow-billed and Red-throated Loons as well as Western and Slaty-backed Gulls and the jaegers (but these wouldn’t be life birds so I’m not sure they’re nemeses).

I usually have a running list of my ‘Top 5 Most Wanted’ in the ABA Area and am always happy to finally see birds that I’ve been longing for – examples of birds that sat in that Top 5 for a long time include Gyrfalcon, Great Gray Owl, Yellow & Black Rail. Now my Top 5 includes: Golden-cheeked Warbler (heard one in Texas one spring but could never see it!), Ivory Gull, Ross’s Gull, Curlew Sandpiper, & Atlantic Puffin.

In what field is/was your career? What are your retirement plans?

I work as a research biologist with Idaho Bird Observatory and am also an adjunct faculty in Biological Sciences at Boise State University. No retirement plans but I know that I will strive to retain my higher end hearing so that I can continue to enjoy the vocalizations of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers after I retire!

Where can interested folks read about the data collected at the IBO?

The IBO website has links to published, peer-reviewed articles here. Most of mine are in the songbird link. But people might also find the reports (especially the Camas NWR study) interesting.

What are your top 5 coolest birds banded at the IBO?

LONG-TAILED JAEGER (in raptor nets - I missed this by an hour!)

GYRFALCON (IBO blog story here)

HERMIT WARBLER (IBO blog story here)

BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER (3x) (IBO blog story here)


many other great ones but these are mine ...

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

They’re great! My nuclear family is all in Connecticut with cousins, aunts, & uncles scattered in a few other states so I don’t get to see them enough! Mom & Dad both pay a lot more attention to birds now and often have good stories or ID puzzles for me ;-)

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

I was leading a migration birding trip on Lava Lake Ranch over Labor Day weekend and we had a small caravan of vehicles. We were parking at an ecotone between deciduous riparian habitat and sagebrush-steppe when I started hearing a strange-sounding song from the direction of the sagebrush. Someone asked, “Hey Jay, what’s that song?” and I was totally puzzled … I replied, “I don’t know … sounds like a mix between a Sage Thrasher and a Song Sparrow”. Unbeknownst to half the group, Jean Seymour was playing the song of an American Dipper (something quite unexpected for where we were) from inside her car on her iPod … and the people that did know were trying to hide their giggles as they watched the quizzical look on my face (my buddy Larry Barnes jokingly imitated me by saying, “DOES …. NOT ….COMPUTE…”). Yup, she got me!

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

Mission: see/hear/enjoy as many species as I can (not just limited to birds – saw my first Mountain Lion this summer and that was awesome!) while contributing to bird conservation. US life list is about 675 (inching slowly towards 700 but no goal beyond that); World list is somewhere over 2,000 but I don’t know exactly.

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