Monday, December 28, 2009

Idaho Birder: Shirley Sturts

Shirley Sturts
Coeur d'Alene, ID

How and when did you get your start in birding?

After college and marriage, my husband Keith and I spent a lot of time hiking, fishing and exploring the mountains and forests of North Idaho. I became interested in knowing the names of the trees, bushes and flowers and this soon led to an interest to birds. Birds soon became my main focus. I joined the Spokane Audubon Society and started participating in their field trips. You ask when? I have a note in my life list book that says, "Life list started Christmas of 1965 when I received a "Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds" for Christmas from my husband".

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

Over the years, I have done a lot of "just birding" trips. Today, except for Christmas Bird Counts, checking our Audubon chapters bluebird trails, once a month birding Mica Bay on Coeur d'Alene Lake (our Audubon Chapter has adopted this bay as part of the Idaho Fish and Game "Adopt a Wetland" program) and an occasional Audubon Chapter fieldtrip, I do very little "just birding" trips. I prefer to combine birding with hiking, bicycle touring and other activities.

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

Idaho: "Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes". This is a 70 mile bike trail (Rails to Trails) from Plummer to Mullen. It goes through a part of Heyburn State Park, along Coeur d'Alene Lake to Harrison and then follows the Coeur d'Alene River drainage to Mullan. It goes by several small lakes and wetlands including the Schlepp Farm, where work has been underway by Ducks Unlimited and partners to restore wetland and riparian habitat.

United States: Central Park in New York City. My daughter attended Columbia University in New York City for 8 years. I visited her every spring and fall. Central Park became my birding playground. I became acquainted with several New York birders, including Marie Winn who wrote "Red-tails in Love". It is the story of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks that hunt, court, mate and raise young in a nest on a ledge of a Fifth Avenue building three floors above Mary Tyler Moore's apartment and across the street from Wood Allen's. I visited the nest site several times.

World: Two favorites - Belize and the Galapagos Islands
How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, both, or something else?

Probably more of a watcher than a lister. I am not very good at keeping lists. I keep a life list, state list and yard list but I couldn't tell you the numbers without looking them up. I've tried keeping a yearly list but lose track after the first couple of months. Dr. Stephen Lindsay did a Big Year in 2001. He attempted to see 200 birds in Kootenai County during the year 2001. He tallied up only 199 and on January 1, 2002 he found a Snowy Owl out on Rathdrum Prairie which would have made 200 if he had seen it the day before. This inspired me to do a Kootenai County Big Year but I knew I wasn't dedicated enough to be in the field that much plus the fact that my hearing is not what it used to be. I asked my fellow birders in our Audubon Chapter to join me in a group Kootenai County Big year in 2002. This turned out to be a lot of fun for everyone. It soon came to be a challenge to see who could see the first bird of the season. In 2002, we as group came up with 195 species, four short of what Steve had done on his own. However, in 2004 we managed to come up with 207. I was reporting our results on Inland-nw-birders and IBLE and the idea of doing group County Big Years caught on. In 2005, twenty-two counties tallied Big Years, and this year, the total number of participating Idaho counties has reached thirty (out of forty-four). The current and historical results are posted on Lew Ulrey does a fantastic job of pulling all of the Idaho county lists together. Birders from outside Idaho began to take note of the county tallies. Washington state started to collate group county Big Years in 2007. One of the benefits of collating the county lists on a state-wide basis is the ability to track arrival dates across the region. Of course, not all the dates are arrival dates, especially for uncommon species, but the data bring the migration timing into clearer focus.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

Two pair of binoculars: Leitz 7x35 and Zeiss 10x40
Bushnell Scope zoom15-45+

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

When I first stated birding, I kept track of what I was seeing in a small field notebook, of which I now have many. Tom Rogers, my mentor and at that time regional editor for "American Birds Field Notes ", gave me all the Idaho sightings he had collected as editor. He had them in a notebook, a page for each species. I copied all the records from my field notebooks onto these pages and it soon became five notebooks. When we got our first computer, my husband Keith suggested we transfer all these sightings into a database. He created a database format with fields such as name, date, number, observer, location, county, latilong, notes, spring arrival, lifelist etc.. With Keith's help, we added not only all my sighting but other birders sighting. We added sightings from fellow area birders, all the CBC and BBS records, Idaho Fish and Game surveys, and sightings listed in the "American Birds Field Notes". "Bird Notes", a newsletter of the Canyon Birds from the Lewiston area, and "Prairie Owl", newsletter of the Palouse Audubon Society, both list monthly sightings from their area. Those sighting were added to the database. I concentrated mostly on North Idaho. Over the years, we added all the historic bird sightings listed in Thomas Burleigh's book "Birds of Idaho". Lisa Hardy, who has been helping me, just added collected specimens from the Conner Museum at WSU.

This database served as a stimulus for the Development of the Idaho Bird Distribution Database and to the publication of the book "Idaho Bird Distribution: Mapping By Latilong" by Daniel A. Stephens and Shirley Horning Sturts (1st edition 1991, 2nd edition 1997). Stacy Peterson and I put the maps on the Idaho birding website, in 2006. The latilong maps are a work in progress. I have corrected and updated the maps to compare with records in the database. I'm presently collecting breeding and overwintering records from Idaho birders to further update the maps so they will eventually reflect the true status of bird species found in each latilong.

We now have about 190,000 bird records in this database. With the rate birds are being reported today on IBLE and Inland-n w-birders and now eBird, I no longer add many birds to the database, not even my own. Most of the birds I do add are either ones that are status changes for the distribution maps that you can see on or rare bird reports that are sent to the Idaho Bird Records Committee .
I've been keeping spring arrival records on the Coeur d'Alene Audubon Website but not in the database.
I plan to report more lists to eBird but so far I'm reporting only Mica Bay survey (an informal survey) results.

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

My favorite bird of all time is the Blue-footed Booby which I saw on a trip to the Galapagos. It was a trip I took in January 2007 with a local travel company in Coeur d'Alene called ROW. There were 12 us on the trip, including my daughter from Seattle and several of my good friends from Coeur d'Alene. ROW is the only touring company that has permission to camp on the Island. We camped in tents on the beach at two different locations and stayed at a hotel on Isabela Island It was not a "just birding" trip. We went sea kayaking, snorkeling with baby sea lions and sharks, viewed the famous tortoises and iguanas, hiked up to a volcano on Isabela Island. It was a real adventure and as my daughter said: "the trip of a lifetime". There were many other neat birds on this trip including the famous Darwin finches, but the Blue-footed Booby was my favorite. There are two other sightings I might mention that ,when I was just getting into birding, made an impression on me. My husband and I taught in an overseas dependent school on a military base in Verdun, France 1965-1966. On May 28, 1966 we visited Texel Island, a birding preserve in the Netherlands , where we saw an albino Oystercatcher. Another Oystercatcher was in an aerial duel with a Herring Gull. Our guide said their nests were too close together and the Herring would probably end up eating the young in the nest of the Oystercatcher.

On June 19, 1967, while driving through Saskatchewan on the Trans Canada Highway, I saw my first American Avocet and almost jumped out the car in excitement. We turned around for a better look. It has been a favorite bird of mind ever since.

Which birding publications, websites, blogs do you read and recommend?
Publications: North American Birds, Birding, Living Bird, American Bird Conservancy, Western Birds


Blogs (recently): Avimor Bird Blog, Majesticfeathers

Listserves: inland-nw-birders, IBLE

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I have three favorites : Sibley, Peterson and National Geographic
Sibley has more illustrations. Peterson has good written descriptions and arrows that draw your attention to important field marks. I also like the illustrations in National Geographic and it is easier to take in the field than Sibley.

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

I have quite a large library of bird books. The following is a sample.
An assortment of field guides
Peterson's Advanced Birding
Two books on Hawks by William Clark and Brian Wheeler
Hummingbirds of North America by Sheri Williamson
Shorebirds of North America by Dennis Paulson
Gulls - by P J Grant
Bent 's Life Histories of North America
The Birds of North America
Birds of Idaho by Thomas Burleigh
Guide to Idaho Birds by Earl Larrison, Jerry Tucker and Malcolm Jollie
Birds of East Central Idaho by Hadley Roberts
A Birder's Guide to Idaho by Dan Svingen and Kas Dumroese
Dead Owl Flying by Leon Powers
Idaho Birding Trail

I like to collect old books. Among them I have:
The Birds of Washington Vol. 1 and 2 published in 1909

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

I have a minor in Zoology but I didn't take any classes in ornithology. I took the Cornell Laboratory Home Study Course several years ago.

What future birding plans do you have?

I've been thinking of doing weekly birding of my home area - Fernan Lake and Creek and report my findings on eBird.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I'm newsletter editor and webmaster for our local Audubon Chapter.
I'm secretary of the Idaho Bird Records Committee.
I compile the Coeur d'Alene and Spirit Lake CBCs.
I used to do two BBS routes but I know longer can hear well enough to do them.
I participate in the Thanksgiving Day Count.
I do the Feeder Watch for Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

What is your nemesis bird?

Boreal Chickadee - On a field trip along the Smith Creek road (near the Canadian Border) the group found some Boreal Chickadees feeding in the very top of some trees. I couldn't see them well enough to put them on my lifelist. I've looked for them on several other trips but have never been able to find any. (eBird map of Boreal Chickadee reported sightings)

What is/was your career?

I'm a retired school teacher and librarian from Post Falls School District.

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

My husband and I celebrated our 51st Anniversary this past June. We have two children. Our daughter, Carrie, is a professor at the University of Washington in the Department of Construction Management. Her husband Steve is a computer engineer with a company making software for cell phones. Carrie gave birth to twins (boy -girl) in July of this year.
I'm looking forward to teaching them about birds when they get older.
Our son, Kim, is a sous-chef at a high-end vegetarian restaurant called Carmelita in Seattle. His wife Karen is a photographer specializing in sports photography, specializing in mountain biking and snowboarding.

I'm the only birder in the family but my husband and children have a love of nature and appreciate birds and other wildlife. Carrie has bird feeders in the backyard. We all enjoy a variety of outdoor activities including bicycle touring, hiking, backpacking, skiing (downhill and cross country), sprint triathlons (Carrie and I) and mountain biking (Kim and Karen) .

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

(not so funny at the time but we laugh about it now) A couple of years ago my husband, daughter and I were doing day hikes on the east side of the Sierra Mountains in California. I saw a notice about volunteers needed to do a bird survey of Mono Lake. Carrie and I volunteered. We were assigned a section of the north shore with another birder from the Bay Area. We left our car at a county park and the three of us were dropped off a few miles east of the park. Our assignment was to walk the shoreline back to the county park. We were to meet back at a restaurant in Lee Vining around 4:00 p.m. for pizza and to turn in our bird list. No one warned us about the quicksand and bog near the county park. I got the impression they didn't know.

The day went well until we approached the county park. By that time we were really tired and looking forward the promised pizza. Then things became a little difficult and scary. Two small creeks flow into the lake right before you get the county park. They are small and one can easily jump over them. However, getting across safely is deceptive. We discovered quicksand when Carrie suddenly found herself sunk in sand up to and over her knees. It was not the kind you see in movies where one slowly sinks out of sight, that was a good thing. She sat back and was able to pull herself out with my help. Then the gal that was with us did the same thing. I was lucky and made it across without going in. At this point, we thought it wise to hike out to the road. However, that didn't prove to be an option either. There was a tangle of vegetation with strange limestone tufa towers interspersed between us and where we thought the road was. We followed what looked like a deer trail into the vegetation and spent the next half hour or so wandering around from one dead end trail to another and climbing up on one or two of tufa towers to get our bearings. Eventually we ended back on the beach facing another stream crossing. This turned out to be repeat of our first crossing. First Carrie went in and then our birding friend sunk into to sand much further than before. I must live right, I was spared again. We were encouraged when we could see the boardwalk not to far off but to get there we had another hazard to deal with, a bog. We gingerly walked across the bog ready to help each other if one us broke through. We looked pretty bedraggled as we climbed onto boardwalk, receiving some strange looks from a couple of visitors. There were several signs around warning people to stay on the boardwalk and other signs saying to stay off the tufa towers. By the time we cleaned ourselves up it was 6:00 p.m. . The bird survey organizers were just leaving the restaurant when we arrived. We were glad they had a few pieces of pizza left, which we soon devoured. They had called our motel and reported us missing, My husband and the motel managers were relieved when we called in.
p.s. This was before we carried cell phones.

On the way home from one of our Spirit Lake CBCs, we pulled into a busy gas station and convienence store to use the facilities. We were still in the CBC circle.
It was dusk and as we pulled into the parking lot we immediately saw a Pygmy Owl sitting in this little tree right next to building. It was rather amazing that all the other customers coming a going didn't see it. The little owl was still there when we left, he didn't seem to be at disturbed with all the coming and going of people and cars.

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