Monday, November 30, 2009

Idaho Birder: Tom McCabe

Tom McCabe
Boise, Idaho

How and when did you get your start in birding?

I was in the Army in Oklahoma, 1970, just back from Vietnam, and I looked out my apartment window one day and saw 2 birds I had never seen before, so I went out and bought a bird book, which happened to be Peterson’s (Eastern). The birds were a Western Kingbird and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I soon learned that I was on the 100th Meridian, so I had to buy Peterson’s Western guide as well. When the birds stopped landing outside my window, I went to every pawn shop in town (there were a lot) until I found a great pair of 10x50’s for $16. I still have them, but they are retired.

Where did you grow up and what was your role in the Army?

I grew up on the east coast.

I went to Vietnam as a Second Lieutenant /Forward Observer. By the time I got out of the Army I was a Captain/Battery Commander.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

I came to Idaho to drive snow cats at Sun Valley in 1974. I’ve always kept my binoculars handy, but I didn’t get “serious” about birding until I joined IBLE and realized how many birding opportunities there were in Idaho. Prior to that, I thought I had to go to Malheur or some such place to get interesting birds.

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

My wife and I bike the Boise River Greenbelt every day, weather permitting. We each carry a small pair of Nikons and it’s rare that we don’t see something interesting. In addition, I try to get out to Indian Creek on a regular basis because it’s been so good in the last year. Prior to that I used to go to Hubbard Reservoir, Black’s Creek, Ted Trueblood or anywhere interesting birds have been reported.

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

Hulls Gulch is one of my favorites, since my wife and I contributed some money that helped save the area from development. Other than that, I’d have to say it’s wherever the birds are.

My favorite in the U.S. is probably still Malheur NWR, but now that I’m not working any more, we keep adding birding locations.

My favorite in the world is San Blas, a small town on the west coast of Mexico, north of Puerto Vallarta. But my favorite will probably change as we do more traveling.

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

I keep a life list, and “life” birds are always special. But I don’t keep track of every bird I ever see, unless my first sighting was not a great view or the 2d or 3d, etc. was special for some reason. But when I go out with someone and get a lot of species in one day then I usually enter the day list in AviSys.

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

I’ve birded with lots of people in the Boise area, some more experienced than me and some less. Harry Krueger has taught me a lot about birds and birding locations, as has Jay Carlisle. My main criterion is whether I have fun with a person when we go birding.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I now use a pair of Nikon 10x36 binoculars and I love them. When I started trying to see shore birds, I bought a Nikon spotting scope, 20x60. It’s not the best scope, but it was the best one I could afford at the time, and I’m still learning how to use a scope.

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

I used to keep a little note book, and for a while I checked off birds in my Peterson’s Field Guide, but now I use AviSys. It’s a very simple program that lets you be as detailed as you want, and it allows you to print out all sorts of reports.

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

There’s usually a story behind almost every one of my sightings, although the story may only be interesting to me. It’s what I love about birding. There’s almost always a moment on every bird trip where something “magical” happens. Sometimes I’ll keep birding because nothing “magical” has happened yet. The other day Harry Krueger and I were walking along a narrow trail above CJ Strike reservoir, trying to see around the bend and into the “narrows” of the Bruneau Arm. I saw a small bird fly up slope and paused to try to identify it. As I looked up slope, I saw 2 beautiful Golden Eagles riding the thermals above us. It was “magical.” An eagle sighting can always “make my day.”

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

I read IBLE daily (hourly?), as well as Inland NW Birders. I also like, and I look on OBOL if I’m going over to the coast. I read Audubon Magazine, and I’ve started reading Wildlife Magazine because they have a lot about birds.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I like Sibley if I’m near home, because it gives me a lot more detail on each bird. But if I travel, I like to have the national coverage in the National Geo guide. Because birds from all over the US migrate to and through Mexico, we took it to Mexico and used it in conjunction with Peterson’s Birds of Mexico and a huge book on Mexico that was too big to carry in the field.

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

Because I’ve been birding so long, my friends and family have humored my addiction by buying me lots of books over the years. My keyboarding skills are not good enough to list them all. It’s like when I got into oriental rugs. I ended up with almost as many books on rugs as rugs themselves.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

None, zero, zip.

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 consider myself a student who will probably never graduate. I’m ahead of some of the students and behind a lot of others.

What future birding plans do you have?

My plan is to chase every “life” bird that comes within reasonable driving distance, to go to lots of new and interesting places looking for new and interesting birds, and to generally have fun observing the incredible diversity of birds.

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

I’m a member of the National Audubon Society, but I’m not active in it or the local organization. Because I got started as a “lone” birder in Oklahoma, birding has often been a solitary activity. That changed somewhat after I met my wife, but she’s not as addicted as I am. She’s more of an “enabler.” So birding is more about the birds for me and less about joining an organization.

What is your nemesis bird?

It changes, but right now it’s a White-throated Sparrow. (eBird map of Idaho sightings) I’ve chased several and have yet to see one. What I love is when you finally catch up with a nemesis bird and then you start seeing them every 5 minutes. Then you start on a new nemesis.

In what field is/was your career?

I practiced criminal defense in Boise for over 25 years, until I was diagnosed with lymphoma. I’m now 3 years post-chemo and apparently cancer free (but you’re not allowed to say you’re “cured” until 5 years). I now teach legal education seminars, do some consulting and I work as an adjunct professor at the U of I College of Law when the state budget allows. I also bike and bird and ski whenever I want.

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

We’re happy.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Yes, but most are best told in person over a beer. (I think this is an open invitation folks.)

I'll try one "humorous" story: We took our kids to Malheur and got them up before dawn to see Sage Grouse on a lek. We were able to get quite close to the grouse and we could clearly hear the "boink" the males made with their air sacs. My daughter was in 7th or 8th grade at the time. As a particularly puffed up male strutted by our car, I told my daughter "Jess, you'll never look at boys in the schoolyard the same ever again." And she hasn't. And now she's a high school art teacher.

Your mission in life as birder?

I just think birding is fun and that’s what it’s really all about. At the same time if more people were birders they would be more aware of the environment and would make good decisions that would be beneficial for both birds and humans. I wish I could take our state and national leaders birding and show them how important birds are to our well-being and how we do things that harm birds and the environment without even realizing we’re doing it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Birding: How did you get your start?

I'm always curious about how other bird watchers got started in this strange hobby. If you're reading this, please tell us about your initiation into birding in the comments!

A while back I posted this about some of my early memories of a developing interest in birds.

The other day I was reading The Curious Birder blog where she was talking about collected old books. She had this picture in her post:
As soon as I saw this picture of a simple book, my nut cracked open and memories spilled out. I had this very book as a young boy! National Geographic's Young Explorer series, "Baby Birds and How They Grow." The inside cover features pictures of bird eggs and the book tells all about baby birds and different kinds of nests and how birds take care of their young. I called my Mom and Dad to ask how they came across the book. Mom tells me that she must have bought it from a door-to-door book salesman. I had to have this book. I found one online for $1 and bought it. It arrived yesterday in the mail. As I read it to my son this afternoon I recognized every photo in complete detail. Amazing how impressionable our young minds are!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

I won!

One of my favorite blogs to read is Bill of the Birds, by Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. He's had several "Caption Contests" for fun photos he posts.

I was the 3rd Runner-up on the caption contest photo of a garden gnome being held in front of a spotting scope.

The latest competition was a photo of Bill being filmed during an interview with a lady holding a light reflector over his head. My goofy caption entry won! You can see it here.

I invite you to follow the Bill of the Birds blog. The pod casts "This Birding Life" are wonderful. The blog has great photography and enjoyable commentary on birds and birding.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Birding Idaho: Cascade Reservoir

Few things are more beautiful than Heaven sent snow...the large puffy flakes against the forest green...the peace and tranquility of a pine forest quieted with a quilt of whiteness.

That's how I enjoyed Black Friday. How about you?

Lynn Davenport and I, along with my four little hoodlums made a trek to bird the Cascade Reservoir area today with the hopes of seeing Loons and Scoters. We saw just one Common Loon, but hordes of other ducks including American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead, Common Mergansers, Horned and Earned Grebes, and Lesser Scaup. Throw in a few Gadwall and a lone Green-winged Teal and we had a very ducky day.

Surprisingly there was a late American White Pelican on the west side of the lake. There were a couple of Northern Pintail, Redheads, bothspecies of Goldeneye, Tundra Swan, Bald Eagles, and lots of Red-tailed andRough-legged Hawks. Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees checked in on us along with Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Around the Tamarack Area we saw two separate adult Northern Shrikes. Only my second time ever seeing them! I got to see Clark's Nutcrackers up close, only my third time ever seeing them and this opportunity affording me the best views.The main highlight for me was my life bird #315 a Gray Jay, actually a couple of them flitted over us while we watched an American Dipper diving off the ice into the creek along Gold Fork Rd. Awesome!

We concluded the birding day by relaxing in the Gold Fork Hot Springs where we happened to bump into a few friends. The Gray and Stellar's Jays could be seen flying over the pool caching away whatever it was they were finding. All this while the snow fell gently on us in the wonderful woods of the Cascade area. Then home to watch BSU win the WAC Title.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Did you know that the Wild Turkey was at one time endangered? I had no idea. Read about here where Idaho Nature Conservancy's own Matt Miller wrote about it. The Turkey recovery efforts have been almost too successful in some areas where they are superabundant and have become a nuisance.

Some cool Turkey facts from All About Birds:

* The Wild Turkey is native to North America.
* The chicks are almost on their own after just couple of days of hatching.
* Alaska is the only state that does not currently have Wild Turkey populations.

Although range maps don't often show Wild Turkeys as being widespread in Idaho, I have seen Wild Turkeys a few times since I've become a birder. I recall seeing them on a Boy Scout campout in Tripod Meadow once when I was a boy, but most recently I have seen them at the Fort Boise WMA, Montour WMA, and in Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area. When I lived in South Carolina, my job took me driving all over the back county roads and I saw Wild Turkey's almost daily.

When it comes to eating Turkey on Thanksgiving Day, I like it best soaked in a saline/citrus brine, then injected with citrus and spices, then deep fried in peanut oil using an electric fryer. Mmm...Delicious!

I used to use a gas fryer, but when cooking a turkey for a church Christmas party I created a raging inferno in my Mesa, AZ backyard. Besides the fryer and turkey being charred beyond use, there was no damage accept to my pride...thankfully!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Loon ID Tips

This Friday I plan to make a trip up to Cascade to try and find some Loons and Scoters. My life list currently only has one sighting of a Common Loon at the Fountain Hills lake in Arizona. It was early in my birding addiction and I didn't get good looks at it either. With a little more experience under my belt, I'd like to see them again, and more of them!

When I have a target bird to venture after I like to study up in my field guides and look at online photos before I go. Going through the exercise of putting some slides together emphasizing the unique and comparative characteristics helps me ingrain those traits in my brain.

The plates below show both breeding and nonbreeding plumage for the Loons possible to see in Idaho. Most of the comparisons I make are to the Common Loon. My focus was mostly on nonbreeding plumage as that is what I am most likely to see here during the winter. It is looking like that neck pattern will be the single most important characteristic to look for through the spotting scope. Then the bill perhaps.

(Thanks to Terry Gray, Corey Finger, and everybody else's photos I borrowed from Google Image Search)

The Joy of Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadee - photo by Greg Gillson
Saturday morning on my way into my part-time job at RC Willey, I realized that the early morning traffic was less than usual and I was ahead of schedule. I decided to stop and bird a random location for eBird and pulled off into a new subdivision off of Eagle Rd. where I found a short dead-end road. When a beautiful Great Blue Heron flew out in front of me I realized I had discovered a pretty vast marshy area and a stream. I was still on Eagle Island after all.

A mix of rain and snow was falling lightly. My eyes darted rapidly following the movement in the brush and trees. Song Sparrows were everywhere. I noticed a recently fallen tree, courtesy of a beaver which also swam just feet away from me. I've only seen a few beavers while out in the wild, so it was pretty cool to see one almost in town. I'm sure the developer will not enjoy the results of the dam now underway. A pair of Downy Woodpeckers cruised up and down the cottonwoods and willows. White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and European Starlings made themselves known along with Mallards, Canada Geese, and Ring-billed Gulls flying overhead. But what brought me the greatest joy were the Black-capped Chickadees excitedly and frantically calling and moving through the branches.

Over the weekend, I pondered on Chickadees. I see and hear them regularly when I go birding and even when I'm not birding. What is it about them that makes me happy to see them every time?

Mountain Chickadee by Terry Gray

They sure are cute little critters with their black and white contrasting color pattern. The way they feed and flit about charms the heck out of me. Even their calls of alarm are about as threatening as a tiny puppy's bark. The sounds they make are pleasant and easily recognizable...CHICKA-dee-dee-dee...and a whistling FEE-bee. I hear them on TV and in the movies all the time.

At my first visit to the Idaho Bird Observatory, they had netted a family group of Mountain Chickadees, so after each was measured and banded I was asked to hold a pair of them in my hands so we could release them all together. We bonded during those minutes!

Another cool thing about flocks of Chickadees is that other bird species will often hang out near them for the sake of safety in numbers. I often watch flocks of Chickadees closely to see if there are any nuthatches and creepers hanging out nearby.

Black-capped Chickadee by Terry Gray

Perhaps there is one main reason that makes Chickadees extra special in my heart and mind and it took a weekend of thinking about it to remind me.
When my dear sweet Grandmother lay in her bed for the entire last year of her life, Uncle Dick had placed bird feeders outside her bedroom windows. The birds would give Grandma something to enjoy and occupy her mind besides the pain. That last time we visited her, Black-capped Chickadees swarmed over the feeders and neighboring bushes. Those little Chickadees brought me joy during that time and I could see by the light in Grandma's eyes that she felt it too. They were a symbol of life and vitality contrasted with the tiny frame deteriorating in a mountain of covers in the bed...a symbol of hope for that life which awaits us beyond this mortal existence. That's why I like Chickadees and I expect to find them with Grandma Carlson in Heaven.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Idaho Birder: Heidi Ware

Heidi Ware at the IBO holding a hatch-year Red-tailed Hawk - photo by Rob Miller

Heidi Ware
Boise, ID

Where did you grow up?

I’m a 5th generation Idahoan! I was born in Nampa, and have lived in the same house in Boise since I was 6 months old.

What are you studying?

I’m halfway through my Jr. year at Boise State, studying Biology with an emphasis in Ecology.

How and when did you get first get involved in birding?

I’ve always loved animals, but my strongest memories of a specifically ‘bird’ interest are from my 4th grade science class. Our science book had a whole chapter on bird species we could see in our yards and how to feed them. I also brought in a Northern Flicker that hit my grandma’s window, and my teacher let us dissect it in class. I remember thinking it was so pretty, and so cool to see how its tongue wrapped around its skull so that it could be extra long. One of our art projects that year was to draw a picture of a bird from a photo. I drew a Say’s Phoebe: which made it a very cool Lifer for me this spring!

I got my first field guide about age 10, and started a life list after seeing my first Black-crowned Night-Heron while visiting Seattle (a list which I promptly lost and forgot about until last year!) But I didn’t do any actual “birding” during that time.

Last year is when I’d say I “officially” started birding. By that I mean: I got a good field guide, real binoculars, re-started a life list and started birding with other people in other locations besides my backyard :)

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

I guess I’m always looking and listening for birds whenever I’m outside, but I go birding (with binoculars) at least once a week. This summer I was pretty much birding 24/7, since I had a job through the Idaho Bird Observatory doing point count surveys all over Idaho (yes, it really is as terrible of a job as it sounds, heehee)

Of the places I’ve been birding, I guess the spots I visit most would be Lucky Peak/IBO, CJ Strike Reservoir, my daily walk from Julia Davis Park to BSUs campus, Pickle Butte Landfill (yep!), Deer Flat NWR, the Snake River Birds of Prey area, and Boise parks.

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

Hmmm, now THAT’s tough!! I guess some of my favorite places in Idaho would be CJ Strike Reservoir and the Snake River area since they’re nearby and have a lot of variety year-round. And, though I’ve only been to each place twice, I really like: Island Park, American Falls reservoir and Camas NWR because of all the cool things I’ve seen there this year!
I haven’t left Idaho for more than a few hours since becoming a ‘real birder’ last year :) but I’d love to go back to the OR/WA coasts (now that I’ve stopped pretending there is only one gull species: the ‘seagull’. haha!) And I’d love to go to Mexico or someplace in South America.

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

My first ‘birding mentor’ was actually none other than Boise’s Mike Morrison! I used to come into the Bird House and Habitat store and bombard poor Mike with all my little-kid birding questions! Lucky for me, Mike had all the answers, and probably got a kick out of it :) He was the one who helped me decide whether I had Cedar Waxwings or Bohemians in my backyard and explained the difference between Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. He was also the first one I told when I found Lesser Goldfinches at my house! I first heard about the IBO from him, though it was years before I actually visited.

I guess anyone who looks at IBLE or has seen the “Heidi vs. Jay” blog knows that I’ve pretty much become the sidekick of the crazy ornithologist Jay Carlisle. I met Jay last June when I came to the bird observatory looking for an internship position through Boise State. Before meeting Jay and the rest of the awesome crew at the IBO, I’d never even positively ID’d a Yellow Warbler, let alone knew that there were seemingly a bazillion other warblers in Idaho and that they all had different chip notes! Pretty soon I was soaking it all in, and couldn’t wait for my next quiz on empidonax call notes!

I also love hanging out with the super awesome GEAS and SWIBA birders, and am planning on going on more fieldtrips and some CBC’s this winter as well :)

How did you come to be involved at the Idaho Bird Observatory?

I came to the IBO looking for a potential internship project. I didn’t end up putting together anything official, but after one day of MAPS breeding season banding I was hooked, and spent the rest of ‘08 volunteering there as a songbird processor. This spring, I was hired by IBO and got to do tons of bird surveys all over Idaho in places like the Wood River Valley, Shoshone area, and the Sawtooths near Stanley and Redfish Lake. Then I returned to Lucky Peak migration banding in July and just recently finished up the 2009 hawk and songbird banding season!

How did your 2009 competition with Jay come about?

I guess it very first started when some of the people I birded with started asking me if I kept a lifelist, and suggested it might be something fun for me to do. While Jay was in Venezuela in December and January, he suggested that it might be fun if I kept an Idaho year list. From there, we thought it would be fun to make it into a competition between the two of us. We were chatting about the idea of the competition while on a birding trip with friends Louie Quintana and Harry Krueger when the ideas of ‘punishment’ for the loser and making a blog came about…and the rest is history!

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I got a pair of Vortex Viper 10 x 42’s for Christmas last year…and for now I make friends with birders who have scopes :)

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

I use an Excel spreadsheet, and keep track of my overall lifelist, Idaho lifelist, and Idaho yearlist. Though maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, I’ve also started keeping a “poop list”…which is exactly what it sounds like: a list of (currently 50) bird species that I have seen poop :) And that basically answers the ‘why’ about my list keeping too: I do it for fun!

In your bird chasing around the state this year, what birding location do you think has the most untapped potential?

My first week of work this summer was doing nighttime surveys for Flammulated Owls with Jay and the owl crewmembers Matt and Jack. We did surveys in the Owyhee Mountains, Black Pine Mountains and the South Hills, among other areas, and I felt that these were great places to bird that I hadn’t heard a lot about before. I saw my Lifer: Virginia’s Warblers and Gray-headed Juncos in the Black Pine Mountains; Black-throated Gray Warblers, Plumbeous Vireos, and Green-tailed Towhees in the Owyhees; and the South Hills Crossbills, Fox Sparrows and a Blue Grosbeak in the South Hills! (Other birders also found Indigo Buntings during an annual survey of the South Hills this year). If you made me pick just one location I’d say the South Hills.

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

Hmmm, well I have a TON of favorite bird sightings from the past year, so instead of choosing from those, I’ll pick one that people haven’t read about on the blog this year.

One Saturday morning in early spring when I was in 5th grade, there had just been a big thunderstorm and I was in my kitchen watching the Waxwings in a fruit tree and a Flicker eating ants. Within about half an hour of watching these birds, I had spotted: a male Western Tanager, a Steller’s Jay, and a Blue Jay! All three were species I’d never seen before, and it was exciting to sit at the window with my mom and look them up in my field guide; and we even got a video of the Blue Jay! (If only I’d known then that it would still be the only Blue Jay I’ve ever seen in Idaho!) My mom and I theorized that the storm has something to do with all these crazy birds being in our yard…little did we know! It was a fun sighting for me because it was the first time I really remember searching through a guide to ID a bird, and it was also the first time I ever wondered about things like bird migration.

Which is your favorite field guide?

I like the Big Sibley guide.

What future birding plans do you have?

Right now I’m most excited about getting to go to Kenya in January for a BSU class on African Raptor Ecology!!

What is your nemesis bird?

In general I’ve been pretty lucky in finding the species I’ve really gone searching for….plus I don’t know that I’ve been seriously birding long enough to have a true nemesis bird. :)
My nemesis yearbird is actually Gray Partridge! (eBird map for Idaho) It’s a species that Jay has seen for our yearlist competition that I haven’t….and to make it worse, Jay saw two fly in front of the truck this summer while I was looking down typing points into the GPS unit!

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

Well…I live with my parents and my two younger brothers. They all enjoy outdoor things like hiking and camping, and also birding when I can point out a cool bird to them. And I love when they come to visit me working at IBO. They’ve also learned when to expect me home from a day of birding: if I’m two hours away, I’ll be home 2 hours after dark!

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

This summer while doing work in the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Jay and I headed up to Rainbow Creek, the next site for our point counts. For these counts, we had to leave my car at a campground and backpack in with our supplies to our starting point. After cooling our feet in a mountain stream, we sat down on a log for dinner. I noticed some little green poops on the log, and Jay said they were probably grouse poo. Then while setting up camp for the night, we were clearing sticks and rocks and heard 2 clacking noises from near the road. It sounded like a rock hitting something, but neither of us had thrown a rock over there. We peeked around the trees onto the road, and there we got our first glimpse of the guy we dubbed ‘Jacques’ the Spruce Grouse! And he was NOT happy to see us! Apparently we were setting up camp next to his favorite strutting logs, and he was trying to scare us away from them :) I was able to get really close to him as he continued to clack his wings and display at us. He even came toward me a few times! As I set up my tent, he flew to the tree right above me and sat watching. From inside my tent just before dark, I could see Jacques displaying on the ‘dinner log’: puffing up and fanning his tail. He was such a beautiful bird, a lifer, and he was so silly!

What are your other interests outside of birding?

I pretty much don’t do anything that’s not at least a little bit nerdy :) I’m really interested in biology and other organisms in general, not just birds. Right now I’m taking entomology, and am having a ton of fun working on my insect collection! I enjoy doing anything outdoors and also like reading a good novel (when I have the time) or watching a good movie with friends. This semester I’m also having fun learning to do some data analysis, and enjoy checking out the Lucky Peak banding data; just the other day I found out we recaptured an 8 year old MacGillivray’s Warbler!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review: Denali Spotting Scope

Eagle Optics has been offering their Denali 15-45x60 Angled Spotting Scope as a special for $99.99 showing an original asking price of $269.95. Being a big fan of Eagle Optics level of service and my on-going delight with my Eagle Optics Ranger SRT binoculars, I have a high expectation of quality from them. I ordered this scope without ever having tried it out, but I really really wanted to have a scope for the Avimor Big Sit. My wife is making me hide it in my office as it is supposed to be from Santa at Christmas.

Unfortunately, it is a scope that is only worth $99, especially comparing it to scopes traditionally priced around $270. I would have sent it back to Eagle Optics and purchased a higher end scope, but alas, my 30 days had already passed and I'm stuck with a disappointing scope.

Fortunately, my father-in-law recently purchased a new scope (a Promaster 20-60x80 purchased from Idaho Camera) that I will review later. Lynn has allowed me to "store" his Celestron. I'll just keep the Denali on my desk to view the daily battle for King of the Cottonwood out my office window, or maybe I'll sell it at a discount and chalk up the loss to my spotting scope purchasing education.

To give this scope a fair and thorough review, here are the pros and cons of the Eagle Optics Denali scope.

Lightweight. Compact. Comes with a very nice case that stays on during use. The case covers even fold and Velcro back so that they are not in the way of the eye piece or lens.

Color transmission is not great and image strongly blurs around the edges. Using the higher magnifications makes the scope almost unusable. The focus wheel is so stiff that you end up moving the entire scope and you lose what you were trying to focus on. Image shake also makes it very challenging to look at the finer details of birds for identification. Eye fatigue was a major factor because of the lesser quality optics. The table top stand it comes with is not of very good quality, but they must expect everyone to upgrade to a Manfrotto fluid head.

Note to the good folks at Eagle Optics: If you are reading this, I still love you guys! If you are willing, I'll send this scope back at my cost and ask that you put my $99.99 toward in-store credit so I can upgrade to a higher-end scope. I still have the original packaging!

Note to readers: If you are looking for a good deal on an inexpensive scope that is perhaps not fit for an avid birder, but you want an inexpensive scope to have in your car or in your home, please e-mail me and we can make a deal...that is unless Eagle Optics contacts me first!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Birding Laughs: Snipe Hunt

In recent weeks, several bird bloggers I follow (including Pacific NW Backyard Birder and Birdfreak) both posted about the mythical Snipe Hunt. As a veteran Snipe hunter myself I had to comment on their posts. Here is an edited version of my comments on their blogs:

I was a victim of the Snipe Hunt as a new Boy Scout at 12 years old. I then became responsible for perpetuating the Snipe Hunt on dozens of other scouts who came after me. Ahh...the memories.

Our method of carrying out the hunt was to take the young and impressionable scouts out at night into the middle of the woods or sagebrush (depending on where we were camping in Idaho). They each had a pillow case open and ready to receive the snipes that we were to scare towards them from the bush. We all “knew” that snipe were so dumb that they’d run right into the open bag. For the hazing to be complete, we confiscated their flashlights because we needed them to scare the snipes in their direction. The young scouts were left standing in a circle in the middle-of-nowhere enthusiastically calling in the snipes, while we older scouts went out into the wilderness "to scare the snipes back toward them".

I can still hear the kids hollering "Here snipe! Here snipe!" from the hills while we older scouts sat cozily sipping hot cocoa around the camp fire.

When the shouts began to quiet and new scouts finally found their way back to camp in the dark; their initiation was complete…almost instant maturity obtained by having been deceived…and once they got over their initial irritation and realized it was funny, they too knew that they would pass on the myth.

Now my own son has seen real Wilson's Snipe with me on a few occasions while out on family birding excursions. I am confident he will never become a victim of the Snipe Hunt initiation. Plus it will probably be outlawed as soon as some hapless Boy Scout spends a cold night in the woods and his parents sue the BSA, but for now, why let that stop several generations of prank perpetuation?!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Missing Mouring Doves?

Baby Mourning Doves Hidden in the Grasses
photo by Robert Mortensen taken at Avimor in Spring '09

Is it just me in my little pocket of the world that has seen far fewer Mourning Doves of late? I do see a couple of them on power lines or flying across the road when I drive down into the Boise valley, but up here in the foothills they seem to be gone right now. Earlier in the year they were very dominate at my feeders. Even in late summer I often saw them roosting on the bitterbrush, but since October there are very few.

My eBird data supports my impression that there is a decrease in Mourning Doves since September. Nationwide on eBird however there doesn't appear to be any decrease. I've never noticed a measureable decrease in Mourning Doves due to hunting season, but maybe more were taken this year. I wonder if disease has affected my local population.

UPDATE Sunday 11/22/09: I had a Mourning Dove at my platform feeder seed block this afternoon at 4:30 PM. Oh thank goodness they still exist!

Birding Laughs: Ravens in Cedar City, UT

Last month I mentioned my uncle in Cedar City that was part of introducing me to birding. I got an e-mail from him this week that I thought was pretty funny. Since he retired from Southern Utah University were he taught Spanish for many years, Uncle Dick has made golfing part of his daily exercise routine. While out on the Cedar Ridge Golf Course he has been enjoying the wildlife while whittling down his handicap.

He has been noticing some interesting raven behavior...they are carrying golf balls in their beaks! Uncle Dick decided to keep track of how often he sees this phenomenon. He reports that since April 2009 to date he has seen this happen 38 times. Fascinating!

Uncle Dick's friend Les commented: "think of their disappointment when they drop it on the rocks, thinking they are going to have an egg omelet and they only get surprised as it bounces away!!!!"

I did a Google Search on this behavior and it appears that it is quite common. Ravens are attracted to shiny objects like pebbles, bits of metal, and even golf balls and will cache them in piles near their nests. One anecdote I read said that a golfer observed that the Ravens preferred the shiny golf balls over those that had lost their luster.

Do they cache items to impress a mate? Or are they like little boys who collect things for the sake of having treasures?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Backyard Birding at Avimor

What a gorgeous Autumn day! During my lunch hour I enjoyed the birds in my backyard...lots of House Finches on the platform feeder I just built. They seem to enjoy feasting on Grandma Z's Custom Bird Block and the Nyger Thistle Seed that I picked up at Zamzows last month.

I have a dozen or so Dark-eyed Juncos foraging under the bushes and along the slope and occasionally sunning themselves while perched in the tree.

I had both an American Goldfinch and a White-crowned Sparrow drop in to say hello too.

Birding in the Middle-of-Nowhere

The other day I posted about the eBird Site Survey. A couple other efforts eBird is making to help scientists use better citizen science include "County Birding" and "Random Locations".

"County Birding" has to do with encouraging folks to get out to the least-birded counties across the country to obtain more checklists of bird observations. You can download a list of how many checklists have been submitted for each county in each state. If you're planning a road trip, why not make a stop in one of those under-birded counties and make a 5-minute observation list?

The "Random Locations" also sounds like a lot of fun. eBird is asking that we make an effort to stop at locations that may not seem birdy and are probably not often birded. I'd call this "birding in the middle-of-nowhere".

I think I can see why scientists are asking for these random counts. The wildlife biologists that work with us on conservation efforts here at Avimor have random GPS locations across our 28,000 acres that they visit a various times of the year. They count all the plant species within a certain amount of square feet. At other random locations they count all the birds they can see or hear, then move the next random spot some predetermined distance away and repeat.

The hope of all this is to get us birders out to more locations. The more data gathered covering the most terrain possible will give scientists the best overall picture of where birds are and how they are doing. Just more reasons that all birders should be eBirders.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Birding Laughs

Review: Shorebirds of North America

At a certain point in the journey of the birding addict, one gets serious about being able to distinguish the subtleties of sparrows, gulls, and shorebirds. Such seriousness demands great tools like the book "Shorebirds of North America: The Photographic Guide".

Here is why I like this book:

1. The cover is card stock paper with a vinyl coating. Damp-proofness is essential when wanting to view birds in damp places.

2. The anatomy guide on pages 4 and 5 are perfect for novices like me.

3. Each species gets a thorough treatment ranging from one page to several pages.

4. The notes about shorebird behavior are particularly good. Behavior is often as good a characteristic to identify species as is their size and color pattern.

5. Good quality and quantity of photos of each species at various stages; juvenile, breeding, and non-breeding. The photos are taken from all over the country so regional variation is covered.

As a cartophile I am disappointed that there aren't a bunch of colorful range maps, but Dennis Paulson explains in his intro that all the other field guides out there already have accurate range maps. He wanted to dedicate more time to thorough text and leave room for as many photographs as possible. I concede his point. Well done!

Price: as low as $19 online

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mountain Bluebird by Anne Mortensen age 7

eBird Site Survey

eBird is taking another couple of steps to help citizen science contribute to the studies of full-time scientists. eBird is seeking birders who birdwatch at the same location(s) once a week or more. Do you fit that profile? Then please read more here and join the eBird Site Survey Team.

Red-tailed Hawk photo at Avimor's Spring Valley Creek by John Perry - 11/14/09

I have already signed myself up and my "Avimor - Spring Valley Creek - Greenbelt" location has already been confirmed by the eBird staff to be a part of the study. I bird this route almost every day on my walk to work. It has also been the location of many of our monthly Avimor Bird Walks. I have already submitted almost 100 checklists for this location alone. As time goes on, more and more patterns of bird activity will become apparent. I like knowing that my own birding fascination and hobby may also be able to contribute to science and the general understanding of bird distribution and migration.

Many birders believe strongly in conservation efforts. Financial contributions to such campaigns are important, and data about the status of birds is essential. You can donate to conservation by simply taking some time to log your bird sightings on eBird. Plus, eBird is a great free service that maintains your personal checklists and life lists in a very user friendly format.

I'm an eBirder! Are you?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Idaho Birder: Lew Ulrey

Lew Ulrey

Boise, Idaho

How and when did you get your start in birding?

I started about age 10, which was in the mid 1950’s.

Where did you grow up?

My childhood homes included Seattle, WA; El Paso, TX ; Nagoya, Japan, Topeka, KS; Peru, IN and Wiesbaden, Germany, all courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

Since 1972 off and on, more seriously starting in 2002.

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

I bird my backyard every day.

What are your top five favorite back bird sightings?

My top five favorite backyard bird sightings are Northern Parula, White-throated Sparrow, Common Grackle, Blue Jay, and Lewis’s Woodpecker. I really enjoy all the birds that come around. Those five are just the most unusual for this area.

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

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area has probably been the most productive.

The most lifers per day came when my wife and I went to the 2008 San Diego Bird Festival

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

I keep lists, but they always contain information about when and where I found the birds and how many were present. Being an avid eBirder has really conditioned me to count the birds I find. I think records of numbers of birds have more potential for yielding better understanding of birds than records without.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I use Nikon 8x42 binoculars and a Kowa TSN- 663ED 66mm scope. I also carry with me it is not practical to have my binoculars a Vortex 8x25 monocular.

You are the top checklist contributor to eBird in the State of Idaho. What do you like about eBird and why do you feel it is important?

eBird is a good way to make bird findings amount to something more than just an entry on a list on the shelf or home computer. By entering sightings on eBird a person has a chance to help professional ornithologists with their work, and to contribute the pool of data about bird occurrences that is available on eBird to be explored by anyone.

I have designed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of birds in my yard as to species, numbers of individuals, median number of individuals per month and maximum number of individuals I also love AviSys. Some have commented that a person can get the same information for free by using eBird. That is true only to the extent that the kind of information you want is what eBird offers. AyiSys offers much more flexibility in working with the sighting data you have acculmulated. AviSys is a relational database with a field for numbers of individuals seen, and a field for putting codes that are user defined. I have codes for which feeder the bird was at, what sex was the bird, did I photograph it,did I only hear it, etc. The possibilities are almost limitless.

Any special eBird tips or instructions for us?

Last May, Charles Swift agreed to let me take over managing eBird Hot Spots in southern Idaho for eBird. Charles still does that job for northern Idaho. The job involves checking out, hopefully approving requests for new Hot Spots. It is important to that suggested spots are not private spots, such as a birder’s own yard. Suggestions that duplicate already existing Hot Spots have to be declined. Suggested Hot Spots that are not properly plotted on the map have to be corrected. The job gives me the ability to move, merge, or rename existing Hot Spots. I really think Hot Spots are another way that eBird data can have greater significance. What has been posted on Hot Spots is viewable by anyone. If a birder is coming to our area and wants to know what to expect, the existence of a Hot Spot could give him some good information. There is a misconception that an eBird Hot Spot is a great place to bird. A Hot Spot is at just a place that anyone can bird and a shared eBird location for reporting his sightings. I think putting this information out is good for people who do not know about using Hot Spots, or have wondered about how to get corrections made on what they view as problems with existing Hot Spots.

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

At the 2008 San Diego Bird Festival, the friend we stayed with wanted to take us to a certain beach to see Black Skimmers. When we got there we found about 100 skimmers. I did not see skimmers on any of the official festival trips. Looking at a range map I saw that skimmers are restricted to both coasts. The birds were there, seemingly unnoticed by the human bathers. What a commotion would arise if one of them showed up in Idaho! Location is everything!

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

IBLE, North American Birds Online, Cornell’s All About Birds website, Living Bird Magazine from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birding Magazine from ABA.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

At home I have always available Peterson Field Guide to Birds of NA and National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of NA. Having grown up with the Peterson guide it was good to see the updated edition that came out in 2008. In the field I like the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western NA. It fits nicely in my pouch.

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

Most of the popular field guides, The Idaho Bird Guide, Idaho Birding Trail, some of the specialized Peterson guides, i.e. gull, hummingbirds, hawks, advanced birding.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

In 2006 I completed the Cornell Home Study Course in Bird Biology. I can highly recommend that course. The Handbook of Bird Biology, which is the text for the course was written by professional ornithologists, who not only are masters of their subject matter, but also write very well.

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 feel proficient in identifying the common birds. Songbirds are probably where I am strongest. I really believe in the power that comes from knowing bird calls. I also believe that learning bird calls is a quest that is never over.

What future birding plans do you have?

2010 San Diego Bird Festival!

You are the Big List compiler for Ada County. How long have you been doing this? And How can Ada County birders better help you?

I have had this job since 2006. It is great when people call me or email me with additions to the list. RL Rowland and Mark Collie are especially good doing this. I can still get information without direct communication by watching postings on IBLE, eBird and the IBO Blog.

What is your nemesis bird?


What is/was your career?


By a chance discovery I found your name listed as a trumpet player for the Meridian Orchestra. What is your musical background?

I started playing trumpet at age nine. At age 50, after being laid off at work, I went to BSU and earned a Bachelor degree in Music Education. Going through music school was fine; going through student teaching, however, did not go so well. This will be my last season in the Meridian Orchestra. After that I will just play in the All Campus Concert Band at BSU.

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

My grandparents were interested birds and sparked my interest. My mother was a rock hound. When I was about 12 she took take me to an Audubon meeting. She explained to them she was interested in rocks. They replied that they preferred living things.

Your mission in life as birder?

The goal is always to get a better understanding of birds. The lists are a tool used to work toward understanding.

Thanks for the interview Lew. I will always have you in my record book as one of most amiable people I've encountered. Thanks for your work in the birding community!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Winter Birding the Boise Area - Part II

Here are my recommendations for some great winter birding locations around the Boise area:

Hyatt Wetlands

Located on Maple Grove, between Chinden and McMillan in Boise, the Hyatt Wetlands is an old gravel pit turned riparian oasis. Watch for various types of grebes and ducks. Also watch for Virginia Rails, even in the dead of winter. I've seen them there on New Year's day.

View Hyatt Wetlands, Boise Idaho in a larger map

Kathryn Albertson & Ann Morrison Parks

Two adjacent parks near downtown Boise near the Boise River. Wood Ducks are normally abundant at Kathryn Albertson Park, along with Mergansers, and all the other ducks. Varied Thrushes have also been known to winter here. After you've exhausted all the winter birds here, cross the street to Ann Morrison Park. Here you can see a variety of gulls too, but pay special attention to the flocks of American Wigeons feeding on the grass. If one sticks out having red heads you've found yourself a Eurasian Wigeon.

View Kathryn Alberston Park in a larger map

View Ann Morrison Park, Boise Idaho in a larger map

Two Rivers community, Eagle

This neighborhood has 23 huge ponds surrounded by wonderful dense landscaping. I like to drive to the westernmost sections to look for Hooded Mergansers, Tundra Swans, Goldeneye, and Ring-necked Ducks.

View Two Rivers, Eagle ID in a larger map

Dry Lakes, South of Nampa

This is where I had my first lessons in Tundra & Trumpeter Swan identification. There are also lots of Pintail, Lesser Scaup, and a dozen others.

View Dry Lake Area, Nampa ID in a larger map

Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge - Lake Lowell, Nampa

Look for Loons and all of the other waterfowl. One New Year's day we saw two dozen Bald Eagles feeding on ducks out on the ice.
Hidden Hollow Landfill (Ada Co) and Pickle Butte (Canyon County)

The dump is actually a great place to hone your gull identification skills. Last winter I believe eight or more species of gulls were identified at local landfills, including some rarities.

View Hidden Hollow Landfill in a larger map

View Pickle Butte Landfill in a larger map

Where are your favorite places for winter birdwatching?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

November Bird Walk Report

A beautiful wintery morning greeted eight of us this morning for the monthly Avimor Bird Walk. A couple of inches of snow had fallen during the night and the sun was shining. The white coating of snow brought a sense of peace and tranquilty that was very enjoyable. We observed 11 species total. Most surprising were the enormous quantities of Dark-eyed Juncos (Oregon race)...they were everywhere frolicking in the snow! A flock Pine Siskins was also an unexpected treat. We had a few great views of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a cooperative Red-tailed Hawk, and cute Black-capped Chickadees.

Below are just a few of the amazing photos taken by Avimor Bird Walk guest, John Perry of Eagle, ID:

Black-capped Chickadee along Spring Valley Creek Trail

Hawthorne Berries and Snow
Grove of Trees along Spring Valley Creek Trail where the Juncos abounded.
Magpie and Mule Deer (look closely)
Fall foliage with a winter backdrop

Winter Birding the Boise Area - Part I

The wonderful thing about birding is that seasonal changes bring bird changes which keeps my birding blood pumped with adrenaline. Starting about this time of year I give extra attention to ponds and lakes for returning waterfowl. Ducks, geese, and swans come to the Treasure Valley to spend the winter wherever there is open water that doesn't completely freeze over. Birders should also be on the lookout for Scooters and Loons which tend to pop in unexpectedly. These winter visitors can be some of the most beautiful one can see. Below are some of my favorites:
The photos are by Greg Gillson, the Pacific Northwest Backyard Birder. Check out his site for more great bird photography and follow his awesome birding blog too.

Tomorrow, I'll post my recommendations for some great winter birding locations around the Boise area where you are likely to see some of the above mentioned beauties. Stay tuned!