Thursday, December 31, 2009

My 2009 Birding Results

Number of Birds Species Seen:  197
Number of New Life Birds:  21
Number of Checklists Submitted to eBird:  313
Number of Idaho Birds Seen:  173
Number of Ada County Birds Seen:  143
Number of Avimor Bird Walks lead: 11
Number of Avimor Bird Species seen:  100
Number of Blog Posts:  222

Current Life List:  317
Current Idaho List:  197
Current Ada Co. List:  161

2010 Birding Goals coming tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Birding Ethics: Politics & Birding

Politics and birding has been on my mind a lot recently.  It is nearly impossible just to focus on the fun of birding and birdwatching without falling into politics eventually.  I've been birding with folks who are very vocal about their politics.  I've also been birding with folks who tip-toe around issues because they were too afraid to say what they thought; not knowing where I stood politically.

It is generally assumed that if you are interested in birds, then you "obviously" advocate conservation, and therefore must lean toward the Democratic party because "we all know" that liberals care far more about the environment than the "greedy earth-destroying capitalists" on the Republican side.  This erroneous assumption might lead one to believe that all birders have the same position on issues like healthcare and abortion.  Let us never assume and lump birders so generally into one camp or the other.  A hobby involving 50 million Americans has more diverse opinions than that.

I personally love to discuss politics and the internet is a great forum for discussing them.  Principle-based debate is healthy.  It is appropriate and important to discuss public policy as it relates to conservation and the well-being of birds.  I appreciate peaceful extremists on all sides of issues because they are necessary to maintaining the balance of the universe.  They help educate us and improved behavior is usually the result.
We all may not be cut from the same political cloth, but we need each other to complete that beautiful patchwork quilt that is America.

Please just indulge a pet peeve of mine:  While we are out birding together in the field, let the love of birds unite us!  Let's leave the political talk for more appropriate forums such as this.

Now let's go birding!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bird Bath Sonnet

On Monday, December 14th, I watched with delight as my backyard birds took advantage of the warm water birdbath.  It was so fun to watch and I wanted to share that moment with someone...anyone, but I was all alone.  I tried to capture what I felt and thought by putting it into the rigourous poetic form of the sonnet.  Enjoy!

A white quilt of snow covering the ground.
Freshly filled birdbath with water so warm.
Sparrows and Finches and Juncos abound.
Drinking first, the chief finch, as is the norm.
Up he hops…sips…hops left…then sips again.
Each satisfying sip, downed with pleasure.
“It feels so good…I think I’ll just jump in!”
Exciting others, “He’s found a treasure!”
Wings a-flickin’, rump waggin’, droplets flung.
A thorough drenching of his crimson face.
Up for some sun…his bathing song is sung.
The young white-crown anxious to take his place.
     In it springs, splashing water everywhere.
     With such a scene erasing every care.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bird ID Help

Jay Carlisle's little lesson to me at the Deer Flat CBC on the difference between Merlins and Sharpies caused me to look longer and harder at a little guy we had in the cottonwood tree near the Avimor entry this afternoon. I would probably has simply passed it off as Sharp-shinned Hawk normally, but I took the time to draw it so it would force me to look at the field marks more closely. Here is my field drawing and the relative proportions of the head and tail feel pretty good. The only problem is, I still can't determine if it is a Sharpie or a Merlin. I did not get any looks at the wings, back, or in flight and unfortunately it disappeared while I had my head down drawing it.

Here is a translation of my poorly written notes:

* smallish head
* lighter throat
* black weak moustache
* distinct eyebrow
* bill does not protrude much from head
* brown streaks on chest
* yellow feet
* black and white striped tail
* round white tip on tail
* kestrel/dove size

Looking in my field guides...the rounded tail looks good for a Taiga Merlin from Peterson's and the distinct eye brow and weak mustache support it. Because it was using a tall tree to hunt from also leads me away from Sharpie as I usually happen upon Sharpies in medium sized lower bushes. The broad white tail tip being rounded could also indicate Coopers, but the overall size was so small that I have a hard time with that.

Comment from Jay: My impression from your drawing is of a Merlin ... and the high perch, though not conclusive, also suggests that. Also, black & white tail bands (versus gray & black) is a Merlin trait. The biggest key would be relative length of the wing (how far the folded wings come down the tail ... or, how much the tail extends beyond the folded wing) but, in the absence of that, I'd guess Merlin as well. Also, I think the tail would appear longer in your drawing on an Accipiter...

UPDATE:  On my way from my day job to my evening job I saw that the bird was back in the tall cottonwood and I had better views while it munched on what appeared to be a Junco.  As it bent down to pluck meat and feathers I could see that the wings extended to about the same length as the tail or short of it and crossed in the back a bit.  It was pretty uniformly dark on the wings and back.  The light was better too and I was able to see the face with more clarity.  All this combined with my afternoon study of Merlins vs. Sharpies and another call to Jay helped me to confirm that it is indeed a Merlin.  Avimor's 100th bird recorded as seen!

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.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cool eBird Features: Big Day Planning!

I am considering making a run at an Ada County - Idaho Big Day in 2010.  Hopefully it will give me a strong showing for the 210 in 2010: eBird Idaho Competition too.

To help me determine which week would yield the largest number of bird species I ran an eBird report for Ada County as well as the surrounding counties for good measure.  I ran the dates wide open; from 1900 through 2009 to show all previously entered data.

Next, to make it easy to count how many species were seen each week of the year, I clicked on "Download Histogram Data":

The data downloads into an Excel Spreadsheet.  The data looks daunting with all kinds of decimal numbers that don't make sense at first glance.  For the sake of my research here, I don't care what the numbers are in each cell, but rather if there is a number or not because it indicates if the species was seen that week or not.  I put in a "count if greater than zero" formula at the bottom of each column so it would tell me how many species were seen that week... and BAM!

From this spreadsheet, I can now see that the last two weeks of May show the greatest number of species seen in my region of Idaho.  Now I realize that this data is only as good as the people entering it and especially the number of people entering it, but I hope it acurately represents the best possible birding week in Ada County.

It does make me a little nervous seeing that previous Idaho Big Day records occured on June 9th and June 1st (176 in 2005 and 174 in 2004 by the team of Bob Kemp, Steve Gross, Ron Weeks) indicating that the first weeks of June might be better weeks, but they didn't have the advantage of eBird data!

The next step will be to use eBird data on maps to show me the most probably location to see each bird species and then map out the most efficient route to see them all in 24 hours.

Can you also see how eBird data might benefit scientists like wildlife biologists and ornithologists as they track the comings and goings and numbers of each species?! 

Please be an eBirder!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review: Good Birders Don't Wear White

This was the book that Bill Thompson III sent me for winning his blog caption contest in November.  It was autographed by editor Lisa White and by Bill on the chapter he authored.  This is now a keepsake book, so it will not be passed along to prize winners from my blog contests.  This is a book that will be enjoyed by every birder.

I read this book in three days.  It has essays from 50 of the best and well known birders.  I laughed a lot as I read it as it captures some of the goofy nature of birders and birds.  Tons of great tips were given to birders of all levels, from backyard birders, to tour participants, to bird photographers.  It felt like reading 50 fantastic magazine articles about birding.  I'm not going to get into details about all the different essays, just go out and buy it for yourself or for your birdwatching friends!

Friday, December 25, 2009

On the Seventh Day of Christmas...

my true love gave to me...

Seven Swans a-Swimming

Swans appear so graceful and magnificent that it is easy to see why the ancients linked them to immortatily, even believe the some gods descended from swans.  Old Celtic and British myths mention how loved onces are turned into swans.  Since King Edward of England in 1304 took his vows of knighthood over ttwo white swans decorated with gold nets and crowns, swans have been associated with royalty.  They still appear in royal emblems.

The Act of Swans, passed by Parliament in 1482, limited ownership of swans to landowners, provided they marked the swans to show ownership and kept them on their lands. If a swan went off the owner's land, the owner had a year and a day to find it and bring it back to his property. Under the act, all swans in open and common waters belong to the crown. The law provided that, on the River Thames, the Company of Vintners and the Company of the Dyers could own swans on the open waters of that river provided that the swans belonging to the Dyers were marked with a single nick on the bill and those of the Vintners marked with two nicks on the bill. Unmarked swans are the property of the crown. While the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act protects all swans and makes it illegal to kill them, the Queen still technically owns all the swans in Great Britain, except for those in the Orkney Islands where the swans belong to the people.

Swan meat is supposed to be quite tasty and from ancient times to the nineteenth century, roast swan was on the menu for the king's Christmas dinners and other royal banquets. Since the nineteenth century, the turkey has replaced the swan as the bird of choice for fall and winter holiday feasts.

With its close connection to royalty and royal holiday feasting, the choice of seven swans as a gift for this high born lady from her lover is appropriate.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Thanks to and from which I gleaned much of the information I have shared for the last seven days. Additional thanks to the great photographers out there whose pictures I borrowed from Google Image Search.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On the Sixth Day of Christmas...

my true love gave to me...

Six Geese a-Laying

One of the oldest domesticated birds and one of the post popular birds to eat on Christmas day during the 18th century, especially before turkey became so popular.

The goose was a symbol of the solar year and also fertility.

It is interesting to note that the geese given in this song were "laying", which means females laying eggs, and possibly not meant for table meat.  Goose eggs are very rich tasting, but are high in cholesterol, but those in 16th century wouldn't have known or cared about that.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On the Fifth Day of Christmas...

my true love gave to me...

Five Gold(en) Rings

I know that most ladies out there would really love jewelry for Christmas and five rings of gold would probably be a special treat, but it turns out that the 5th Day of Christmas was not for you! 

This is yet again a reference to birds...some beautiful and delicious birds at that.  Ring-neck Pheasants. Pheasants are native to Asia and were brought to Europe sometime around the time of Alexander the Great and they became very popular game birds.  They seem to do pretty well in most environments they are introduced to and can be found across most of the nothern United States.  They seem to avoid regions like Arizona and the most of the southern states, probably due to heat and humidity.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On the Fourth Day of Christmas...

my true love gave to me...

Four Calling Birds

I had a fascinating honors History of Western Civilization class in college that focused on "Rhetoric" and even though I took the course as a very underqualified freshman, its impact on me has been lasting.  The professor, Dr. Gideon Burton, commented once that languages eventually climax and then deteriorate until they become new languages.  My personal opinion is that the English language was at is best in the period between 1770 to 1850 and has since commenced its decline. 

This "Four Calling Birds" situation is a perfect example and evidence of how easily we mess up our own language.  The song was originally "Four Colly Birds".  Colly, colley, collie, coaly all mean black, like coal.  This stanza of the songs was about blackbirds, not beautiful singing birds!  But I guess "Calling" birds sounds better when words like "colly" become archaic and the general public doesn't know what it means.

Apparently blackbirds baked into a pie in medieval times were a delicacy.  But which blackbirds?  Ravens, crows, starlings? Or does it refer to the bird known in England as the Blackbird that is not even related to the blackbirds most of us know, but more closely related to the American Robin, but not all related to what people in England know of as a Robin.  Confused yet!  Yeah, so is our language.  Bah humbug!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Idaho Birder: Darren Clark

Darren Clark
Rexburg, Idaho

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

In 1992 I took a field biology class at Ricks College from Ririe Godfrey. His main interest was birds. I couldn’t believe all of these exotic birds like Pelicans and Egrets lived in Idaho. I thought all of the good birds were in Florida or other far off places. I was hooked pretty quickly.

Did you or do you have a birding mentor and can you tell us about that person?

I wish I had a good birding mentor. It would have saved me some time and embarrassing misidentifications over the years.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

Since 2000.

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

I used to bird a lot more than I do now. I casually bird nearly every day though. However, I probably “go birding” 20 times a year. I mostly bird near Rexburg, but have made extended birding trips. My most recent trip was to Southeastern Arizona this spring and it was a blast.

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

I have several places I like to bird in Idaho. In the winter I love to drive around the fields near Rexburg looking for Longspurs, Snow Buntings and the like. In the spring and fall I like looking for migrants and vagrants at Camas, Market Lake, and Mud Lake (all in Jefferson County). I also usually take a trip with a couple other Eastern Idaho birders in the winter to the Hagerman area. My favorite place overall to bird is the Gulf Coast in spring migration. I went to graduate school at LSU, In Baton Rouge Louisiana. I would spend nearly every weekend in April and early May birding the wooded lots of the gulf coast. It was fantastic.

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

There is a spring-fed waterway west of Rexburg called Texas Slough. It stays open all winter and holds interesting water birds that are often absent from the surrounding areas. The farms on the benches Southeast of Rexburg also hold interesting birds, particularly in winter.

Where in Idaho would you say is the most under-birded place that may have great untapped potential?

The cottonwood bottomlands of the South Fork of the Snake River would be one vote. I haven’t birded it much, but I think the potential for eastern vagrants (particularly warblers and the like) is great. I have birded it on occasion and have found goodies like Yellow-billed Cuckoos, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a couple of Broad-winged Hawks. I also think the potential of the Hagerman area is really good for birds. It does get birded a bit in the winter, but I’m not aware of many people birding it in the spring and fall.

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

I am all of the above. I’m not above mooching somebody else’s great find to add it to my state list, but I get the most satisfaction out of making my own discoveries.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I use Nikon Venturer 8x32 binoculars. I also use a Nikon Fieldscope 82mm ED for my spotting scope.

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

I have two.

In late June of 2001 (I think) I was walking along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River near St. Anthony and luckily had my binoculars along. As I was entering the trail I noticed a little blue/gray, black, and yellow bird on a chain link fence. My first thought was a really late-lingering Yellow-rumped Warbler. I got my binoculars on the bird and to my astonishment it was a Yellow-throated Warbler (a bird I was very familiar with from Louisiana). I spent a bit of time confirming the identification and then drove hurriedly into St. Anthony to make a phone call (this was before I had a cell phone). Cliff Weisse was the only birder I knew who could get there before sunset. I got him on the phone and said “Hey, I’ve got a Yellow-throated Warbler in St. Anthony. Do you feel like making a drive?” He did. Anyway, I drove back to the river and relocated the bird. I managed to keep it in sight and as Cliff arrived it started singing. He got a few diagnostic photographs before it got dark. It was really fun. (to re-live the excitement of finding and photographing this Yellow-throated Warbler, check out IBLE posts from June 18t, 2001 starting at post number 2369.)

The other favorite sighting was finding the first Scarlet Tanager in Idaho. I was birding with my wife and young son. We were walking the western windrow at Market Lake. I saw a brightly colored bird in the canopy and was surprised to see that it was a molting male Scarlet Tanager. There isn’t much of a story, but it was pretty cool finding that bird. (IBLE post of Aug 21, 2001)

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I like the Sibley guide (the big one). It seems to have the best illustrations and field maps. It does have limitations though (very light on text and not all of the vagrants are included). I like the National Geographic guide as a 2nd resource.

Which five books from your personal birding library would you recommend?

Sibley Guide to Birds, Kingbird Highway, Wild America (Peterson and Fisher), Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest, and any of the several field guides….

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

Not really. I took a Field Ornithology Class at Utah State University and that’s about 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’m not really an expert on any family of birds. I’m particularly weak on gulls. However, I do feel that I’ve got a good grasp at identifying Sparrows and Warblers.

What future birding plans do you have?

I’d like to get up to Northern Idaho and fill in some gaps of my state list. I still need to see Black Swift, Vaux’s Swift, Mountain Quail (a tricky one I know), Spruce Grouse, and Boreal Chickadee for example. I also enjoy participating in the Christmas Bird Count every winter and I do a Breeding Bird Survey route each summer.

What is your nemesis bird?

Blue-headed Vireo is a bird I look for every spring and fall. I’ve seen a few maybes, but nothing that really sticks. Vaux’s Swift is probably another one I should have by now.

What is your role at BYU-Idaho?

I teach photography at BYU-Idaho. It’s a job I still can’t believe I have. I feel really fortunate to do what I do.

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

They’re great, and my wife is very patient and understanding (see the answer to the next question for an example).

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Twice now I’ve spent my wedding anniversary at the Boise Dump with Cliff Weisse looking for Gulls.

Total life list?

I’ve lost track, but I’m somewhere around 600.

On the Third Day of Christmas...

My true love gave to me...

Three French Hens

Chickens were domesticated anciently and have been on the menu for a long long time.  No one knows if this song referred to a specific breed, but this site suggests that Crevecoeur, Houdans and the La Fleche varieties (pictured above) would have been common about the era when this tune originated. 

Hens symbolize motherly devotion and roosters sometimes represent the resurrection of Christ.  Jesus employed the metaphor of a hen gathering her chicks to express the love he had for his people.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the Second Day of Christmas...

My true love gave to me...

Two Turtle Doves
Christians view the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit. The world today sees it as a symbol of peace. For centuries doves have symbolized love and fertility. Roman and Greek mythology has them too. Whether it is true or not, it is a commonly held belief that doves mate for life and as such are symbols of true love and fidelity.

During the middle ages these doves were more likely to have been kept in cages as pets rather than eaten. Interestingly, Turtle Doves are migratory whereas Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves are not so much. You can find Turtle Doves in northern Europe from April to September, but due to habitat loss, they are quickly declining in numbers.

To learn more click here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Deer Flat NWR Christmas Bird Count

Today I experienced my first ever Christmas Bird Count and it was a blast!  It was a fun atmosphere as 20 plus birders gathered at the Deer Flat Refuge Headquarters.  I got to meet some of the local birders that I have seen post to IBLE.  There was a lot of excitment and energy and good natured folks ready to brave the cold and see lots of birds.  My face is still sore from smiling all day!

Lynn Davenport and I were privileged to accompany Jay Carlisle and Heidi Ware, which for me turned out to be a day-long seminar as I observed some amazing birding skills as well as some awesome birds.  Jay can identify pretty much every bird by sound and by the way it flys.  I was blown away at his ability to ID those birds time and time again.  Heidi also has an amazing gift for ID'ing birds by sound which came in very handy throughout the day.  I wish I could have contributed more to the group, but I sure had fun and learned a lot.  It felt a lot like when I play in a golf tournament when you play a best-ball scramble, I might get in just one or two shots that the group uses.  Anyway, our group tallied 60 species today in our assigned zone.  Our 15 mile diameter count area tallied 90 total species.  Pretty darn good for a cold winter day in Idaho!

The bird of the day for all of us was the Golden-crowned Sparrow!  This sparrow is normally found on the west coast of the United States.  It was one of the first birds we saw at our first stop of the morning at the Caldwell Ponds.  It is my life bird #317 too! 

I was also able to add some new birds to my Idaho list, like the Marsh Wren and Merlin which is always nice.  The pair of Cackling Geese were particularly cool to see and have positively identified with qualified people around.  I'm always happy to see Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Golden-crowned Kinglets, so it was just a great day! Oh, I almost forgot the four Least Sandpipers!

I also want to report on our use of tips discussed on BirdFellow.  We did indeed "pish our lips off."  Jay was particularly effective at this.  It was really neat to see a bush with a bird or two in it and when Jay pished a dozen more would pop up.  Jay can also generate some pretty sweet Northern Pygmy Owl and Western Screech Owl calls.  I used BirdJam to try and detect the presence of a few uncooperative species, but about the only good it did today was get the Hermit Thrush to call back to confirm what Jay and Heidi had already heard.  We did scan into the distance and looked up a lot. By so doing, I learned some great waterfowl and blackbird in flight ID tips.  Looking at flocks of common birds (in our case White-Crowned Sparrows) in combination with pishing is how we observed the Golden-crowned Sparrow.  Looking into flocks of Starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds we also observed Brewer's Blackbirds.

My only regret of the day is that I didn't take the whole day off of work so I could join the group as they gathered to go over the day's list and enjoy a nice potluck meal.

On the First Day of Christmas...

My family celebrates Christmas in the traditional Christian sense, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. While my understanding is that Jesus was most likely born in the spring, I have no doctrinal problem honoring his birth on a different day. My family also celebrates Christmas in the materialistic secular way common to most in America with Santa Claus and hordes of gifts.

I really love birds, religion, history, eating food, symbology and etymology and the well known Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has all of that. The birds mentioned in this centuries old tune have had attached to them all kinds of symbolism, from Christian to pagan fertility rituals, from simple romantic gifts of love to the rudimentary and basic food sources.

Over the next few days, take a look with me at the birds in The Twelve Days of Christmas. It may just help you solve the next Dan Brown novel or at least answer a few questions on Jeopardy.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...

A Partridge in Pear Tree
The partridge mentioned here probably refers to a Red-legged Partridge from France, which looks a lot like close relative to a Chukar to me. The Partridge has been used a symbol of Christ and of truth, but also its opposite, Satan and evil. Greek mythology even hints at a connection between partridges and pears. Pears and pear trees have their own historical symbolism of enduring love and masculine virility, but it could be that the transition from French to English just messed it up a bit as the French word Partridge is "Perdrix" pronounced pear-dree. The entire family of partridges are good eating, I am told, and the Reg-legged Partridge was probably on the table as part of the feasts during the holidays. (click here and here to learn more)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Another Avimor First!

Just when I thought the year 2009 was winding down and that I would not likely see another new Avimor bird this year, or a life bird for that matter...

I'm gearing up mentally and physically for tomorrow's Christmas Bird Count at Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge and went out this foggy morning to practice the CBC strategies mentioned on the great Bird Fellow blog.

I went to the Avimor entry bridge which gives me a good above-view of Spring Valley Creek.  By pishing and playing a Northern Pygmy Owl hoot I was able to see Song Sparrows, American Goldfinch, and even a Downy Woodpecker stopped by to investigate. Can't we all agree that Song Sparrows react to just about any bird sound and will curiously pop up in plain sight?! 

I know we have wintering Spotted Towhees here at Avimor that will lurk in the thick underbrush because I had them last winter.  I played its call, but no response.  Then I got to thinkin'...there's another little winter bird that I've never seen before that this habitat should be perfect for; shaded, damp, and fallen trees.  I've been reading about it a lot recently as it may be a species split between the western and eastern varieties.  I played its call five times and then just listened and watched for 15 minutes.  Dark-eyed Juncos and a Northern Flicker whizzed by, but still no sign of the little bird I hoped to see. 

I gave up and started walking back toward my office...when I heard a faint keep-keep that was just different enough that I knew it wasn't a Song Sparrow.  I went back to the bridge slowly and tried to track down with my eyes what I was hearing with my ears.  There before my eyes was a cute little brown ball of joy.  It reminded me of a mouse as it snuck stealthfully around the low brush and fallen cottonwoods. 

An Avimor first - the 99th bird officially recorded at Avimor - and my life bird #316:  The Winter Wren!  This also makes the 4th species of wren observed at Avimor:  Rock, Canyon, House, and Winter.

Photo by Steve Round on BirdForum

I wonder now if the Winter Wren call I have in my Zune BirdJam is an eastern bird or a pacific bird?  Well, whatever it was, I suppose it worked!

I probably won't be able to call this a "Winter" Wren for long.  To read more about the portending species split of the Winter and Pacific Wren, click here.

Another great blog about the Winter Wren and a great photo click here for the Pacific NW Backyard Birder.

The Woodpeckers I Wanna See: Pileated Woodpecker

This is the beginning of my wishlist of woodpeckers I want to see.  I did a little eBird research info about locations in Idaho where I might be able to see them and a little study in my field guides.  Here is what I've discovered:

Pileated Woodpecker

Photo by Terry Gray

Top of my woodpecker priority list is the Pileated Woodpecker!  I recall seeing one as a Boy Scout at a camp near Cascade, but that was pre-birder and is therefore not on my eBird life list. 

This eBird map shows Pileated Woodpecker sightings from 2005 through 2009.  It looks like northern Idaho would be the place to have the best odds of seeing a Pileated.  They have been seen as close to where I live as the Idaho Bird Observatory as well as the forest roads in Boise County.  The Cascade area is another possibility.

I've learned that a mating pair will hold its territory year round, so going where they have been seen before increases my chances.  I read that they also that they prefer large and dead trees to excavate.  This gives me an a better idea of the habitat I should be looking in.  I should look for large rectangular or oblong excavations in the timber for signs of feeding or nesting.

Does anyone know if Pileated Woodpeckers respond to playing their calls?  It looks like they might based on a study I saw for Vancouver Island.

Do you have a surefire location to see Pileated Woodpeckers?

Here is the rest of the list that I will post about later:

Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker
Williamson's Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Red-breasted Sapsucker (one Idaho Birder interview coming up jokingly mentioned that he doubts these really exist)
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Black-backed Woodpecker
Ivory-billed Woodpecker!!!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Oh the Woodpeckers I've Seen

Woodpeckers, Sapsuckers, and Flickers are a fascinating family of birds.  They are so similar, yet so different.  They have quirky behaviors that make them fun to sit back and watch.  I have seen a few, and I hope to see several more.  Just for fun, here are photos of the Picidae birds I've seen:

Lewis's Woodpecker

Photo from Wikipedia

The first Lewis's Woodpecker I ever saw was at the Oak Flat Campground outside of Superior, AZ on Nov 22nd, 2006.  Since then I have seen them here at Avimor as well as four other Idaho birding hotspots.  Their color pattern and flight are distinct among the Picidaes.  With their large wings, they seem to soar across the tree tops rather than showing the trademark undulating flight style common to most other woodpecker species.  It is also fun to watch them flycatching from a tall snag.

Acorn Woodpecker

Photo from

Marion Paton's yard in Patagonia, AZ was the first place I saw an Acorn Woodpecker.  I also saw them at Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast and the Tonto Fish Hatchery, both in Arizona.  Don't you just love that face?!  Its like a panda crossed with a woodpecker with a little clown thrown in.  At Ash Canyon I had them within feet of me as they fed at feeders.

Gila Woodpecker

Photo by Ian Tait

While I lived in Arizona, I saw Gila Woodpeckers 54 times, per my eBird records.  Most often it was at recreation areas along the Salt River near Mesa, AZ or at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix where I often spent my lunch breaks birdwatching.  This is one cool bird that would visit my backyard too.  The red thumb print on top of the head is unique and indicates a male.

Red-naped Sapsucker

Photo by Terry Gray

My first Red-naped Sapsucker was observed at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona.  Since then I have seen them in Idaho, Oregon, and Utah.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Photo by David Dilworth

The Ladder-backed Woodpecker was an occasional treat to see down in Arizona.  The first one I ever saw was at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. I vividly recall a couple encounters with them at recreation areas along the Salt River.  And my eBird record shows that I saw one at Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast too.

Downy Woodpecker

Photo by Terry Gray

Next to the Northern Flicker, the Downy Woodpecker is the species I see most frequently.  They are super cute little things.  I recall seeing my first one on a walk with my father-in-law at Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge.  It was feeding on a stalk of hairy mullen right on the edge of the trail.  It let us get to within a couple feet of it where we observed it very closely for a long long time.  Surprisingly, all of my sightings of Downy Woodpeckers have been in Idaho.  I never did see one in Arizona and my birding in other states has been pretty limited.

Hairy Woodpecker

Photo from saskbirding

The Hairy Woodpecker has a special place for me as the first bird on my life list.  Oh, it wasn't the first bird I ever saw as an official birdwatcher, but it is the first bird on my eBird life list because it was the first written record I kept after I had gotten myself my first Sibley's field guide.  When I finally started using eBird it became the first official record of my sighting on September 18th, 2004.  At the time I was the leader of a few 11-year-old Boy Scouts and we were on a campout at the Christopher Creek Campground off of Highway 260 in Arizona.  I currently only have five sightings of a Hairy Woodpecker, two in AZ, two in ID, and one in Oregon.

Arizona Woodpecker

Photo by Charles Melton

Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast down there close to the Mexican border is the only place I have seen the Arizona Woodpecker, a pair of them actually.

White-headed Woodpecker

Photo by MacKnight

My only sighting of the White-headed Woodpecker was in my campsite on a trip to Malhuer this last summer.  Idlewild Campground is a great spot in the Malhuer National Forest to include on your trips to the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge.

Northern Flicker

Photo by Greg Gillson

I currently have more than 200 eBird recorded sightings of the Northern Flicker.  I have probably seen them at least double that without recording them because I wasn't officially birding at the time.  My sightings come from ID, AZ, OR, and UT.  I get them at my platform feeder almost every day.  I've observed them nesting in tree cavities and fighting with Kestrels and Starlings over such nesting holes.  I have only seen the Red-Shafted subspecies, so I look forward to seeing Yellow-shafted at a future date.

Gilded Flicker

Photos by Robert Mortensen at my home in Mesa, AZ

I have seven eBird recorded sightings of the Gilded Flicker, but I see that I posted the photo above to birdforum in April of 2005, so that was probably my first official sighting before I discovered eBird.  I recall seeing them a couple of times at my seed block in Mesa.  All of of my other sightings were at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona.

A future post will be of my Woodpecker Wish List and where I could possibly see them in Idaho in 2010!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Future of Avimor Birding Looks Great!

I am very fortunate to work for a company that appreciates and values nature and activily works towards conservation in meaningful ways.  Avimor's staff, private consultants as well as goverment agencies have been working to restore native habitats within the 28,000 acre community known as Avimor or the historic Spring Valley Ranch.  Wetland restoration and education are top priorities.  Below is a glimpse of what some great people are working on.  It will take some time and money to pull it all together and we are applying for some grants to help us achieve these goals.  As a resident and birder at Avimor, I can't wait until it we complete it and to see how it benefits the birds and other wildlife.  (click on the image below to enlarge)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ask the Avimor Bird Guy: Chukar in town?

From JoAnn working at RC Willey:  Brian took this picture with his phone of a bird in our parking lot.  He says its a Chukar.  Is that what it is?

Avimor Bird Guy:  It is hard to tell from the picture, but based on the size and posture Brian is probably correct.  Chukar are usually found in steep canyons with rocky terrain where some water source is available nearby.  Hunters say they are the hardest upland game birds to hunt because they move quickly in terrain that is hard for even the fittest among us to navigate.  We have some Chukar here at Avimor up along Spring Valley Creek Trail.  I saw dozens of them when I took a jet-boat tour up Hells Canyon on the Snake River along the Idaho-Oregon border.

Here is a photo of Chukar in its typical habitat:

I would guess that the bird Brain photographed was probably a pen-raised Chukar.  There are dozens of folks in the Treasure Valley that pen-raise Chukar and I have seen them around town in the oddest places before too.  I suppose people raise game birds simply for the pleasure of having them around the yard or to release them for hunting.  My boss at Avimor, who lives in Meridian, just a few miles from RC Willey, just moved into a home where the previous owners raised Chukar and Pheasants.  The Chukar have recently disappeared from the neighborhood, so perhaps one wandered all the way up to where you work.

Part of the partridge family of birds, the Chukar is originally from Pakistan.  There are now a few locations around the world where they were introduced and survive and breed in the wild.  I have heard they are one of the best tasting upland game birds, so if any of my friends that are hunters get one, I'd like to taste the meat.