Monday, January 11, 2010

Idaho Birder: Jonathan Stoke

Jonathan Stoke
Boise, Idaho

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

I’ve always noticed birds. As a child I knew the blue eggshell was from a Robin. What child does not recognize a Blue Jay or Cardinal? There was a formative event when, at age 11, I was taken to the Florida Everglades in the company of then-editor of Audubon magazine Les Line and field editor Frank Graham, Jr. and his wife Ada Graham. They gave me a bird checklist. Because they were engaged in writing a book to help foster support for preservation of the Everglades, the National Park Service rolled out the red carpet for our entourage.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Maine. I grew up on the coast of Maine within sight of the Atlantic Ocean. Acadia National Park was about 30 minutes away, and I even worked in the Park for the Department of Interior one summer in the Youth Conservation Corps. The best job was reshingling a lighthouse keeper’s old barn. We had to camp on an offshore island for a few days, which is a nice place to be in the summertime in Maine.

Did you or do you have a birding mentor?

The good folks on IBLE help me out, but there’s no one specific mentor.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

Though I’ve always noticed birds with distinctive field markings and looked them up when I got home, on March 18, 2006 David Hazelton was trip leader for a Golden Eagle Audubon outing to the Fort Boise Wildlife Management Area. When an airplane flew overhead, some 20,000 Snow Geese took to the air simultaneously right over my head. In that instant I became a birder.

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

I guess it varies from daily when I’m on vacation in a birdy location, to a couple of times a week when I’m working. I go to nearby places, mostly. Barber Park is close by. One year I went to Blacks Creek Reservoir a lot. If I’m going to drive a bit, I really love to visit Wilson Spring Ponds.

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

In Idaho … I really like the Centennial Marsh on the Camas Prairie, because of the unique array of birds not usually seen in the numbers that the marsh attracts. In the US, I’ve not visited it all, but in general National Parks and Wildlife Refuges are special places. If I could only go to one place, I don’t think I’d get tired of Everglades National Park. In the world, my own backyard, because though New Zealand or Costa Rica might be magical, they’ll have to wait until I win the lottery.

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

I have greatly enjoyed birding at Mores Creek, at the Dagget Creek road turnoff. Seems like in the springtime a lot of species migrate upstream, following the water and riparian vegetation.

View Mores Ck & Daggett Ck in a larger map

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

I’m no expert about that, but will agree with those who have said the South Hills area of the Sawtooth National Forest.

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

I have three benchmarks I use. 1) See the species. 2) Photograph the species. 3) Photograph the species well. So I do keep an online set of images of birds I’ve photographed, separated by state in which the bird was seen.  I do keep a Life List. I derive joy from seeing the bird go about its usual behavior instead of being alarmed at my presence.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

My camera (Olympus C-750) is crucial. I frequently find “Life Birds” after I get home, on the memory card. The camera observes and remembers better than I do. I have a pair of Bushnell 10x40 binoculars and a Meade 20-60x scope. The scope really made a difference, increasing my appreciation of plumage and structure. At a distance the birds allow deliberate observation, so a scope allows for leisurely comparison and contemplation.

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

I started with checkmarks in a Peterson’s guide, then advanced to writing a date and location. Now I’ve made an Excel spreadsheet and use online recordkeeping and would recommend eBird without hesitation.

I’ve thought a lot about the “why” question. Collecting is universal throughout all cultures and even other species “collect”. Think Bower Birds and packrats. I’d much rather collect an image than shoot a bird or grab an egg as was done in olden times, but the effect is the same. Treasured memories. Signposts on the roadmap of a lifetime, I suppose.

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

Just one? They’re all favorites. About a year ago I returned to Everglades National Park in February with the Everglades bird checklist in hand. I was doing well finding the common ones, and had located some that were uncommon and even a few that were rare. (Ironic that a Yellow-breasted Chat is “Rare” in the Everglades, but that’s the way it works.) I had wanted to see the “Everglades Kite” or Snail Kite as it is more properly called and had some good directions from a Park Naturalist. It was my final day of a 2-week adventure and I was up at dawn and driving north in the morning light, along the long, straight road when through the windshield directly overhead and flying just above the treetops northward along the road edge was the unmistakable black and white pattern of a Swallow-tailed Kite (which was not even “Rare” that time of year … it wasn’t even supposed to be in Florida until summertime I was thinking). I eased off the gas as I drove under the bird, checked all around for safety and signaled that I was pulling over (take note), had the camera in one hand and was turning it on and zooming the lens to max magnification, calculating how far I had to go to get just past the bird so that when I had the camera ready the bird would arrive overhead, got the car completely off the road and in park (take note), and opened the door and stepped out and raised the camera as the Kite went by in the dawn light just at treetop level. And got a photo. OK, it was a bit blurred because I was shaking with excitement! The bird circled and I used the binoculars and just enjoyed it this time. It circled and came by a third time, so I snapped another photo, then it went on about its life and I went on about mine. Later that day I did find the Snail Kite (too far for a photo) and the White-tailed Kite, too. Imagine that, three Kite species in one day.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I’d like to suggest that the entire family (birders and non-birders of all ages) would likely enjoy David Attenborough’s Life of Birds on DVD from the Boise Public Library and I find the Field Guide: Birds of the World group on Flickr a wonderful resource.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

The Sibley Guide to Birds, because it is beautiful.

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

I’ll say five of those “Birding Trail” pamphlets. “Idaho Birding Trail” by Idaho Fish and Game is nice. You can get free Birding Trail brochures for many states. I have a bunch for Oregon, northern California, Maine, on and on. You can usually find them online, too.

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

I studied Ecology and Field Biology in college, but was more interested in plants at that time, so didn’t gain any special insight into birds or their natural history.

Where did you go to school?

I graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. in 1980. That is part of a consortium of colleges in that area, and I took classes at Amherst Collge and the University of Mass. at Amherst as 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?


Ha, ha, ha. I’d love to look at photos and speculate, but I still get easy ones wrong. I wrote a blog entry on how to identify some easy sparrows, and got a kind reply that my example photo of a White-throated Sparrow was in fact a Swamp Sparrow. Maybe I should not have used “easy” and “sparrow” in the same sentence.

How long have you been a blogging naturalist? Any thoughts about blogging in general?

I studied computers in college and had a good grasp of programming, but this was back in the days of mainframe computers and even before DOS. Microcomputers were just being developed and I took a class called “Computers in the Lab”. The thing had a row of 8 toggle switches on the front to program it. I kept that knowledge, but didn’t want to work indoors so left the profession behind in favor of photography, until around 1996 or so when I realized that digital photography was soon to render my film world obsolete. I got a desktop PC and discovered the emerging internet. Still, I was slow to pick up on the social network thing, but do love to hear myself talk or see myself write. Just a couple of years ago, my then-wife began blogging at to promote her handmade, ecofriendly pet toys. Well, after that, I had to have a blog, too. Click on the link to start following Jonathan's blog Big Bang Black Hole.

As for the naturalist thing … I once thought I’d like to be an interpretive naturalist in a National Park. Whenever I go on one of those ranger-guided walks in a Park, that interest is reawakened, but like any job I know the fun of it can be diminished by the demands of employment. So, I show off my natural history knowledge (even when it is less than perfect) in my blog. I find that anything is more fun when done at my own pace and at a time of my own choosing. And, I enjoy sharing my travel stories with family, friends, and others who might enjoy seeing the images or hearing the tales.
What future birding plans do you have?

Southeastern Arizona in the springtime, Maine in the autumn. Idaho has many places I want to visit and bird, but have not yet experienced.

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

I volunteer with the Sierra Club, and though that organization is not bird-centric it does seek to preserve wildlife and wild places, which benefits birds and other species as well.

What is your nemesis bird?

There are still common birds I’ve not seen, but none have been a nemesis. I enjoyed success in my quest for White-headed Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, and Black-throated Sparrow. You know, I’ve never seen a Sora. I’d like to see Snow Buntings or a Longspur. A Ptarmigan would be cool. None of them haunt me at night like a nemesis, though. Speaking of night -- owls, there are a lot of owls I’ve yet to see.

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

Yes. Here’s my lifetime of accumulated wisdom on birding and family. Birding can bring people closer together, or it can drive a big wedge. Pay close attention to which is happening at any given moment and respond accordingly.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Some of my ID blunders are best laughed at. Just recently I watched a big dark bird approach and studied the tail feathers. A Raven has a spatulate tail, and I had seen lots of Ravens that day, but this one didn't have the wedge-shaped tail. It was more squared off. "Crow," I offered, but as it got closer and bigger I raised the binoculars to my eyes and was greeted by a face with a hooked beak and magnificent golden mantle.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

I’ve always been interested in photography and have a couple of published books and my work was on magazine covers and in Sierra Club calendars. If that could pay the bills I’d probably still be doing it now, but that was in the past and now I have an inexpensive digital camera and take pictures for my own enjoyment. It would be nice to have a more expensive camera that could actually focus on a moving bird, but I get by with what I have.

Total life list?

359 North American birds

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

Everglades National Park

Your mission in life as birder?

Have fun, get some exercise, and breathe fresh air.

All photos contained in this post are the copyright of Jonathan Stoke.

1 comment:

  1. Such an excellent interview. So interesting. The pictures are wonderful. Thanks!