Monday, February 22, 2010

Idaho Birder: Brian Sturges

Brian Sturges
Hailey, Idaho

How and when did you get first get involved in birding? What was your “Spark Bird”?

While attending college in San Diego in 1971-1974, I would daily drive by the mouth of the San Diego River where it joins the ocean. I would look at all the gulls and cormorants hanging around and knew I just needed to be able to identify them before I graduated with my biology degree. Finally, a friend took me up to a park and I saw my first Spotted Towhee through binoculars. I signed up for an ornithology class the next semester and I was hooked. My first lifer was a Ruddy Turnstone.

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

I came into the Wood River Valley in 1974 from an active birding community of San Diego. The only “birders” in the area were actually hunting guides. They told me some great stories of birds down at a place called Silver Creek and they knew where the Sage Grouse leks were located. Over the years we have developed a wonderful group of birders here in the Wood River Valley. I usually bird with my friend Larry (Barnes) and my other friend Gary (Stitzinger). Other times I’ll get together with the “girls” Poo (Pulliam-Wright), Jean (Seymour) and Kathleen (Cameron). The other day I was driving through Nevada and Gary called from Texas to tell me he had seen a Bare-throated Tiger Heron. A few minutes later Jean called me to tell me she had seen a Yellow-shafted Flicker in Bellevue.

Chuck Trost has always been a keen source of information for Idaho birds.

Bill Shillington taught me how to sit and watch birds at a feeder and just smile at all the colors.

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

I like to travel to different places depending on the time of year. Hagerman is especially good in the fall and winter, Camas National Wildlife Refuge is exciting in the spring, Boise is good for gulls in the winter, and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is good for owls and woodpeckers in the early spring and summer. Silver Creek area is close to where I live and you never know what is going to show up there!

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

Idaho- probably Hagerman or American Falls

US- Arizona, Gulf Coast, Florida, California

World- Maasai Mara, Kenya

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

Don’t ever pass up Hayspur Fish Hatchery when you are driving through.

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

I work for a river company in the summer and I find the Salmon River has lots of surprises like Western Screech Owl, Black Swift and Winter Wren.

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

All of the above.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

Brunton Epoch 8.5 X 43 binoculars

I still have my 30-year-old Bushnell Spacemaster Scope with Zoom. (It’s fun to borrow your friends’ more expensive equipment.)

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

I have about 5 different books I like to keep records in including the ABA checklist and Clements Birds of the World. I tried keeping records electronically in the early stages but just when I got all my birds entered they would come up with a new program or new system. I keep track of my sightings because part of birding is the “treasure hunt.” Every time I look at my life list it reminds me of a life well spent in search of treasure.

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

Everyone remembers their first lifer, their first bird walk, their first out-of-state trip and their first out of country trip. These are all highlights in a birder’s world.

I have two stories, among the many, that stand out.

In 1983, I went to Arizona with Judy Davis and Jack Trotter for the first time. We had a great time, recording about 170 different species of which about 60 were lifers. On our last night there, we decided to go find the Buff-collared Nightjar in Arivipa Canyon. The local birders had assured us that we would be lucky to hear it much less see it. When we arrived at the spot, we could see several flashlights up on the trails above us eagerly searching for the nightjar. We jumped out of the car and were unloading our gear when we heard a strange noise on top of the car. I turned on the flashlight only to see a nightjar sitting on the roof of the car. It flew up and circled overhead about 10 feet for about 5 minutes calling. As we looked up on the side of the hill, we could see about a dozen flashlights running down the hill toward us. We calmly got into our car and drove home.

The second story happened in Oregon in 2003. Gary Stitzinger and I were over at Klamath Marsh looking for Yellow Rails. We spent the first night catching fleeting glimpses of the birds as they called and jumped to new positions in the marsh. The next day we happened to run into Joe Popper, the researcher in charge of yellow rails in the area. He invited us to join him that night to help him net and band rails. We had the greatest time clicking rocks together and trying to net birds. We ended up banding 4 birds that night. At 4 A.M. as I was crawling into my sleeping bag and tent, I heard off in the distance the call of a Spotted Owl.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

Audubon, Winging It (ABA),,

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

The next one, because they will have some weird bird in it that I feel I have to chase.

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

Clements Birds of the World (I have two editions that were personally given to me by James Clements)

Seabirds by Peter Harrison

Birder’s Guide to Idaho by Svingen and Dumroese

A field guide to any dream country so you can dream about birding trips.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

I have a B.S. in Biology from San Diego State University. While there, I took ornithology from Joseph Jehl and I was a classmate with Jon Dunn and Phil Unitt.

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?

Strangely enough I am really comfortable with pelagic species. I grew up around boats and have been on numerous pelagic trips. I love to go owling and I’ve seen all of the owl species found in the U.S.

What future birding plans do you have?

My wife is a wildlife artist and we travel to various places to photograph animals. (check out Deb's work at

This summer we’re planning to return to Africa and trek to the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda and spend 10 days at a small tented camp in the Maasai Mara where we spent part of last summer. Obviously I bird constantly as she is taking pictures. 

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I have been the compiler for the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count in Sun Valley since 1975. I am also a member of the American Birding Association.

What is your nemesis bird?

I don’t really have a nemesis bird but I have a nemesis birding area- the Northeast. Every year I plan to bird in New Hampshire and Maine but end up going somewhere else.

Okay- I have one. I have been looking for the Five–striped Sparrow in Arizona since 1983. I have yet to find one.

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

My wife is a wildlife artist who specializes in painting large mammals but occasionally likes to paint birds. She is presently in Scottsdale, Arizona at a 3 month long art show. I get to go down and visit while she’s there and I usually find time to chase a Jacana or Blue Mockingbird while I’m there.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Once while birding the Tijuana Slough in San Diego, my friend and I had to take our clothes off to ford a stream. Just as we were in mid-stream a squadron of marine helicopters flew over us. No time to cover up!

Total life list?

Idaho 330

US 665

World about 1500

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

Kenya, Amazonian Peru, Chile, Nome, Dutch Harbor Alaska

Your mission in life as birder?

To explain to people the little things.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful post. What an amazing life! This is a person I would like to meet and talk with. I live down near that 5 striped sparrow but have yet to see it myself. I haven't looked too hard but now you've got me thinking...