Monday, March 22, 2010

Idaho Birder: Robert Whitlatch

Bob Whitlatch
Boise, Idaho

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

My friends Karna and Fritz Schafer in Hailey have feeders outside 2/3’s of their picture windows. In the morning we’d make tea and walk from window to window to see which birds were coming to visit. Karna kept a note book in a kitchen drawer to list our sightings. Once I started birding I just began to see the world around me in such greater detail. The first time I watched a Lewis’s Woodpecker exhibit fly-catching behavior with a group of Robins on the Big Wood River. It was wondrous thing.

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

Michael Wiegand and Mike Morrison: These guys have been birding in the great outdoors their whole lives. Wiegand is heavily invested with filling the feeder stations around his homes. He’s created a series of wildlife stories that demonstrate the importance/effectiveness of natural habitat. He makes his living creating those habitats around our homes. Morrison flew in his father’s crop duster aircraft at eye level with the geese and ducks up the Boise River. He’s everybody’s favorite birding guide/teacher. His photography clearly demonstrates his intimate understanding of wildlife behavior.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

I moved here in March of 1986 and traveled extensively throughout the intermountain Northwest and Canada. I never looked up from my work until I met the Schafers in Hailey in 1993. Boy did I get hooked once I started birding with them.

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

My best friend Jean (photo below) and I go at least once a month. Jean is new to birding and is a better spotter. I feel like May/June are our prime birding months. There is always birding someplace in our beautiful state. But birds are their most photogenic in the months of May/June. I can bird in my back yard or traipse on down the hill to Kathryn Albertson Park. I like greeting the arrival of the Yellow-breasted Chat, Lazuli Buntings, Black-headed Grosbeaks at Hulls Gulch. Further out is our always productive Snake River Birds of Prey Refuge and all the up-river areas toward CJ Strike Reservoir. One of my favorite birding spots is Canyon Hill Cemetery in Caldwell. It’s a beauty of a place that sits on a bluff above the Boise River. And then in the fall Jay Carlisle’s bird observatory gives us all the up close and personal connections with birds we could ever want AND we get to stand on the scientists’ shoulders and learn pure ornithologic science.

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

Sun Valley/Hailey/Bellvue/Silver Creek are my first loves. Three or four days at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns Oregon ain’t half bad either. I’ve birded in the northern jungles of Thailand and found it underwhelming. The native peoples have stopped burning the forests but the only birds I ever saw were LBJ’s far up in the canopies. Birding the golf course vegetation in Zihuatanejo, Mexico is very productive…. but you have to keep an eye out for the rather large crocodiles. My friend Georgia Conti has a guest house for birders in Patzcuaro, Mexico. Her available species numbers are pretty exotic/impressive. But then so is the whole experience.

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

Once my life list blew past 500 this year I lost interest in managing the “listing.” In fact listing and chasing was ruining my birding Zen. I’d say right now I’m in transition. When I started birding I began writing poetry again and published my first chap book called “Blue Sage Moon”. I have a second book titled “Seasons on Wings” waiting to be published. But now I’ve added photography to the mix. I need to raise the quality of my photos that will accompany the poems. And my shutter bug learning curve is rather steep at the moment. So presently you could say I’m a birder and student photographer.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I use a pair of 8x42 Pentax DCF WP binoculars, a 60x80 Vortex spotting scope and a Nikon D80 digital SLR with and 80-400 telephoto lens.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

I use Cornell’s Birder’s Life List and Diary.

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

Tough one. For most of the birds on my list, I can tell you time of day and circumstances about which they were sighted. Among my favorite sightings: the Yellow-Breasted Chats at Hulls Gulch singing their hearts out in the top of a tall snag, the hide and seek Sage Sparrows above the Snake River rim, the dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk south of Malheur NWR, a dozen Short-eared Owls at Malheur at sunset in a wonderful swirling aerial display, on an Ixtapa mangrove slough flushing a surprised Citreoline Trogon to a branch an arm length away, stumping across three White-striped Woodcreepers in Patzcuaro. And these are only seven very rich memories. How could I ever lose my birding jones?

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

Rasmussen’s BirdingPal and Georgia Contis’s

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I need Stokes/Sibley/Kaufman (constantly) because the variations can be exasperatingly close. And even then I have to give up and write to Uncle Jay.  A Guide to Mexican Birds by Steve Howell (this hefty volume I took to Kinkos to have them divide the text into two spiral-bound volumes and the color plates spiral-bound between the original covers),

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

I love to read so I have to recommend more than five. In addition to the above I’d also recommend: The new The Owl and the Woodpecker by Paul Bannick (terrific), The Kingbird Highway by Kaufman, The Verb to Bird by Cashwell, A Bird in the Hand by Nelson and Nelson, The Big Year by Obmascik, To See Every Bird on Earth by Koeppel, Return of the Osprey by Gessner, A Wing in the Door by McQuay, The Grail Bird by Gallagher, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams and All Things Reconsidered by Roger Tory Peterson.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

I’ve come to birding among the wonder-full community of people in this world that are all about this pursuit of our feathered friends. We train/share information with one another. My knowledge is a compendium of those shared resources. I am currently investing in learning as much about wildlife photography as I can.

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 can hold my own but I’m often reduced to an “I don’t know” and not afraid to make a referral.

What future birding plans do you have?

I’ve got a week’s birding trip planned for San Diego in May and another to Southeast Arizona next fall.

What is your nemesis bird?

Right now...The Long-eared Owl,  the Black-backed Woodpecker, and the Pine Grosbeak.

If you were a bird, which species would you be and why?

Birds live such a precarious life. Watching their brilliance and resilience is amazing but I wouldn’t want to miss a minute of my own place in creation.

Total life list?

I stopped after surpassing 500. Chasing/Listing was taxing my treasured moments of birding bliss.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

Patzcuaro and Zihautinejo, Mexico

Your mission in life as birder?

To create detailed photographs of all the feathered friends I get to encounter.

Do you have your own website, blog, or photo-sharing website?

Yes, thank you. My web is: and then my Flikr site:

Some of Bob's fantastic photography that he was willing to share (click to enlarge):

Any parting thoughts?

Birding is a constant experience of joy/bliss. Joseph Campbell said, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting interview and his pictures are wonderful. Hopefully the snow geese will show up here this week.