Monday, April 19, 2010

Idaho Birder: Don Hunter

Donnell & Nita Hunter
Labelle, Idaho

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

My first interest was as a child when my father would answer and mourning dove calls and get chickadees to come up close.  Then in Boy Scouts I became even more interested through earning my bird study merit badge.  We moved to Seattle during World War II, 1944, and I met the Seattle Audubon Society.  I had no binoculars.  On my first bird walk I met Violet E. Cannon.  She became my mentor and I learned bird calls are the best means of identifying birds.  In August 1946 we moved back to Idaho Falls.  I had no Peterson field guide—they weren’t in print yet, I don’t believe.  My book was a huge Birds of America by T. Gilbert Pearson.  Miss Cannon tutored many young people in birds.  We took ferry trips to Vashon Island and Indianola.  She showed me subtle differences in some subspecies of White-crowned and Song Sparrows.  We were great pals.  I was mostly a lister, but thought someday I would like to get a degree in ornithology.  I don’t know what you mean by a “spark bird,” but my first Audubon (now yellow-rumped) Warbler, a male in full breeding plumage that turned up in a favorite spot where I often birded alone, was one of my personal big thrills.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

When I got back to Idaho, I started going on May Days and September Days to Camas National Wildlife Refuge.  I was really amazed when I listed 93 birds in one day then—still no binoculars of my own, but sometimes a borrowed pair.

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

I don’t go as often now.  Camas NWF is a favorite place, still.  As an undergraduate at Ricks College I often walked to the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River—I now was married, had binoculars, but no car.  That area became Beaver Dick Park.

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

Most of my birding has been in Idaho, though after I retired we traveled to Mexico for three years, Central America (living in Guatemala) for two years, and Chile for three years, all on Church assignments.  We have toured China and Africa and Peru and Argentina.  My favorite spot in the world would be the Canopy Towers in Panama.  I added 75 species to my life list in just two days when we went there.

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

I guess all of the above.

What kind of birding equipment do you use? 

Binoculars.  Haven’t bought a spotting scope yet.  In recent years, since my upper register hearing has diminished, I use a “Song Finder” that digitizes high pitches and drops them down an octave.  But it’s frustrating having to learn sounds all over in a different range.

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

I make daily lists.  Partly to keep track of arrival and departure dates.  Starting in 1967 after living two years in Hawaii, my sons (the oldest was 12 then) and I started an annual “May Day.”  When we lived in Latin America they kept the tradition going.  This year will be our consecutive 44th Hunter’s May Day.

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

Whooping Crane.  I had always wanted to see one, and one spring I was driving to Preston and there one was alongside the road doing a little mating dance among some Sandhills.  It had a colored tag on it.  It was one of those raised by foster Sandhill Crane parents.  

For three years I worked with some graduate students from the University of Idaho on Sage Grouse studies on the Red Road west of St.  Anthony.  We kept track of those booming grounds, tagged birds, etc.  One evening driving to Victor, Idaho I saw some white flashes in a perhaps five acre patch of sage on the east side of the highway a half mile south of the Spud Outdoor Theatre.  This was probably the last vestige of Sage grouse activity in Teton County.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I like The Sibley Guide to Birds for its drawings of plumage variations.

Which books from your personal birding library would you recommend?  

I have several bird guides of the Princeton series for foreign species and some of the Oxford guides that have served me well.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background? 

BA in Biology from Ricks College, but no specific ornithology class.

In what was your career?

College English teacher by profession.

How did you make the transition from Biology to English?

I had a mentor and French teacher at Ricks, the year after I graduated.  I was teaching biology at Madison High School--and Algebra and Chemistry and applied science.  An opening came to be assistant librarian at Ricks.  I had worked my way through Ricks as a student librarian and was offered the job and went to Library School one summer, but my interest was more in teaching, so I took more English classes--some through continuing education--from my friend and after four years applied to graduate school at Utah State University.  We had four children by then.  I got my degree in English and came back to Ricks on the English Faculty where I stayed the rest of my career except for two years teaching in Hawaii and one as a visiting professor in creative writing at  BYU.

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?  

Not after meeting many who are much better than I.

What future birding plans do you have?  

A trip to Australia and New Zealand as a tourist, but not specifically aimed at birds.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations? 

Not anymore.  Too many organizations feel they have to be a political presence and I’d just as soon let those preferences be personal.

What is your nemesis bird?  

Screech Owl

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

I have eight children, including 6 sons.  One son is a better birder than I.

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

Probably a Dodo.  Then I would no longer be endangered.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?  

As an English teacher I know what an oxymoron is, so I can’t humbly brag.

Total life list?   1152

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?   Canopy Towers Panama


  1. Thanks for sharing! Nice life list. Lot's of fun getting those, I bet. I hope you don't mind if I use these questions for my small birding group in the East Kootenay's BC.

  2. @Atlasser KM - I'm flattered. Go for it!

  3. Wonderful interview. Amazing story about the whooping crane. I have yet to see one of those.

  4. I've always wondered how you became interested and so knowledgeable in birding... great interview.