Monday, April 5, 2010

Idaho Birder: Jim Lyons

Jim Lyons
Boise, Idaho

How and when did you first get involved in birding?

I was always interested in nature growing up in Western Oregon, but during college in the early 1970s, I had a fortunate confluence of interest and opportunity. A couple of new college friends from University of Oregon were birders, and I also got a summer job doing mosquito control, where I had a lot of time outdoors and could get beyond more than just the few basic species I'd grown up knowing. Later, right as college ended, a trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge really got me along with my wife, Marcia, going on the hobby/sport. Then later that summer I remember finding a Water (now American) Pipit as my 100th life bird, and that inspired me even more to push on.

What did you study at University of Oregon?

I was a "Quantitative Methods" major at UofO -- part of the Accounting department in the College of Business Administration. In the early '70s I was a bit of a freak (among freaks) being a business major! I'm currently on the Business Faculty of University of Phoenix. Btw, and my students often ask, "What is QM?" The answer, basically, is statistics.

Ducks or Broncos now?

The Duck loyalty is long gone! I'm Broncos all the way. It helps to have our son as a senior there (chip off the old block, an Accounting major). But have been going to the games for a long time, and also made it to a number of bowl games, including the recent Fiesta Bowl. A true loyalty test? Our neighbors (also UofO alums) invited us to a Duck-oriented viewing party for last September's game, and we didn't even consider it!
Did you or do you have a birding mentor and can you tell us about that person?

The couple of guys in college, as mentioned, but later, Harry Nehls in Portland and Charlie Smith at Cornell were both amazing birders, and though I didn't spend all that much time in the field with either one of them, they come to mind as inspirations. After moving to Idaho, Al and Hilda Larson were tremendously welcoming and of course, very knowledgeable. And my work colleague, Scott Tuthill, became a close friend and birding companion. My wife and I went from being his birding mentor to him far surpassing us in birding abilities, travels, etc.
How long have you been birding in Idaho?

Since moving here, in 1981.
How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?

After our first few years in Idaho, when I was both a regular local birder and also took advantage of business travel to seek new species, my wife and I started a family, and while the occasional Malheur trip got squeezed into the itinerary, it was mostly kid-related activities for a long time to come. So we're now empty nesters (no pun intended), but I'm still just a very part-time, opportunistic birder to this day.
Where is your favorite place to bird in Idaho? In the U.S.? in the world?

I enjoy the downtown Boise parks (I think my birding buddy Scott Tuthill has already mentioned that), and my neighborhood, Boise's North End, always seems to have a surprise or two. I've mentioned Malheur, and I love birding the Pacific coast, as well. Scott and I had a less-than-culminated trip to Adak, Alaska several years back that I consider "unfinished business", but the birding on the Kenai Peninsula and the Anchorage area itself was great.

So what exactly happened at Adak?

After arriving in Anchorage in May 2004, Scott Tuthill and I had our (scheduled twice weekly) Adak flight canceled (where we were set to join a tour), so birded Anchorage and Kenai (Homer) for a couple of days before heading home. The unfinished business is that I'd like to get to Adak eventually.
Do you have any local birding hotspots that may be yet unknown to Idaho birders that you would be willing to share with us?

See above. I’m looking for one near Barber Park for a walk I’m leading in June, if anyone has ideas for me!
How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, all of the above, or something else?

Not sure how to answer, as I don't mind the sport of keeping a list, but am hardly fanatical about it. One downside of having been birding almost 40 years is the lists (taxonomy) have changed on me so I'm never quite sure how many I currently have from the old life lists. I most enjoy "knowing my birds", including their behavior and role in the overall ecosystem, beyond just identification, so what does that make me?
What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I had an ancient pair of Swift Audubons that finally gave it up a couple of years back, so we're just going on a couple of pairs of $100 Nikons. I haven't had an actively working scope in some time, but I also haven't been in the situation to need one much lately either. I have an iPod (iPhone actually) full of bird songs, as well, and have been playing with the BirdsEye iPhone app since getting it at Christmas time.
How do you keep track of your bird observations? And why?

I went from paper to spreadsheet a long time ago, but that's just for simple life-list-type recording. I am an active (daily) personal journaler though, so often throw in short bird-related accounts as part of that. I've never been the inveterate note-taker, though.
What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?

Along with Scott Tuthill, I did the CBC for about 20 years, and always birded Boise’s central parks area. Early on, we kicked up a Green Heron two years in a row (in different spots) and as it's a bird I was quite familiar with from Western Oregon, I didn't realize it was quite such a big deal for around here. Not an extreme rarity, but a good one. And then there was the Magnificient Frigatebird flying over the Doubletree Riverside hotel while I was on my morning commute to HP, after very stormy weather one May -- but it's the one that got away as I was never 100% sure.
Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

IBLE is a regular, daily habit that I've enjoyed immensely the last couple of years. And your blog of course -- as a blogger myself, I am very impressed! (Check out Jim's "geeky" printer and tech blog here: You can also follow Jim's Tweets by clicking here)
Which is your favorite field guide and why?

Sibley. See below.

Which books from your personal birding library would you recommend?

Recent good reads include Of a Feather and The Big YearLong ago, I was a fan and follower of the legendary Lane Guides, but I'm not sure what their status is today. (Google searches lead me to believe that the Lane Guide Series was absorbed into the American Birding Association publications)

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

After taking their correspondence course, I took a week in Field Ornithology at Cornell in about 1977, which was excellent. I ended up back at Cornell, from 1979-1981, earning my MBA, so my connections made at the Lab of Ornithology during my week in '77 helped me get a part-time job there, and while it didn't involve classes, the people I rubbed shoulders with there were incredible, and very inspiring – see below.
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 do get quite a few questions, and love to help people increase their interest in birds. Having done my birding apprenticeship in Western Oregon (plus the University of Oregon connection), I would say waterfowl would be what I'd consider a specialty, as least as far as basic identification.
What future birding plans do you have?

I hope to get to Malheur this May. Also, I was intrigued by the recent blog post (highlighted in IBLE) about the Oregon pelagic trips, via cruise ship repositioning routes. That would combine two loves! (Interesting that some of the birders mentioned in that 2009 piece were birding acquaintences from the 1970s, though they're still way ahead of me with Oregon county/year pelagic lists!) And I already mentioned another Adak try some day.
Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

Not really right now. I enjoyed an active role with Audubon in the past that I would like to rekindle one of these days.
What is your nemesis bird? (click on bird name for eBird map of recent sightings)

Mountain Quail, Snowy Owl, and Least Bittern, locally/regionally, and Green Kingfisher, nationally.
Anything about your family you’d like to share with us?

Out of three grown children one shows the possibility for becoming a serious birder, but I think all three definitely benefited from our family's birding and nature interests.
Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

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

I’ve always greatly admired the Great Blue Heron (aka Shy-poke from my earliest memories), but don’t know if that’s a personal connection or not!
Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

My time at Cornell was truly a fortunate experience.

As mentioned earlier, I ended up working in the business office at the Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO) for a couple of years in 1980 and 1981 during my MBA studies, and as an active and interested birder with a taste for history, it was a dream come true.

The people who passed through there that I had a chance to meet were an amazing lot. A few who come to mind include Chandler Robbins, author of the Golden Field Guide; Olin Sewell Pettingill Jr, a former Lab director; Steve Kress, of Puffin reintroduction fame; and the late Ted Parker, legendary Latin American ornithologist. I never had the chance to meet Roger Tory Peterson, though I was involved in a Marketing promotion around his re-released Eastern Field Guide in 1981, and traveled to Boston with the Director of the CLO Library of Natural Sounds to negotiate the revision of the companion birdsongs record with Houghton-Mifflin. It was just a record and cassette tapes, back then, but I recall speculating with HM's editor about the coming age of digital and a futuristic vision of how someday we'd have randomly accessible song-and-picture technology. Imagine!

One of my favorite stories about people I met has more significance in retrospect, though. There was a teenager who hung around the Lab a bit, and the staffers let me know that despite his youth, he knew his birds and was an up-and-comer. Also, his father was very well known and a highly respected ornithology professor at Yale. I’m glad I remembered the “kid’s” name – David Sibley.

The Lab had a wonderful staff, many of whom I got to know well. The nearly retired maintenance man had great stories that went all the way back to "Doc" Allen (Arthur A. Allen, the founder of the CLO), including a captive swan's well-placed (and below-the-belt) "peck" that put "Doc" out of commission for a few days. Some might remember that the Peregrine Fund originated at Cornell (before moving to Boise in the 1980s, a couple of years after I did), and was based there at the time, and I had numerous private tours of the Hawk Barn. My desk was situated by a window overlooking the well-stocked feeders and famed pond, with its piped-in sounds, and a frequent break activity was a quick bird walk through Sapsucker Woods. In the building we were surrounded by Louis Agassiz Fuertes artwork, and some of the exhibits I remember included the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker display featured in the beginning of the book, The Grail Bird.

Thinking back on it, it was a little like having been the clubhouse boy for the New York Yankees!

Total life list?

Just over 500, North America. That was about 475 my first five years of serious birding, and slow going ever since!

Most exotic place you've gone birding?

Most of the hot spots in Texas and the Western US (and a few in the East, like Cape May, NJ and Florida), a little tropical birding in Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama, and some great days in Alaska, even though we didn't make it to Adak.
Your mission in life as birder?

Keep active and continue to enjoy the birds. 

1 comment:

  1. I always truly enjoy reading the interviews. So many birders, so little time!

    As an aside, I couldn't help but chuckle when I read the GBH nickname "Shy Poke". As a kid, I snickered when I came upon the listing in Webster's dictionary, which I won't repeat here in this family-oriented blog ... but it might sound like a Scotsman saying "Shy Poke".

    The GBH is often seen poking about in stinky, sulfurous mudflats ... so you can fill in the rest for yourself.