Monday, May 3, 2010

Idaho Birder: Charles Swift

Charles Swift
Moscow, ID

How and when did you get your start in birding?

I started birding around 1975 when I was 14. My Mom is responsible for my initial interest in birds; she kept bird feeders and had a general interest in birds (not surprising as she is English). I was in Boy Scouts at the time and she encouraged me to pursue the bird study merit badge. She also got me a membership in the local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society.  In a chance conversation with a school friend I learned he was also a member and he encouraged me to come on an upcoming field trip. That field trip was to the Susquehanna Flats at the head of the Chesapeake Bay and I was immediately hooked and started going on field trips almost every weekend. The club had a junior birder program which helpmed me along and I was fortunate to have some great mentors who stoked my interest in birding as a teen. The 70’s were sort of a revolutionary time in birding so it was a great time to get into it. My birding interest waxed and waned over the years, I got back into it seriously when I moved to Michigan with my wife in 1993.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

The whole time I’ve been living in Moscow, about 12 1/2 years now. Before that I lived in Ann Arbor, MI for 4 years and I grew up in the Baltimore, MD area and lived there until I was 32 (1961 - 1993) and have been birding for about 36 years total.

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

It varies depending on season but I usually go birding 2-3 times a week - these days mostly just in 1 or 2 hour chunks but occasionally longer. Usually a morning or lunch time walk at some local spot and about once or twice a week for an hour or 2 drive w/ my 4 year old daughter (often napping but less so these days). My wife is a casual birder and likes outdoor activities so of course I am always looking for birds on family hikes and outings. Fairly frequent travel provides good opportunities for birding and I try to plan vacations with nearby birding opportunities. I also do a few Christmas Bird Counts and breeding bird surveys every year which gives me the chance for some longer forays into the field. I don’t do as much weekend birding as I have in the past but perhaps that will pick up in the future (depending somewhat on my daughter’s interests!). 

My favorite local spot is probably the U. of Idaho Arboretum complex (actually 2 adjacent arboretums) which I visit about 1-2 times per week depending on season. My east Moscow neighborhood can be pretty good in winter and also spring migration. I used to go down to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley fairly frequently (especially Mann Lake) but have not done that so much recently. There are several other locales around Moscow that I visit somewhat regularly. Other than that I like variety and exploring new spots when possible.

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

I like the idea of having a “local patch”, a spot that can be covered intensively through the year or at certain seasons. In Ann Arbor, MI there was a city park (Dolph Park) that I visited every morning during spring migration for several years and that is a sentimental favorite. In earlier years there were other parks near where I lived that I got to know well. As a teen and beginner I spent many hours looking at birds in an extensive woodlot behind my house on the northern edge of Baltimore City. Here in Moscow I have spent a lot of time birding at the UI Arboretum so I guess that is my current “local patch”. Mann Lake down near Lewiston has been a favorite but I don’t get down there much anymore. Elsewhere there are number of places in northern Idaho I really like and wish I had more time to visit – the Kootenai River valley in Boundary Co., the Weippe Prairie and N. Fork Clearwater country in Clearwater Co., the Elk City/Red River area in Idaho Co., are a few that come to mind. I also really like the McCall area and Cascade Res. in Valley Co. and wish I could get down there more often.

Further away I would say the Chesapeake Bay/Delmarva Peninsula is a sentimental favorite from my early birding days. In Michigan we really liked heading to the Upper Peninsula (UP) and had a particular fondness for Whitefish Pt. and the Sault Ste. Marie area of the eastern UP. I’ve been able to travel to Florida a fair amount (my wife has an annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale in spring) and like the Everglades and other southern FL spots. We enjoyed a memorable trip to the Dry Tortugas at the end of the FL Keys some years back. We also make an annual spring break trip to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in western Washington that I really enjoy. I have not been to Alaska, Texas, or Arizona but would really like to get to the birding hotspots in those states one of these days.

I haven’t done so much world traveling but did enjoy a great trip to Australia a few years back where we spent ~10 days in tropical Queensland (in the northeast of Australia) and was able to do quite a bit of birding there. I’d really like to get back there sometime as well as visit some of the new world tropics. There are of course many other world possibilities – Baja California (Mexico) is a place we’d like to visit in the near future.

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

I don’t have any secret hotspots although I suspect there are some yet to be discovered in Idaho. There are also many high quality locations that get very little attention, possibly due in part to travel or other logistical considerations. For example the central Idaho wilderness areas (Frank Church, Selway-Bitterroot, Gospel Hump, etc.) are really little explored for birds. I’ve been into some of these areas and the birding can be fantastic for high elevation species not to mention the sublime wilderness experience. I think the McCall area and Cascade Res. are under appreciated as birding locales. I suspect there are a few migrant traps yet to be discovered and there must be a couple decent hawk watches yet to be discovered in the central or northern mountains (again access is probably the biggest problem). A spot close to Moscow, Dworshak Reservoir, has a lot of potential but is difficult to access and really requires a boat to cover well. Another interesting possibility along these lines is fall “pelagic” boat trips on Lake Coeur d’Alene and/or Pend Oreille which I suspect could turn up species like jaegers and other interesting water birds.

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, both, or something else?

I’m definitely both a lister and watcher and most birders I’ve associated with over the years would fall into this category (although some would downplay their listing tendencies and others were obsessive listers!). They are complementary activities in my mind and one does not really become a lister without first being a watcher. My listing is done mostly with a local and regional perspective although I like adding ABA area and world lifers when possible. And as far as that goes I can’t claim to be particularly accomplished lister except that I’ve been fortunate to have lived in the east, the Midwest, and the western U.S.. Discovering eBird has really changed my perspective on listing and in fact has changed the way I go birding to a large extent (as has having a 4 year old so eBird came at a good time for me!). Recently I’ve gotten more interested in identification challenges, bird behavior, breeding bird distribution, etc. so I’m not always just focused on finding “good birds” when in the field.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I use Swarovski SLC 8X42 binoculars and a Nikon 60mm ED Fieldscope I (w/ 20X45x zoom) – both are about 15 years old and well used.  The scope is usually on a light weight Bogen tripod outfit which I prefer for most field use. I have a heavier tripod that would probably work better in many circumstances although I prefer the light weight one. The Swaros and Nikon seem like bargains compared to optic prices these days and I hope they last for a long time (I carry the bins around most of the time and occasionally have actual nightmares about having them stolen or lost.). The scope is not waterproof but has great optics (the later Fieldscope versions were water proof). I do some digiscoping w/ an older Canon P&S and also have a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 with 10X zoom which I’ve managed some decent bird photos with.  I wouldn’t mind upgrading the scope at some point and hope I can pass my Swaros along to my daughter some day!

I recently bought a dSLR (Pentax K-x) which I am playing around with and learning how to use. It's fun but I have a long way to go! If you are reading this during the first week in May I'm in Florida hopefully looking at Gray Kingbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and lots of others and  perhaps getting photos of a few of them. I'll let you know when I get back!

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

I use eBird exclusively now although I have used AviSys in the past and think it’s a very good product. I was attracted to eBird because I like the idea of having my bird records available to birders, biologists, etc. for a multitude of purposes not the least of which is conservation efforts. I also get a kick out of the possibility that in 100 years someone might be able to look up the birds I saw in the UI Arboretum on a particular day or through a season and compare them with what they are seeing. I keep notes in a small notebook almost constantly now when I’m in the field (including numbers of each species seen) then transfer them to eBird when I have a chance. eBird also does a great job of keeping track of various lists including year lists and it’s nice to see the tallies change over the year. eBird definitely has room to improve but I like what they are doing so far and the direction they are headed in. I may look into upgrading to the current version of AviSys which interfaces to eBird so I can move my old AviSys records to eBird (several tens of thousands records).

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

Only a few specific bird sighting comes to mind but many birding experiences do. Visiting seabird breeding rocks in Scotland; camping out at Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Torugas for 4 days; some fantastic migrant days at the UM Arboretum in Ann Arbor (20+ warbler species, 6 vireo species, etc.); watching a Gyrfalcon track down a merganser at Sault Ste. Marie, MI; just about any Snowy Owl and Great Gray Owl sightings I can think of; birding wilderness Virginia coastal barrier islands on Christmas Bird Counts; etc. Of course I can still remember sitting on my roof at home as a young teenager and getting excited about American Goldfinches in our backyard or the time Evening Grosbeaks showed up at our feeders!

Which birding publications, websites, blogs do you read and recommend?

Bird specific publications I get include Birding and North American Birds (ABA), Audubon Magazine, and American Bird Conservancy magazine (and a bunch of other conservation related publications not specifically focused on birds). I’d like to get Birder’s World, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and/or Living Bird from Cornell Lab but just don’t have time to read them. I follow a bunch of mostly regional birding email lists (Idaho, Oregon, WA), usually on Siler’s web site. I also like the ID Frontiers email list which I learn a lot from and the Birdchat list can be fun. I have recently gotten into blogs and subscribe to a number of them but don’t really have time to keep up with then all. I also have my own blog of sorts, birdapalousa (, which consists mostly of rehashed/embellished reports to our local listserv (inland-nw-birders). I update it as I have time which is not very often – perhaps in the future!

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

When I’m traveling in the west I take the Sibley Western Guide and when I’m traveling in the east the NGS. I don’t usually carry a guide in the field (except in foreign countries) but I consult the “Big Sibley” at home as necessary. If I’m going to look for a specific group (say gulls) I might take a more specialized guide or have the “Big Sibley” in the car. I used the NGS for many years until Sibley came out and as a beginner mostly used the Golden Guide although my Mom was partial to the Peterson (the author of the Golden Guide, Chan Robbins is a Maryland birding icon so many MD area birders used the Golden Guide back in those days).

What do you have in your home library birding reference set?

I have a fairly extensive set of field guides, specialty guides for specific bird groups, and bird finding guides for areas I’ve visited. My most used guides these days are the Western Sibley, the “big” Sibley, the NGS Guide, Ken Kaufman’s “Advanced Birding”, and a few of the group guides (mostly for raptors and waterbirds I’d guess). I also use Cornell’s Birds of North America (BNA) Online quite a bit these days and rely on other internet resources (for example many journal articles are now available online or as reprints from the authors). I also wanted to mention and recommend a few fun birding books I’ve read for enjoyment recently – “Kingbird Highway” by Ken Kaufman, “The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik (apparently now being made into a movie!), and “Tales of a Tribe” by Mark Crocker.  I’ve also been reading “Living on the Wind” by Scott Wiedensaul. All very enjoyable if you just can’t get enough of birds and birding!

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

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to take classes at the University of Idaho part time for about 8 years as an employee at the UI. This has included courses in ornithology, evolution, genetics, conservation biology, and a variety of ecology courses. This coursework has greatly enhanced my birding enjoyment and has helped me in understanding many of the current hot topics in birding, ornithology, and ecology. I’d strongly recommend to any birder some basic coursework or reading in ecology, genetics, and evolution. This can be done at a local college/university or through correspondence courses (for e.g. Cornell Lab.), or even just self-help reading. I’m hoping to finish a Masters Degree in the next couple of years with an ecology/environmental science focus.

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’m always happy to try to answer questions although I don’t consider myself to be an expert with any particular group. I’m probably fairly comfortable with the 250 or so most regular species in Idaho (and a bunch of eastern species I’ve had a lot of experience with not found in the west). I’m a pretty proficient ear birder and can identify most of the birds that I hear when I’m out in the field (although it can be hard to help w/ bird vocalization questions as they are hard to describe). To become really expert probably requires living in a more suitable location (probably on one of the coasts) and birding a lot more (or perhaps traveling a lot more) or working with a particular group extensively (many birders do seem to specialize these days). I think most expert birders work with birds day in and day out – for example wildlife biologists, birding tour guides, etc.

Any other thoughts on the past-time of birding?  What do your foresee in the future of birding?

I see mostly positive things for the future of birding although birds will probably be increasingly challenged with a burgeoning human population and threats such as climate change. I'm a bit concerned about what appears to be a trend of fewer younger birders; a trend which reflects diminished interest in outdoor activities in general among younger generations. Although birding is said to be growing, it appears the average age in the birding community is increasing.  This is quite a different situation from when I started birding though perhaps that is partly due to my being at the tail end of the baby boomers. This changing demographic may also mean fewer people advocating for birds and conservation in the future, loss of local knowledge, etc. I'm not sure if this is a real phenomenon or just an impression, but is worth keeping an eye on.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I’ve been involved with various organizations going back to my Maryland days where I was in the Maryland Ornithological Society for many years. More recently I was member and on the board of Washtenaw Audubon (MI) for several years, was the Field Trip chair for Palouse Audubon for ~6 years, and was co-president of Palouse Audubon for 2 years. I’m currently not involved in any groups – just too busy with a 4 year old at the moment! I’m also a long time member of the American Birding Assoc. and a recent member of the Western Field Ornithologists.

What is your nemesis bird?

White-winged Scoter and Snow Bunting are probably my 2 big nemesis birds for Idaho. I’m surprised I haven’t run across them in my 12 years in Idaho! These plus a few more of the regular (but tough) species such as Red-throated Loon, Parasitic Jaeger, Scott’s Oriole would get me up to 300 for the state.

What is your career?

I’m a database programmer/analyst in the Research Office at the University of Idaho. I work part time and take care of my 4 year old daughter part time. I’m hoping to point my career in a different direction within the next couple years and am slowly working on a Master’s degree. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing, possibly still in IT work but in the natural resources realm such as working with GIS (Geographical Information Systems). I’d love to be a professional biologists, birding guide, etc. but it may not be practical for my location and situation. Check back in a few years!

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

My wife, Deb Stenkamp, (a native Boisean) is a Biology Professor at the University of Idaho and studies vision - specifically retinal development and disease. My wife and I adopted our daughter Iris (now 4) from China in 2006 – she is the joy of our lives and is already showing some interest in nature and science. Although it would be great if she became a birder my main hope is she grows up to enjoy and appreciate nature and the outdoors.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?  Total life list? Most exotic place you’ve gone birding? Your mission in life as birder? Etc….

I started the inland northwest birders email list in 1998.  It’s one of fairly few birding email lists that cover an interstate region.  It has been fairly successful at bringing together birders from northern Idaho and eastern Washington, but there is still a strong pull of state listing - especially on the WA side! 

I started the current Lewiston-Clarkston CBC in 1999 and compiled it through 2006 after which I handed over the reins to Terry Gray. I’ve been the Idaho state Christmas Bird Count editor since 2003 and figure I’ve done close to 100 CBCs now in my birding career. I’m involved in eBird (as reviewer and hot spot editor), and have been a member of the Idaho Bird Records Committee since 2006.

I’m not sure exactly what my list totals are, but I suppose I should.  I’m closing in on 300 for Idaho, my ABA area list is somewhere in the low 500’s, and world list probably somewhere over 800 (outside the U.S. I’ve been to Europe a few times, Australia, Puerto Rico, as well as China and Hong Kong although I didn’t do much birding while there). I’ll sit down, get organized, and figure out my lists one of these days!

My eBird totals aren’t bad although I’m not sure I can keep up the pace! To date I’ve submitted 955 complete eBird checklists (1423 incl. imported and incomplete checklists) of 369 species for 402 locations in 7 states. Most of these are from the last 5 years - I got serious about eBird in 2006.  I now have 1100 total county ticks for Idaho and I’d like to get that up to 2000 in the next few years and eventually - if I live in Idaho long enough! - up to 4000.

As for my mission as a birder I guess first and foremost I go birding because it's really fun.  I love being outdoors and being active and enjoy the intellectual aspects of birding.  Birding keeps life interesting as there are always new things to learn, new places to explore, and new species to see as the season progress.  Birding is a great way to meet people, start conversations and just escape for an hour or two when life gets hectic. I feel fortunate to have such an interesting avocation.  I'm indebted to those who introduced me to it and mentored me as beginner and to those who have developed birding over the years. I hope I can continue to pay this back by sharing my interest and passion for birds with others, making a contribution to the greater birding community, and by being an advocate for the conservation of birds and their habitats.

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