Monday, May 24, 2010

Idaho Birder: Jack Whitman

Jackson Whitman
a couple miles out of Tendoy, Idaho
population - 1

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

My father, LeRoy Whitman was, and still is, an avid birder in McCall. The old saying, “the nut doesn’t fall too far from the tree” has some bearing here. Throughout the 1970s, I worked various jobs for the Idaho Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Idaho, notably in 1971, for golden eagle biologist Mike Kochert. That began my lifelong career as a naturalist, specializing in predator/prey relationships, and further kindled an interest in birding.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?    

First got serious about Idaho birds in 1970. Appears that makes it about 40 years. However, I migrated north with the snow buntings in spring 1980 where I spent 27 years working with predators in Alaska and the Russian Far East. Did very little Idaho birding again until 2008, when I retired from Alaska Department of Fish and Game and returned to Idaho.

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

I bird every day. Whether it’s monitoring the kestrel boxes at my house, making sure the feeders are sufficiently provisioned, late-night owl surveys, or a concerted birding effort on a local back-road drive, I bird 365 days of the year. Whether or not those records go into eBird depends largely on how rigorous the data were collected.

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

I have no favorite place in which to bird. To me, each hour, each 10 meters of trail, each kilometer of road is unique. I suspect that is what keeps me birding.

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

Actually, I don’t. I encourage birders to spend time in their own respective “back yards”. To me, birding is more than simply penciling in an “X” in the appropriate spot. I encourage people to get to know, intimately, their local surroundings. The mundane American robins and dark-eyed juncos are fascinating subjects if one takes the time to watch, listen, and actually “see” what they are doing.

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

Alpine and sub-alpine habitats in the Sawtooth, White-Cloud, Lost River, Pahsimeroi, Lemhi, and Beaverhead Ranges.

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

Never really thought about it, but I would venture an “ethno-detailer” would summarize my meager involvement in birding.

What kind of birding equipment do you use? 

10X binoculars, 25X (30-yr-old) spotting scope, POS digital camera, lasik-enhanced eyeballs, 18” parabolic dish with headphones, microcassette recorder, good Brittany spaniel.

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

In the field, I use a microcassette recorder. Then, recorded observations are transferred to lists which are stored in loose-leaf notebooks. To allow greater use of those records by other interested parties, I use eBird, as well as multiple Excel spreadsheets.

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

Currently, my wife Lisa is a relative neophyte birder (and will probably pass my abilities soon). Showing her “new” species, and discussing their intricacies and ecological nuances always produces cherished memories.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I religiously peruse a variety of “hard science” publications for bird information, as well as periodically submit manuscripts. Notably Journal of Raptor Research, Northwest Science, Northwest Naturalist, Canadian Field-Naturalist, The Auk, and Condor.

Which is your favorite field guide and why? 

Currently, for Idaho birding, I use National Geographic Birds of North America, as I like the detail. Unfortunately, not too handy in the pocket, however.

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

Only five? That’s a hard cut to make.  In no particular order of importance, I’ll list (1) Paul Johnsgard’s “North American Owls: Biology and Natural History”, (2) Heimo Mikkola’s “Owls of Europe”, (3) Oldie but goldie, David Lack’s “Population Studies of Birds”, (4) Jerry Liguori’s “Hawks From Every Angle”, and (5) Paul Bannick’s “The Owl and the Woodpecker

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

Undergrad and Graduate degrees from University of Idaho in Wildlife Resources. More pertinent, 40 years of research and management experience from SHK (School of Hard Knocks).

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? 

Raptors (Accipitridae, Falconidae, Tytonidae, Strigidae).

What future birding plans do you have?

Not too exciting; I plan to continue monitoring (in a decidedly modest way) avian populations in Idaho; specifically Lemhi County. I would like to continue research efforts in Idaho on cavity-nesting owls, especially boreals. Hopefully, will spend considerable more time in Far Eastern Russia as well.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?  

Other than the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology through eBird, no.

What is your nemesis bird?    

Upupa epops in Asia, Bluethroat in Alaska, Virginia Rail in Idaho.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Birding with my wife (who is a relative neophyte birder) is constantly a kick. She’s becoming a veritable “twitcher”, but often has her own, personalized names for many of the species. Other, more refined birders wouldn’t have a clue, but our birder language is clear to the two of us.

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

I suspect Eskimo Curlew, simply because very few people have seen me since about 1965.

Total life list?  374

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

Spent a year in the taiga of Far Eastern Russia with the ticks and tigers. Very interesting…

Your mission in life as birder?           

Continue pecking away.

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