Monday, May 10, 2010

Idaho Birder: Reid & Nancy Miller

Reid & Nancy Miller
Viola, Idaho

(Photo above by Ray & Bettie Hoff at Rancho Naturalista in Costa Rica.)

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”?  

Since we were married we have owned a birding guide and from time to time tried to identify some of the interesting birds we saw, but we really got into birding in a more serious way while spending four months in College Station, Texas, in early 1991.  We accompanied the local Audubon Society on field trips with local experts and started birding on our own at some great sites, like Anahuac, Boy Scout Woods, Aransas, etc.  The field trip leaders were our first mentors, and they gave us the tools to get really excited about birding.  When we left Texas, we went to Denmark for two months and really enjoyed birding there, as nearly every bird we saw was a new one for us. Charles Swift here in Moscow and John Hirth in Arizona (formerly an Idaho neighbor) have helped us in many ways. Also being with some excellent birding guides has made us more aware of how to listen and how to spot birds in unfamiliar places.  Finally, two international students that we came to know and bird with, Morten from Denmark and Alli from Iceland, influenced us by their outstanding birding capabilities.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?  

Casually since we moved to the Pullman/Moscow area in 1984, and more intensely since we built our home on Moscow Mountain near Viola in 1992.

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

We bird every day from our windows at our home in the country.  We have fruit trees and flowers that attract birds, and Nancy feeds birds much of the year.  We participate regularly in Palouse Audubon Society and Canyon Birders field trips, and we bird other parts of Idaho and all over the world as part of our travels in retirement.

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

Other than the area near our home, I don’t know that we have a favorite place in Idaho.  There are so many fun places to go.  Our visits to our sons in Tempe, AZ, and Tacoma, WA, take us regularly to two of our favorite birding areas in the U.S.  Some of the special places are Catalina and Patagonia Lake State Parks in Arizona, and Nisqually NWR in Washington.  We have birded extensively in Western Australia on three extended stays in Perth, from Fitzgerald River NP in the south to the Broome Bird Observatory in the north, and many places in between.  We have been members of Birds Australia, Western Australia Chapter, since 1999.  We have birded in Queensland on a side trip, as well as in New Zealand on two different occasions.  We have also birded in Argentina and Chile in South America, although birding was not the primary purpose of the trip.  This year, we were fortunate enough to spend three weeks in Costa Rica, almost exclusively birding.  These have all been fantastic birding places for us.  How could one choose a favorite among them?

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

We enjoy looking for birds when we camp on the St. Joe River and on Kelly Creek – often seeing an unexpected warbler, woodpecker, hummingbird or merganser.

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

All of Northern Idaho would qualify and maybe the entire state.  We seldom see other birders when we are out, whether it is in city parks in Boise or Lewiston, or in the wilds of our forests and mountains.  Look on any page in “A Birder’s Guide to Idaho” and you will likely find an under-birded place!  We recently birded three sites near Pocatello, the Idaho State Fish Hatchery at the American Falls Dam one day, Springfield Ponds and McTucker Springs the next, and Kinney Creek the day after that.  Not another birder was seen.  It was during the week and still early spring.  Many of the expected customers showed up, as well as a few unexpected ones.

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

At home we are watchers mostly, but we do like to travel and see new places and new birds.  Our trips to both Queensland and Costa Rica were examples of a very comfortable way for us to travel for birding.  We arranged the trips to stay at lodges for several days each, using excellent local birding guides whenever possible.  This gave us a chance to become more familiar with the localities, the people, and the local birds, as well as to do some birding on our own.  It takes a bit more work to arrange on the front end, compared with a pre-planned trip with a single guide, but with the Internet it is really not that difficult, and we think the benefits more than outweigh the time spent.  Also, the trip can be at least partially customized on the fly to better match local conditions and opportunities.

What kind of birding equipment do you use? 

Reid uses 10-power Nikon binoculars and Nancy uses 8 power Leupold binoculars. We have two scopes: a 20-60X Kowa scope for long-distance viewing and a 15-45X Eagle Optics Denali lightweight scope for hiking and traveling light.  Both have proved to be excellent choices to meet our varied needs.  Reid takes some digiscope pictures using the Kowa scope, his home-made adapter, and a small point-and-shoot Pentax digital camera.  Nancy takes digital bird photos using her Nikon D40.

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

In the past Nancy used Project Feeder Watch to record home observations.  We have hand-written lists in notebooks, first observation notes in guide books, and Excel worksheets for older trips.  Nancy has been using eBird to record both local and recent trip observations but hasn’t begun to load previous years’ data.  We have a combined life list in MS Word for North America.  Reid has published a book based on his hunting and fishing journals, and he has written up several of our birding adventures, which he may publish in the future. Nancy has uploaded many recent birding photos into Flickr – especially unusual sightings and many of the photos from the Costa Rican trip. (Reid's Flickr)

Reid has kept journals for years, usually writing down the details of a trip or keeping a diary daily – then he has written the stories up more carefully from his notes. He put a number of fishing (various places in the world) and hunting (mostly Wyoming) stories together this past year and self-published with If you search ‘All Products’ for ‘Reid C. Miller’ you would find it on . He mostly did it for family and friends although it has found a bit wider circulation.

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

One of our favorite bird sightings was the Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, which we saw while birding with our guide Marino Chacon near Savegre Mountain Lodge.  We regularly see Northern Pygmy Owls at our home near Viola, so we had hoped to see its Costa Rican relative on our trip.  We were with three other couples, and Marino took all of us in his Land Rover up into the cloud forest to try to see this rather uncommon endemic and other birds.  He parked near the nest tree, but there appeared to be no one at home in the hollow high above the ground.  Marino led us off on a trail to spot other birds, but he soon yelled to us, “The owls are coming! The owls are coming!  See the small birds all excited up there.  Hurry, everyone back to the nest tree!”  Out of breath (at over 7000 feet), we no sooner made it back, when one of the owls flew in and perched on a branch just above us and started calling its mate, a series of regular whistled notes.  It then popped into the hole, stuck its head back out and continued calling its mate in.  Soon, the mate appeared, and we had fantastic views of these great little owls through our binocs and scope.  You could see the throat contractions as the call was made.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend? 

We get Audubon Magazine, Living Bird (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) and Wingspan (Birds Australia), all of which are excellent.  We use the Cornell web sites regularly (eBird and Birds of North America Online), in addition to accessing many specific sites for equipment, photos, lodges, guides, etc.   In Australia the Birds Australia website is very informative.

Which is your favorite field guide and why? 

For the U.S., we use Sibley most often, but also National Geographic – range maps, good descriptions and drawings are a must.  For Costa Rica, the new guide by Garrigues and Dean is excellent.  For Australia, we have mostly used Simpson and Day, but the final word is Pizzey and Knight, even though the format is a bit large for a field guide.

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

1. “How to Attract, House and Feed Birds” by Schultz   
2. “The Idaho Bird Guide” by Svingen and Dumroese   
3. “The Birder’s Handbook” by Ehrlich et al.   
4. “The Snoring Bird” by Bernd Heinrich   
5. “A Guide to Bird Finding in Washington” by Wahl and Paulson.

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

None – Reid studied chemical engineering and Nancy math and computer programming.

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? 

No, we are generalists, but probably best at waterfowl, woodpeckers and small birds of the forest.

What future birding plans do you have? 

We have hosted a number of international students and colleagues over the years and enjoy traveling to visit them, their countries and families.  We still have many places on our to-do list, including Thailand and Iceland, as well as Tasmania in Australia

What is your nemesis bird? 

The Great Gray Owl for Reid, Mountain Quail for Nancy.

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

Although we really didn’t bird very much when our boys were younger, they both enjoy birding with us now. We’ve started to introduce our two-year old grandson to the birds in his Arizona backyard and will help him learn about some of the birds here on Moscow Mountain this summer.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us? 

Once while Reid was at a conference in New Orleans, another attendee’s spouse and Nancy went out into a nearby bayou to bird. they were enjoying the various herons, etc., when suddenly a large alligator flopped into the water with a loud splash very close-by. It was nerve-wracking for the two gals but would have been a funny sight to observe as they tripped over each other to move to safer ground.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about? 

On our travels we haven’t just wanted to be shown birds but have studied about them both before (Reid) and after (Nancy) to become much more familiar with them.

Most exotic place you've gone birding? 

In southern Chile, Reid was primarily fly-fishing, but we rented a car one day and drove towards the Argentina-Chile border. We were in sight of the border guard building, the cold wind was howling over the flat plains, and we looked out onto ephemeral wetlands only to see Chilean Flamingos feeding in the shallow waters. Reid nearly froze trying to digiscope these beautiful birds. On the same trip we saw Upland and Ashy-headed Geese and had an Andean Condor fly directly over us (but couldn’t get our camera out before it disappeared)

Your mission in life as birder? 

To keep birding and learning, especially to become more familiar with individual bird species and their songs and characteristics.


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  2. Very nice interview. I find it interesting that they have some of the same favorite birding places as me: Patagonia, AZ and Nisqually NWR in Washington! I live near the former and have visited the latter only one time but would go back in a heartbeat! I am so glad to see people who are eBirding Idaho!