Monday, June 7, 2010

Idaho Birder: Leon Powers

Leon Powers
Nampa, ID

What can you tell us about your forthcoming book?

            The Forgotten Expedition is the true story of the most fascinating Idaho pioneer scientific expedition you’ve never heard of. That is, a previously unreported 1907 biological expedition in a horse-drawn wagon from Robie Creek through the back country of Idaho City, Centerville, Placerville, Horseshoe Bend, and north to Payette Lake – collecting birds all along the way. Many of the 153 birds, 35 mammals and 22 sets of bird eggs collected were from the area of present-day Ponderosa State Park. If you’d enjoy a peek at Idaho’s wildlife 103 years ago, The Forgotten Expedition provides that and much more. For me, playing history detective to sleuth out the phantom-like lost records of this old, forgotten trek was an adventure in itself!

(Please visit for more info on his books.  I've read and reviewed Dead Owls Flying, and I can't wait to read his others.)

How did you become “Doc Hawk” with the Boy Scout’s Boy’s Life magazine?

Newly retired and growing increasingly disturbed by the huge disconnect between today’s youth and nature (the “nature deficit syndrome”), I was seeking a means by which I might communicate to young people my own passion about nature and wildlife adventures. Recalling how my love of nature was partly inspired by my boyhood involvement in Boy Scouts, and, also noting a comment by Edward O. Wilson that we need more youth organizations like Boy & Girl Scouts to foster care for our ailing environment, I wrote the editor of Boys’ Life and inquired about their possible interest in some of my wildlife/nature stories. The editor was receptive, and when I sent in sample stories, he liked them well enough to invite me to become a regular contributor with some sort of appropriate moniker. We soon agreed on “Doc Hawk”. Naturally, I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to occasionally address nearly 6 million readers with my stories.

Any upcoming speaking engagements where Idaho birders may come to learn more?

In the final push to complete the writing and publication of my new book, I’ve not yet set up any speaking/Book signing engagements for the coming months. But rest assured that early this summer, with my new book in hand, I’ll be enlisting opportunities to acquaint the public with the Idaho’s forgotten expedition of 1907! (Visit for updates)

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 childhood I’ve been fascinated by wildlife.  Growing up on the creek banks along Canyon Creek at the edge of Glenns Ferry, Idaho (lived there form age 3 to college years) no doubt fostered that interest.  Regrettably, I had no mentor in my youth to nurture that interest. Instead, my childhood friend and I would sit and draw pictures of birds out of his huge old bird book.  I do recall the magical spell baby owls seemed to cast on my young mind as I viewed N. Saw-whet, Long-eared and Great Horned Owl “branchers” among the creek bank willows.
How long have you been birding in Idaho?

I’ve been noticing birds in Idaho since childhood, but as an “informed” birder (with some training – after taking an Ornithology class), since 1963.

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

As in my youth I’m still “noticing” birds all the time (around my yard & neighborhood; driving about (examples: saw a Cooper’s Hawk flying overhead at my Niece’s outdoor Wedding [no one else noticed], saw a Merlin flying overhead at my mother-in-law’s graveside service [no one else noticed]). “Birding”? I don’t much care for the term. However, I am an incurable watcher of wildlife (not just birds). I prefer the term “look-about” (noticing all wildlife).

Where is your favorite place to "notice birds" in Idaho? In the U.S.? in the world?

(Idaho) My favorite “look-about” trek is a mid-June travel from Montour Wildlife Management Area to Sweet, Ola, up the Ola grade, through High Valley and down to Smiths Ferry (including the pond on the east side of the Smiths Ferry bridge over the Payette River).

(U.S.) I haven’t birded widely in the U.S. but I have many fond memories birding Malheur NWR in Oregon.

(World) Australia still captures my fancy for birds and wildlife.

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

As many avid birders as there are these days, I can’t think of any places that have not already been discovered and visited by birders (but note the response below on the next question).

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

The Sublett Mountains of southcentral Idaho (SE of Burley, 30 miles or so), where I did 7 summers of Flammulated Owl research (my book #4, which I’ve already begun). In all those years of field work there, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone else in the area looking at birds (outside of my own group). I think it is one of Idaho’s best kept secrets.

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

As discussed above, I am a “watcher” who occasionally keeps lists of birds if it serves some useful purpose.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

Not being wealthy nor concerned about the latest and greatest gadgetry, my equipment is minimal but adequate (10X50 Nikon binoculars, camera w/ telephoto, couple bird guides, and a borrowed spotting scope (Bausch & Lomb Discoverer Zoom). Oh…and a knapsack on my back!

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

For many years I collected data in various technical ways for research projects. But basically, I simply pen lists and notes (behavioral, ecological) that interest me. Those notes lie around in files and in old, beat-up field journals. I keep these incidental notes to satisfy my curiosity – remember…I am a curious watcher. 

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

One June day while strolling the creek banks of Canyon Creek north of Glenns Ferry, I noticed an unusual bird that I didn’t immediately recognize.  I soon figured out that it was a beautiful male Blue Grosbeak singing and courting a nearby female. Being several hundred miles north of its known breeding range, that bird sparked a quest that sent me muddling into a professional arena I knew nothing about. Curious, I did my first ever exhaustive literature search (in those days the hard way – without the crutch of the internet). My findings prompted my return to the same spot a year later, where I again found the birds, way out of their range. That led to a contact with Richard C. Banks of the U.S, National Museum, Wash, D.C., who put me in touch with Alexander Wetmore of the Smithsonian Institute, who verified my sightings for Thomas D. Burleigh (who wanted the info for his upcoming Birds of Idaho). Eventually, that led to my first scientific publication, which in turn led me to Dr. Chuck Trost at Idaho State University, resulting in my becoming a Ph.D. graduate student under his tutelage. So…you can see how that vagabond Blue Grosbeak coincidentally kick-started the launching of my career.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I poke into Birding and  Audubon some; don’t visit websites much (I’m not addicted to the internet), except to read newsletters from local birding groups (SWIBA & Golden Eagle Chapter). Now that I’m aware of this Birder’s Profile website, I’ll be a regular visitor – I do enjoy reading about other bird enthusiasts (some whom I already know).

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

National Geographic’s Field Guide to North America & National Audubon’s the Sibley Guide to birds seems to serve my “non-rabid” observational needs – both have good illustrations and useful maps.

Beside the books you have authored, which five must-read books from your personal birding library would you recommend?

I don’t often seek out “birding” books per se, although I own and have read from Pete Dunne (good writer), Kenn Kaufman, etc. – rather, I like to read and re-read writings of several favorite authors (for their writing style and rich and timeless content): Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, about anything E.O. Wilson writes, Hal Borland’s Sundial of the Seasons, Scott Weidensaul’s Of a Feather, and Robert Michael Pyle’s Wintergreen and Sky Time in Gray’s River.  I still like Dayton O. Hyde’s Don Coyote. These writers help to place one’s finger on the pulse of the landscape.

What future plans birding or otherwise do you have?

No big plans…if I go somewhere, I’ll be watching. I’ll probably do a number of local Idaho trips with my grandson Wesley, who is my “little naturalist” side-kick. 

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I used to belong to the big professional ornithological organizations (Cooper’s, A.O.U., Raptor Research, etc.) but now stick mainly with the SWIBA and Golden Eagle Audubon Chapter.

What is your nemesis bird?

Long ago, the Great Gray Owl fit that category, but anymore I don’t really think much about such a bird, I’m content to take what new birds come my way.  Now, there more of a anticipation of the next “serendipity” bird – the unexpected surprise. Plus, I find too much intrigue and pleasure in simply enjoying the “regulars”, to chase after new or exotic birds. 

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

I have young grand children who I enjoy immensely – we do lots of outdoor activities together. I don’t rub their noses in it…but we have lots of fun NOTICING the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers, snakes, frogs, lizards, etc. etc.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Hmmm…you’ll have to read my books to learn those! :o)

Anything else that you would like share with us?

I just taught (with my colleagues, Tim & Erica Craig) our 28th summer Birds of Prey class at Northwest Nazarene University (6-day, all day-long part lecture, part field trip combo). This class predates the World Center for Birds of Prey and the BSU Raptor Biology Program. (Where were you in 1983, when we first taught this class?)

Total life list?

I don’t know, but I keep thinking that since I am now retired (more or less), I will dig out my records and total-up the list.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

I’ve enjoyed three visits to various parts of Australia…and would love to go back one day soon. 

Your mission in life as a birder?

Help others learn about nature and to look around. The more we learn, the more we see (with understanding and appreciation).  Thus, I encourage learning and looking around. Hopefully, that lets us live in the moment and maximizes our daily experience.


  1. Leon Powers sounds like an awesome naturalist . . . someone I would love to go "look-abouting" with :)

    I'm going to have to read his books now!!

  2. What an interesting interview! I, too, am interested in his book. Nice photo of him. Did you take it?