Monday, September 6, 2010

Idaho Birder: Fred & Melly Zeillemaker

Melly & Fred Zeillemaker
13 miles north of Ola, Gem Co., Idaho

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”? 

I birded for the first time with a Carmichael (Sacramento), California, high school biology class.  I then alternated between butterflies and birds for a while, but birds eventually prevailed (although I got back into insects later).  The teacher was single, so she often took us on week-end field trips.  That lead to participating in the Sacramento Christmas Bird Count and other activities with Sacramento Audubon Society.  While taking natural history classes in Junior College, I obtained a banding permit and trapped wintering sparrows in my back yard.  While attending Humboldt State University as a wildlife management student, I banded shorebirds on tidal mudflats.  My first bird was American Robin.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

My first Idaho experience was in 1984, but Melly and I didn’t buy our northern Gem County place until 1986 (then living in Alaska). We visited our place a few times each year for the next nine years. I kept daily bird lists when here, so I’ve birded in Idaho for 24 years now.

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

When here, I bird daily on our 48+ acres (retired in 1995), including keeping daily lists of birds, other vertebrates, and many insects observed or heard.

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

If I could get there more often, I’d be tempted to say Camas NWR, but more realistically I’ll say Gem County (followed by Washington County).  In the US my favorite birding place is SE Arizona (followed by Texas).  In the world, its South America (followed by Central America, we’ve birded worldwide).

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

In Gem County, I’d say our place and surroundings. We’ve listed 186 species on or within 2 miles of our “refuge” so far. I think Crane Creek Reservoir in Washington County hosts several interesting wetland species during spring and fall migrations. That area is included in the “Idaho Birding Trail” guide (on page 77), but is rarely visited (except by us) due to isolation and bad roads.

Where in Idaho would you say is the most under-birded place that may have great untapped potential?
We have birded in all 44 Idaho counties, and many have unique birding opportunities that are under-birded (due, at least in part to the relatively few birders in Idaho), so I’ll pass on specifying any particular location.

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

I am “all of the above,” but weakest in the “chaser” category.  I’ve missed several potential Idaho birds due to resistance to traveling long distances only to learn “the bird left this morning.“

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

As I‘m a “consumer” of birding equipment (I don‘t treat it with the greatest of care), I haven’t opted for high end binoculars, spotting scope (with tripod), or camera.  My binoculars are a 10x40 model, my scope has a zoom eye-piece, and my point-and-shoot digital camera has an 18x zoom lens.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

Hand written daily entries on a computer generated monthly form and a spreadsheet that allows me to compare annual arrival and departure dates for each species.

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

While manager of Kauai National Wildlife Refuges in Hawaii in the mid-1970’s, I was able to observe, photograph, and voice record a pair of Kauai Oo‘s.  I was afforded the opportunity to be helicopter lifted to a remote camp deep in the Alakai Swamp by a FWS research colleague.  It’s my favorite because the species is now extinct.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I am a member of the American Birding Association, so read all ABA publications, including North American Birds (toward which I make quarterly reports).  My favorite birding website is (although I wish more of its features were active): Shirley’s Latilong maps are wonderful, as are Lew’s county Big Year listings, and the Idaho Bird Records Committee material.  I check rare bird websites, like for SE Arizona, when planning trips.  I really enjoy checking IBLE postings daily.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

The Sibley Guide to Birds (“big book” or Western edition) due to David’s exceptional artwork and the good number of illustrations for each species (Red-tailed Hawk, for example).

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

For our area, “Birds of the Inland Northwest and Northern Rockies” is a neat little book of excellent photos, the afore mentioned “Idaho Birding Trail“ finding guide, and Sibley “big” guide.  For North America, the National Geographic “Field Guide to the Birds of North America” is a very good back-up reference.  For world species I often refer to “The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World”.

Do you have any formal bird-related education in your background?

Yes, a BS degree in Wildlife Management with an emphasis on non-game species from Humboldt State University, Arcata, California.  That was followed by a 30 year career on National Wildlife Refuges (Montana, Oregon, Hawaii, Nebraska, and Alaska).

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 am reasonably comfortable with most families of North American birds, but wood-warblers in fall plumage are far from my strong suite!

What future birding plans do you have?

In March and April 2011 we will bird briefly in Trinidad (been there before) and extensively in Guyana (first time) in NE South America.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

Golden Eagle Audubon Society, Western Field Ornithologists, American Birding Association, and American Ornithologists Union only peripherally now due to our remote location and being truly retired! 

What is your nemesis bird? 

For Idaho: Black Rosy-Finch (three others close behind).  For the USA: Seaside sparrow.

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

Melly and I have been soul mates and birding buddies for nearly 45 years.  Our eldest daughter, husband and two sons reside in Payette and our youngest daughter, husband and two sons live near Omaha, Nebraska.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Being chest deep in mud in the Alakai Swamp, Hawaii, and immobile in more mud in the Imperial Marsh of south San Diego Bay still bring smiles to my face.

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

I sure enjoy hummingbirds.  They can easily pause to check out details while zooming around like miniature meteors with a sweet tooth.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

We haven’t birded Madagascar or Antarctica yet (humble enough?).

Total life list? 

World: 2693, AOU: 983, North America: 917, USA: 772, ABA: 702, Idaho: 290.

Most exotic place you've gone birding?

Namibia, Ecuador, Australia….. how do I choose?

Your mission in life as birder?

Share my passion with anyone interested in learning about birds, including my grandsons.  Our 14 year old Omaha grandson shows other visitors OUR birds when he visits each summer!


  1. Wonderful interview--thanks for sharing. It looks incredibly beautiful up there. I need to get over that way one of these days!

  2. Beautiful, amazing,... *sigh*
    What a place!

    And a very insightful interview (and impressive Life list :) )

    Glad your Grandson(s) have the passion for birding.
    Too few kids enjoy nature these days, I think.