Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Idaho Birder Profile: John Shortis

John Shortis
Horseshoe Bend, 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 can’t remember a time when I wasn’t birding, I must have been about 8 when I started. I can’t think of a bird mentor that I actually went birding with, apart from the British ornithologist David Hunt who was an expert in the UK on sea and shorebirds in particular. He used to organize birding tours on the Scilly Isles (off the south-west coast of England), and I was on one of those around 1980. When I was a boy there are 2 people I can remember most. Peter Scott (the son of the Antarctic explorer) who at the time was the most famous birder in Britain. Apart from being a broadcaster more than a field-guide writer, I guess he was the UK equivalent of Roger Tory Peterson. The other was James Fisher, who co-wrote the book “Wild America” with Peterson. Later I would say there are two people who inspired me most, Tony Soper, a British ornithologist who broadcast on TV a lot and has also written many books, and David Attenborough, to me the ultimate British Icon. Though not a birder as such, his enthusiasm as a naturalist is amazing and inspiring, and still is today at 84 years old. His TV Natural History Life of Birds is fabulous, but then of course all of his TV shows are. I don’t remember having a “spark bird”, it’s too long ago!

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

Well apart from 2 trips here in 2001 & 2005, since we moved here from England at the end of 2005.

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

Not nearly often enough. Walking the dogs 3-4 times a week is always an opportunity, but I rarely get out on my own more than once a month, although I do attend as many field trips as I can with both SIBA and GEAS. There is excellent birding around Horseshoe Bend where I live, I try to visit Avimor at least once a week on my way to work in Boise. Other than that, there is Harris Creek & Shafer Creek Rds between Horseshoe Bend & Placerville and Montour Wetlands.

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

Well apart from my own backyard (60 species), one of my favourites in Idaho has to be Camas Prairie NWR, I was overwhelmed on my 1st visit there, I had never seen such a concentration of so many different birds in one place. In Idaho, I have only birded in the SW, as far north as Warren. Outside Idaho, the only places in the US I’ve birded are the Oregon coast and Puget Sound, Seattle. The UK is one of the best countries in the world for birding, because of its position near continental Europe, the Atlantic, and the first landfall due south from the arctic. I couldn’t possibly name a favourite birding spot, there are so many, among them would be a place called Holkham on the north coast of the county of Norfolk, where tens of thousands of Pink-footed Geese spend the winter. In fact the UK is the best country in Europe to observe wintering geese, there are 6 species, and more than half of their total world population winter there. It is also a prime spot for vagrant birds from North America, especially on the west coast.

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

Well, Harris Creek Rd between Horseshoe Bend and Placerville is excellent for spring birding in particular. Its best to go off one of the many logging trails that wind and twist their way through the forest. Particularly good for warblers and Empidonax flycatchers (if they can be identified!) Another is Mill Pond, a small riparian area 1 mile north of Horseshoe Bend next to the Payette river off Hwy 55. I’ve had some good birds there in the past couple of years including Common Loon, Night Heron, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Bohemian Waxwing.

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

I haven’t really seen enough of Idaho to answer that one, although I feel its always worth exploring anywhere with a good habitat variety (such as riparian areas close to open fields with sagebrush) its amazing what can turn up! One good place that may not be that well known is a riparian area just a couple of miles above the Montour wetland. Each side of this is upland with sagebrush and the occasional clump of trees, so a good mix of habitats. Though I haven’t necessarily seen any real rarities the birdlife there is quite rich, especially in the spring, with warblers, sparrows, flycatchers, Icterids and a good mix of raptors.

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

Well a watcher who likes to sit in one good spot for half an hour or so rather than walking about all the time. And a lister too! If by a “chaser” you mean someone who’ll drive hundreds of miles on the off chance of seeing a single rarity, that’s not really me. In England we call them “twitchers”; I haven’t heard that expression used here.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I have Opticron BGA 8x42 binoculars which I brought over from England, and an Opticron 22x60 spotting scope which I’ve had for about 30 years now. It still works well for me though there are times when I could do with something more powerful.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

I use a spreadsheet which contains all my US sightings, but using the tools of Excel I can filter by state, location, date, month, year, etc. etc. so I don’t keep separate year/state lists. I log all my sightings from group field trips, and any extended solo trips I make, and I will summarize the trip noting anything of particular interest, plus no of species seen and number of life birds. I have a separate list for my British sightings which doesn’t change much any more!

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

Probably the sight of tens of thousands of Snow Geese at Fort Boise WMA, and then seeing them still coming in as far as the eye can see. Seeing two Elegant Terns on a beach in Oregon was an unexpected pleasure made easier for me by the presence of Caspian Terns nearby for comparison. In England, the outstanding bird sighting would be one summer on the Norfolk coast when I saw a Wilson’s Phalarope feeding with other more typical waders there.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I haven’t read many printed journals since moving here, but online I visit eBird, NatureInstruct Dendroica (v. good photos), Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but there are probably a lot more out there that are worth a look, and I’m still looking!.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

Well the new Stokes photographic guide looks promising, I would like to get hold of the National Geographic guide, I have Sibley which is the one I use most, the Peterson Field Guide, and the Audubon photographic guide. I think at least 3 field guides are essential, because there is invariably one aspect which one particular field guide does better than the others. For instance, the Sibley is very good for bird identification, not so good on habitats, the Peterson Guide is better for habitats, not so good for ID.

Which books from your personal birding library would you recommend?

Well most of my reference books were purchased in England, I don’t have as yet a defintive reference book specifically for American birds, but I would mention the following four :

Weather and Bird Behaviour, by Norman Elkins, a fascinating account of how weather systems can affect breeding success, migration patterns, and general behaviour.

Birdwatch, by Tony Soper, covers all aspects of birdlife, but especially those which can be observed in the field, like courtship, breeding, migration, ecology, as well as advice for birding as to equipment, methods, tips etc.

Discovering Birds, by Rob Hume, which looks at habitats and ecosystems and the kinds of birds you can expect to find in them. This is a book for British birdwatchers, it would be great if something on the same lines was available here, is there?

The Idaho Bird Guide, by Dan Svingen, and Kas Dumroese, which I find very useful for finding hotspots, and how to get to them.

I have other books but they are strictly aimed at British birders.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

None at all!

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?

It would be easier to say what I have problems with! Empidonax Flycatchers (of course), and Sparrows. We only have 2 flycatchers and 2 sparrow species in England, so being confronted with all this lot has been quite a challenge. But then birding is a continual learning process, no matter how experienced you are. All I can say is that if a fellow birder had a question about a bird put to me, I would firstly be more interested in the shape and attitude of the whole bird before going through any plumage details. We call this “jizz” in England, another expression I haven’t heard here yet!

What future birding plans do you have?

I would like to visit more states outside the Northwest, but my immediate goal is to see the more common birds I’ve haven’t seen yet. I like to study bird behaviour, not just get them on my life list, so I’m keen to see more of the birds I’ve only seen once or twice.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?
I’m a member of SW Idaho birders, and the Golden Eagle Audubon and the National Audubon Society. In England, I was a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) for over 30 years.

What is your nemesis bird?

All the commoner ones I haven’t seen yet but have a feeling I should have by now! But the standout would have to be the Swainson’s Thrush, which I believe I have seen 4 times, but I couldn’t confirm the ID.

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

My daughter Erin, who is now a US citizen has been living here for 11 years now. She and her husband Ted (he is American) suggested my wife Pam & I moved over here after I took voluntary redundancy from my 26 year employer in England. We are now running a family business selling software to make cookbooks, and we also sell a huge amount of cookery related merchandise, binders, recipe boxes, recipe cards etc; I enjoy it immensely, but it does keep me from birding as often as I would wish! We have another daughter in England and she has no plans to move over here, but we miss her a lot. We have 2 grandsons.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

I’m not sure if this is all that funny, but it was certainly unusual. One late afternoon in November I was going to a food store in the town I was living at the time in South-East England, when I spotted this movement on the ground right up against the wall of the store. It was a Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus) a small Old-world relative of the Common (Wilson’s) Snipe, which is an uncommon winter visitor to the UK. It was exhausted, looking like it had literally fallen out of the sky. So I gave it some water and put it into a box and took it to a nearby reservoir. By the time I got to the reservoir it seemed to have recovered and when I let it out of the box it flew off quite happily.

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

Oh that’s easy, a Golden Eagle, hands down. I think it is the most magnificent bird in the world and I always get a thrill whenever I see one. I tried really hard to find them in Scotland, where there is about 400 breeding pairs, but I never succeeded, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to see one here for the first time.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

I guess I feel proud of myself for sticking with birding for over half a century!

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

Camas Prairie NWR. I have never been to the tropics!

Your mission in life as birder?

Respect and reverence for the Natural World.

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