Thursday, December 9, 2010

Birder Profile: John C. Robinson

John C. Robinson
San Francisco Bay Area, California

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 entry into birding began by taking the Ornithology class at Iowa State University in 1979. At that time, I had no interest in birds and really did not want to take the class as I was more interested in wolves and fancied myself studying wolf biology for the rest of my career. Well, that all changed during the first 15 minutes of the class!

I’ve had many mentors over the years, but during my time at Iowa State I would have to point to my Ornithology professor, Dr. James J. Dinsmore. He recognized the talent in me and gave me the rare opportunity (as an undergraduate student) to teach the Lab portion of the Ornithology class in the three years following the year in which I took the class myself. So, I took the class in 1979, and taught the Lab portion of the class in 1980, 1981, and 1982. My spark birds are, in chronological order, the Rufous-sided Towhee (now the Eastern Towhee), and the Louisiana Waterthrush.  I have been birding for 32 years now.

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

Starting out, I went birding about 250 to 275 times a year (I know because I have built a commercial database application, LANIUS Excalibur, that allows me to enter my bird outings and bird observations; all my birding activity since 1980 has been captured). Nowadays, I would say I go birding about 70 to 100 times a year. Generally, I bird mostly within 200 miles of my home. I’ve lived in most places throughout the USA, and so have birded in almost every state. As a birding and natural history tour leader, I have also led trips in Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada, the USA, and South Africa.

My favorite places to go birding include:
1. Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge (Tennessee)
2. Modoc National Forest (California)
3. All places in South Africa!

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

The Sierra Nevada mountains in California has many under-birded locations, many of which are on Forest Service lands. I once managed the Spotted Owl Endangered/Threatened Species program in California for the USDA Forest Service, so I have visited Spotted Owl habitat on nearly all 18 national forests within that state. Lots of under-birded places there!

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

An ornithologist, focused on studying the biology of birds.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?
1. Bushnell Spacemaster spotting scope (circa 1980)
2. Epoch (Brunton) Binoculars 10.5 power

How do you keep track of your bird observations?
As mentioned above, I use LANIUS Excalibur, a commercial application I built in 1994. See,, and for more information. I keep track of my bird observations because it is fun, exciting, and it allows me to re-experience those special moments.

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

Snowy Owl in Tennessee. See the complete story here.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I am a member of the American Ornithologists Union and the American Birding Association. I read The Auk and Birding and visit their web sites. I also spend time on Cornell’s website, especially All About Birds

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

National Geographic Society Field Guide to Birds of North America is what I use in the field (enough info to meet most of my needs) andSibley (the original single volume covering east and west) is what I use at home; I like Sibley’s unique approach to identifying birds.

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

1. Birding for Everyone – which I wrote. It encourages inner city and minority youth/young adults to experience nature through bird watching
2. The Call of the Wild – by Jack London. This book changed my life in the sixth grade and I have been hooked on nature ever since
3. Sand County Almanac – by Aldo Leopold. One of the best books on environmental conservation and it introduces the concept of a “land ethic”.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

First, there is the undergraduate Ornithology class I took at Iowa State University. Also, I graduated at the top of my class in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology and earned a MS degree in that field. Since then, I have published six books on birds, nature, and outdoors.

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 consider myself an expert on most birds found in North America, and on some birds found in South Africa.

What future birding plans do you have?

To never stop birding!

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

AOU and ABA (see above). I sit on the Board of Directors of the ABA. I am also a member of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio.

What is your nemesis bird?

That would be the Ruff. It was seen three times in Tennessee when I lived there, and each time I missed it, once by as little as 30 minutes. That was a “Ruff” time

Outside of birding, what are your other interests or hobbies?

Science fiction, hiking, movies, writing.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

On a Christmas Bird Count, we were trying to determine if a bird seen by two separate observers in adjacent areas of the Count Circle should be counted as one or two birds. The bird in question was the Pileated Woodpecker. We finally landed on the assumption it had to be two birds, because Observer #1 kept pronouncing her bird the “Pie”-leated Woodpecker and Observer #2 kept pronouncing her bird as the “Pill”-leated Woodpecker. After a good laugh, we said it had to be two separate birds.

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

Louisiana Waterthrush – it is such an interesting bird and a wonderful harbinger of Spring.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

God has given me the ability to identify birds by sound

Total life list?

Because I don’t believe in competing with others, I never share my life list count publicly.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

South Africa

Your mission in life as birder?

Encourage inner city and minority youth and young adults to become more interested in nature through bird watching.
John C. Robinson is without question a fantastic leader and mentor in the world of birding.  You can continue to follow what John is up to as well as purchase the products and books he produces at his website just bought myself a few items that Santa will be giving me for Christmas!

Birder Profile is a weekly blog segment at "Birding is Fun!" spotlighting a fellow birder.  If you are interested in sharing a little about yourself and your birding experiences, please send me an email.  Is there a birder you'd like to see featured?  Please nominate that person by sending me an e-mail too.  Enthusiasm for birding is the only prerequisite!


  1. Jon,

    Loved your site. Beautiful photographs and content.

    Mark Ittleman
    Houston, Texas

  2. Great site, thank you
    do you give talks?
    G2 Gallery
    Abbot Kinney Blvd
    Venice, CA 90291
    a great location