Thursday, December 2, 2010

Birder Profile: Nate Swick

Nate & Noah Swick
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

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 was always one of those kids who was really into nature and the outdoors, largely because my science teacher dad encouraged it. I kept a fairly extensive insect collection and ran around catching snakes and turtles and such. I don’t remember a specific spark bird, though using an old field guide to figure out the weird song I was hearing in a willow grove was a White-eyed Vireo is a memory that stands out. I hit birds hard core when I was 13 or so and ran from there thanks to the folks at the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society, who were only too happy to provide me with an outlet. I still have friends there.

How long have you been birding?

I started keeping a Life List to keep track of what I was seeing at 13, and except for a period in high school and college where I lost the spark and pursued other interests (crazy, I know!) I’ve been doing it ever since.

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

I like to say I’m always birding, since there’s never a time when I’m not aware of what’s going on around me, but as for setting time apart specifically to search for birds, at least twice a week, and more often when I can manage it.

I used to travel afield fairly often, but now that I have a young child I stay closer to home and work on my county lists and local patches. Most of the popular spots in the western part of the triangle I cover fairly regularly.

Where is your favorite place to bird in your state/province? In the U.S.? in the world?

I love to work over the eastern third of North Carolina in the winter. There’s a great diversity of wintering waterfowl at the Wildlife Refuges out there and the spectacle is truly amazing. The Outer Banks as well are considered one of the premier spots on the eastern seaboard for a great variety of birds, and you never really know what you might find as so much is possible. If I could bird Pea Island NWR on the Outer Banks every week I’d be a very happy birder.

I’m also partial to the Blue Ridge Parkway in the spring. You can watch warblers in the treetops at eye-level at several of the pull-offs, which is always a jaw-dropping experience.

As far as world birding, my limited experience has been exclusively neotropical, but I’ve seen enough to know that I need to go back.

Pomarine Jaeger off Hatteras by Nate Swick

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

One of the advantages of living in a place like the Triangle region of North Carolina, is that there are lots of good birders that have spent years finding the best spots for a given species. That said, Occoneechee Speedway, and old abandoned NASCAR track now turned into a historical site, seems underrated to me as I’ve found some pretty good county birds there recently.

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

I’d say the coastal plain north of Wilmington and around Lake Waccamaw State Park could produce some surprises. It’s mostly forest service land and swamp, but it’s an area of high endemism for freshwater mussels and small fish. There’s no reason that uniqueness couldn’t translate to birds.

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

All of them at various times as needed. But I do keep lots of lists and chase the odd unusual bird (state or county level) when I can. If there’s a dichotomy there, that’s probably the side on which I’d put myself. I’d like to think I can relate to anyone who likes birds though.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I spent a couple years saving and finally splurged on a pair of Zeiss Victory FLs (8x42) two years ago. I love them and agree with the adage that good glass is an investment. I also have a pair of Eagle Optic Rangers 8x42s that I keep in the car as a backup pair. For the money they’re very good.

My scope is a Kowa TSN-82, with a zoom eyepiece. It’s no great shakes but it does the job pretty well, and I’ve recently started carrying around a little Canon Rebel D-SLR with a 300mm zoom lens. I’m definitely a birder first, but the ability to take a few photos has been fun for me and great for my blog. I have a Panasonic Lumix point and shoot for digiscoping. Man, it sounds like a lot when you lay it out like that!

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

I enter all my sightings into eBird and often encourage other birders to do the same. It’s a great resource for managing some of my smaller scale lists like the county ones I’d never keep track of otherwise. I also like the idea that my sightings are being used for something and that my incidental birding means something.

I also keep my life list on an Excel spreadsheet, but with the utility of eBird, I often wonder why I make the effort to do that anymore.

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

I found a Glaucous Gull in a huge flock of gulls at a landfill in North Raleigh in February of 2008 while I was doing my NC Big Year, which is an excellent bird for North Carolina period, let alone this far inland. Finding a rare bird is always super exciting, especially when it’s from a group of birds that have a reputation for being difficult. I was definitely proud of that find and I even got some pretty good pictures. A few people were able to get out and find it after me too which is always rewarding.

Glaucous Gull by Nate Swick
Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?
I’m a member of the ABA so I receive their publication Birding, which I enjoy. I also pore over the quarterly journal of the Carolina Bird Club, the Chat. I don’t read any other conventional publications on a regular basis, but I enjoy flipping through them when I get one in my hands

I’m an avid blog reader, and I cover a lot of ground in my daily web-browsing. There’s so much good stuff out there it’s hard to single anything out!

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I’m a Sibley guy, I love his illustrations and I’ve always found it an extremely comfortable guide to use.

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

For international guides, though I rarely use them, the Collin’s Europe guide is just fun to flip through and the new Peru guide is jaw-dropping.

I find Howell and Dunn’s Gull guide to be an amazing resource for a group of birds that always cause problems. Living in a coastal state, it’s nothing short of essential.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

Nope, I’m entirely self-taught. For better or for worse. But I do have some practical experience through volunteering in the bird lab at the state museum. I can run a banding station and prepare a bird specimen.

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’m proficient enough on distribution and abundance of the birds in my area and I try to stay on top of things on a continent or world-wide scale. If I don’t know something, I use that as an opportunity to learn, which is always nice. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of things to learn about birds.

What future birding plans do you have?

I’m looking forward to trying to get up to the SuperBowl of Birding in Massachusetts for the third straight winter. It’s loads of fun. And I’m in the midst of planning a bird blogger pelagic weekend for some folks on the east coast for next June. Beyond that, I’m always open to opportunities.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?
I’m a member of the ABA and National Audubon. I’m also a member of the Carolina Bird Club, which is the state ornithological association for North and South Carolina. Locally I’m a member of the Chapel Hill Bird Club and I’m on the board of Wake Audubon in Raleigh.

What is your nemesis bird?

As far as a bird I should have seen by now, probably Black-billed Cuckoo. But in the true definition of nemesis bird, a bird I’ve chased specifically multiple times and missed every time, it’s Black-headed Gull. Specifically one Black-headed Gull that winters most years at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR.

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

I’m married to an enormously understanding and patient woman who rolls her eyes at my obsession sometimes, but has never stopped me from pursuing it. I also have a young son named Noah who is just a year and a half old who has been a pretty good field companion so long as he doesn’t run out of food.

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

I play mandolin and guitar, and I’ve been “working” on the banjo for over a year now off and on. Back before I had a child, I used to play disc golf pretty seriously too, but once my time became more limited I had to concentrate on one. Birding won!

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

One that’s funny now well after the fact. When I was beginning to take my kid birding we went out one rainy morning to my local patch. I had hoped to beat the storm but I failed, and when I returned Noah to the carseat I put my binoculars, my really nice Zeiss bins, on the top of the car and forgot about them when I drove off.

When I got home they were gone and I pretty much freaked out. I ended up walking the five miles back to the birding site from home looking along the side of the road. I finally found them in the gutter along a busy road. They were beat up but the optics were still good, and thanks to the fine folks at Zeiss I got them fixed and back to me within the week.

So maybe not hilarious funny, but definitely an experience I’m happy to be able to look back on and laugh!

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

On my better days, some sort of corvid. I admire their cleverness and personality.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

I’m the eBird reviewer for the state of North Carolina. It’s a cool job and I really feel like I’m helping out a worthwhile project with essential quality control.

Total life list?

820 world. 498 ABA area. I’ve been counting down to my 500th lifer for three years now, I’m ready to hot the milestone.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

My in-laws took my wife and me to the Galapagos for our wedding gift. It was a once in a lifetime experience and easily the most exciting place I’ve ever been birding.

Your mission in life as birder?

To have fun! Is there any other reason to do it?

You can keep up with Nate's birding adventures at his blog The Drinking Bird He is also a guest blogger at 10,000 Birds and the ABA BlogYou can also follow him on Twitter @NC_N8

Birder Profile is a weekly blog segment at "Birding is Fun!" spotlighting a fellow birder.  If you would be 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!

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