Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How the Mountain Bluebird came to be the State Bird of Idaho

Continued response to Nick S.'s question about the Mountain Bluebird in a previous post...

I had a brief opportunity to swing by the Boise Library yesterday to learn more about how the Mountain Bluebird came to be the state bird of Idaho.  The story is actually very fascinating and there was a bit of drama that I didn't expect.  Thanks to the helpful assistance of a gal named Ronnie at the Boise Library, I was able to find an article from the Idaho Daily Statesman, dated August 22nd, 1930.  (Not to mention dozens of articles referencing Al Larson and Elma Goodman, but not that far back.)  Below I paraphrase or copy word for word portions of that article:

In 1928, nothing had yet happened toward the selection of a state bird.  The Bald Eagle was suggested, but public sentiment was that they didn't want to take away from the National emblem, and thus the suggestion was eliminated from the start.

A questionnaire was sent to all the women's clubs across the state of Idaho to find out which bird was the most beloved.  Many varieties of songbirds, the dove (presumably the Mourning Dove), game birds like the Sage Hen, were recommended, but the most popular was the blue bird (which species of blue bird was not yet specified).  Meanwhile, the school children across the state were given the opportunity to vote and they too favored the blue bird.

Mrs. Everett Barton (probably Loraine Selby-Barton) of Emmett, Idaho, Chairman of Conservation for the Idaho Federation of Women's Clubs, had read that the Western Tanager was discovered by Lewis and Clark in 1806 in Idaho.  She become obsessed with the idea that this should be Idaho's state bird.  Its historical significance, great beauty, and sweet song, she felt made the Western Tanager truly Idaho's.  A period of intense propaganda followed. (Read Lewis & Clark's journal entry here of their discovery of the Western Tanager at Camp Chopunnish, Idaho on June 6th, 1906)

At the Federation meeting in Weiser, school votes for the state bird read "meadow lark, blue bird, and robin".  Because those birds had already been chosen by other states, Mrs. Barton, as Chairman of Conservation presented the Western Tanager.  At this meeting a resolution was made to allow the school children a chance to vote to adopt the Western Tanager.

Nothing happened that winter or that spring and it was determined by Governor Baldridge and the State Superintendent of Schools that the summer would be used to let Idaho's citizenry learn more about the Western Tanager and to see if people would recognize it.  Mrs. Barton requested photos of the Western Tanager that she could send to the schools throughout the state to convince the children of her choice.  But the National Audubon Society, the National Geographic Society, and the American Nature Association all replied that they had no photos for such a purpose (this was during the Great Depression after all).  The American Nature Association wrote back with a note of encouragement to select the Mountain Bluebird species as it had not yet been chosen by any other state and that "it is friendly, nests in bird houses, and is your best choice."

The County Superintendents of Schools announced that they stood behind the children's vote.  The Governor hadn't recognized a Western Tanager all summer, so he favored the more common Mountain Bluebird as it was found in all the regions of Idaho (at least above 3500 feet).  The Idaho Federation of Women's Clubs voiced that they had always been in support of the blue bird before Chairman Barton got off on her "tanager tangent".  Chairman Barton resigned and as a swan song gave a final report of her futile effort to make the Western Tanager the Idaho State Bird.

So, on February 28th, 1931 the Mountain Bluebird became the official state bird of Idaho, along with the state flower, the Syringa blossom.  While Mrs. Barton's historical reverence provided a solid argument in favor of the Western Tanager, a bird that thrills me every time I see it...I love them both...I personally am happy that the Mountain Bluebird overcame the challenge and was chosen by the school kids.

As Paul Harvey used to say, "And now you know the rest of the story."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New Yard Bird - Carpodacus cassinii

Do you ever have one of those days were you simply expect that you will see something new?!  I'm not sure if it is the crazy weather today - snow - rain - snow - rain - sunshine - snow - but today was one of those days I just knew I'd see a new bird...well, at least a new yard bird.

So, when I glanced out the back patio door and saw this (click on any image to enlarge)...

I just knew this wasn't some plain ol' male House Finch.  It was something different!  I went to my master bedroom bay window which gives me a closer look and started snapping photos with my non-professional camera, again through window glass covered with rain drops.  I took 90 pictures hoping a few would turn out okay.

Here is a closer view:

Yes, it is kind of male House Finch-like, but notice how much more the red on this guy's cap contrasts?  Also note the lack of streakiness on the breast and flanks.

This last shot shows the reddish-pink on the breast.

Know what it is yet?

A Cassin's Finch!  I've only seen them six other times, and never this close.  It's always exciting to have a new yard bird too.

One last photo for David Sibley's sake...notice the false face?!

Backyard Birding on a Rainy Spring Morning

This male House Finch seems to be saying, "I see you in there looking at me through the rain drops."

It's a beautiful rainy morning in the Boise foothills.  It's even snowing occasionally.  Inclement weather seems to drive the birds into my backyard where it is easy to feed.  This morning in my yard I have California Quail, Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, Northern Flicker, Western Meadowlarks, White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Junco, American Goldfinch, and House Finch.

The birds seem to be really enjoying Bird House & Habitat's Treasure Valley Blend of seed.  I enjoy it as much as the birds do because 100% of it is edible and desirable for the birds.  Therefore, it leaves no mess and no sprouts!

It is so fun to watch the American Goldfinch molt process.  It seems like they went through a molt earlier this winter and now a spring molt.  I can see those black caps and lemon-yellowness trying to overtake the drab brown.

With the birds feeding right outside and below my bedroom window, I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to get pictures of Yellow-face and Black-face, the two House Finch mutants that have frequented my feeders for the last few weeks.  Yellow-face was not very cooperative, but I did manage to get some photos of Black-face.  Well, it is has a black cap and and blackness on one side of the face.  The tail is also darker than the other House Finches and lacks the light colored edging.  I suppose it is some form of melanism, rather than a hybrid.  I apologize for the photo quality.  It was with an inexpensive Canon Powershot camera, through a window, in the rain.  (Click to enlarge)

This photo shows the black side of the face in profile.

This photo captures the darker cap.

This photo is a tail comparison.  Black-face is on the upper left.

Finally, here is Black-face on top of the feeder showings its normal side.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Idaho Birder: Monty Thomson

Monty Thomson
Boise, Idaho
How and when did you get first get involved in birding?  What was your “Spark Bird”?

I lived, for a brief period in 1997, near the Boise river and began feeding cracked corn to the ducks that foraged regularly near the house. After moving from that location to the north end, I received a tube feeder and shepherd's hook as a gift and set it up in the back yard. The first bird that I identified was a House Finch (which I later correctly identified as a Pine Siskin). So, I guess Pine Siskin would be my spark bird.
Did you or do you have a birding mentor and can you tell us about that person?

There are a couple of people who would be guilty of that. Greg Wardwell and Mike Morrison
Greg is the previous owner of Birdhouse and Habitat and has a contagious enthusiasm when talking about seeing birds and is always up for discussing the details of bird ID and behavior beyond what is found in most field guides. He got the ball rolling. Greg introduced me to Mike before he moved away a few years ago. Since then I have birded with Mike on several occasions and am always and endlessly impressed with his intimate knowledge of bird ID, behavior and where to find them. Mike knows the little details that you won't find in the mainstream literature. Plus he'll take a fair amount of guff before he makes you get out of his jeep and walk.
How long have you been birding in Idaho?

I have always had an interest in wildlife but did not become a birder until 1998.
How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?

I bird whenever I am outdoors. Walking to the mailbox, biking to work, skiing - they are all opportunities to see birds. My regular haunts are in and near town. The Boise river (from  Discovery Park to Eagle), Kathryn Albertson Park, Hyatt wetlands, Boise foothills.
Where is your favorite place to bird in Idaho? In the U.S.? in the world?

In Idaho - Fort Boise Wildlife Management Area. I never get tired of seeing the spring migration of geese and always end the day with a healthy list of sightings.

In the U.S. - Prospect Park (Brooklyn NY). I experienced one of the highest concentration and variety of birds of any place I have ever been. I was in the park only 30 seconds when I witnessed a Red-tailed Hawk capture a rat, fly to a perch and consume it. From there I barely put my listing sheet and pencil back in my pocket for the entire 4-5 hours I spent there. It was one bird after another. At the end of the day I had a species total of 47 that included hawks, ducks, woodpeckers, geese, herons, warblers, thrushes, sparrows, finches, and an owl.

In the world - I have never had the opportunity to bird outside the US so that one is still open.
Do you have any local birding hotspots that may be yet unknown to Idaho birders that you would be willing to share with us?

I could not suggest a specific location but can recommend any area along the river or foothills especially if it is off of the regular path. There are many less explored trails around the ponds bordering the river and in the foothills just above town.
Where in Idaho would you say is the most under-birded place that may have great untapped potential? 

Your backyard! Many new birders are unaware of the rotating stream of resident and migratory birds that visit their yard and feeders, and experienced birders can become complacent with the idea that they have a complete list of all the birds that could be seen on their property and allow their yard birding to fall more into routine than adventure.

As a new birder I was amazed to see the variety and quantity of birds attracted to my feeders and how that changed over the course of the seasons. As I have gained experience I find excitement in many other aspects of yard birding - seeing great numbers of birds, birds with plumage variation like colour pattern or leucism, species intergrades, courtship and nesting behavior and of course the occasional rarity. A great way to bring new species to the yard is by changing things up. Add a moving water feature, brush pile, flower or vegetable garden or new flora in the form of shrubs and trees. Small changes can bring new birds. 
How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, all of the above, or something else?

More of a watcher and lister than a chaser. My biggest enjoyment from birding is observing behavior. Seeing new species is always good but watching interactions and movement, which reveal the niche of even the most common bird, is time well spent. In the first few years, I was a rabid lister. Lists for the yard. Lists for camping and vacations. Lists for bird walks. Lists of birds I had not seen. Now, I list at new locations I visit and any new birds I see. I also keep track of arrival and departure dates of migratory birds that visit my yard.
What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I use Equinox HP 10x42 binoculars. I also have a Vortex Skyline 20-60x80ED spotting scope.  
How do you keep track of your bird observations? And why?

I use Lanius  and Thayer (Birds of Idaho) software for PC, Scarlet Owl for Palm Pilot and good ole pencil and paper.

I purchased the Lanius early on before researching listing software but found that I really like it. It provides a variety of detailed lists based on the data you collect (life lists, birds not seen, birds seen on any date or range of dates, dates a species was seen, arrival and departure dates, locations a species was seen, etc.). It covers locations worldwide and came with an e-guide to birds of NA and Australia.

The Thayer software is good but does not offer as many variations of data manipulation as Lanius. However, there are more photos of better quality, a sound clip of each bird's call or song, video clips of some species, side by side comparisons of similar species, an identification wizard, and  multiple quizes to test your birding knowledge. It is very useful for building identification skills at home.

The Scarlet Owl software is strictly for listing. It is a neat way to keep multiple lists that you can then hot-sync to your PC. I found it useful for multiple trips to different locations while on vacation. The down side is that you have to make entries using Palm-ese letters which requires about the same effort as using pencil and paper, and if your batteries wear out before you can sync it with your computer, the data is lost. 
What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?

"Lola" the Red-tailed hawk and mate to Pale Male. Pale Male has been a resident of Manhattan's Central Park since 1991, building a nest on ornamental stonework above a top-story window on a very upscale residential housing cooperative at 927 Fifth Avenue. Lola is his current mate. In recent years I have made a few trips to NYC and each time I make a trip to Central Park to bird and specifically to see Pale Male or Lola. I remained thwarted until my last trip in December of 2007. I was making my way through the usual haunts for Pale Male and Lola when I discovered her in one of her favorite perches, in the steel oval framework at the top of the Beresford Towers. I watched until my arms were too tired to hold my binoculars and shared my find with several passersby. Lincoln Karim is a resident of NYC and photographs Pale Male and Lola daily. You can see his pictures and read about Pale Male here: 
Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

Kaufman's Field Guide to Birds of NA because it contains features I find absent or less user friendly in other guides. It is small, making it easy to carry. On the illustrations in the guide, pointers indicate the key markings so that you can check the book in the field to see what to focus on. In the text, important diagnostic marks are mentioned in italic type. The front of the book contains a pictorial table of contents arranged by groups of birds which also correspond to a colour tab on the side of each page (a feature that makes finding a bird, new to you, quick and simple). If you know the name of the bird, there is also a quick one-page index in the rear of the book. In addition, the copy I own is signed for me by the author which, I believe, brings me wicked-good birding mojo when I am in the field.
Which five books from your personal birding library would you recommend? 

The Singing Life of Birds - Donald Kroodsma

Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings Of NA Birds - Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. O. Harrison

Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology - Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

The Idaho Bird Guide - Dan Svingen and Kas Dumroese 

Do you have any formal bird-related education background? If so, what is it?

None. I once wore a tuxedo to a lecture on raptors. Does that count?

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 have studied hummingbirds and raptors the most but would not consider myself proficient. I have more of a broad base of general knowledge of birds. 
What future birding plans do you have?

Costa Rica for my fiftieth, and I would like to get back to Central Park for a shot at seeing Pale Male. 
Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I get to bird with some great folks at GEAS and SIBA but do not belong to either of the organizations. 
What is your nemesis bird?

Pale Male. I have seen numerous Red-tails but would love to this one. After that, Screech owl.
Anything about your family you’d like to share with us?

I learned to appreciate nature and wildlife from my father. He grew up in Boise and spent much of his time outdoors.  He always seemed very comfortable being outdoors and I find the same true for me.  Also, I received my first feeder and field guide from my ex-wife Ginny. I am forever grateful to her for sparking and supporting my interests in birds and thankful to her and my step daughter Alice for putting up with my bird-nerdiness.
Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

I have always made it a point to rise extra early, when camping, to do a little birding. Early in my birding life, on a camping trip to the area just west of Cougar Mountain Lodge, I arose one summer morning to do just that. I really enjoy hearing and then finding a bird especially if it is a bird I have not had an opportunity to see yet. A few minutes into my walk that morning I heard a high pitched sharp whistle from the understory several yards down the hill.  "A new bird!". I pulled my binoculars up quickly and feverishly searched the area for the deliverer of that note. Nothing. I watched for several minutes for any sign of movement. Nothing. Discouraged by the thought of missing a new bird I turned to continue up the path. "Peeeeeeeeeeeep!" There it was again but now 50 feet to the right. "Now how did that bird manage to get over there without me seeing?". No time to ponder, the game was afoot.

The terrain extending downhill in front of me was quite steep, thoroughly covered in dense undergrowth, and glistening with the wetness of the rain from the night before. No worries. I have time. I'm relatively young. So off I go. I aim to plant my first step on a downed tree so that I can walk it's length to the area where I heard the bird, thus avoiding the entanglement of vegetation closer to the ground. Bad choice. The barkless trunk covered with a nice layer of moisture made the perfect combination for one of those arm and leg flailing falls that you see on the funny video shows. My field guide, walking stick, and hat all flew in different directions landing several feet away. My fall was broken by a healthy patch of some thorny vine which concealed the large muddy patch just below it. Being assured now that I have scared away any chance of seeing the bird. I begin to recover my guide, stick and hat. "Peeeeeeeeeep" Now it's behind me...100 feet in the other direction. Well. I'm invested now. I may as well go for it. Besides this bird had already cost me a sore shin, numerous thorn scratches, the embarrassment of a wet bottom and a bit of pride.

Up the hill I trudge, pausing periodically to listen and look. As I draw near the area, I hear it again. but I am still no closer. The scene repeats itself another 4 or 5 times over the next 2 hours. Stop. Hear it. Move that direction, only to find it has moved an equal distance in some other very-difficult-to-get-to location. 

I decide on a new strategy. I will stay put and wait for the bird to reveal itself. Twenty more minutes pass before I see movement through the foliage about 20 feet away. I lean carefully to an awkward position to gain a better view through the binoculars. I hold my breath so as not to make noise. With my face firmly pressed against the bark of a tree, I am just able to make out the silhouette of my target. I needed more light. And as if it heard me, it began to bounce with small short hops toward a shaft of light that penetrated the forest and shone brightly on a perch a few feet away. With a clear view in the bright light of the morning, my binoculars focused with surgical precision on my prize and its diagnostic markings easily visible, I was able to definitively identify my bird as a Spermophilis lateralis (Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel).  
If you were a bird, which species would you be and why?

My first thought is to say hummingbird because Fred Bassett says that "if hummingbirds weighed even a few pounds, they'd rule the world" (referring to their tenacity) and I weigh 205.  But ever since I was a kid I thought it would be cool to be a duck. They can fly. They can walk They can swim on and under the water. They can go practically anywhere and that is appealing to me. 
Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

I got a perfect attendance certificate in sixth grade. 
Total life list?

I don't have an exact number (as there are some birds I saw, as a kid, before becoming an "official" birder) but it is somewhere between 200 and 250.
Most exotic place you've gone birding?

Don't have one yet but hope to make it the Amazon rain forest. 
 Your mission in life as birder?

To always bird wherever I am, to find the singing bird and match the voice to the singer, to watch as long as the opportunity allows, to see more species, and to understand better the behavior of birds.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ask the Idaho Bird Blogger: Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

From Nick S., Eagle, ID at our campout mentioned in the previous post:

"Why is the Mountain Bluebird the State Bird of Idaho?  I thought it was the Peregrine Falcon."


Great question Nick!  The Mountain Bluebird was designated as the State Bird of Idaho on February 28th, 1931.  Why it was chosen?  I am certain it had a lot to do with how strikingly beautiful the Mountain Bluebird is, but who proposed and campaigned for it to be the State Bird?...I don't yet know.  Perhaps I need to read some old newspapers from that year and find out the story behind it.  Google searches didn't yield the background story.  I feel a trip to the microfilm desk at the Boise Library coming on.  Or maybe some knowledgeable readers can help us out here.  Nevada also adopted the Mountain Bluebird as their state bird in 1967.

Peregrine Falcon, source

Your question also led me to discover something that I didn't know.  Idaho adopted the Peregrine Falcon in 2004 as the official Raptor of Idaho in response to 4th graders studying Idaho history.  How many states have an official Raptor?!  For more of the background on this one, read here.  Boise has been the home of The Peregrine Fund since 1984 where they study and work to conserve Peregrines and other birds of prey.  There is also a live webcam on a nest box in downtown Boise where Peregrine Falcons nest and raise their young.  Click here to see the webcam.

One more thing, the Peregrine Falcon is featured on the Idaho quarter:

UPDATE - I went to the library to learn ...  How the Mountain Bluebird came to be Idaho's State Bird.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Introducing Idaho's State Bird

Not normally intimidated by the finer character-building miseries of inclement weather on Scouting adventures, I still got nervous as the weather on Thursday turned cold and wet.  Snow and wind was forecast for Friday in the Oreana area which persuaded me to look at alternative closer locations.  You pretty much need four-wheel drive to get to the Oreana Sand Caves, which is fun, but adding mud and slush doesn't sound like an enjoyable spring campout.  

I determined that we should try camping out at Avimor along the Spring Valley Creek Trail.  It is close to everyone and if the weather turned really bad, we could just go home.  Well, Friday morning it was snowing at Avimor.  Most of the boys had already bailed out on the campout due to athletics or family spring break travels.  This weather caused a few more to bow out too.  About 4pm, the weather broke, the Sun shone through the clouds and I knew I was going on the campout no matter what, and my nine year old Kyle was coming with me.  At 5pm only two other boys showed up, one with his father.  Oh, these brave souls!

We set up camp right where the dirt road ends on Spring Valley Creek Trail.  Not too far away was a Red-tailed Hawk nest where the momma hawk squawked at us to keep our distance.  We took a little hike up Spring Valley Creek Trail and everyone quickly learned that I was a birder.  We saw Canyon Wren, Rock Wren, Western Bluebirds, and several other usual species.  My guests were respectful and at least moderately interested in the birds I pointed out along the way.  That night we cooked our dinners on the coals in the fire.  If you have never eaten a hollowed out an onion, stuffed with chicken breast, cooked right on the coals, you haven't yet experienced life!

The three-quarter moon shone so bright that flashlights weren't really needed as we watched the fire die down.  Frost had already formed on our tents and equipment foreshadowing a long and cold night.  I was sleeping pretty warm and snug, but Kyle was shivering with cold and crawled into my double-wide sleeping back to mooch off of my extreme body heat.  The ground is not the most comfortable place to sleep, especially for a full-figured fellow like me.  Even though I tossed and turned, I slept fairly well by campout standards.

Another benefit of camping so close to my home was being able to prepare a pancake breakfast in my wife's kitchen with all its accoutrements.  After a hearty breakfast we headed back into the hills and went for another hike, but this time on a trail that took as straight north from our campsite.

The morning sunrise warmed the hill adjacent to us.  I noticed some "bluebirds" flitting among the tops of the sage and bitterbrush.  Putting my binoculars to my eyes I burst forth with wild excitement, "Those are Mountain Bluebirds!". 

Mountain Bluebird, photo courtesy of Bob Whitlatch

Another Avimor official first record.  I passed my binoculars around to everyone.  Finally, an electric-blue colored bird that really impressed them!  I asked each person if they had ever seen Idaho's State bird, the Mountain Bluebird before.  This was a first for all of them. Mr. Stokes even admired the Mountain Bluebirds beauty and replied, "I could see how someone could addicted to this."  Welcome to my world!!!

UPDATE:  How the Mountain Bluebird became Idaho's State Bird.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sharp-shinned Stalking My Feeders

This juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk has been hanging out all morning chasing the birds at my feeders.

It was interesting to watch the Sharp-shin spend several minutes bouncing from the ground to the branches in the stripling spruce tree.  It kept looking in toward the trunk like a bird was hiding in there.  Anyway, a fun wildlife viewing party while I lunched today.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How Blogging is Helping Me Be a Better Birder

I've been blogging about birds for almost two years now and I've been reading other bird blogs for about the same amount of time.  I have started to notice that blogging has helped me become a better birder in several ways.  This includes Twittering in the online birding community too, which I have only been doing for a couple of months now.  I didn't even realize that while I was entertaining myself, I was also building up a mental bird library.

The journaling aspect of blogging helps me retain what I have learned and experienced.  Blogging has pushed me to go birding more often and to go places that I probably would not have otherwise done.

Getting responses and comments from readers and participation from other birders, especially related to my Idaho Birder Profile segments, continually invigorates my desire to go birding.  I have learned a ton by the birder profiles about where to go birding in Idaho, and I've picked up a few tips about birding style too.

The biggest source of my birding skills improving has to be in simply following other birding blogs.  I see photos of birds perhaps not common to my area, but by browsing blogs and Twitter daily, I see birds photographed frequently enough they are becoming familiar.  I start recognizing many species without even having to read the text.  The pictures and the text generally convey the habitat too.  I suppose it is a little like arm-chair on-screen birding.  Thank you all you bird bloggers out there!

So, if you want to be a better and more enthusiastic birder, check out all the blogs in my sidebar as often as possible and keep coming back to the Idaho Birding Blog!

210 in 2010: eBird Idaho - week 12

Species Leaders:
1.  Cheryl Huizinga 135
2.  J. Harry Krueger 126
2.  Lynn Davenport 126
4.  Steve Butterworth 125
5.  Darren Clark 123
6.  Terry Gray 115
7.  Jay Carlisle 112
8.  Heidi Ware 109
9.  Charles Swift 102
10.  Danette Henderson 99

Checklist Leaders:
1.  Robert Mortensen 294
2.  Jackson Whitman 213
3.  Lew Ulrey 129
4.  Cheryl Huizinga 119
5.  Lynn Davenport 104
6.  Charles Swift 103
7.  Jonathan Stoke 70
8.  Steve Butterworth 67
9.  Terry Grey 58
10.  Rohn McKee 56

Special thanks to our eBird competition sponsors:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Long-eared Owl

I took my family to an undisclosed location today on a quest to see my first ever Long-eared Owl.  We knew the approximate location, but overshot it and spent an hour looking in the right habitat, but the wrong place.  While thoroughly searching in the wrong place, I was still delighted to discover a Red-tailed Hawk nest and even a Mourning Dove nesting on an old Magpie nest.

After a phone call to a great birding friend, we got the courage to go back and look a little harder at the places we had already been.  I spied the Long-eared Owl on a nest.  I got my family and with stern warnings to be very quiet and to walk slowly we all peeked from behind a tall sage brush down the ravine at the Long-eared Owl.  I took the photo below through my binoculars and then zoomed and cropped it.  Look at her all nestled into that huge nest.  My father-in-law, Lynn Davenport, calls her a rabbit on a nest.  My three year old  also believes it is a bunny.

Momma Long-ear was certainly aware of us, but we kept a very respectable distance so that she wouldn't get too nervous and flush.  I am proud of my normally wound-up kids for their reverence in her presence.  She is my life bird #320 and she means a whole lot more to me than just a tick in eBird.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Evening Hike at Avimor

Photo by Art Robertson

My kids were begging me to take them on a hike, so we headed up Avimor's Spring Valley Creek Trail.  Just past the first cattle gate in the steep part of the canyon up on the northeast slope were at least 8 Western Bluebirds!  I always knew they were possible at Avimor, but I wasn't expecting them today.  Three Red-tailed Hawks were circling above them and I could see the smaller birds moving between the rocks and brush.  Before I put my binoculars on them I thought they might have been early swallows.  Once I got my Eagle Optics Rangers in focus there was no doubt that they were Western Bluebirds. That makes the 105th bird species officially recorded up here at Avimor in just barely over one year!

Other cool birds of note were Spotted Towhee and Canyon Wren.  We discovered a Red-tailed Hawk nest and she was probably sitting on eggs.

It looks like the Great Horned Owl eggs have hatched near the Avimor entry.  I see a couple fluffy lumps peeking out from underneath momma, but not enough to count beaks.  Momma Kestrel must be on eggs in the kestrel box my son and I built with grandpa.  The male is sitting outside of the box defending it from Flickers and Starlings.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Idaho Birder: Robert Whitlatch

Bob Whitlatch
Boise, Idaho

How and when did you get first get involved in birding? What was your “Spark Bird”?

My friends Karna and Fritz Schafer in Hailey have feeders outside 2/3’s of their picture windows. In the morning we’d make tea and walk from window to window to see which birds were coming to visit. Karna kept a note book in a kitchen drawer to list our sightings. Once I started birding I just began to see the world around me in such greater detail. The first time I watched a Lewis’s Woodpecker exhibit fly-catching behavior with a group of Robins on the Big Wood River. It was wondrous thing.

Did you or do you have a birding mentor and can you tell us about that person?

Michael Wiegand and Mike Morrison: These guys have been birding in the great outdoors their whole lives. Wiegand is heavily invested with filling the feeder stations around his homes. He’s created a series of wildlife stories that demonstrate the importance/effectiveness of natural habitat. He makes his living creating those habitats around our homes. Morrison flew in his father’s crop duster aircraft at eye level with the geese and ducks up the Boise River. He’s everybody’s favorite birding guide/teacher. His photography clearly demonstrates his intimate understanding of wildlife behavior.

How long have you been birding in Idaho?

I moved here in March of 1986 and traveled extensively throughout the intermountain Northwest and Canada. I never looked up from my work until I met the Schafers in Hailey in 1993. Boy did I get hooked once I started birding with them.

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

My best friend Jean (photo below) and I go at least once a month. Jean is new to birding and is a better spotter. I feel like May/June are our prime birding months. There is always birding someplace in our beautiful state. But birds are their most photogenic in the months of May/June. I can bird in my back yard or traipse on down the hill to Kathryn Albertson Park. I like greeting the arrival of the Yellow-breasted Chat, Lazuli Buntings, Black-headed Grosbeaks at Hulls Gulch. Further out is our always productive Snake River Birds of Prey Refuge and all the up-river areas toward CJ Strike Reservoir. One of my favorite birding spots is Canyon Hill Cemetery in Caldwell. It’s a beauty of a place that sits on a bluff above the Boise River. And then in the fall Jay Carlisle’s bird observatory gives us all the up close and personal connections with birds we could ever want AND we get to stand on the scientists’ shoulders and learn pure ornithologic science.

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

Sun Valley/Hailey/Bellvue/Silver Creek are my first loves. Three or four days at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns Oregon ain’t half bad either. I’ve birded in the northern jungles of Thailand and found it underwhelming. The native peoples have stopped burning the forests but the only birds I ever saw were LBJ’s far up in the canopies. Birding the golf course vegetation in Zihuatanejo, Mexico is very productive…. but you have to keep an eye out for the rather large crocodiles. My friend Georgia Conti has a guest house for birders in Patzcuaro, Mexico. Her available species numbers are pretty exotic/impressive. But then so is the whole experience.

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

Once my life list blew past 500 this year I lost interest in managing the “listing.” In fact listing and chasing was ruining my birding Zen. I’d say right now I’m in transition. When I started birding I began writing poetry again and published my first chap book called “Blue Sage Moon”. I have a second book titled “Seasons on Wings” waiting to be published. But now I’ve added photography to the mix. I need to raise the quality of my photos that will accompany the poems. And my shutter bug learning curve is rather steep at the moment. So presently you could say I’m a birder and student photographer.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I use a pair of 8x42 Pentax DCF WP binoculars, a 60x80 Vortex spotting scope and a Nikon D80 digital SLR with and 80-400 telephoto lens.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

I use Cornell’s Birder’s Life List and Diary.

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

Tough one. For most of the birds on my list, I can tell you time of day and circumstances about which they were sighted. Among my favorite sightings: the Yellow-Breasted Chats at Hulls Gulch singing their hearts out in the top of a tall snag, the hide and seek Sage Sparrows above the Snake River rim, the dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk south of Malheur NWR, a dozen Short-eared Owls at Malheur at sunset in a wonderful swirling aerial display, on an Ixtapa mangrove slough flushing a surprised Citreoline Trogon to a branch an arm length away, stumping across three White-striped Woodcreepers in Patzcuaro. And these are only seven very rich memories. How could I ever lose my birding jones?

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

Rasmussen’s BirdingPal and Georgia Contis’s

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

I need Stokes/Sibley/Kaufman (constantly) because the variations can be exasperatingly close. And even then I have to give up and write to Uncle Jay.  A Guide to Mexican Birds by Steve Howell (this hefty volume I took to Kinkos to have them divide the text into two spiral-bound volumes and the color plates spiral-bound between the original covers),

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

I love to read so I have to recommend more than five. In addition to the above I’d also recommend: The new The Owl and the Woodpecker by Paul Bannick (terrific), The Kingbird Highway by Kaufman, The Verb to Bird by Cashwell, A Bird in the Hand by Nelson and Nelson, The Big Year by Obmascik, To See Every Bird on Earth by Koeppel, Return of the Osprey by Gessner, A Wing in the Door by McQuay, The Grail Bird by Gallagher, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams and All Things Reconsidered by Roger Tory Peterson.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

I’ve come to birding among the wonder-full community of people in this world that are all about this pursuit of our feathered friends. We train/share information with one another. My knowledge is a compendium of those shared resources. I am currently investing in learning as much about wildlife photography as I can.

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 can hold my own but I’m often reduced to an “I don’t know” and not afraid to make a referral.

What future birding plans do you have?

I’ve got a week’s birding trip planned for San Diego in May and another to Southeast Arizona next fall.

What is your nemesis bird?

Right now...The Long-eared Owl,  the Black-backed Woodpecker, and the Pine Grosbeak.

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

Birds live such a precarious life. Watching their brilliance and resilience is amazing but I wouldn’t want to miss a minute of my own place in creation.

Total life list?

I stopped after surpassing 500. Chasing/Listing was taxing my treasured moments of birding bliss.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

Patzcuaro and Zihautinejo, Mexico

Your mission in life as birder?

To create detailed photographs of all the feathered friends I get to encounter.

Do you have your own website, blog, or photo-sharing website?

Yes, thank you. My web is: and then my Flikr site:

Some of Bob's fantastic photography that he was willing to share (click to enlarge):

Any parting thoughts?

Birding is a constant experience of joy/bliss. Joseph Campbell said, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: Birds of Europe

I am honored that the good folks at Princeton University Press would send me a review copy of the new second edition Birds of Europe.  Now why would a country-boy in Idaho be interested in a field guide about birds in Europe?!  Like many Americans, I am a mutt of European ancestry.  I am 44% Danish, 31% English, and 6% Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, and German.  I hope to visit the lands of my ancestors some day for family history purposes, but also for some great birding!  Browsing through this field guide made me kind of sentimental thinking about the birds my forefathers must have seen in their day.

Looking at each page of this Birds of Europe field guide was a blast.  It was so fun to see some familiar birds from North America, but often with different names than I know.  I had to look at the Latin scientific names to see if they are the same species.  For example, the Firecrests of Europe look a lot like the Golden-crowned Kinglets of North America.  While these cousins belong to Regulus they are indeed separate species.  It was fun to dream about seeing the many varieties of species unique to the old world.

Now, let's get down to the review of this book as a field guide and a European reference:

The cover is glossy cardstock with nice plumage marking charts on both inside covers.  The cover, not being vinyl, was not made for real rugged outdoor use.  The book is sized appropriately for a vest or small pack for outdoor use, but a tad on the heavy side due to all the content.  There is no quick-reference-guide made out of different paper for easy reference, but the table of contents and index, along with headers at the top of each page work sufficiently well for looking up species.  

My favorite features of this field guide - that I have never seen or noticed before in other field guides - are the at-a-distance views of each species portrayed in their typical habitat and posture.  The artistic renderings and marking pointers with concise text are Sibley-esque which I really like in a field guide.  There are maps for most species, and those without are usually vagrants anyway.  The maps cover all of Europe and the Mediterranean, including northern Africa.  I wish the maps showed the borders of each country, but I suppose Europe is all about the European Union without borders, right?!

The write-up of each species if really quite fun to read.  Apart from all the new English adjectives that I have to look up in the dictionary, Svensson's personality shines through as he shares interesting tidbits about the birds, like this gem:

(Bohemian) Waxwing - "In winter can eat frostbitten and semi-fermented berries, which may intoxicate the bird and render it temporarily incapable of flight.  Has apparently developed a highly efficient liver (better than humans) to cope with this, since it usually recovers quickly."

Svensson also goes into much more detail about variations in male, female, and juvenile plumages than I am accustomed to in North American field guides.  It was also interesting to note the abundant use of the male 
and female
♀ symbols (which I had to look up online to even see how to add such symbols using the keyboard).

Asian, African, and North American vagrants are covered very well in this field guide, always a plus!  All though I'm not a European birder, this field guide seems to be very comprehensive

Because this Birds of Europe field guide uses different language to describe plumage and bird vocalizations it will be a valuable tool for North American birders to use as a reference when studying species that we share with Europe.  It presents a new perspective that will enhance our understanding.

Birds of Europe, Second Edition - text and maps by Lars Svensson, Illustrations and captions by Killiam Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom and published by Princeton University Press can be purchased online for as low as $17.77 while its list price is $29.95.