Thursday, March 24, 2011

Utah Birder Profile: Ryan O'Donnell

Ryan O'Donnell
Logan, Utah

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”?

Despite growing up in the city, I feel like I've always been interested in the natural world. In fact, my first word; before "mom," "dad," or anything else; was "bird." A few years after that, I remember being impressed with my father's knowledge of the natural world. He wasn't a biologist, or a birder, or a hunter. He worked (and still works) in automotive insurance. But he loved nature, and as a young child, I noticed. I remember, at an age of less than ten - maybe five? - hearing a bird sing in my front yard, and having my dad tell me it was a chickadee. I was fascinated that he could give a name to that sound, and even tell me what the bird looked like, just by hearing it. I wanted to be able to do that. So in a way, Black-capped Chickadee was my hook bird.

In 2006, I was working in Washington State and moved in with a coworker and excellent birder, Casey Richart. Just as I had been impressed with my father's ability to identify a chickadee by its call, I was impressed by Casey's ability to identify a raptor from what seemed like miles away. Casey and I went birding several times, and I learned a lot from those trips Casey would probably qualify as my birding mentor. It was while birding with Casey that I realized that birding is not just a matter of memorizing the field marks pointed out with little arrows in the field guides, but that it is a skill that can be honed for a lifetime: learning the subtle differences in how a hawk holds its wings, recognizing the difference between chip notes of sparrows, or learning to tell the sex and age of birds. Birding was a hobby that would challenge me as long as I cared to let it.

How long have you been birding?

My interest in birds has been slowly growing since I was a kid, but I usually consider the start of my birding to be 1999, when I took an Ornithology course at the University of New Hampshire, where I was working on my Bachelor's degree.  That was the first time I took trips specifically to look for and identify birds.

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

I go birding about once a week on average, usually a weekend afternoon.  But I'm always paying attention to the birds around me, so you could say I go birding every day.  Most of my birding is done pretty close to home, around Cache Valley, because I think there is plenty to see here and I'd generally rather spend my time looking at birds than driving.  Some of my favorite local spots are Rendezvous Park, the Logan Fish Hatchery, Sue's Ponds (Logan River Wetlands), the Logan Polishing Ponds, and Benson Marina.

Where is your favorite place to bird in Utah?  in the world?

In Utah, my favorite place by far is Lytle Ranch and the adjacent Beaver Dam Slope, in the southwest corner of Washington County.  Not only are there many species of birds that are only found in that part of the state, but it is an excellent place to find vagrants.  It is just such a biologically unique place.

My favorite place in the world is anywhere I haven't been, especially if no one else has been their, either.  I recently returned from a trip to Jordan, for example.  It is relatively little known as a birding destination, so several of the birds I saw were species that were not known to occur in the country at that time of year.

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

In Cache County, I think Rendezvous Park (including parts of the adjacent Logan River Golf Course and the Logan River Trail) is only starting to be recognized as the hotspot that it is.  It is very convenient, being located right on the edge of Logan, and it is a relatively intact segment of lowland riparian habitat in a valley that has been largely converted to agriculture and urban areas.  The river and the golf course give it a range of habitat types.  Highlights from that small city park in the last three years or so have included several Northern Waterthrushes, a White-throated Sparrow, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a Mississippi Kite, among others.

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

This is a big state, but most of the population (and thus most of the birding) is concentrated along the Wasatch Front.  Anywhere away from there is underbirded, except maybe Washington County.  I think the Colorado River and its tributaries, for example in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area, are underbirded and probably hold more rarities than we know, especially vagrants from the south.  For example, a Canyon Towhee and a Thick-billed Kingbird have been seen in that area in recent years.  I also think the southeast part of our state, including the Moab area, is under-birded.  Same with the northwest part of our state. 

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

All of the above and more.  I'm certainly a lister.  I like to keep track of the birds I've seen.  eBird has been a big part of that, and keeps many lists for me automatically when I enter my sightings.  I don't often chase (or «twitch») birds, but I will chase a lifer if it's within a few hours' drive and likely to stick around.  I'm also a bird photographer and I've recently started recording bird sounds, a «bird recordist» I guess.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

My binoculars are Nikon Monarch 10x42.  I use a Nikon spotting scope.  I always have at least a point-and-shoot camera for digiscoping rare birds, and usually my SLR as well with an 80-400mm lens.  In the last year I’ve been recording some bird sounds, too.  For that, I use an Olympus LS-10, usually with an Audio Technica AT835b shotgun microphone.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

I use eBird exclusively and extensively.  I think it is the most powerful birding «software» out there, and it is completely free.  More important than that, it immediately makes my observations part of a global network that helps birders find more about birds and helps ornithologists learn more about their abundance, distribution, and migration.  In that way, I feel that every birding trip contributes a small part to bird conservation.

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

It is so hard to pick just one.  I love pelagic birding, so my favorite bird trips would be those I've taken on the open ocean.  But I think the sighting I'm most proud of would be the Mississippi Kite I spotted in Logan.  Although it was not accepted by the state Bird Records Committee because of the brief duration of the observations, I know that I saw the first of that species documented in Utah, and I'm pretty happy about that.

What is your favorite backyard bird?

My most rare backyard bird was a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak that showed up for a day last spring.  But my favorite regulars are the Dark-eyed Juncos.  I love the variety of different subspecies, some of which can be quite challenging to identify.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

The only birding publication I subscribe to is Audubon Magazine.  For websites, I highly recommend eBird for learning about bird distribution and keeping track of your observations.  If you want to learn about (or share!) bird sounds, the place to go is Xeno-Canto.  It has tens of thousands of bird recordings from around the world, mapped, dated, identified, and described.  I don't think I'll ever buy another bird cd again.  To learn about Utah birds specifically, I go to often.  I also find the rare bird photos at Surfbirds to be addicting, and a good way to keep up on rare birds being seen around the country.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

For birding in Utah, I'm torn between Sibley (western edition) and National Geographic (western edition).  Sibley had been my favorite for many years, but it is due for an updating.  I think the latest edition of the National Geographic guide tops the Sibley with its more accurate maps and inclusion of more rarities, and lacks nothing in the accuracy and quality of the drawings either.  Some of the older National Geographic editions had less accurate drawings of some species, but these have almost all been replaced in the latest edition.  Sibley shows more poses and plumages of the birds, however.  I usually carry either one of these in my car, and consult the other one at home.

Which three books from your personal birding library would you recommend to other birders

«Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds» by Christopher Cokinos.  An engaging and inspiring account of how and why we lost the species of birds that have gone extinct in North America.  Many birders don't think much about the species that are no longer here – they aren't even shown in most field guides.  But these are an important reminder of what can happen if we don't speak out for the species we love.

«Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding» by Scott Weidensaul.  It is fascinating to me that this hobby of ours has such a colorful history full of drama.  This book puts our pasttime into a historical context in a style that is fun and informative.

«The Big Year» by Mark Obmascik.  I understand this book has recently been made into a movie.  This is the tale of a competition between three interesting characters, and famous birders, to see the most species in North America in a single year.  Reading this book made me want to see more birds, a sign of a good birding book.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

I took one semester of Ornithology as an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire.

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 better at birding by sight than by sound, although I'm getting better at sounds.  So, I consider myself to be more of a relative expert in the tricky visual identifications.  I particularly enjoy spending time sorting through large flocks of gulls.

What future birding plans do you have?

The next big birding trip will be my first pelagic out of North Carolina this summer.  I'm looking forward to seeing some new tubenoses, like Black-capped Petrel, Cory's Shearwater, and several species of Storm-Petrel.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I'm involved with the National Audubon Society and especially with my local chapter, the Bridgerland Audubon Society.  I currently serve on their Board of Trustees and I am their Field Trip Coordinator.

What is your nemesis bird?

I can't think of any species that I should have seen by now but I haven't.  In Cache County, Gray Partridge was a nemesis bird that I finally found last fall.  I suppose American Bittern is a peristing nemesis bird for Cache County, but they are not very common here.

Any birding related pet-peeves you’d like to vent about here?

Active birders that read birding listserves but never post their sightings.  If you don’t want to be involved in the community of birders, that’s fine.  But if you are taking advantage of the community of birders without contributing to that community, well, that’s not too cool.  If you appreciate reading about other people’s findings, share your own once in a while.  It doesn’t have to be an amazing find, just share a trip list or the latest activity at your feeder, at least.

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

My parents, brother, and sister all live in Seattle, where I grew up.  My fiancee Stephanie is also a birder, but perhaps keeps the hobby to a more reasonable level than I do!

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

Bird photography combines my two favorite hobbies, birding and photography.  I’ve recently gotten into recording birds sounds, as a natural extension of birding and my desire to learn to bird by ear better.  (

I am a graduate student, and for my research I study the conservation genetics of Northern Leopard Frogs.  I’m also very interested in amphibians and reptiles, and I’m always watching for them when I’m birding and vice versa.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

I have a friend who, in addition to her life list, keeps a list of species that have pooped on her.  She was excited when I found a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings on the campus of Utah State University, and was jealous when another friend received a small aerial package of digested fruit seeds while we were watching them.

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

I'm not sure I could pick a species, but I'd definitely be a migrant.  I love to travel, and I love to travel to hot places.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

I'm proud of holding the record for a Cache County, UT Big Year, with 242 species.  I'm looking forward to doing another county big year after the next time I move to a new county, but I don't plan on doing another one here.

Total life list?

749.  The latest addition was a Lesser Kestrel in Jordan.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

I've birded in three countries outside of North America: Costa Rica, Colombia, and Jordan.  I think Jordan is probably the most exotic in terms of the proportion of species that were new to me and in terms of how rarely it is birded.  Colombia was pretty close as well, and some of the parks we visited in the Magdalena Valley felt very remote.

Your mission in life as birder?

I would like to some day be skilled enough to be paid to lead bird trips to exotic places.  I would also like to teach other people around me appreciate the beauty and diversity of birds so that they value them and their habitat.

Birder Profile is a regular 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!


  1. A question for Ryan. When are you going to be in NC for your pelagic?

    I'm scheduled for the weekend of June 11-12. Say hi if you're on the boat!

  2. Nate: I think we're going in mid or late July, but I haven't actually bought the tickets yet. I'm going with two friends and it's been tough finding a time when we can all make it. I hope you see some good stuff!