How did you get into birding? Did you have a “spark bird”?
I started birding when I was 11 or 12, when my family moved to Greenfield, New York, on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains. I think there was less of a spark bird per se, and more of a spark in the sense that I was surrounded by birds; there were at least 120 species of birds within 1 mile of our house, and they all captivated me. It was a great location—there were three other houses and about 400 acres of land that our neighbors owned—hardwood and coniferous forests, alder swamp, pine plantation, old successional fields, hayfields, et cetera. I successfully misidentified just about every species I saw for a long time. Maybe I could call warblers my spark birds—there were at least 15 species present during the summer, and at least 24 species during migration. During the first couple of years that we lived there, I saw Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped “Myrtle” Warbler, Ovenbird, Black-throated Green Warbler, et cet. All got misidentified, but every single one of those species made a lasting impression. I still remember seeing my first Myrtle Warbler, and I still remember seeing my first Black-throated Green Warbler and thinking that it had to be the rarest bird in the world. I have no idea why I thought that, and I found out in time that in fact it was one of the most abundant warbler species, at least in the northeastern U.S.
If there was a mentor, I think it would have been my parents, in the sense that they somehow found time in their busy schedules to take me on numerous field trips with the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club until I got my own license and vehicle. But I taught myself through trial and error for a long time.
That’s not to say, though, that there have not been people who taught me identification tips; you can always learn something new. I can think of at least a couple of birders who I have learned an awful lot from, perhaps because I have birded with them a lot. Ryan O’Donnell has taught (or is trying) to teach me to remember to pay attention to common birds, because there can be subspecies, hybrids, or good birds hidden amongst the more common species. I tend to remember that when it comes to warblers and sparrows, but I’m not too patient with gulls—and I should be. Jay Carlisle taught me an awful lot—perhaps most notably how to identify distant migrating goshawks based on shape and structure; i.e., how to separate them from Cooper’s Hawks. Jeff Schultz at Southeastern Michigan Raptor Research (now called the Detroit River Hawk Watch) near Detroit, taught me to look far, far, far away to find and identify distant migrating raptors using my spotting scope.
How long have you been birding?
How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?
I try to bird for at least 5-10 minutes everyday, whether watching birds in my yard (really an apartment complex, but lots of trees around) or going to one of my favorite places in Cache County.
Do you have any local birding hotspots that may be yet unknown to other birders that you would be willing to share with us?
I have several I really like, but I think they have all already been mentioned-Rendezvous Park, Sue's Ponds, and Benson Marina. I also really like Dry and Green Canyons. There are a couple of locations that I am going to stay mum about.
Where in Utah would you say is the most under-birded place that may have great untapped potential?
I think there may be a fair amount to be discovered in the mountains, particularly in the western and northwestern parts of the state. Nobody goes out there, except for an occasional visit to the Lucin. But I also still wonder about species right under our noses. I think that there might be more to discover in the high mountain forests such as the Uintas. They get birded, but how many people are out owling in those forests in February and March, when boreal owls are singing? I don't think very many—maybe a few visits here and there, but certainly not regularly. I'm not saying that there are boreal owls everywhere, but you're not going to find them if you're not out listening for them when they are talking, and they are usually talking in high-elevation forests, 8,000' and higher in late winter, after dark, when most birders are not out there. There are also question marks for other species in the state—for example Least Bittern, Mountain Plover, Baird's Sparrow. The majority of the birding effort is focused on the Wasatch Front, from Provo to Brigham City, plus Cache County, and then southeastern Utah. There are certainly other locations here and there that get visited, but I would guess 70% of the state does not get birded regularly.
How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, “ticker”, “twitcher” all of the above, or something else?
I think maybe all of the above. I will chase a really good bird if I think it's going to stay put and I have a chance of relocating it, but I much prefer to find "my own" birds. I have become a lister in the sense that I keep lists as a personal challenge and incentive to keep things fresh, but I usually don't need that kind of motivation. I still can be enthralled by watching an American Robin or Black-capped Chickadee, even after 25 years.
What kind of birding equipment do you use?
I use Leica 8 x 50 binoculars and a Leica Televid 77mm spotting scope. I use a Pentax Optio digital camera for occasionally passable digiscoped shots.
How do you keep track of your bird observations?
For a long time, I wrote down my sightings as lists either on traditional paper checklists, or in notebooks, and for a while I even entered them in Excel. But sometime in 2008 Ryan O'Donnell introduced me to eBird, and I have become a convert, although I think he had to pester me about it for a while before I became convinced of its value. I enter of all of my sightings in eBird, and have done so since summer 2007, and I also have gone back and entered many of my old checklists. eBird is wonderful because allows you to quickily and easily enter your data—all of your data in one place where it is easily accessible. Plus you can create maps, graphs, summary tables, compare your lists with those of other birders...and you can download it and back it up on your hard drive. I love it....all my data is in one place, and with a few clicks of the mouse, I can see when I last saw a Wood Thrush, et cet....it's a wonderful tool, and I encourage everyone to use it and fill out complete checklists.
I keep track of what I see because I like to go back and reminisce, and because there is no way I can remember without lists. For many species, I have no idea (without looking at my data) when I first saw a species, and sometimes, for species that I've only seen once or twice, I can't even remember if I've seen it before. eBird data, whether your own or not are also useful because they can help you focus on when and where to look for species...if you look back at your old data, as well as those from other birders who enter their data into eBird, you can figure out when you should be looking for, say, the first Swainson's hawks in the spring, or maybe when you should be looking for rare migrants such as Red-eyed Vireo. And most importantly, all of your data is combined with everyone elses data—it gives eBird an enormous data set to work with, and they've done some cool stuff with it.
What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?
There have been many, many memorable moments over the years, but I think my favorite has to be a Le Conte's Sparrow that I saw on the campus of my undergraduate school in Oswego, in upstate New York in late April 1993. It was a brief look, probably about 45 seconds, and I never saw the bird again, but it was special because it was the first rare bird I found all by myself, and because it was accepted by the New York State Avian Records Committee as the third accepted record of Le Conte's Sparrow for the state. But there have been many other memorable moments shared with birding friends.....stuff you look back on and say—wow, that was awesome...
What is your favorite backyard bird?
My current favorite yard bird is “my” resident Western Screech-Owl pair. It’s nice to see at least one of them on an almost daily basis, although I don’t think the black-capped chickadees are too enthused about their presence.
Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?
Much more information is now available on the web than when I first started birding, but I still I really enjoy Birding (put out by the American Birding Association). Websites I frequent are eBird, Birdingonthenet, David Sibley's wesbite, and the Birds of North America (online life histories of all bird species normally occuring in the US and Canada). Ok, I don't read the Birds of North America, but it is a great place to find answers to your questions about what you see in the field-all from the scientific literature.
Which is your favorite field guide and why?
Sibley—I think he was the first to paint just about every single species in flight. Birds fly, right? And a good percentage of the time the birds you're trying to id are in flight, right? So why would you not paint them in flight?
Which three books from your personal birding library would you recommend to other birders?
1. Sibley Guide to Birds (any edition, Eastern, Western, or the big Sibley)
2. Handbook of the Birds of the World (any volume)
3. Hawks in Flight (Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton)- A classic and a must-read if you are going to be serious about identifying raptors in flight.
|Skulling a Cassin's Vireo|
I have a Bachelor's in Biology (spent half my time birding) from SUNY-Oswego in upstate New York, and a Master's in Biology from Boise State University in Idaho; my thesis focused on effects of prescribed fire on breeding forest bird communities in Oregon.
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 would say I am proficient at birding by ear (songs and calls), and identifying songbirds and raptors. I really enjoy the challenge of identifying birds just by hearing them talk to each other, and I also really like the challenge of putting a name on distant raptors, perched or flying.
What future birding plans do you have?
I hope to see 700 species in the US before I die, and I would like to bird in the Tropics and Europe. And hopefully spend much of the rest of my life watching birds.
Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?
I participate in a lot of Bridgerland Audubon Society fieldtrips, and I am a member of the American Birding Association.
What is your nemesis bird?
Gyrfalcon. Yes, I've seen one-but just one. I've chased at least five maybe more, and I've spent lots of time birding in winter in areas where they have been seen on a semi-annual basis, particulalry upstate NY and at hawkwatches in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Any birding related pet-peeves you’d like to vent about here?
1. Try not to be the Bird Police. I’ve made the mistake of doing it, and it often does not work well. A healthy dose of skepticism is fine, and is an important part of birding, because you’re more likely to see common species than rare ones, but even if the person is wrong, does it really matter? You know what you saw, and it’s on their list, not yours. Besides, you just never know. Birds have wings, and they don’t read field guides. It probably is just a common bird rather than a rarity, but…my lifer Brambling came thanks to a novice birder in Kuna ,Idaho…I’m glad Ryan Brady (who saw the post on the Idaho list) and I drove out to Kuna and looked, rather than just saying “no, there is no way you have a Brambling at your feeder”.
2. Don’t trespass just to see a bird. Ask first! People usually have the Posted signs up for a reason, and you’re just exacerbating the problem if you ignore them. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll say yes if you ask nicely, and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll call the cops if you don’t. And it might cause otherwise tolerant people to take a hard line against birders, as has happened at more than a couple of places in southeastern Arizona, for example.
3. Go easy on the tapes and the MP3 playbacks. It’s not just about seeing the bird; you can cause elevated stress levels, and cause birds to waste precious resources and sometimes even abandon territories if you keep playing that audio lure. Play it once, briefly, and let it be. And don’t keep coming back to the same location and playing the tape. Stop, listen, let the birds talk, and don’t intrude.
Anything about your family you’d like to share with us?
I've trained my parents who still live in upstate NY to report what they see in their yard to me. And what they report usually makes me really jealous...
Outside of birding, what are your other interests or hobbies?
I love being outside; particularly in the mountains - I hike and snowshoe a lot. I enjoy a good book, and I have a passionate interest in railroads, historical and contemporary. I have a collection of railroad books almost as big as my collection of bird books, and I have been known to drive hundreds of miles and shoot lots of slide film on trains. I will chase a good train, for example a steam train excursion run by the Union Pacific, just as readily as I will chase a really good bird.
Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?
I once saw a gull fall off a sidewalk.
If you were a bird, which species would you be and why?
I think I would be a Merlin, because they are really pugnacious, cranky, and fast. Plus they are just beautiful, they travel a lot, and they live in beautiful landscapes. Besides, I can't sing to save my life, so I'd make an awful songbird.
Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?
I seem to be a magnet for attacks by nesting goshawks. Part of the reason is because I've spent a lot of time censusing songbirds in habitat used by nesting goshawks, but I think I must have a sign on my head that says "Goshawks hit here". I've been attacked at at least three different nest locations, two in Oregon, and one in upstate NY. Come to think of it, I also saw 16 migrant goshawks in one day (eight adult, eight immatures) in November 1999 when I was the official counter at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. That's the reward for lots of boredom and cold days in November - I think only a couple of other people were present to enjoy that day.
Total life list? 568 species.
Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?
Either Cave Creek Canyon in southeastern Arizona or Bensten Rio Grande State Park in Texas. I am not sure that either qualifies, but both are fantastic birding locations; oh, and the scenery at Cave Creek Canyon - That's pretty awesome too.
Your mission in life as birder?
If I can reach just a handful of people, and convert them not only into birders, but into people who will protect and defend not only birds, but the natural resources that birds and the rest of us depend on, than I will have done my job. Can you imagine a world without birds? I didn't think so...
|Birder Profile is a regular 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!|