Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Birder Profile: Greg Miller

Greg Miller
Sugarcreek, Ohio
How did you get into birding?

My dad got me into birding at such a young age that I do not remember my first time out birding or even when I got binoculars—I just always had them. My dad was my birding mentor. He was kind and patient and loved birds. Birding with him was contagious.

Did you have a “spark bird”?

No. But my mom tells me I got exited about seeing ducks before I could talk.

How long have you been birding?

Over 50 years.

How often do you go birding?

Less than I’d like to—probably only 3-4 times per month on average. But anytime I am outside I am birding—sadly even when I am talking to people. Sorry folks, I get distracted!

And where do you regularly go birding? 

Mostly local—within the state of Ohio.

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

My favorite place to bird is NW Ohio in mid-May. I really like the warblers! I like birding my Big 4 —Southern California, Southeastern Arizona, Southern Texas, and Southern Florida.  I don’t have world birding experience. Someday I hope to travel more.

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

Within an hour’s drive of my home in Northeastern Ohio, my favorite areas are Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area (Wayne & Holmes County), Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area (Wayne County), Mohican State Park (Ashland County), and Woodbury Wildlife Area (Coshocton County).

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

Southeastern Ohio is completely under-birded. It may have nothing. Or it may be a serious surprise. But who knows? Hardly anyone birds there.

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. I love the listing and chasing, but my wallet and available time limits me. I am a watcher quite often just because I’m incredibly curious.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I currently have 2 pairs of binoculars 1) Kowa 8x42 because they’re light weight, durable, close focus, and a good value; and 2) Zeiss 10x40 for their optical clarity. The telescope I have now is a Swarovski with a 25-50x eyepiece. I have a Big Ear parabola (it’s a telescope for my ears). I have over 600 species of bird songs and calls on my Blackberry phone that I carry with me.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

AviSys is my favorite listing software. It’s easy to use and has great reporting capabilities.

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

Oh, my! That’s hard. I suppose some of the rarities I saw growing up have a lot of impact. It’s where I did most of my birding. I spent so many days seeing “normal” birds that when a rarity showed up I was more aware of its importance. During my earliest years of birding, that would include birds I saw with my dad--a Groove-billed Ani in a farmer’s field near my home and a Northern Wheatear—I had to hunt through my field guide because I didn’t recognize it at all. The white tail pattern was incredibly striking.

What is your favorite backyard bird?

Starling. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone. Haha. Just kidding. I find them immensely entertaining.

Any good backyard birding stories or amazing backyard bird sightings you can share?

One September I remember watching streams of Common Nighthawks flying in the evening—3 evenings in a row in early September. There were thousands of birds in a thin, smoke-like river of birds stretching from horizon to horizon. They appeared near sunset until dark all three evenings. To this day I have never witnessed so many nighthawks.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I have lots of bird books—it’s hard to recommend just one. One I am reading right now is a collection of essays by a friend of my in California, Todd Newberry. The book is “The Ardent Birder” and it is an interesting read. I enjoyed Kingbird Highway and The Big Year, too (even if it didn’t have me as one of characters). I have a pretty wide collection of field guides and I own all the ABA/Lane bird finding guides. And I love looking at maps and daydreaming.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

National Geographic is probably my overall favorite for size, convenience, and information. I love Sibley for the illustrations. My favorites growing up were Peterson and the Golden Guide.

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

Ooo. Tough questions.
1. The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds
2. Birdfinder: A Birder’s Guide to Planning North American Birding Trips
3. Any of a myriad of great field guides, especially one for their home state

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

Nope. No formal bird education.

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 am good with field identification of birds in North America. I am not as good with questions about other topics about birds.

What future birding plans do you have?

Bird hard. Bird fast. Things will never be the same again.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

American Birding Association, Ohio Ornithological Society, and Greater Mohican Audubon Society.

What is your nemesis bird?

I don’t really have a “nemesis” bird. I used to have one - Ross’s Gull. I chased after several individuals over a period of 10 years before seeing one in New York during a blizzard. But high on my list are a few more regular species I missed in Alaska during my Big Year (Arctic Warbler, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Red-legged Kittiwake, Whiskered Auklet). Other than that, White-winged Tern is pretty high on my most wanted list.

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

I lost my father and birding mentor in November, 2000. My mom is 80 and still doing well.

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

I enjoy fishing, golfing, photography, and cooking.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Hahahaha! Most of those are documented in the book, The Big Year.

What was your role in the creation of "The Big Year" movie? I heard rumor that you were the on-set birding consultant. Any truth to that? 

Yes. I was the birding consultant. And I was on the set for 3 weeks.

Were you able to convert any of the cast and crew into birders? 

I know of 4 people on set who went from not even knowing about the hobby of birdwatching to going out and buying binoculars and field guides because this is a really cool hobby.

Any behind the scenes birding experiences with cast/crew that you can share? Any cool bird sightings during the creation of the movie? 

I would love to share, but I can't due to non disclosure. I can tell you it was a great experience to meet the actors and work the folks who made the movie. I did keep an on-the-set bird list. I think my list was 77 species. It was pretty cool. Big birds would fly over and folks would ask for "the bird guy" because they were curious what it was.

With which cast members did you forge any particular lasting friendships?

The actors were cooler than I expected. Jack Black made me feel most "at home" while on the set.

What is your relationship today with Mark Obmascik, Sandy Komito, and Al Levantin?

Mark I communicate with some regularity. We are good friends. Al and I have always found it easy to talk to each other, but we don't get a chance to do much these days. I haven't talked to Sandy for a number of years now.

How will "The Big Year" movie help (or hurt) the public perception of and participation in the birdwatching pastime?

I think it will help birding's popularity. Folks on the set were excited to meet me. Some of the crew kept life lists. I hope folks are ready for an influx of new birders.

How accurate a portrayal is the book and the movie of the real Greg Miller?

Pretty accurate. At times, embarrassingly so.

Was the book accurate in the descriptions of your personal relationships and your financial state? (By the way, have you recovered from the debts racked up during your big year?) 

Yeah, pretty much. I was able to pay off the last of my 5 maxed out credit cards in 2004. And I'm still a chick magnet--with reverse polarity. :-)

There has been some online discussion among the birding community about the optics used in the movie. Can you share with us who was sporting which brands? 

We had all the great optics companies represented. I'm pretty sure I remember seeing Steve Martin with Swarovskis, Owen Wilson with Zeiss, and Jack Black with Kowa. But we had a bevy of binoculars and I don't remember what got used all the time.

Did the cast and crew appreciate the high-end optics?

I don't know if they knew they (the main actors) knew the difference between what they had and what a cheap pair of bins was like. haha.

Do you feel that technology in today's world makes doing a Big Year easier?

I did my big year without a laptop, a cell phone, or a GPS unit. There were no blogs, no facebook, and no tweets then either. All of these things would have helped stay up-to-date with the latest information available. There is also more readily available info on bird sightings on the Internet now too.

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

I suppose Northern Hawk Owl. It’s a fearless little owl that notices people, but does little about the sighting of people. It’s unmoved—almost like it really doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Of course, the owl is probably thinking about something more important—like FOOD! (me, too!)

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

In 2001 I was diagnosed with Leukemia (Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia). I was given a 50-50 chance of living beyond 5 years. I am truly grateful to be on the good side of that statistic!

Total life list?

I stopped counting at 768. I don’t have the money to make that my only pursuit. Besides, I pretty much spent a lifetime worth of money on just one year of birding.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

Attu—the Westernmost Aleutian Island of Alaska

Your mission in life as birder?

Being a good ambassador to promote birding and conservation awareness.

Continue to follow Greg Miller at www.GregMillerBirding.com.  Another fantastic recent interview with Greg at Z Bird Birding Blog.  You can join me in meeting Greg in person at the Midwest Birding Symposium at Lakeside, Ohio, Sept 15th-18th.

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!


  1. Awesome interview with an equally awesome person. I adore Greg Miller! Met him in person for the first time this year and he is the most down to earth, kind, excitable fella. A pleasure to bird with..I learned allot from him.

  2. That little snippet of arm you can see on Greg's right shoulder...that piece of arm belongs to Jack Black.

  3. Yeah..I saw the whole photo in Greg's phone.:)