Friday, December 2, 2011

Birder Profile: Laurence Butler

Laurence Butler
Phoenix, Arizona
I got into birding when I was pretty young, but I can’t say that I was really a birder until recently. My Dad had been interested in birds and birding for a while before I really started paying attention. As a pilot and lifelong appreciator of aviation, it must’ve come naturally to him. The frequent traveling also provided nice opportunities to briefly bird all over the country. We had some great family trips in Florida, California, and even Hawaii, but I was usually preoccupied looking for snakes or frogs. My appreciation of birds took a huge leap forward when we took a trip to upstate New York. I was probably 15 or 16 at the time, and we went on a trek through a wildlife preserve near the Finger Lakes. Laurence Butler Sr. pointed out a female grosbeak looking rather brown and lonely on an outstretched tree branch. He set off after some Cerulean warblers in the distance, but for some reason I decided to sit and watch the grosbeak. No sooner had I plopped down then the handsome male Rose-breasted flew in and let out his song. It was totally stunning. He was big, beautiful, and unmistakable, even though I didn't know such a bird existed at the time. I was pretty well hooked from then on, which means I've been birding for about 8 years. I haven't been diligent with lists or recorded sightings until recently though, and keeping a blog along with photographs has really helped to that effect.

On average I bird two times a week, 1-2 times during the weekend and once during the week if I can. I'm right in the middle of Phoenix, so my non-holiday birding options are limited until next summer. For the time being, I'm quite content birding at the Desert Botanical Garden, the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert, and some of the larger parks and water features in the Phoenix area. There are many good birding spots within a 2 hour drive from the city, and of course the birding gems (Madera Canyon and Chiricahua Mtns.) farther southeast that I hope to visit again this spring. Belize is the most exotic place I've visited, but I largelly missed out on the birding opportunities there. Birding down in Harlingen, TX was pretty great though. In the 3 times I've gone, we've seen Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, Anhingas, Kiskadees, Vermillion Flycatchers, Flamingos, Chachalacas, and lots of other first-time birds.

I've never chased after a rare bird, but that's probably because I've still got lots and lots of common birds yet to see. That being said, I'm pretty impatient with my birding, and I often romp around and chase after the birds more than I should. It's harder to sit and wait for the birds in the desert, I think, since the surrounding scenery is not always as beautiful as in other locations. So, as a birder (and as a bird), I'd describe myself as a Bumbling Gawker.

I have some Bushnell 8 x 42 Binoculars and a Sony Alpha 33 camera with a 300mm lens. I do most of my birding with the naked eye though, and since I move around a lot I don't consider a scope to be a good investment right now.  I'm pretty bad about keeping track of my sightings. I realize the benefits and the virtues of eBird, but whenever I try to set up an account I'm overcome by the hastle and just default to the list I keep on my website.

My favorite bird sighting? I mentioned the rose-breasted grosbeak earlier, and that probably takes the cake. I also saw a pileated woodpecker attack an iguana in Belize (in a territorial fashion), which was pretty awesome. When I was climbing some bluffs near Florence, CO I also saw an amazing display of raptorial dexterity. While climbing atop one of the higher plateaus, I saw a buteo hovering maybe another 200 feet in the air. It was riding the thermals quite contentedly, but was soon swarmed by a conspiracy of crows. I watched this mystery buteo endure their harrying swoops for several minutes without much reaction, wondering why raptors put up with this sort of disrespect. Then, quite unexpectedly, the bird flapped its wings with one great lunge and turned with its momentum over to its back, talons now facing the approaching crow. This barrel roll caught the crow completely by surprise, and it was already committed to the attack. The hawk made one clean, precise swipe before continuing in its rollover so that it was again right side up. With the occasional feeble flap, the smitten crow plummeted towards the earth. Like a WWII plane with its tail on fire, the bird spiraled down, strings of viscera visibly trailing and flailing in its wake as the crow disappeared into the canyon. The conspiracy was over. The other crows got the heck out of there, and the hawk resumed its smug soaring over its domain.

As far as yard bird stories, unfortunately I don’t have a yard right now…I loved seeing the Scott’s and Hooded Orioles at my parent’s house, along with the adorable Gamble’s Quail. I lived in a dingy apartment complex in Dallas for several years while I was going to school, and one night while I was heading towards the library, I passed the fishpond near the exit of the complex. Much to my surprise, there was a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron prospecting at the water’s edge. I’ve never seen these elusive birds anywhere else, though late at night/early in the morning I’ve seen up to five around this tiny pond. Once, while sitting on an adjacent bench with my then fiancé, we even saw the Night heron pull a massive crawfish out of the water. The crawfish was too big to eat, and after thrashing around for a bit, the heron just left it by our bench. Obviously we took the crawfish home and ate it with garlic butter sauce. There was much pomp and circumstance. How many people get to eat seafood that was fresh-caught by a night heron? That could be a new and expensive restaurant concept…

Birding websites I read and recommend: Well, takes the cake. I visit the ABA websites from time to time as well. Scott Simmons, Mia McPherson, Ron Dudley, and Ron Bielefeld all have amazing photography blogs that I frequent, and I check the websites of all the other BiF! contributors regularly as well.

I’ve only used a couple different field guides. When I started out, it was with the Golden Field Guide and the Peterson’s classic. Since I’ve gotten more serious/diligent about accurate identifying, I usually use the Peterson’s or Sibley’s guide to narrow it down, and then verify it with different pictures and descriptions on the Internet. I haven't built a birding library yet. However, my wife and I did recently receive some really old (published 1897) copies of Audobon and his Journals. The two volumes bring together Audobon's early journal entries with commentary and context provided by his granddaughter Maria R. Audobon. I haven't been able to read through much yet, but it seems like quite the prize.

Do I consider myself an expert (or at least proficient) on any specific family of birds? Ha! Answering this question seems like tempting fate. At the risk of Graecian hubris, I can say I'd feel comfortable talking about Gambel's Quail, Rosy-Faced Lovebirds, and maybe Verdins—cerainly not as an expert.

I would like to see and photograph all of the North American birds before I die, so I plan to do least those that are resident for some part of the year. This spring/early summer I'm hoping to make a trip down to southeast Arizona to see a Trogon and some of the other sky-island gems to be found down there. I bird a lot at the Desert Botanical Garden so I know some of the docents and other birders there pretty well, but that's the extent of it.

I feel like I have more nemesis birds than ally birds. There are a couple warblers that have continually frustrated my photographic efforts, but just in terms of seeing a bird I’d have to say it is the Yellow-Headed Blackbird. It seems like in all the guides, websites and even those little informational plaques you see at nature preserves, the Yellow-Headed is listed as ‘locally common’ or ‘year-round resident’. That’s never been the case for me. I’ve been dying to see them, but have had not luck at all.

For the most part, it's always nice to encounter other birders during my excursions. Swapping stories, recommendations, and sharing company can build up any experience, and is often invaluable for a young birder such as myself. However, it can be bothersome when people are just looking for an excuse to boast about their life lists or diseminate their haughty opinions on other birders or birding behavior. The eagerness among birders to share their wisdom and experiences can sometimes slip into condescension, or at least come off that way. In that vein, I've had people disparage my camera/lens in my photographic endeavors. That always seemed pretty inappropriate.

Outside of birding, I love soccer and try to play as much as possible. I got married this summer, so my best and brightest interest is my wife, who is very supportive of my other hobbies.

Embarrassing birding experiences? I once observed a large black vulture flying high in the distance, probably for a good 3 or 4 seconds, before realizing it was actually a garbage bag.

If I were a bird, which species would I be? This is a difficult question for which I still don’t have a complete answer. Of course, being a raptor at the top of the food chain would be pretty nice. Soaring high and eating meat seems much more illustrious than living as a grackle or gull. Herons seem to have it pretty good though too. They have a much more plentiful/consistent food supply and little to fear from predators. They really get to take life slow, speding their time snoozing and casually hunting when it suits them. There are also the swifts and the swallows. I sure would love to have that sort of speed and in-flight dexterity. I may not be able to ever pick a favorite until I've tried them all. Maybe I'd be an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, and instantly endear myself to birders all across North America…

I haven’t been birding long and hard enough to have much to brag about. My life list is pretty humble as is my range of photographed species. I am deliberating starting a birding club of sorts at the grade school where I teach. It would be open to students and faculty, maybe with excursions once a month. I try to catalogue my birding experiences, as well as birds I’ve seen/photographed, at my and my wife’s blog: Of course, I’m now also proud and privileged to contribute to the great "Birding Is Fun!" enterprise!
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. Great profile and another great blog to follow, just perusing now. Love the buteo story, must have been amazing.

  2. Love your profile Laurence. I remember seeing my first male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, I fell in love too!

  3. I enjoyed reading the post, Laurence (and Robert). It brought back fond memories of when my fascination with birds began (I'm not a birder really, just a bird photographer...). Don't let thoughtless comments about your camera gear discourage you in the least. Most likely those folks started out with less than ideal gear too. I enjoyed your photos very much.