1. You’re a biologist who works for Ohio’s Division of Wildlife, and you’ve been interested in natural history for “as long as you can remember.” Did this youthful interest start with birds, or did the bird thing develop along the way?
I became interested in birds by age 6 or thereabouts – so long ago I can’t recall! In the fourth grade, other students would quiz me by showing me bird photos while covering the name, and I’d usually be able to name the species. Growing up near the wild and wonderful Olentangy River in Worthington, Ohio no doubt helped spark an interest in the environment and birds in particular. Along the path of my development as a young birder I got my parents and one brother hooked, too. This was especially useful when I needed someone to drive me to the scene of some rare bird before I got my driver’s license!
2. You wear many hats – birder, naturalist, botanist, photographer, conservationist and writer. If you had to introduce yourself in one sentence, what would it be?
I consider myself an ecologist more than anything else, and if a label is needed ecologist might be the best one for me. I am VERY interested in the complexities of nature and how various species interact. Gaining a better understanding of the various factors that go into sustaining populations of Yellow-throated Warblers or Mississippi Kites, for example, has made me a much better birder. My professional career as a botanist has also been invaluable – serious botanical and zoological interests are not commonly shared amongst most people in the natural sciences, and knowing plants well has given me a much broader perspective on animals, I think. That said, I may be more interested in insects than anything right now – the world of bugs is extraordinary and massive, and they pretty much make the world go around.
3. As a biologist turned writer, whom do you like to read? What naturalist writers would you recommend?
Scott Weidensaul is way up there. He is one of the few contemporary natural history writers with a real knack for engaging writing that blends science and the magic of nature in a compelling way. But to be honest, I don’t read much by “naturalist writers.” I am a voracious reader, but when I am in book writing mode, as I am now, much of what passes before my eyes is more along the lines of research. For pleasure, it’s mostly nonfiction unrelated to natural history: John Grisham, Wilbur Smith, Stephen King, etc. But back to your question: Read all of Weidensaul’s stuff – highly recommended!
3.5. I have to ask – and I won’t count it as one of the 10 questions – is that really you doing a wheely on a motorcycle in your twitter picture?
You can mention bikes. They’re my second love! Yes, that is me in the photo doing a reverse wheelie, which is known as a “stoppie.” The bike is my current unit, a 2009 Ducati Monster 1100S. I practically grew up on motorcycles. My first real bike was a 1974 Honda Elsinore CR125M motocrosser – got that when I was 12. I’ve had lots of different machines over the years: Buell, Harley-Davidson, Hodaka, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha. The Ducati is my first of that marque, and it is one cool machine. I used to occasionally drag race a Harley, and later a Yamaha V-Max, and have done track days on my sports bikes.
I don’t think it is overly healthy to become fixated on one pursuit to the exclusion of all other interests. Being at least intermittently immersed in motorcycle circles almost to the degree that I am with birds, botany and other natural history communities has been great. It’s given me friends with very different views and goals, and perhaps helped to expand my horizons. Another lifelong passion is weightlifting – it’s a great multifaceted form of exercise that gives you real usable strength. My peak bench press was 440 lbs, and I’m not too far off of that right now. Scores of hours in the gym has connected me to yet another type of crowd – very different from the bird-watching set!
4. Your interest in nature began at a young age. What is your advice for teachers and parents? How can we influence this generation to become nature lovers and conservationists?
In my view, the best way to get kids interested in nature is to get them out in it. And then show them some cool stuff, whether it is a Belted Kingfisher or a pitcher-plant or a wheelbug. One of the best ways to go about this is to encourage the planting of native plants. With so many kids so pressed for time these days – soccer games, other extracurricular activities, myriad electronic diversions, TV, etc. – the backyard may be the most likely place for exposure to something cool. As nearly all of our native fauna is co-evolved with native flora, a yard full of native plants is FAR more likely to attract interesting birds, insects and other critters. And it’s a lot easier to get kids out in the yard than off on some far-flung expedition.
That said, it is a tragedy that so many schools now have little to no money for field trips. elementary and high school day field trips to interesting natural areas are a great way to introduce young people to birds and nature.
5. To me, Birds of Ohio is a field guide where you share knowledge you’ve gained over the years, while Wild Ohio seems like a love letter to the state you call home. Is that an accurate assessment of these books? What inspired you to write the books you have?
I guess those are pretty fair assessments and thank you for mentioning those books! I loved working on Birds of Ohio, and my editors at Lone Pine Publishing were fabulous. The best thing about doing that book was the 150 or so words that I was allotted for each species, to say whatever I wished. That was a great opportunity to attempt to interject interesting factoids, trivia, ecological relationships, etc., in an effort to make the bird more personal to readers. And it was indeed a wonderful chance to put down on paper all of the stuff that I’ve tried to learn about Ohio’s birds over 30 or so years of birding the Buckeye State!
Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage, was written with the goal of raising conservation awareness, and interesting people in nature. I was fortunate to have worked with Gary Meszaros on that project; he’s one of the best nature photographers in the business. We chose 40 of the most pristine natural areas in Ohio, and used words and imagery to drive home the point that Ohio has plenty of highly significant largely undisturbed places left, they are full of rare and intriguing flora and fauna, and we’d better protect what remains. We were flattered when the book won the 2009 Ohioana Book Award, too!
6. What is your favorite bird or your favorite birding moment? It doesn’t necessarily need to be a rare species, just a moment you found meaningful.
It may have been Pete Dunne – perhaps some other ornithological luminary, I can’t recall, who said this when asked about his favorite bird: “Whichever one I’m looking at, at the moment!” I subscribe to that and still spend a lot of time observing common birds and how they operate. For instance, a male American Robin in fresh plumage is easily one of the most stunning songbirds in North America, but we get jaded to them because of their abundance. I try to avoid getting jaded to even the most commonplace of bird species, and enjoy them all.
That said, I am particularly smitten with warblers, and am currently at work on a life-history type book of the eastern North American wood-warblers. On a recent northern Michigan trip I was able to spend lots of time with Kirtland’s Warblers in the Elfin Jack Pine Forests, and that bird is a favorite. I also like Belted Kingfishers and Eastern Kingbirds quite a bit, as these animals ooze with attitude and character. The American Dipper is intriguing, and Acorn Woodpeckers are just about as cool as peckers of wood come. Great Blue Heron was probably a major spark bird for me and I still enjoy them immensely. Nothing beats a ferocious Sharp-shinned Hawk – if they were the size of condors, we’d all be dead! You see how this is going. Best not to ask me that question!
I have scads of favorite birding moments, courtesy of lots of time afield and lots of travels. One that stands out occurred in Costa Rica. I was watching a number of Black Guans visiting feeders at the beautiful Bosque de Paz biological preserve towards dusk, and all was peaceful. I was the only person outside, and the guans as always were interesting to observe. Suddenly, like a feathered scud missile, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle barreled out of the forest and right into the guans, perhaps 30 feet from where I stood. Chaos ensued with guans erupting in all directions, and the raptor lit out on the heels of one of them. After a short, wild and exciting chase, the guan eluded the hawk-eagle and made its escape into the jungle. The Ornate Hawk-Eagle landed nearby, apparently to recover from the embarrassment of missing what looked like an easy kill. I was able to get all of the other birders mustered and out, and we all enjoyed great views of this incredible predator. But seeing this magnificent bird of prey in action, trying to take out a guan, well, I’ll not soon forget that experience!
7. Now, we know you love Ohio birds – you’ve written the definitive book on the subject! – but what is your favorite place you’ve ever been bird watching?
Oh, once again that would be a hard one to choose. Here in Ohio it is Shawnee State Forest and the adjacent Edge of Appalachia preserve in southern Ohio. This region is one of the most biodiverse in the midwestern U.S. and is full of breeding songbirds. Cerulean, Kentucky, Worm-eating warblers – dime a dozen! Tons of other feathered notables as well. Northern Michigan’s Presque Isle County is a hidden jewel – in fact I probably shouldn’t even mention it! The Everglades and south Florida is hard to beat, and the Rio Grande Valley is fascinating — like birding in Mexico but north of the border. I have been to Guatemala twice and have greatly enjoyed birding there. In particular, the trek up San Pedro volcano to see the Horned Guan stands out, and Tikal is an unbelievable birding experience.
8. Do you keep year lists or a life list? Why or why not?
The only list that I am fastidious about is my Ohio life list. It’s the only that I keep. I’ve never been much of a lister, but since I started birding in Ohio so young, I have racked up a pretty good state list – 368 species at present. There are probably only a few people ahead of me, and since I’m the youngest of the lot, I may one day have the record if I last long enough!
In general, the listing mentality holds little appeal for me. Case in point: I was once in Churchill, Manitoba, birding with just one other person and exploring as many nooks and crannies as possible. As anyone who has been to Churchill knows, it is a birder’s paradise. Northern Hawk Owl flying about, Hudsonian Godwits doing aerial displays, breeding Ross’s Gull (at that time), Willow Ptarmigan, Smith’s Longspur and so much more! Anyway, I was standing along a road scoping a teed up, beautiful Northern Shrike. Now shrikes are just about the coolest songbirds you’d ever want to meet – predatory “butcherbirds” with a penchant for dismembering victims, and stunning plumage to boot. Along comes a big van full of birders – a birding trip based out of California as I recall. The leader hopped off to ask what I was seeing, and I shared the shrike. He poked his head into the vehicle and proclaimed “Northern Shrike!” I heard a chorus of “Oh, we’ve already GOT that.” I don’t think any of them got off the bus, or even glanced in the direction of the bird! That’s certainly NOT the mentality I want to bring to the table, but I’ve seen variations on that reaction to the shrike scores of times.
Birds should not be mere items to tick off a list; they are complex, beautiful and fascinating creatures that should be relished.
9. What is the farthest you’ve traveled to see a particular bird?
Well, I don’t really travel places to see one species, other than some local chases in my home state. I may have an especially targeted species in mind on some trips, such as the aforementioned Horned Guan near the summit of San Pedro volcano in Guatemala. But we saw many other species on that trek, including some 400 Western Tanagers, over 1,000 Tennessee Warblers, Lesser Roadrunner, Green Shrike-Vireo, Wine-throated Hummingbird and much more.
As I said, the only rarity chases I do are in Ohio, and the most I ever invested in pursuing one of these rarities involved Ohio’s only (to date) Brown-headed Nuthatch. It appeared at some backyard feeders in Geauga County in the winter of 2001-02, but was notoriously intermittent in its visits. It wasn’t until my seventh visit that I finally saw the little bugger! It was a nearly a three hour one-way trip from my home. I still am grateful to the Gilbert’s, the wonderful family that hosted the bird, for their tolerance.
10. What was your first pair of binoculars, and what is your favorite pair?
It’s been too long – I don’t even recall! I do remember having a really cheap pair of Tascos way back when. The evolution of optics has been fantastic, and has really revolutionized our ability to study birds (and insects, mammals, plants and everything else). I have two species of binocular now: several pairs of Eagle Optics Rangers 8 x 42 and a pair of Leica Ultravid 8 x 32. Both are fabulous, with the Leicas of course being towards the higher end of the scale. I strongly support both companies, not just because they make great products, but also because they are so supportive of the birding community. Ben Lizdas with Eagle Optics is an outstanding representative of that company, as is Jeff Bouton for Leica. Both of those guys interface heavily with the birding community, and it has been really cool to see the optics companies expand to the point where they have hired quality people like Ben and Jeff to provide frontline service to birders.