Leica Stories: Jack Whetstone

by Jennie Duberstein

When I moved to southeast Arizona in 2001, I found myself living in a little town just north of the Mexico border called Bisbee. I had moved there to do bird and habitat conservation work and community outreach on the Mexican side of the San Pedro River. Before too long I had met Jack Whetstone, then a biologist with the BLM, working on the Arizona side of the river. I think my first interaction with Jack was in Sonora, when a crew of us was doing the annual wet-dry survey of the San Pedro (teams walk the length of the river and measure the start and stop of surface water). It was the first time the survey had been conducted in Mexico and a bunch of us were crammed into the bed of a pick up truck, being shuttled to our start point. I hadn’t been living in the area for more than a few weeks at that point, so everything was new to me. Jack was kitted out with shin guards in case he ran into any venomous snakes and I remember wondering what I was in for. He was eating a yogurt and as he scraped the last bits out, he turned to me and knocked the spoon around the inside of the plastic container. “What does that remind you of?” he asked. I am sure I looked at him blankly. “A Yellow-billed Cuckoo!” he answered happily. Since then I’ve gotten to spend lots of time with Jack, in the field and out. (We were even part of a string band called Whiskey Before Breakfast, him on guitar, me on fiddle. But I digress.) I moved away from Bisbee about three years ago and don’t run into Jack as regularly as I used to, so I was really happy to interview him for the blog.

Where are you from and where do you currently live?

I grew up in Oakland, California and moved to Berkeley while at University of California, studying Paleontology. I lived in northern New Mexico for 8 years before returning to Berkeley. Since 1988 I’ve lived in Cochise County, Arizona, first at Ramsey Canyon (in the Huachuca Mountains of Sierra Vista) and since 1990 in Bisbee.

What do you do for a living?

My first jobs out of college were as a Warden for National Audubon at Green Island, Texas and Corkscrew Swamp in Florida then as the Biologist for Point Reyes Bird Observatory after a brief stint as a grad student in Ornithology at Cal State Hayward. During the 1970 and 1980s I worked as a silversmith, a general contractor, and electrician before moving to Arizona and Ramsey Canyon as Naturalist/Caretaker. The last 13 years of my working life were with the BLM as a biologist and “Jack of all trades” before retiring in 2005. Since then I’ve concentrated on my hobbies which, besides birding and bird banding, include making furniture, sculpture and especially playing the guitar.

Birding Royal Mile

Birding in Uganda.

How long have you been a birder?

I guess I’ve always been interested in birds but started really birding when I took a “Natural History of the Vertebrates” class at UC in 1964. The thrill of discovery, the challenges of identification, going to new places and admittedly the “game” of the list got their hooks into me. My dream was to be a bird guide. I only took a few years of co-leading trips with Borderlands Tours to convince me that I liked birding alone or with close friends a lot more than leading groups. But I’ll admit I do enjoy teaching others about birds.

What Leica optics do you own? Why did you decide on Leica?

For 20 years I stumbled along with cheap optics until in 1984 I was able to afford my first pair of Leica Trinovids, the pair my daughter now has. Ten years later, on the eve of my first tropical trip I sprang for my 10x42BAs and bought a pair for my then wife LeAnn. When I went to visit my son in Germany in 2001 I bought him a pair of Minox 8x32s and he turned into a pretty good birder very quickly. While he was in Iraq he amassed a quite respectable list for the Nineva area and we’ve birded Panama, South Afica, Uganda, Egypt, and Central Europe together. I also have a Panasonic digital camera because it has a Leica lens. Although I usually buy by price, I wanted Leicas because they’re the best all-around binoculars.

Jack and his son (and their Leicas) birding by camel.

Jack and his son (and their Leicas) birding by camel.

What are a few of the most memorable birds or experiences you’ve seen through your Leicas?

I’ve had so many wonderful birding experiences it would be very hard to single out just a few. That said, stumbling onto an Eared Quetzal during the trogon census in southeastern Arizona, then seeing Resplendant Quetzal in Panama, the first Short-tailed Albatross, Shoebill in Uganda, all those tanagers in Ecuador, birding in Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala, and finally seeing one then many Hoopoes in Egypt come to mind. And I can’t forget mammals from all those whales on Debi Shearwater trips, seeing all of “the big five” in one day in Kreuger Park, and spotting a Three-toed Sloth sitting upright with a baby in her lap in Panama are among the best.