By Jennie Duberstein
A few weeks ago fellow Leica Birding Team member Tiffany Kersten came to visit southeastern Arizona over a long weekend. In addition to getting to know her a little better, I also got to meet (and bird with) long-time Tucson resident and bird guide Chris Benesh. When I saw Chris pull a pair of Leica Ultravids out of his car when we met at Patagonia Lake State Park, I knew there was a story to share.
Where are you from and where do you currently live?
I grew up in San Jose, California back when there was still a lot of open space and wildlife. I lived there until I went away to college in Santa Barbara, when I earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of California. Except for short stints in Austin, Texas, and Half Moon Bay, California, I’ve resided in Tucson Arizona, where I’ve lived for the past 25 years.
What do you do for a living?
While I was in college, I became very active in my local Audubon chapter and discovered that I really enjoyed teaching people about birds in an outdoor setting. With the encouragement of others, I set off in pursuit of a career in guiding. I’ve been working for the past 26 years as a birding guide for Field Guides, an Austin, Texas based company. It has been an amazing experience and has taken me many wonderful places around the world. Twenty-six years later, I haven’t looked back.
How long you have been a birder?
I got started in birding while a junior in high school, which means I’ve now been at it for over thirty years. My dad was a birder, and I used to go out with him when he went birding and hiking in some of the wild areas around San Francisco Bay. I’ve always been interested in various aspects of the natural world, and at the time I was really into studying microscopic organisms. Since I wasn’t driving yet, I would tag along with my dad so that I could collect samples to study later back home. He gave me a pair of binoculars to use and I went out and bought the Western Peterson guide and all of a sudden there was this whole new world of things to go looking for. So I started to pay close attention to the birds when I was out with my dad and soon found myself hooked. One of our early trips together was a visit to Mt. Pinos in southern California, where after some searching, we had two adult California Condors fly right over our heads! It was breathtaking! Other birds that helped set the hook were the gaudy Yellow-billed Magpies that looked so out of place in the oak savannas of California, and a showy male Smew that paid a visit to the San Francisco Bay, opening my eyes to the concept of rare birds and vagrancy.
What Leica optics do you own?
I currently own a pair of 8×42 HD Ultravids and complement that with an 82mm Televid APO scope. Both are amazing! I’ve been using Leica binoculars for quite a few years, and still have my original 8×42 BA Trinovids. I have been really pleased with the clarity and brightness of the HD glass, particularly in backlit situations where many optics completely fail. And the 82mm Televid is fantastic in any situation, but essential when working through shorebirds or gulls in poor lighting conditions.
What are a few of the most memorable birds or experiences you’ve seen through your Leicas?
Tough question, as I have had so many really unforgettable ones. I make use of my Leicas for so many things. Birding, of course, but also taking in all other sorts of wildlife. I also do a fair bit of plane spotting and star gazing, and they really come in handy for both. They’ve even been to their share of concerts. My most memorable wildlife experience occurred back in 2003 in Alaska. I was still using my Trinovids back then. I was riding on a bus in Denali National Park when I spotted what I took to be a Hoary Marmot bounding down a slope. I shouted to the driver to stop and back up so we could get a look at it. As he backed up and the animal came back into view, I could see with my Leicas that it was in fact a very blond Wolverine, the mammal I had most wanted to see since I was a middle schooler. That was an experience of a lifetime. A few days later I saw my lifer Walrus in Nome! It’s hard to tease out the most exciting bird sighting, but in recent years, a funky warbler that was discovered near Uvalde, Texas in the spring of 2013 has to be right up there. Thought to be a Rufous-capped Warbler singing a Common Yellowthroat song by others, it became apparent to me that it showed a number of features consistent with it being a Rufous-capped Warbler X Common Yellowthroat hybrid. Its song and calls were yellowthroat like, and its plumage intermediate. It was a pretty exciting revelation since that hybrid combination had never been described before.