Field Biology – Learning to Identify Birds

Took my Field Biology students out for the first time on Thursday, for a field experience on campus. I’m planning to spend the first part of the semester introducing them to different taxonomic groups, and helping them develop naturalist skills – especially observation, identification, and keeping details notes in the field – and this seemed like a good way to start.

https://ornithology.com/bird-external-anatomy/

As I told them on Tuesday, during the introductory lecture, I’d decided to throw us all into the “deep end,” and start out with learning to identify birds. On the one hand, birds can be difficult to learn to ID, as there are so many different varieties (more than 600 species in California alone), including many that look frustratingly similar to one another. On the other hand, birds are extremely easy to find – they’re everywhere – so any birding excursion will almost certainly be a success in one way or another. Plus, there’s something to be said for teaching to my strengths, and birds are where I honed my own naturalist skills.

I did have some stressful moments during the day. Class begins at 1:00, but around 11:00, it started pouring down rain. I spent the next little while panicking (just slightly), and trying to come up with an indoor activity we could do if the weather chose not to cooperate. Fortunately, it cleared up enough that I felt good about taking them outdoors. It’s not like there was any great risk to us – we were just going to wander around on campus, never more than 5 minutes from the nearest shelter. Still, inclement weather usually sends the birds into hiding, so I was glad to see the sun peeking out from behind some otherwise ominous rainclouds.

We started out in the classroom with a relatively brief lecture on the anatomy of a field guide – an indispensable tool where birds are concerned – and then a run-down on the major groups of birds we were likely to see this semester.

http://wildbirdclub.com/activities/activities-01-beginner-201509/

I handed them each a pair of binoculars, and we grabbed some field guides (mostly Peterson’s Western Birds, 3rd edition; since our campus library doesn’t have a lot of field guides on the shelves, I’d picked up several copies relatively cheaply on eBay, for students to use for the duration of the semester). After a few minutes of practicing focus out the window, we headed out on campus.

 

 

Jesica studying a warbler

Almost immediately out the door, we started spotting birds: a crow or raven on the roof of Stevenson Hall, a hawk of some sort (probably red-shouldered) spiraling far overhead. We took at peek at the barn owl boxes on the west side of Stevenson, but didn’t see any owls (no surprise – it was still full daylight). A smallish brown bird stopped running right in the middle of the path, and I set my students on their first ID of the day. It didn’t take long for them to identify this extremely cooperative California Towhee.

When I looked up from the bird, to see my students lined up, with their binoculars trained on the bird, or flipping through the field guide, I knew I’d made the right decision starting with birds.

We headed over to the Art Pond, where we found some Canada Geese (always reliable there). A Black Phoebe demonstrated some textbook flycatching behavior, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler flitted about in the trees. From there, across the lawn to the Commencement Lake, where Mallards tried to beg for food. A California Scrub Jay sat at the top of a tree. I spotted another pair of ducks on the other side of the lake, and when I had them in focus, I realized we had something reasonably different. These weren’t Mallards. I pointed out the birds, and set my students on a hunt through the field guides. Once again, they were quick to get the ID: Common Mergansers. OH YEAH!!

Next, we headed toward Copeland Creek, and I showed them one of my favorite places to look for birds on campus – some deciduous trees between the big lake and the bike path. It was quiet while we were there, but I suggested it as a possible “patch” for some of them to set up their regular outdoor observations (1 hour per week, throughout the semester). I think we spotted a Turkey Vulture here, before heading toward the Environmental Technology Center.

We had some nice surprises there: seeing this gorgeous rainbow on our first field experience seemed like a good omen. And I noticed for the first time some adorable little carvings on one of the arbors in the garden – mostly, I was surprised that I’d never seen them before. One definitely looks like a dragon, and the other maybe a turtle? (Or maybe I just see dragons and turtles wherever I go).

On the way back to Darwin Hall, we saw some American Crows and a trio of Mourning Doves, and there are probably a few other species I’ve forgotten (while I asked my students to take detailed field notes, I neglected to do this myself)! We also saw quite a few mushrooms, but I’m going to wait and talk about fungus, as that will be the focus of next week’s lab.

A very respectable list of birds seen in a relatively short outing, and I think it was exactly the right way to introduce my class to learning some identification skills. Best of all, they were all smiles as we made our way around campus – they seemed to really enjoy it (of course, we were looking at birds . . . what’s not to love)?

Oh, and one tiny postscript – after I’d collected the equipment, dismissed my students, and left the building to head to my car, the sky opened up and started raining on me. Perfect timing, as far as I was concerned.