Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Backyard Birding with Professor Deutschlande
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Backyard Birding with Professor Deutschlander

Students who took Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander’s new Maymester course “Birds in Our Landscape” in the spring of 2019 experienced birding in locations across the Finger Lakes region — the class of 10 students traveled regionally more than 600 miles. This year’s students are learning about birds through local outings, virtual visits and trips to their own backyards. Deutschlander says that the course this year would be better named “Birds in Your Landscape.”

Birders range from backyard bird watchers to obsessed hobbyists who travel all over the country and even the world to see birds. In all cases, people who spend time observing birds learn about their biology and the natural world. Deutschlander’s Maymester course focuses on identifying bird species, understanding basic bird behaviors and ecology, examining how scientists collect distribution data on birds using remote sensing and exploring how citizen science has greatly advanced understanding of the distributions and movements of birds.

With social distancing rules in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Maymester courses are being conducted online. For Deutschlander, that meant converting a heavily field-based class — where students spent most days observing and learning about birds as a group — into one that worked for individuals in a virtual setting.

“Switching from a mainly field based course, taught together in Geneva, to a remote course was not a trivial undertaking,” he says. “I teach most of the skills and content of the course outdoors, based on the birds we see on any given day. It’s a very opportunistic, experiential learning experience.”

In place of excursions to regional venues such as Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca Meadows Wetland Preserve and Braddock Bay Bird Observatory, students are completing daily online tutorials with Bird Academy through the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and investigating their local landscapes and avifauna with the help of eBird, an online database of citizen science bird observations, and identification assistant apps like Merlin and Song Sleuth. “Beginning birders often lack confidence in their identification skills, and when with an experienced person they can get confirmation of what they are seeing,” says Deutschlander. “In the absence of an in-person mentor, these online resources help students learn to make good identification choices and confirm their sightings.”

When taught locally, Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge serves as the “classroom” for several days of the Maymester course. Throughout the year, more than 250 species of birds can be seen at the refuge. So students would not miss out on visiting this “crown jewel” of the Finger Lakes region, Deutschlander collaborated with the Office of Communications to create a virtual field trip, including video by Adam Farid ’20 and photography by HWS Chief Photographer Kevin Colton. The TWIP gallery above shows some of the images they captured.

Deutschlander notes that a loss of in-person excursions also means a loss of community building in the course. “Spending three weeks traveling around the area in a van is a good way for a class to get to know each other,” he says.

To build that sense of community, Deutschlander divided the class of 18 students into three small groups, or “flocks,” that meet online several times a week to review course material and share field experiences. “Each flock meeting is filled with excitement about the students’ sightings and lots of questions about the biology of birds, including migration, breeding behaviors and conservation impacts on birds,” he says.

Students are living in various landscapes — rural, wooded, suburban and urban — and in a variety of locations, including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and California. “It’s been very cool for both me and the students to hear about their different field experiences,” says Deutschlander. Students have spotted common backyard birds such as Northern Cardinal and Baltimore Oriole, as well as less noticeable species like the Black-throated Blue Warbler and Indigo Bunting. In their final projects for the course, students will show connections between landscape, habitat and species assemblages by examining three birding “hotspots” in their region, including their backyard.

Nicholas Kriak ’22 enrolled in “Birds in Our Landscape” after returning home from studying abroad in New Zealand and was surprised to find an unexpected outlet in birding. A member of the Statesmen soccer team, Kriak is majoring in economics and minoring in entrepreneurial studies and education with an eye on law school, “all of which can be very overwhelming and stressful,” he says. “This class has provided me the opportunity to step out of a world of stress and just explore.” Kriak is looking forward to returning to campus and continuing his birding with Deutschlander.

“Teaching non-majors about the world of birds is one of the most important things I do as a professor at HWS,” says Deutschlander. “Once you find beauty in the environment through the flash of an American Goldfinch, the striking metallic throat of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird or the majestic posture and plumage of a Great Blue Heron, it’s difficult to ignore it. By making non-science students more aware of birds, they become more aware of the natural environment and they will hopefully come to care more for those birds and that environment. They will hopefully become citizen scientists.”

An online session about birding with Professor Deutschlander, created especially for alums, will take place on Monday, June 15 at 11:30 a.m. For more information and to register, click here.