J-Term Backyard Birding – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

J-Term Backyard Birding

In the intensive two-week J-Term course “Birds in Our Landscape,” expert ornithologist and Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander guides HWS students as they study avian winter behavior and ecology.

“Learning about the birds around your hometown and county can be like a Christmas present,” says Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander, a past president of the Wilson Ornithological Society. “Once you start observing birds, you unwrap a whole new part of the natural world around you.”

For two weeks this January, students enrolled in the Colleges’ J-Term took one course with an HWS faculty member for three and a half hours, seven days a week. In Deutschlander’s “Birds in Our Landscape” J-Term course, he and his students turned to their surroundings in search of local winter birds such as woodpeckers, sparrows and finches, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice, waterfowl, and even owls.

Deutschlander says, “although winter birding offers less species to see than a course in the spring or summer, there are many species we only see in the winter such as Snowy Owls, Snow Geese and many ‘winter’ finches from the boreal forests in Canada.” Beyond the natural beauty, observing these birds offers vital insights into population trends and geographical distributions, as well as the impacts of urbanization, pollution, pesticides and climate change on bird ecosystems.

Students took independent field excursions and observed feeders, in person and via online bird cameras, to document the winter habits in rural, suburban and urban habitats. Using the video streams of the feeders, students were exposed to a variety of birds from across the country and around the world, from Ithaca, N.Y., to Texas, Ontario, Canada and Panama.

Deutschlander says the course’s remote format enabled students to connect deeply with places they know well and to “learn about what some of their peers were seeing, often in different regions of the country.” Independent field excursions also meant students had to apply “their critical evaluation and observational skills,” Deutschlander says, as they used online field guides like the Merlin Bird ID app to identify the birds they were seeing.

From her family home in south Alabama, Camille McGriff ’22 has had a front row look at migrating birds in their winter habitat. “The Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan areas are critical stopover points for birds during migration season just after crossing the Gulf,” she explains. For birds like the Blue-headed Vireo, “these are critical areas…and as low, sandy barrier islands in the Gulf, they’re most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, like major hurricanes and rising seas. This course has been fascinating for me, as I get to spend a lot of time learning about birds in these special habitats.”

Students learned about the biology and conservation of birds from daily interactive, online lessons at Bird Academy (provided by the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University). Lessons on feeder birds, bird behavior, bird song, migration, nesting and breeding, and species like owls and crows provided insights into the science of ornithology. Students also learned about contemporary issues facing birds and the people who care about birds by reading and reflecting on articles published by the National Audubon Society and from watching and reflecting on documentaries such as The Messenger (songbirdsos.com) and Birders: The Central Park Effect.

Beyond the fun of birding, figuring out the “puzzle” of identifying different species, Kyle Walsh ’21, of Millbury, Mass., says he has learned firsthand how “ornithologists have studied the decline of bird populations by looking at birds as bioindicators that represent the effects of urbanization and environmental change.”

That understanding underscores what Deutschlander identifies as one of the overarching goals of the course: to make students “more aware of and concerned for their environment, particularly around where they live. Local action and efforts are the grassroots of conservation and wildlife protection.”

In the photo above, Adam Farid ’20 captures a shot of a Snowy Owl perched on a bench along Seneca Lake in December.  As a student, Farid took “Bird Obsessions: Beauty of the Beast” with Professor of Biology Mark Deutchlander.