Virginia ornithology students find a record number of bird species

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole by Trevor Sleight of the College of William & Mary ornithology class taught by Dr. Dan Cristol. (Trevor Sleight/College of William & Mary / May 21, 2014)

Some records are made to be broken. Each time I teach "Introduction to Ornithology" at the College of William & Mary, I keep track of how many species we see during the semester. The number has never topped 200.

Unlike the teaching of many scientific disciplines, in which hands-on experience and observation of nature have been jettisoned in favor of theory, computation and technology, ornithology is still universally taught with a strong dose of local natural history. During the most recent 14-week semester we took nine field trips, all of which started at 5 a.m., which is five hours before the typical waking time of a college student (or two hours after the typical bedtime, however you want to look at it).

We began the semester on one of those brutal 10 degree February mornings with the dawn stake-out of a local bird feeder, where we saw a rare Western Tanager (before most of the students had even learned to identify a House Sparrow). The next hundred came easily on a 14-hour Saturday trip to Chincoteague, culminating with a Short-eared Owl hunting voles in the waning afternoon light.

We started planning our trips around rare birds that were predictable enough to meet our Thursday morning laboratory schedule: a Snowy Owl perching on construction equipment at the Craney dredge site, the nation's southernmost King Eider at Rudee Inlet, a rare trio of Common Black-headed Gulls at Little Creek, and so on. Our list slowly climbed to 150, within shouting distance of the record of 179 set by the 2003 class.

My favorite sightings were those I didn't see at all. To encourage independent study, class rules stipulated that students could find birds outside of our official meetings, as long as they were verified with photographs identifiable by the rest of the class.

One busy morning I heard about an Eared Grebe at Yorktown Riverwalk. I let the class know and within hours had received a blurry but recognizable picture of the bird on my phone. While on spring break in Florida I noticed that Palm Warblers were moving north. I emailed the students and before I was back we had nice photographs of this early migrant. (Many of the student's photos can be enjoyed at https://www.flickr.com/groups/2493441@N20/.

A second Chincoteague marathon pushed us past all previous classes with a late-departing Purple Finch and a good dose of migrating sandpipers. But spring migration for tropical-wintering songbirds doesn't start in earnest until exam week, by which time it's often tough to get students to pursue their class list with diligence. Not so, for the 2014 ornithology class.

Campus study breaks brought in a slow trickle of new arrivals: Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-White Warbler, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Acadian Flycatcher, to name a few. I dragged students along on the Williamsburg Bird Club's Spring Count, so we could include those sightings, and the list rose above 200 with a male Bobolink singing on the Colonial Parkway. During the count one student showed me a photograph taken at Mainland Farm the previous day and we were able to add the rare White-faced Ibis to the list.

We decided to try for 214, in honor of 2014, and on the last day of exams we headed out to the Shenandoah Valley.

As dawn spilled over the Blue Ridge Parkway we enjoyed great views of Cerulean Warblers, and by day's end had accumulated a stunning list of 230 species for the semester. Surprisingly, none of the teaching evaluations even mentioned the brilliance of my lectures, laboratory exercises, readings, discussions, term paper assignment, quizzes, lab practicals or exams.

Dan Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities go to http://williamsburgbirdclub.org/

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