Northern Michigan University students who participated in a recent field ornithology class recorded interactions with more than 175 bird species in various habitats. They saw raptors pepper the sky over Brockway Mountain during the spring migration, owls being banded by researchers at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory and barn swallows nesting beneath the bridge where the AuTrain River spills into Lake Superior. Some were surprised to spot American white pelicans this far north.
NMU Biology Professor Alec Lindsay led students on five extended weekend camping trips to U.P. locations and Tawas City.
“Michigan is a top-10 state for bird watching because of the amazing diversity of migrating and breeding species,” said Lindsay, who also chairs the Michigan Audubon Society board of directors. “The endangered Kirtland’s warbler breeds here. Bird watching is perhaps underappreciated because it’s a quiet recreational activity done in relative isolation, but it’s a multi-million dollar tourism business in the state. We’re in a great location to offer this course, with so many species and habitats.”
Lindsay first taught the 13 students basic observation and listening skills on Northern’s campus, where they easily found 15 bird species on a spring afternoon. Once in the field, they gained hands-on experience in research methods and outcomes. They completed data analysis related to such topics as peregrine falcons, variables in song sparrow vocalizations and birds that eat budworms, which are destructive to jack pines. The students also became proficient in identifying species by sight and sound.
“People don’t always realize the variety of birds and the amazing things they do,” he said. “It’s like a treasure hunt or puzzle and easy to get hooked. The students were very passionate about it. They would look at birds through their binoculars and take notes, then during a break immediately look at their field guides and talk to each other. It was nice to see them develop a sense of ownership and a healthy responsibility for what’s happening.”
The students functioned on little sleep during the camping trips. They stayed up late with the owls and whippoorwills and awoke early to the sounds of white-throated sparrows, ovenbirds and red-eyed vireos. Angela Bloodworth, a senior wildlife management major from Ypsilanti, said it was one of her favorite courses at NMU.
“I definitely like the hands-on opportunities of field classes,” she said. “I went to Zambia with Dr. Lindsay two summers ago, which convinced me to switch my major. This class gave me skills I can use further down the road and gave me a whole new perspective of what I can do in my own backyard. I was more interested in large mammals before, but now I realize just how beautiful birds are and how many different studies you can do because of the huge variety. I definitely want to do work with birds as part of my career, whether it’s permanent employment or short-term research projects.”
The field ornithology course appears to launch students on a successful path. Lindsay previously taught it eight years ago. Of the 16 students who enrolled in that installment, to his knowledge 13 are either in graduate school, employed as ornithologists or working with agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.