Some people learn about birds from the internet or a book, others from a parent or friend, and every year, 22 students learn about birds in my Introduction to Ornithology class at the College of William and Mary.
For more than two decades, I have lectured on how feathers grow, when migrations occur and why wings keep birds aloft. But the most exciting part of our class is the birding field trips.
Twice each week I pick up half of the groggy students at 6 a.m. in a van and we head out to a new location to observe birds until 11 a.m. We start with nearby sites such as Jamestown Island, Yorktown Beach and Newport News Park. Once the common wintering birds are mastered, we go farther afield for less abundant species -- down to Fort Monroe for common eiders, around Craney Island for American avocets, and out to Poquoson for Nelson’s and saltmarsh sparrows.
Optional weekend trips allow the more interested students to travel yet further, to Chincoteague for Eurasian wigeon or Piney Grove for red-cockaded woodpeckers, for example. As spring comes, we revisit spots to see the arriving migrants, for example the prothonotary warblers have replaced the swamp sparrows at Newport News Park, and piping plovers are now the highlight of Chincoteague instead of swans, which have departed for the tundra.
Spring migration doesn’t get going in earnest until exam week, so only the hardcore join me for the lengthy excursions across the Shenandoah Valley for the earliest arriving warbling vireos and grasshopper sparrows, or out to Highland and Bath counties for breeding vesper sparrows and ruffed grouse.
Each year we try to see more birds than the previous year’s class, as trip itineraries become fine-tuned and our students get ever better. This semester we had a high bar to cross, with the previous record for our class being 264 species (all seen in Virginia and well documented).
But by the last day of April we had seen only 226 species, and the goal looked unattainable. A late migration surge carried us to 31 species of warblers, so that by May 2 we were within striking distance at 239 total species with a week left in the semester.
One of the wintering species we had missed, the American pipit, showed up on our May 5 trip to the Shenandoah Valley. A student who had left school before exams with an illness recorded 17 whippoorwills near her home and sent us the evidence. A very long day along the West Virginia border brought us to 262, with only one day left in the semester.
A gray-cheeked thrush finally showed up on campus the next morning, found and identified by two students just hours before they left for the summer. Another student, who was already home, recorded a chuck-will’s widow. Finally, on Thursday, the bank swallow thrust us across the finish line to a new class list record, 265 species.
While evolution and ecology are the core of this biology class, the thing students will remember years from now is not the one-way air flow through the lungs of birds, or the huge size of the avian eye. Instead, they will remember the hours spent really learning how to observe nature while searching for new birds.
Observation is, after all, the first and most important step of the scientific method.
Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. To discover local birding opportunities visit williamsburgbirdclub.org/