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Alex’20 on discovering the wonder of birds in Avian Ecology

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | April 25, 2020 | 2 Comments |

This post was written by Alex, Pomona College class of ’20:

I have something to admit… before taking Avian Ecology this semester, I was best case indifferent about birds and worst case very frightened by them. This fear came from several unfortunate encounters with swooping birds – a particularly persistent magpie on a farm I worked on still haunts my dreams. An early exposure to Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” also did not help foster a happy and trusting relationship with our feathered friends. When I was not actively feeling afraid of birds, I was ignoring their presence in my day to day life. When I used to walk in the woods behind my house, I was always drawn to the plant and fungal lifeforms. I was in love with skunk cabbage and lichen, but I did not pay much attention to the forest birds. I feel a bit ashamed saying this, but I spent most of my life up until this point ignoring birds’ existence. I even remember being confused about how anyone could get so into birding. My grandmother was an avid birder, and I remember she would always point out birds outside the kitchen window while we ate breakfast, and my response would invariably be some version of, “Uhhh… okay, Grandma.”

But my relationship to birds has been radically altered since taking Avian Ecology. This relationship was slow to shift. Things started changing when I made the commitment to start noticing the birds around campus. We were given binoculars, a field notebook, and a Sibley guide to birds, and being a data enthusiast, I diligently started recording observations. The class trip early in the semester to Puddingstone Reservoir was my first real birding experience. We set up spotting scopes on the edge of the reservoir and watched the wide variety of water birds go about their afternoon activities. I remember flipping through the bird guide book a bit frantically. So many birds to ID! That day, we observed 25 total species. I particularly liked the buffleheads and the spotted sandpiper. As we trundled back to campus in the van, I remember thinking, “I want to do that again!”

The class watching birds at Puddingstone Reservoir

I was so keen to try birding again that I joined the Pomona Valley Audubon Society’s monthly bird walk with Cody, the TA for our class,  that weekend. I was impressed by all the other birders’ knowledge and passion for the birds at the Botanic Gardens. I was particularly enthralled by birders like Cody, who could ID birds based on song alone! And I fell in love with the Nuttall’s Woodpecker that we found pecking away up in a tall pine. There were other moments birding on campus that got me even more excited about birds. I remember sitting on the Pomona quad one evening with a friend, and two beautiful great horned owls graced us with their presence. What serendipity! We just sat there in awe. Only later did I enter the specifics of the encounter enter into my trusty field notebook.

The Pomona Valley Audubon Society Monthly Bird Walk with Cody

However, the key turning point in my relationship with birds was the first time I held a bird. At the Bernard Field Station one afternoon, the class set up a mist nest and caught birds for the banding project. Professor Karnovsky gave all students the opportunity to hold and release the birds we banded. I was very nervous to hold a bird by myself. But after some encouragement from classmates, I decided to give it a try. It was thrilling – holding a bird transformed my perception of birds from an abstract concept into a living and breathing organism who deserves dignity and care. This encounter solidified my desire to learn about and protect birds.

Nervously preparing to hold the bird,

holding the bird,

holding the bird,

and letting the bird go!

Since being sent home due to COVID-19, I have continued birding. It has been a delight to walk through the woods behind my house and really hear and see and know the birds for the first time. Avian ecology has taught me that the world is full of birds; all you have to do is set an intention and begin to practice noticing. I look forward to continuing this practice of noticing and appreciating the delightful company of birds well into the future.

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Responses -

Alex this was awesome! I couldn’t help but smile reading through this and being reminded of the good times we all had (seeing that Nuttall’s Woodpecker was a great moment for me too haha). I’m glad you found something else to be interested in alongside your love of plants and I can’t wait to hear about the birds you’ve found in the woods behind your house!

I love this Alex! I’m so glad you found a new part of nature to explore; so many possibilities. And of course, even away from Pomona the birds will always keep ya company 🙂

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