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This post was written by Ethan’21, a student in Avian Ecology at Pomona College.

My classmates and I arrived at Chaffey College at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in early spring for their annual Burrowing Owl Festival cohosted by the Pomona Valley Audubon Society. I was excited by the prospect of hearing these experienced researchers and active conservationists talk about issues facing these extraordinary birds. I was also excited to interact with the community; during one of my three blocks, I was to be a docent at a PVAS table, talking about how owls have adapted to fly silently. I also hoped to see some live burrowing owls for myself.

In front of me is a barn owl wing I used to show people how owls can fly silently.

My first block was open, so I grabbed some snacks and decided to sit in on a few research presentations with my classmates in the Chaffey College auditorium. At the talks, I learned about the importance of ongoing efforts to recruit burrowing owls to artificial burrows as well as the role of habitat destruction in degrading the environment for this threatened species. It was an effective juxtaposition: detailing how humans have damaged burrowing owl populations over the past few decades while also publicizing the diligent strategies that conservationists are currently undertaking to help the species. I put a reminder in my phone after the meeting to send a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Commission to advocate for the inclusion of the burrowing owl as a protected species. According to one of the speakers, the commission has ignored the precarious status of the species, and I left the talk motivated to advocate on behalf of these owls.

I left the auditorium and joined the docent table for the PVAS along the main walk, where large groups of festivalgoers visited the tables of demonstrations and rehabilitated raptors. I sat down with my classmate River and another volunteer, and we instructed people on the adaptations of silent owl flight, handed out PVAS pamphlets, and fielded questions from the crowd of festivalgoers. During my stint at the table, we were approached by mostly families, many with children of different ages. I found myself having to adapt my spiel– how the serrated wing edge, pillowy smooth top, and soft trailing fibers of a barn owl wing allowed it to fly silently– to different audiences. For some small children, I focused on mainly observational things (the softness of the feathers and how when I flapped the wing, no noise was created), whereas for older children (especially those interested in science), I would get into the weeds of the physics behind silent flight. For everyone who visited the table, I tried to encourage tactile interaction with the owl wing. Whenever people touched the wing themselves, their faces would light up with understanding, and I think that they probably learned more from experiencing the soft, serrated feathers for themselves than hearing me talk about them!

Explaining the adaptations of owls to festival participants.

For my final shift, I grabbed my binoculars and walked down to the parking lot, where a few of my classmates and other docents had set up spotting scopes to see live burrowing owls in the large fields adjacent to the college campus. When I arrived, I peered through one of the scopes and spotted a pair of adult owl heads, peeking over tufts of green grass on the side of a trench carved into the field. While down at the viewing station, I made a sketch of one of the owls in my field notebook, and I was pleasantly surprised by my drawing skills (it helped that the owls were stationary at the entrance of their burrow).

I grabbed one of the scopes and trained it on the pair of owls. Then I fiddled with the magnification and resolution dials, until the birds were large in the eyepiece. I invited over some festivalgoers who were excited to see the owls for themselves. It felt so rewarding when people would come and look through the spotting scope, and gasp at their great view of these unusual birds.

Introducing the owls to festivalgoers.

I spent much of my time at the viewing station adjusting spotting scopes for visitors, especially whenever children wanted a look. There was one small kid, probably around 3-4 years old, wearing an owl t-shirt who was evidently infatuated with the owls. He was shy at first, but once he looked through the scope and saw the birds, I could tell that he was really excited. I commented to his parents that he may be a future biologist in the making!

At the viewing station, I was approached by a woman and her daughter, and they asked about what team I run for; I was wearing a cross-country shirt. Our conversation wound from talk of cross country (their son ran for UCSD), to college life, to their experience at the festival. They were really thrilled with their experience at the festival and the daughter, a high schooler, was curious of ways to get involved in helping the species.

The other docents and me (middle) from Cal Poly Pomona, Pomona College, and Chaffey College.

Thinking back, this was the perfect encapsulation of the festival’s goals: to raise awareness and establish community around protecting the burrowing owls. It was cool to see how these birds brought so many different groups of people together: the experienced owl researchers and casual birdwatchers, the scientists and creationists, and the college kids and families. Certainly, my experience at the festival was an immense success, and judging by the smiles and wows from the festivalgoers, I think they would say the same too.

Filed under: Burrowing Owl, News

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.

Filed under: News

This post is authored by Tessa who is a junior in the class Avian Ecology at Pomona College:

I had a great time volunteering and attending the Burrowing Owl Festival in February. It made me realize how easy it is to get involved in the education and conservation of birds. Not to mention, the burrowing owls were adorable and great subjects for the day!

The Festival:


Tessa, the author (left), with participants of the owl festival calling the owls!

 The Festival was organized by Robin Ikeda, a biology professor at Chaffey College, Chino and the Pomona Valley Audubon Society. The Chino campus is home to 15 burrowing owls, yet their existence is threatened by potential development by the college. The Festival is put on in order to educate the community and bring awareness to the owls’ existence and need for conservation. Despite being under the protection of the Migratory Bird Act in the United States, there are few burrowing owls left in the Inland Empire due to loss of habitat, nonnative predators and pesticides. With the help of volunteers from Chaffey College, the Audubon Society and Pomona College, around 500 people showed up. Let’s hope for 600 next year!

The Burrowing Owls:

  • Burrowing owls prefer open grassland, farmland and prairies, however that land has been decreasing as construction increases
  • They nest in the ground, and often times their burrows are dug by ground squirrels
  • The owls like to stay close to the ground and guard the front of their burrows
  • They are 7.5-11 inches long and weigh 4.9-8.5 ounces
  • There is little sexual dimorphism between the males and females
  • 33% of their population was lost between 1966-2015

  The stations:

 There were 4 different bird watching stations: one on the west side of campus viewing the mounds, one on the south side of campus viewing the ravine, one on the second floor of the Health Science Center with a view of the south field and the mounds and one on the far southeast side that viewed a field. Each station was equipped with a volunteer to guide and answer questions and a spotting scope. In the plaza, there were several different information tents, including the Audubon Society tent that had an owl wing and pellet on display for educational purposes.


 Conservation is crucial in order to maintain the habitats and population of the burrowing owls. In addition to maintaining the Chino campus owl habitat, the Pomona Valley Audubon Society is trying to save the habitat of the burrowing owls located near the Ontario Airport that the airport plans to build on. Bringing the issue that these owls matter to people is important. That is why educational events to the public, like the Burrowing Owl Festival, are necessary. In addition, volunteering to build and track artificial burrows, keep house pets away from burrows and advocating on a policy level are all things that everyone can do. I am hopeful that events like this Festival will teach people the importance and urgency of conservation.


Filed under: Burrowing Owl
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WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Update from the North

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | October 27, 2019 | No Comment |

Update from the Alaskan senior thesis students:

Katie’18 has built her cabin!

Katie building her cabin.

Ready for Winter!


Zach Brown’07 and Laura Marcus were married in August! My whole family went for the big event and fell in love with both the town of Gustavus and Laura.

Zach, Lillian and Max at the community dinner before the wedding.



Filed under: News, Senior Thesis, Where are they now?
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Island reunions and PSG introductions!

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | August 31, 2019 | No Comment |

Clare’19 and Kay’18 with a black guillemot chick, photo by Mauricio Handler

Two wonderful alums found themselves studying seabirds together on Matinicus Rock as part of the Puffin Project in the Gulf of Maine. The Puffins called them back for a second season; Kay was a Puffineer last summer and Clare was one the summer before last.

Sagehens Clare’19 and Kay’18 on Matinicus Rock, ME, photo by Mauricio Handler

Kristina’12 was a Puffineer several years ago– it was wonderful to see her again at the 46th annual Pacific Seabird Group meeting last February.

Kristina’12, Prof. K. and Clare’19 at the PSG meeting in Kauai.

In the picture above we are standing in front Clare’s poster on Cassin’s auklet diving behavior. These two Sagehens had never met before but they have lived parallel lives! Both were Puffineers on Seal Island, both were summer interns on the Farallon Islands, both wrote their senior theses on Cassin’s auklet diving behavior, and both presented their results at PSG (Kristina on Oahu (2012) and Clare on Kauai (2019)). Kristina is now doing predator control work in seabird colonies on Kauai but her time with the Puffins obviously had a big impact…

Puffin Kristina’12 and Prof. K. at PSG in Kauai.

Filed under: Farallon Island, News, Puffin Project, Senior Thesis, Where are they now?
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Posted by: nina-karnovsky | August 5, 2019 | No Comment |

Mentoring senior thesis students is one of the best parts of my job– I always learn so much!

Three biology students wrote grant proposal senior theses in the fall:

Alondra wrote a grant to estimate bird mortality on campus from window strikes. Abbey wrote a grant investigating the impact of rising temperatures on bat wintering behavior. Lars wrote a grant to investigate the factors driving juvenile great white shark aggregating behavior.

From left to right: Alondra, Abbey, Prof. K. , Lars

Four Environmental Analysis students wrote senior theses:

Clare studied the diving behavior of Cassin’s auklets breeding on the Farallon Islands, Sabrina analyzed the factors leading to the population declines of Southern resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. Charlotte wrote about Japanese murrelets breeding in the Seto Sea. Brandon wrote about the aftermath of hurricane Harvey in Houston.

In the spring, two biology students finished their senior theses. Lilly investigated the diets of seed harvester ants and Payne studied the birds of the Bernard Field Station.

From left to right: Clare, Prof. K. and Sabrina


Brandon presenting his senior thesis


Charlotte (and Prof. K.) after her thesis presentation.


Lilly and her ants.


A spotted towhee painted by Payne.



Filed under: Bernard Field Station, Farallon Island, News, Senior Thesis

This blog post was written by students in Avian Ecology, Fall 2018 about our field trip to Newport Back Bay

The History and Significance of the Newport Back Bay.

Newport Back Bay serves as a stopover site for many birds taking part in the Pacific Flyway. However, in the 1960s this critical location was on the brink of disappearing with plans for new residential construction. It was only through the efforts and organizing of concerned citizens that construction was prevented and the Bay was listed as an Ecological Reserve. Today, many birds still make use of these wetlands and students and bird-lovers can spend their time admiring the species diversity and beauty this bay has to offer (Newport Bay Conservancy).

Shorebird Migration

Migrating birds can travel thousands of miles converging on key stopover sites along the way to rest, eat and breed. Amongst these are diverse group of shorebird species, migrating birds that cover impressive distances along the North American Pacific Flyway (Ehrlich et a., 1988). These birds are especially vulnerable during migration because (1) migration is a set behavior that they can’t change from one day to the next, and (2) starvation and fatigue are constant threats. Stopover sites like the Newport Back Bay are therefore critical for the continuation of this migrating behavior, providing birds with familiar landing sites to rest and eat. However, many of these stopover sites are increasingly vulnerable to environmental and human disturbances (Galbraith et al., 2002).


Wetlands are essential stops for migratory birds, from shorebirds and waterfowl to seabirds and raptors. The health and size of a wetland can determine its carrying capacity as a foraging stop on energetically demanding migrating pathways (Evans and Dugan 1984, Goss-Custard 1996). Anthropogenic pressures such as pollution, habitat loss, and climate change put wetlands in jeopardy, making places like Newport Back Bay all the more important (Galbraith et al., 2002).

Professor Karnovsky holds this little wildlife sanctuary close to her heart — she has been going there since she attended grad school at UC Irvine. She appreciates the chance each year to go back and see the many migrating birds, which change each year, and to see the excitement that this special place can ignite in students seeing it for the first time.

“I knew there were a lot of birds that used the flyways but this put into perspective the amount of species that pass by every year,” says student Cody.

Our trip!
During our classes, we discussed migration extensively, touching on specific obstacles that migrating birds face during their journey. As a key stopover site for many migrating birds, Newport Back Bay allowed us to take what we had discussed in class out into the “real world”. We took a Friday afternoon to drive over to the bay and, though we did not stay for very long, we made the best of our time there. We were able to observe the behaviors of these birds and the number of species of birds present in the bay in real time. Truly, it was an amazing experience for all of us.

We carried our individual binoculars along with our field guides and field notebooks. We also took turns carrying scopes that we set down when we noticed a bird. Bird scopes allowed us to see more in detail the individual characteristics of different birds. While walking, students called out any birds they saw, but most of our in-depth observations were made along the banks of the estuary.

In our last hour, we drove back down south and rented out kayaks. A few students had never kayaked before, but we were all excited to continue to explore everything that surrounded us. By kayaking in the bay, we were literally able to immerse ourselves into this habitat. We observed birds along the banks, on the water and above in the sky while we were kayaking, but were only able to physically record the species we had seen once we were out of the water! During this part of the trip, we also saw a group of people that were conducting research on the shore, indicative of the scientific importance of the bay.

Birds Sighted
We accumulated an impressive list of birds sighted. Some highlights included a Clark’s grebe skimming along the surface of the water and doing a fun, above-water dance, multiple snowy egrets, the least sandpipers that travel so incredibly far, despite their small size, an osprey right above us as we walked around back bay, two ospreys that swooped down towards us from their heights in the sky, and getting impressively close to some great blue herons on our kayaks.

Student + Professor Experiences:
We asked students on the trip what their favorite part was. Cody, a sophomore at Pomona really “enjoyed the kayaking.” Kyra agreed, and appreciated “getting to be in nature, having the time to take it all in.” It is easy to get caught up in the business of life, and forget to take a moment to watch the excitement of the nature around you. As Lao Tzu, and ancient chinese philosopher says, “nature never hurries, yet everything gets accomplished.” It was quite a treat to spend an entire afternoon at this special spot. Many of us saw species we’d never seen before, or even known existed before this class. And then to imagine how far they’d come to rest in the sanctuary of Newport Back Bay? Taking a moment to step back and observe put things into perspective. “There is a lot more diversity than is noted at first glance in a certain place,” remarks Kyra. The little things can make a big difference, too. Nina was shocked at the striking size difference between the tiny plovers and sandpipers and the other shorebirds like the willets. In conclusion, I think that all the students of avian ecology can agree that the best way to learn about shorebird migration is to observe it first hand!

Filed under: News
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Island Update from Kay!

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | June 22, 2018 | No Comment |

The chicks are hatching!!!!!! We are doing feeding studies, and I am already attached to c chick, which I know is a dangerous game… yesterday we had a peregrine falcon that took two of our common terns 🙁 Also, Kay has caught and banded several puffins and she has named one “Prof. K.” I am so touched! 

Filed under: Puffin Project

Another Sagehen Roosting with Puffins!

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | June 7, 2018 | No Comment |

The third Sagehen is monitoring seabirds with the Puffin Project! Kay’18 is following the tradition started with Kristina and Clare.

Kay with first Puffin of the season!


Filed under: Puffin Project
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Sagehen on Southeast Farallon Island!

Posted by: nina-karnovsky | May 25, 2018 | No Comment |

Clare’19 who was on Seal Island as part of the Puffin Project last summer is now out on Southeast Farallon Island! She is continuing the tradition of Sagehens out on the rock. In past years Matt, Kristina and Eleanor contributed to the collection of the long term data sets that have become part of several senior theses. Clare says “I love it here- there are more birds than I’ve seen in my life! So far I’ve been doing work with Brandt’s cormorants, tufted puffins, elephant seals, rhinoceros auklets, and obviously Cassin’s auklets!” The Cassin’s auklets will be the subject of her senior thesis.


Filed under: Farallon Island, Puffin Project, Senior Thesis
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