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Reflecting back and looking forward

My first semester at Georgia College has officially ended and if there was any lingering question about whether this move was the right decision, that question is long gone.  I have loved every single moment here and I couldn’t be happier with every part of this job.

Starting a new position at a new college after teaching for 5 1/2 years at another institution will always be challenging.  Now add on the challenges associated with having to move cross-country over the Christmas holiday season, having less than 2 weeks to close out one semester and start a new one, and trying to learn a completely different culture (the South is it’s own culture) and you’ve got some idea of what this semester was like for me.

I was expecting it to be chaotic.  I was expecting to have no time to sleep or eat.  I was expected to annoy every one of my colleagues with nonstop questions.   I was expecting to have students complain about my lack of preparedness, my scattered nature, and my inability to use the online LMS at the beginning of the semester.  While it was chaotic for sure, I did sleep and eat, I don’t think I annoyed my colleagues, and my students complained no more than in past semesters.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that this move was exactly what I wanted and needed, both personally and professionally.

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That’s me working.  I clearly have no room to complain.

So now I am looking forward.  First to many more excellent semesters teaching eager students in the classroom and in my research lab.  I’m also very excited to be working on a couple new research projects this summer and I’m already looking to next summer and what I can do then.

I’m not sure that I’ll be updating here much over the summer, but I’ll be back again next semester.  I am teaching comparative vertebrate anatomy, so the lab recaps will be full of dissections instead of birds.  But it’s all science and it’s all learning.

Science and learning – my two favorite things!

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Migration! (Finally!)

 

The weathering the tropics isn’t “favorable or migration” right now, according to the Birdcast forecast, which means that migration is slower and later than normal.  Sadly, this was our last day in the field for the semester, so that news wasn’t what I was hoping to hear when I checked this morning.  

But, we still managed to pick up FIVE new species today and a total of 26, which is a tie with out best day, so I’d say we still went out with a bang.

Our full checklist is here.

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The 5 new species for the class were the Northern Waterthrush (above), the Magnolia Warbler, yellow-trotted vireo, summer tanager, and the Grey Catbird.  

The Magnolia Warbler had been plaguing one of the students (his nemesis bird, as I like to call the birds that we see or hear constantly but never see) for the last couple weeks, and I finally got a look at today.  It was just enough of a look to narrow it down to just a couple species and then I confirmed it by song.  I love when that kind of thing works out, because the satisfaction makes it so worth it.

I can’t pick a favorite of the new birds, because they are all my favorites, and I geek out about each one we see. But….

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…its hard to not get excited about a beautiful red Summer Tanager!  And if its a pari of them, even better.

This is how we have been ending our classes, so its a fitting way to end this blog post.  

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1, 2, 3….BIRDS

A cold day, but a productive one

The weather here has been nothing short of nutty lately.  From the mid-80s last week to the low 60s this week (45 this morning!).  Clear and sunny one day and tornadoes the next.  Wind, hail, rain, and even an earthquake! (I think the earthquake is unconfirmed, but don’t quote me on that.)

If I feel confused by this weather, I can only imagine how the migrating birds feel!  Or the ones that are already sitting on eggs and/or nestlings!   Poor birds.

The Lake Sinclair Dam is a large local power plant that is currently home to FOUR Osprey nests!  Today for lab, we drove out there and got some exclusive access to the nests and despite the winds, it was an incredible, if cold, experience.

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We started the day birding near the Lake/River, and we saw quite a number of species and in short a period of time.  I wasn’t expecting to see so many with the weather, but the birds still need to eat, so they were pretty active.

Today’s total was 25 species in only an hour and forty minutes!   Some highlights were Brown-headed Nuthatches doing some mating chases, the Ospreys (obviously) and the OSPREY NESTLINGS!!!   There weren’t too many migratory birds, but the Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers were out in decent numbers, the Cedar Waxwings are still hanging around, and there were some Northern-Rough Winged Swallows mixed in with a TON of Cliff Swallows.  Full eBird checklist is here.

Sadly, I didn’t get a photo of any of the nests.  Sometimes, my excitement to see the birds makes me forget that I need to document them.  Well….I suppose need is a bit extreme, though pictures do make more interesting blog posts.  

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The view from the walkway was incredible and I did manage to capture that.   

We had a shorter birding day because the undergraduate research presentations are going on today.  They were great and well worth giving up an hour of precious birding time.  

Migration is starting!

I was hoping that we would still have some migrants hanging around that had been held up by the recent storms throughout the state, but I think a lot had moved on already.  We didn’t get the brunt of the storm, so perhaps the coastal regions were dripping with the excitement of migrating birds.

I say excitement as a birder and teacher of all things birds.  I’m sure the birds find storms less than exciting.

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I was teaching the class this week about migration and mentioned using Nexrad radar technology to visualize bird migration, and this is a great image explaining it.  For those birders reading, check out Bird Cast, which posts a weekly migration forecast and a weekly summary using eBird data.  It’s pretty amazing what we can do with technology now!

We are sadly lacking in ducks for class right now, so I picked Bartram Forest WMA as a good lab location because there are ponds, but they are surrounded by forest also, so even if the ponds didn’t have a lot of ducks, I was hoping to see some forest songbirds.

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Sadly, no ducks, but there were lots of forest birds out!

We’ve been averaging around 20 species each time we go out, and today we got 19.  Several were new birds for the class and included some migrants also.  The highlights were the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird (only seen buzzing by), a Swainson’s Thrush, lots of Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers, and the class’s first Eastern Towhee!  I also saw a White-eyed Vireo, but sadly wasn’t able to locate it long enough to point it out to the students.

Full checklist here.

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So still very few ducks for the class.  Next week we might need to go on a serious duck hunt!  (See what I did there?) 

The cold won’t stop us!

 

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The plan for today’s lab was to set up nets at another colleagues’s house, taking advantage of the five bird feeders in his yard to get some really great captures.   However, when I went to sleep last night, I was worried that it would be too cold this morning for the birds to be moving much.  The overnight low was in the 30s, which usually means that birds are hunkered down trying to conserve their energy – less movement means more energy can be devoted to keep themselves warm.  

I was COLD y’all. It feels funny to say that, since the rest of the country is blanketed in snow, but us Georgians think 30 is downright frigid.  (To be fair, I’ve always thought that, even when I lived in Wisconsin.)

The birds didn’t care about the cold one bit.  They were FLYING everywhere.  In fact, we caught 2 Chipping Sparrows WHILE we were setting the first net up!  

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This net has about 8 birds, see if you can find them all!

Chipping Sparrows were literally everywhere. Myself and a student rushed the net to send a couple from the feeder into the net (I don’t recommend this for research purposes, but for fun, I say go for it.)  We caught so many birds that at one point, every one of us was holding a bird!

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BIRDS EVERYWHERE!

This isn’t even the busy time of year, either!

Instead of listening to me yammer about what birds we caught and how exciting it was, let’s just look at some pictures of students holding birds, their smiles can tell the tale of the excitement.  

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Red-winged Blackbirds were the biggest bird we caught today (and ever in class so far.)

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These Downy Woodpeckers were not very excited to be caught.  They were even less excited to be held so close to each other.  They were trying to “kiss” each other.   Or….maybe it was fighting.

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I think this is one of theTufted Titmice we caught.  I’m fairly sure we caught the same birds more than once, but we have no way of knowing because we aren’t banding them.  

I got a great email from a student telling me that today was “awesome”.   I couldn’t agree more.

More mist-netting, more birds!

Another day of mist-netting complete!  This time we doubled our catch rate from last week!  

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Two weeks ago, we set out three bird feeders that we have been keeping full of bird seed, so that we could get the birds used to those locations.  We set the bird feeders in locations that I knew would be good for setting up mist-nets.  Luckily, the weather was very overcast, so the concerns I had about the nets getting sunlit throughout the day were not an issue.  It was perfect weather today!

We caught 6 birds, 4 different species, and all new species (in the hand, sadly none were completely new to the class) – a pair of Ruby-crowned kinglets, a Carolina Chickadee, an Eastern Phoebe, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler.  

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We’re not allowed to band the bids unless they are House Sparrows (they aren’t protected by the Migratory bird Treaty Act), but I am letting the students hold the birds and learn how to take some basic measurements.   Today we were learning about wing chord and tail feather measuring.

I also explained things that we look at and for on the birds’ feathers.  We saw some examples of feather wear in the flight feather primaries and we saw what looked like some molted feathers that were nearly grown out.  

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Just getting experience holding birds, and flipping them around in your hands is helpful before you start to take some of the measurements, so any experience doing that is great.  I think most of the class got to hold several birds today.

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This is what happens when you give your phone to students to take pictures.  

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There are always multiple highlights of the day when you are mist-netting (really, the whole day is a highlight), but today we got to see 2 very VERY cool things!

The first thing was that we got a very close look at 2 Ruby-crowned Kinglets.   This might not sound that exciting to seasoned birders, but we’ve seen many in the field and that ruby crown is always so elusive.  So, finally, with the birds in our hands, we were able to blow on their heads and actually see the ruby crown for which they are named.   

I think my class was beginning to think I was lying to them about that.

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Yeah sure there’s a Ruby crown on these birds, Dr. Stumpf.

The second highlight, that I may have freaked out about a little bit, was catching an Eastern Phoebe WITH A BROOD PATCH!!   This is incredible to me, being from Wisconsin.  I didn’t know that they would be breeding right now!  In fact, I need to look up the records for this species to see if this has been recorded. 

Not only was there a brood patch, but it was a wrinkly brood patch, which means that she was sitting on late eggs or possibly even nestlings!  Too bad I wasn’t prepared – the mirror poles were in my office.

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I didn’t get a picture of the actual brood patch, unfortunately.  I was too concerned when I saw the brood patch, because we’d had the bird for quite a while at that point and I didn’t want her to be away from her nest for too long.  But this is a picture of a couple students discovering that there was indeed a brood patch.

There’s only one thing I love more than mistnetting birds and that is teaching students how to mist net birds.  

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I could do this all day every day.   I still can’t believe this is my job!

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The smiles say everything.   Everyone loves mist-netting birds!

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 When I finished my undergraduate degree, I took a 3-month internship in Hawaii mist-netting birds.   I’d never held a bird before; I didn’t even know that people did that!   Well, that internship turned into a year-long position because I fell in love with the birds of Hawaii, and birds in general.   

Mist-netting is my first love, in terms of bird research techniques, but I have grown to love all of them.   However, there is nothing that will get students jazzed to be in the field than the prospect of holding a bird in their hands.

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The first time you hold a bird is both exciting and also scary.  They feel so fragile and they are WAY lighter than you would expect, based on their size.   That’s how they can fly though – they have a wide variety of adaptations to make their bodies light enough for flight, including air pockets and hollow bones.

But learning about those things in the classroom won’t drive the point home quite like holding one.

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It’s also surprising to see how small they look in the hand.  They always seem so much bigger when they are far away, in a tree, or flying overhead with their wings expanded in flight.

This Chipping Sparrow is about 15 grams, and only a few inches long.   He (or she?) feels so delicate.   They are much more tame than the Cardinals we caught though – those are BITERS!

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I only have 2 mist-nets right now and we only had them up for just over 2 hours, but we caught 3 birds, so I was pleased.   Getting skunked on our first field lab trying to catch birds would have been disappointing, to say the least.

In between net checks, we were birding the property, which is private land owned by a colleague here.  Highlights from the day included Red-tailed hawks, Eastern Phoebes, a Great Blue Heron, and Belted Kingfishers.

Full checklist here.  

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Next week, we’re going to set up the nets across the road at the Lake Laurel field station, where we’ve birded a few times before.  I set up a few bird feeders there last week to bait them in, so hopefully we’ll catch more than 3!

Not that I’m complaining about 3.   Catching any birds is a successful day!