Avian adventures

Northern Michigan University students learn about ornithology

Alec Lindsay, Northern Michigan University biology professor, center, points to a noteworthy avian subject during a recent outing in the field ornithology course. The students visited several Michigan birding hotspots for the course. (Photos courtesy of Northern Michigan University)

MARQUETTE – When you think “white pelican,” you might think of a salt bay in Florida, not the Upper Peninsula. But the American white pelican, as it’s officially known, does venture this far north with its 9-foot wingspan.

That fact came a surprise to Northern Michigan University students who took part in a recent field ornithology course.

The students recorded interactions with more than 175 bird species in various habitats. For example, they watched researchers band owls at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory located north of Paradise, which, according to its website, wpbo.org, conducts summer owl banding to specifically track post-fledgling northern saw-whet owls. Owls also are banded during the spring and fall.

Another bird hotspot is Brockway Mountain Drive near Copper Harbor. The students visited the scenic Keweenaw County corridor in the spring to watch raptors fly overhead.

They also saw barn swallows nesting beneath the bridge where the AuTrain River spills into Lake Superior.

Blue jays are on the NMU field ornithology class’ list of birds seen during the course. (Photos courtesy of Northern Michigan University)

Alec Lindsay, a professor in the NMU Department of Biology, led students on five extended weekend camping trips to U.P. sites and Tawas City.

“Hopefully students will enjoy the natural world a bit more, now that they have a better understanding of the avian diversity that is everywhere around them,” Lindsay said.

He said Michigan is among the top 10 states for birding because of the wide diversity of migrating and breeding species. Lindsay, who chairs the Michigan Audubon Society board of directors, pointed out the endangered Kirtland’s warbler breeds here.

This rare bird typically breeds only in jack pines of a certain height, mostly in the Grayling-Mio area.

“Honestly, I don’t love birding,” Lindsay said. “But I do love science, and how it helps us understand the complexity and beauty of the evolving natural world.”

Watching birds maybe is underappreciated, he said, because it’s a quiet recreational activity done in relative isolation. However, it’s also a multi-million dollar tourism business in the state.

NMU is in a great location to offer the ornithology course, Lindsay said, with so many species and habitats.

He first taught the 13 students basic observation and listening skills on the NMU campus where they easily found 15 bird species during one spring afternoon.

In the field, they obtained hands-on experience in research methods and outcomes. The students completed data analysis related to topics like peregrine falcons, variables in song sparrow vocalizations and birds that eat budworms, which destroy jack pines.

The students also became proficient at identifying birds by sight and sound, not always an easy undertaking.

“People don’t always realize the variety of birds and the amazing things they do,” Lindsay said in a news release. “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 camping trips, not surprisingly, allowed for little sleep. However, the students were rewarded by staying up late with nocturnal owls and whip-poor-wills and rising early to the melodious sounds of white-throated sparrows, ovenbirds and red-eyed vireos.

Angela Bloodworth, a senior wildlife management major from Ypsilanti, said the course was one of her favorite NMU classes.

“I definitely like the hands-on opportunities of field classes,” Bloodworth said in a news release.

She went with Lindsay to Zambia two summers ago, which convinced her to switch her major.

The class, she said, gave her skills she can use down the road and gave her a new perspective of what she can do in her 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 diversity,” Bloodworth said.

She now wants to work with birds in her career, be it in permanent employment or short-term research projects.

Lindsay previously taught the field ornithology course eight years ago. Of the 16 students who enrolled in that installment, to his knowledge, 13 are in graduate school, employed as ornithologists or working with agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The feathered dinosaurs among us are certainly fascinating and inspiring, so it is a pleasure to both study them and work with students who share a passion for science and the natural world,” Lindsay said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.