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Eyes (and Ears) Wide Open

Senior Jason Troutman references a list of bird species in Keuka's ornithology field lab, taught by Dr. Bill Brown, at right. (All photos by Brett Williams).

Bundled warm in hoodies against the morning chill at Keuka Lake State Park, the students are standing still, listening intently. From the branches of trees nearby come chirps, calls and sing-song melodies, rising over the sound of the waves lapping the shore.

“What do you hear?” asks Bill Brown, assistant professor of biology and environmental science, who holds a Ph.D. and specializes in ornithology, the study of birds. Binoculars hang suspended from the students’ necks, but Brown wants them to listen first.

Seniors Steve Stout and Justin Henry record bird species they've identified during an outdoor field lab.

Pencils poised over palm-size waterproof notepads, the handful of students lower their heads and jot down four-letter codes for different species as they respond with the names: Mourning dove. American robin. Cardinal. Canada goose. Carolina wren. Downy woodpecker. [Eastern] Pheobe. House finch.

This is ENV/BIO 331, Keuka’s ornithology class, where one of Brown’s primary objectives is teaching students to master identification of some 104 different species of birds by sight. Thirty-nine of those species must also be identified by sound. And those are just the birds found here in New York state.

According to Brown, almost 90 percent of “birding” is done by ear; the rest comes from knowing what to expect in a given setting, whether that may be a small cluster of trees near a building, along a road, or deep in a forest fragment.

Seniors Troutman and Janelle Davidson scope out the birds on Keuka Lake.

Moving closer to the shoreline, students shove the notebooks into back pockets or set them down next to The Sibley Guide to Birds on nearby picnic tables. They pick up the binoculars to focus in on the waterfowl of Keuka Lake. Directing one another where to look, the names come again: Common loon. Ring-billed gulls. Common merganser. Bufflehead duck. And singing, the dark-eyed junco. More listening, and another name comes: black-capped chickadee.

“What do you hear now?” Brown asks. “There’s a couple uphill we haven’t picked up yet.”

“Grackle?” questions Jason Troutman, a senior organismal biology major from Kirkville. The group jokes that he’s the quietest of the bunch, but he is consistently first to name by sound.

The four-letter codes for bird identification, as set by the American Ornithologists' Union.

“It just clicks,” Troutman explains. “Some are really easy – American crow, blue jay, cardinal – it adds up after hearing [it] so many times.”

Senior environmental science major Steve Stout explains that the software the students have, rather than a textbook, helps them learn each bird’s distinct song. He adds that the determining factor setting this science course apart from all others is the difference in lab setting. As the Summer Hill resident says: “It’s more fun than a lot of other classes because we get to be out in the field.”

It is clear the class enjoys escaping the confines of the classroom, and the unseasonably mild weather since the start of the semester has been an added bonus. Brown’s students have trekked outdoors for weekly field studies since early March, following a few short weeks of lab prep in taxonomy and ecology. The class already spent almost a whole day at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge near Auburn, where it saw bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and multiple duck species, Troutman says.

After a time, Brown identifies the species heard uphill as the brown-headed cowbird, the tufted titmouse, the red-bellied woodpecker, and the golden-crowned kinglet, one of the smallest North American birds, weighing in around six grams, slightly heavier than a nickel (5 grams). By contrast, the smallest of the birds, the hummingbird, weighs about three grams, Brown says.

As senior Janelle Davidson spots a northern flicker climbing up the side of an ash tree, she alerts the others that “he’s all ruffled” and Troutman follows the flicker’s movement through his binoculars.

“He’s preening himself or something – he’s a cool little bugger,” he says, then confirms his earlier find by sight. “There’s a bunch of grackles – like five of them.”

The class turns, observing a red cardinal flitting between the eaves of a rustic park building and a bare-branched tree. As they head down a path that runs through some pines, parallel to the lake, it becomes quieter and Brown notes that come the next warm front, the warblers, orioles and some thrushes should return. Today the class might encounter 20-30 species, he says, but by mid-May they could find as many as 60-65 species.

The group stops briefly along a parkway road to identify birds unique to that habitat. Scaling the bark of a tulip tree, to the left of the road, they spot the one bird Brown hoped they’d find today: a brown creeper. Cautioning that it may be the only creeper they see today, Brown points out the tufted titmouse to its right, then draws their attention to the lateral rows of holes in the bark of the same tree, where a yellow-bellied sapsucker has left its mark.

A red-backed salamander, the most common in Eastern forests.

Climbing a trail into the woods, Brown capitalizes on the landscape, using bushes, trees and other flora and fauna to further students’ understanding of the natural world. The class pauses as he points out an invasive Japanese honeysuckle and a Russian olive bush, then flips over a fallen log and plucks a red-backed salamander from the grooves of the rotted wood underneath it. After letting the critter slither over his hand, Brown flips the log back over, then sets the salamander down in leaves close by, to avoid crushing it.

Stout and the class on the trail.

Moments later, Stout spots the lateral holes of the sapsucker on another tree, this one close enough the students can touch. While the sapsucker pecks small holes, the ones created by the pileated woodpecker in a tree nearby are almost cavernous by comparison and could become spots where robins nest, Brown tells the class.

Davidson looks over the holes made by a pileated woodpecker.

Examining the woodpecker’s handiwork, Davidson jokes that the robin’s got “an upstairs – and a back door, too.”

On the walk back, Brown again pauses to teach one more aspect of identification: gender typing. In keeping with the light-hearted banter among the group, he points out a northern flicker and asks, “Is it a male or a female? How do you tell?”

After a momentary debate on size variations, he offers the answer: “Mustache. It’s a male.”

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