By Abby Weingarten
Wood storks, anhinga and bald eagles made their way into the binocular views of New College students during an unforgettable bonding and birding experience this winter.
It was an Independent Study Project (ISP) called “Birding New College” that brought these 19 Novo Collegians together for the January Interterm. Fresh air invigorated their senses and glimpses of endangered species renewed their appreciation of nature.
“I really enjoy having the ability to engage with my environment here on campus in new ways,” said first-year English student Charlie Reardon. “This ISP helped me establish a connection to New College, which is something that was very hard for me to do because of COVID-19.”
And that was the idea—to get students outside, safely social distancing while connecting to their environment and each other.
The ISP was the combined effort of Elizabeth Leininger, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology (the leader of the project); Maribeth Clark, Ph.D., associate professor of music; and Helene Gold, research, instruction and information literacy librarian at the Jane Bancroft Cook Library. Leininger, Clark and Gold are all birding enthusiasts, and the concept for their ISP was a major hit among students (so much so that the instructors had to turn a couple people away). The students ultimately created bird-related projects, inspired by the creatures they observed.
“Birding on campus is pretty exceptional. It’s a way to connect with this special place in the way that is most threatened of all—through our relationships with the creatures other than the humans we share it with,” Clark said, adding that the Division of Natural Sciences and the Provost’s Office pitched in for extra binoculars. “Seeing students get excited about identifying birds is pretty thrilling. I don’t give myself permission to do this much birding most of the time. It’s a luxury pastime.”
Even a 90-minute walk from the Academic Center (ACE) building to the bayfront and back yielded sightings of almost 30 species, Clark said.
“That’s something special about New College. There is such an amazing richness of habitats and inhabitants,” Clark said. “We have the bay and its sandbars, the uplands just off the bay, the Florida plant restoration area, retention ponds, the sports fields on the east side of campus, the mix of slash pines and cabbage palms, the numerous pine snags where the osprey nest, and the built environment that invites birds in (such as ACE, which provides nesting spaces for house finches and tasty meals for fish crows once the eggs get laid and hatched).”
Endangered and threatened species of birds are visible nearly every day on the New College campus, Clark said.
“Wood storks hang out at the Shell station (believe it or not),” Clark said. “And then there’s a slew of species of special concern that we completely take for granted: brown pelicans, little blue herons, osprey, roseate spoonbills, tricolored herons, snowy egrets and white ibis.”
The students in the “Birding New College” ISP saw these species firsthand, participating in at least five birding outings per week. They conducted their own bird-informed projects—from making pieces of artwork to plotting activist strategies to writing grants for acquiring educational on-campus signage. Some students even drafted proposals to secure bird feeders and birdbaths for the campus.
“Birding is an ideal pandemic activity—a chance to get outside and observe and appreciate one’s environment,” Leininger said. “For this ISP, we focused not just on bird identification and the ‘nuts and bolts’ of birding, but also on current issues facing birds and birders.”
Students read and discussed sources about the environmental threats birds face, how to bird ethically and responsibly, and how birding subcultures and societal factors can influence who feels supported as a birder, Leininger explained.
“We were not anticipating the popularity of this ISP, and we are excited that so many students were interested. I also love that we have students with so many academic interests represented in this ISP; it has made the bird projects really creative and interesting,” Leininger said. “I have loved watching students’ bird identification skills grow day by day.”
Leininger will always remember the one morning the ISP group walked down to the water and watched white pelicans feeding near the bayfront.
“These pelicans migrate down to Sarasota from northern areas for the winter. It was the first time we had seen them in a group outing, and everyone was thrilled to get a close look at them,” Leininger said. “It was just a perfect moment to be alive.”
Students felt noticeably revived by the adventures. They began participating in community science by logging their bird observations on eBird (a Cornell Lab of Ornithology project). According to the site, nearly 70 species of birds were spotted on the New College campus in the span of one week over the winter (and the ISP students made most of those sightings), Leininger said.
“I chose the ‘Birding’ ISP because I love birds but didn’t know a lot about them. Also, I wanted to spend some time outside with other students. I had an amazing time,” said Veronica Lee, a third-year student of statistics and heritage studies. “I now have a new way to understand our campus. Knowing about the birds on campus gives a different dimension to it. For example, I have watched ospreys and bald eagles chase each other in territory disputes. It’s important to remember that we’re not the only ones who benefit from this campus.”
Skylar Gross, a third-year biology student, developed a new appreciation for the New College campus, too.
“I walk around campus a lot but I never knew what a majority of the birds were. Now I’ve learned how to identify a lot of species on campus,” Gross said. “I’ve also had a brief look into conservation work and how birding has impacted groups of people. I’m glad my first birding experience was with the group of people in this ISP. And I’m glad I got to be outside for the majority of my ISP season.”
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.