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ISP takes an aural approach to birding

Editor’s Note: New College News has featured ISPs throughout the month of January. Next month it will publish a photo gallery highlighting additional projects. If you would like to be featured, please submit a photo and brief description of the ISP to pmelo@ncf.edu by Monday, Feb. 4, 2019.

By Jim DeLa

First-year student Hope Sandlin’s independent study project is cataloging bird species seen around the New College campus, identifying them by their calls.
First-year student Hope Sandlin’s independent study project is cataloging bird species seen around the New College campus, identifying them by their calls.

First-year student Hope Sandlin is using her love for birds to create an unusual independent study project.
She’s doing a survey of birds that reside around New College. But instead of simply sighting different birds and cataloging them, she’s taking a different tack. “I’ll be trying to identify birds by ear,” and recording her data. “I’ll be putting together a map of what birds are around New College.”
Sandlin says she’s designing a multimedia presentation about her findings. “It will show the birds I saw, where I saw them and the best time of day to see them,” among other information.
Her ISP sponsor, Associate Professor of Music Maribeth Clark, says the approach is more holistic that scientific. “I’m not trying to teach science,” Clark says. “It’s about thinking and listening; how we’re connected to these birds and why that matters.”
A page from “The Field Guide of Wild Birds and Their Music,“ published in 1904. Before sound recordings, Associate Professor of Music Maribeth Clark said bird song was documented through musical notation.
A page from “The Field Guide of Wild Birds and Their Music,“ published in 1904. Before sound recordings, Associate Professor of Music Maribeth Clark said bird song was documented through musical notation.

Clark, who teaches a course called “Music and the Environment,” says bird song and science have had a long connection. Before technology allowed people to record the higher frequencies of bird song, “The only way to document it was to use musical notation.” By the 1930s, sound recording technology developed by the film industry allowed observers to accurately record bird song. “By World War II, people stopped relating birds to music,” Clark said.
Sandlin has been spending a lot of time in January in various places around New College, with an ear cocked toward the sky.
“Coming out to watch and listen has been really good,” she said. Even if there are no birds to be found at a particular place and time, she says that can be useful information, too. “My original plan was to be really structured being in the same place and the same times … but then after noticing when birds actually were around in various places, I changed my schedule.”
Clark said that’s a key point. “That’s one of the things you notice when you’re birding by ear — how the sounds connect us to place.”
“It’s been cool to see how different birds interact with each other, and what time of day is best to see certain birds,” Sandlin said. “Herons and egrets usually get [to the Bayfront] early; ibises and gulls come in later.”
Sandlin said the practice of listening is paying off. “The other day I was able to identify a bird — a Downy Woodpecker — by a single note,” she said. “It’s always fun when little things like that happen.”
Sandlin says growing up, “I always knew I wanted to work around animals.” Her focus narrowed after attending a lecture by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission on conservation and learning that a local species, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, was nearly extinct.
After talking with the seminar speaker, she remembers calling her mother to tell her she wanted to work with birds.
A volunteer at Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota, Sandlin says right now, she’s planning on biology as an AOC. And after college? “I’d love to do research; anything conservation related.”
— Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator at New College of Florida.


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is a top-ranked public liberal arts college and the state's Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in arts, humanities and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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