Ornithological Life at Smith College

In my last post I got a little ahead of myself, jumping from the Wilson meeting at UMBS in 1974 to Princeton in 1976, without any attention to my time at Smith College. That was a sufficiently significant period, ornithologically, that I don’t want to gloss over it.

I was plopped down in western Massachusetts in the middle of winter 1975, after 7 amazing months of academic freedom at Manomet Bird Observatory followed by a birding trip to the tropics, so it was a shock to the system. My most memorable course at Smith was Evolution and Systematics, my first really rigorous introduction to the necessary framework of ornithological research and nearly my undoing. Stephen Tilley taught the course, and it was a doozy. Population genetics caught me completely unaware and I got a D on the first exam. With a lot of effort I managed to get an A- for the course. Also on the menu that semester were pre-calculus and chemistry and I forget what else – maybe German. So it was not all feathers and fur that semester despite my preference for taking only whole-organism course work. I consoled myself with birding Paradise Pond to the Mill River and offering bird walks to other students in my spare time – no car (or driver’s license!) and no birding friends nearby so I was limited to birding within walking distance. This was not a great hardship because a) I needed to study and b) this is actually a pretty birdy location. I also wrote some articles about birds for the school paper, The Sophian. The winters of 1975 and 1976 were unusual, compared to now, in that Evening Grosbeak numbers were high in the area. I had to defend a number of lists to eBird last spring as I entered historical data – eBird always balked at my reports of flocks of 10-15 grosbeaks in Northampton and, once, a flock of over 100. Another species much more numerous then than now was Common Nighthawk, which was a fixture in the evening sky during summers in Northampton. Apparently its abundance in Massachusetts stemmed from the use of gravel rooftops starting in the late 19th century, and its subsequent decline was also anthropogenic as this roof material was replaced with rubber. Now the bird only passes through on migration – with luck one can see very large flocks in spring and fall, sometimes numbering in the hundreds.

My courses at Smith were quite rigorous, and dealing with math and chemistry was not easy for me. I think transferring took its toll as well, as adjusting to different academic styles from what I’d found at Barnard was challenging. I had to spend a tremendous amount of time studying and did not enjoy doing this in groups which, to be honest, could have been very beneficial but I was then, and remain, a bit of a loner and not good at taking advice if it conflicted with my inclinations.

Some of the highlights of my time at Smith were visits from friends from Manomet. Paul Donohue, who had accompanied me to Monomoy to see the Gyrfalcon the previous fall, came out in the spring for a hawk-watching trip to Mount Tom. This would have been to Goat’s Peak Tower, which I have not visited since (it is in Hampden County and I currently focus my efforts on Hampshire County to avoid going crazy with driving and gasoline). And so I got through my first semester at Smith and started my next ornithological research adventure the following summer at Carnegie Museum’s Powdermill Nature Reserve in western Pennsylvania, an opportunity that came out of meeting the museum’s bird curators (Ken Parkes and Mary Clench) at the Wilson Society meeting while an intern at Manomet Bird Observatory.

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