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.

Adventures in the North Woods

As mentioned in an earlier post, I attended my first ornithological meeting while I was still an intern at Manomet Bird Observatory in 1974. The Wilson Society met that year at the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) in Pellston – a rustic camp about 25 miles south of the Straits of Mackinaw in northern Michigan, where all of the University’s field courses are taught. Faculty and students from U of M as well as from other academic institutions come for 8 weeks of intensive courses including aquatic ecology, physiological ecology, mammalogy, herpetology, mycology, boreal flora, ornithology and more. Typically a full load for the summer is two courses. I would get to experience this myself a few years later, but this time I was just there for a few days of talks about birds and field trips around the area.

One of these field trips was led by an ornithological legend: Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. Pettingill literally wrote the book on ornithology: his textbook was the standard for over 40 years. Among his many “bona fides”: he taught ornithology at UMBS for 35 years, at Carleton College for 17 years, and was director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for 13 years. I had a good laugh when I was submitting historical data to eBird last spring: my list from Pettingill’s field trip included 15 Red Crossbills, and an eBird volunteer wrote to question this sighting, despite my note that the trip was led by Pettingill and attended by Joseph Hickey (I can’t remember if Harold Mayfield was on the trip but he attended the meeting). I figured this volunteer was probably too young to know either of these names, and I emailed back and kindly explained why he could be confident in this observation.

Also attending the meeting were some birdwatchers that included a middle-aged couple from Beaumont, Texas. They took a liking to me and invited me to accompany them to the Huron National Forest after the meetings, where we would try to find the very local Kirtland’s Warbler. This species breeds only in north central Michigan in jack pine trees that are 10-15 feet tall. The forests are managed vigorously for the warblers, with controlled burning to allow regular germination of jack pine cones, which require a very high temperature to melt the cone resin and liberate the seeds; this ensured continuous recruitment of pines into that critical age cohort that the warblers require. The management plan was also designed to prevent excessive parasitization by Brown-headed Cowbirds, which target Kirtland’s Warblers heavily as surrogate parents for their offspring.

While we were thrashing around the Huron National Forest looking for this rare bird, we happened upon a young man who was camping in a tent and looking for Kirtland’s Warblers also. Charlie Munn was a student at Princeton and a birder, and was enjoying the solitude of the north woods and working on his life list. Charlie hung out with us for an amusing several hours; we found our birds, and went our separate ways. An aside: in one of life’s funny twists – Paul Donohue, with whom I went to Monomoy Island to find the Gyrfalcon later that summer, and Charlie Munn currently work together at Charlie’s ecotourism company, Southwild, in Brazil.

I kept in touch with the couple, and a few months later they wrote to my parents to invite me to join them for a trip to Mexico in January of the following year. They invited Charlie as well, so during an amazing week of birdwatching in south Texas and the cloud forest at Rancho del Cielo in Tamaulipas, I had the opportunity to get to know Charlie. We kept in touch, and he encouraged me to apply to participate in Princeton’s Tropical Ecology course. A year later, in January of 1976, I joined Professor John Terborgh, Charlie, and a bunch of other undergraduate and graduate students (a total of 11 or 12) for a trip to Trinidad and Tobago. We spent 3 weeks camping in the mud (week 1) and on the beach (weeks 2 & 3), mist-netting and banding birds and having a glorious time. By this point I had transferred to Smith and was in the process of taking all their whole-organism biology courses and was faced with the prospect of having to take what was left over, namely cell biology and genetics – a horrifying prospect. Of course I had to get out of there! After spending time with like-minded people in the tropics and somehow believing that life at Princeton would be just like that, I applied to transfer one more time. So in the fall of 1976, I began the final leg of my undergraduate journey, at Princeton.


Manomet Bird Observatory

My first year of college was an interesting one. Unlike most first-year college students who leave home and live without their parents around for possibly the first time ever, I stayed in my childhood home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and my parents went away for the year (a sabbatical at Cambridge University). I tried to keep up with birding and managed a pelagic trip off Rhode Island and a couple Linnean Society field trips (Brigantine NJ and Cape Ann MA) plus some forays into Central Park, but for the most part my focus was on studying. The monthly Linnean meetings were a key part of maintaining my sanity, and a presentation in the spring of 1974 was a life changer. Kathleen S. Anderson, Executive Director of Manomet Bird Observatory, gave a talk about Manomet and the research and educational opportunities they offered. She also mentioned their intern program! I popped up as soon as the talk and questions ended and asked how I could apply for an internship. She invited me up for an interview and within a few days I was on a bus headed north. I met with MBO staff, notably Ms. Anderson and staff scientists Brian Harrington and Trevor Lloyd-Evans, and it wasn’t long before I had secured a spot in the program. I have rarely been so excited about anything in my entire life. I was about to start the most wonderful summer – and fall, as it turned out – of my existence.

Within a week or so of completing my first year of college, I packed my bags and was once again on a bus north, this time to stay and begin a glorious adventure. Numerous research opportunities were available at Manomet. Brian Harrington was conducting projects on various species of shorebirds including monitoring the Common Tern and Piping Plover populations at Plymouth Beach. A visiting scientist was looking at behavior of Gray Catbirds on Manomet’s property. Trevor Lloyd-Evans was in charge of the banding program, which was a large–scale operation: as I recall there were around 40 mist nets on several acres of the 40-acre property, and we kept them open from dawn to dusk during spring and fall migration, closing them for part of the day if it got too warm out (we didn’t want birds waiting in nets in the hot sun). Given that the number of birds netted was so high during migration, once we had processed the birds from a net round, it was time to go back out and check the nets again. We took with us on each round a number of drawstring cloth bags (all hand-made by volunteers). The nets are made of nylon mesh of about 1 cm weave, with 4 or 5 pockets such that a bird would fly across the path, encounter the net and fall gently into a pocket and rest there until we came to take them out. To do this we would hold the bird gently but firmly with the two tibiotatarsi between two fingers and work the threads of the net away from the bird. Many challenges presented themselves along the way: chickadees tended to grasp the net very tightly with their toes, and peck at our cuticles every step of the process. Cardinals also pecked and their robust beaks could cause significant pain, as did those of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. It was always immensely exciting to make the rounds of the mist nets, as you never knew what you would find – it was like Christmas! I suppose we had many exciting and rare birds but the one that stands out most vividly in my memory was an Olive-sided Flycatcher, which presented me with the type of moral dilemma probably only faced by the young, since at my advanced age I see no dilemma at all. I had never seen an Olive-sided Flycatcher so this would have been a life bird for me. You can’t count a netted bird on your life list, so I thought if I released it and then was able to identify it as it flew away, I could count it. It flew off quite quickly and there was no way I could ID it on the wing, so I came sadly to the obvious conclusion that my life Olive-sided Flycatcher would have to wait.

So, once a bird was removed from the net, it went into its own cloth drawstring bag to be carried back to the banding lab for processing. The work bench at the lab was equipped with a row of hooks underneath so we could hang the bags up, and this dancing array awaited the recording of a variety of data. The bench also had good lighting, scales for weighing each bird (first popping the animal beak down in an orange juice can to anchor it to the scale), magnifiers for closer examination of feathers and skin, and rulers and other measuring devices.

We banded the bird with an aluminum Fish & Wildlife Service band of the appropriate size (catbirds were also color-banded for recognition of individuals for the local behavior study), weighed the bird, measured wing length, checked for parasites such as ticks and lice, checked for moult, and then released the bird through a special little hatch door built for that purpose. Someone with a clipboard would log all the data as the bander called them out. The days were long – we didn’t have Fitbits or tracking apps in those days but we logged many miles making net rounds, and at night we would “sleep the sleep of the just” as my mother used to say and be up and at it again early the next morning.

With so many birds passing through our hands each day, multiple research opportunities presented themselves. I quickly became enamored of Empidonax flycatchers and Trevor and I analyzed their various measurements to see if the different species fell into their own multivariate spaces. I have never lost my love of flycatchers and went on to do doctoral research on the genus Tyrannus. To this day the sight of an Olive-sided Flycatcher is just beyond thrilling.

That summer was magical in so many ways. In addition to the banding program, which took up a lot of our time, we did breeding bird surveys with Trevor in Myles Standish State Forest and I remember learning how to estimate tree height by holding up a 3 meter stick and and multiplying it mentally. One night we helped Brian set up a cannon net and carefully herded 350 Red Knot towards it before detonating the net. That was a whopping success and we were up many hours banding all those birds in the field. There was time for birding too – a report of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Manomet village had us all out looking for it. Imagine getting your first look at a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on someone’s clothesline in eastern Massachusetts!

In early June, I accompanied Kathleen Anderson to the annual meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society held in Pellston, Michigan at the University of Michigan Biological Station, where I would meet some of the great “old-time” ornithologists of the 20th century. That meeting led to several very interesting and even life-changing experiences that I’ll come back to in another post. It was exciting to attend my first professional meeting – the first of many. At this point it was only 2 years since my first day of birding.

Life at Manomet Bird Observatory was so rewarding, so full of the kinds of experiences and educational opportunities I needed, that I decided I couldn’t go back to Barnard, with its emphasis on reductionist biology and its dearth of natural science courses. Instead I spent the fall at MBO and continued to learn as much as I could about birds, and applied to and was accepted at a school with a more balanced biology curriculum: Smith College.

I’ll describe one last Manomet adventure, which occurred on my birthday, Sunday November 17th. We had heard reports of a gray-phase Gyrfalcon on Monomoy Island off Cape Cod, and my friend and former MBO intern Paul Donohue and I set out in a canoe to see if we could find it. It was an incredibly mild day for mid-November and the sea was calm and flat as glass. We hiked the length of the island, racking up an impressive list of 15 species of ducks and a whopping 54 Dovekie, among other sea and land birds. We finally found the falcon at the lighthouse at the southern end of the island. A wonderful birthday, still the best I’ve ever had. We were fortunate, as that day turned out to be the last one of the season that one could sanely consider canoe travel off the coast of Chatham, Mass. My Monomoy bird list is the last one I recorded from my MBO days, and thus an appropriate close to my account of a wonderful chapter in my life.

My first day of birding

My first day of birding is one I will never forget: May 6th, 1972. It came about because I was talking with one of my brother’s friends at school one day. I remember that we were in the library at Dalton, up on the mezzanine level and I’m not sure how we managed to have this conversation when the librarian was such a stickler for rules and should have been heckling us to stop talking. Somehow the topic of Hermit Thrushes came up (typical casual high school conversation, right?). I knew the Hermit Thrush song because my mother loved this bird and had pointed out its voice to me during summer visits to western Massachusetts, but I had never seen the bird itself. Hugh told me he could show me as many as half a dozen if I wanted to meet him at Central Park the following Saturday and bring a pair of binoculars. I took the bus across town at the appointed time and found Hugh and we spent the morning birding, ending with a list of 30 species including 5 Hermit Thrushes as well as 15 species of warblers (Cerulean Warbler on my first day of birding!!) and a Lincoln’s Sparrow! I was pretty well hooked. I managed another 5 trips to the park that month – a week later I had my first Chuck-will’s Widow – in Central Park of all places (seen by numerous other, experienced birders) – at which point I left town for the summer with my family and apparently I didn’t keep any more lists until September. By then I had joined the Linnean Society of New York and went on a couple of shorebirding trips with them and did a Christmas Bird Count in December (I still remember warming up with some pretty glorious fish chowder at the end-of-day feast and tally). I was somewhat limited because I wasn’t old enough to drive, Hugh had graduated and if I wanted to go birding at the only places I could access on my own like city parks, I was putting myself at some physical risk. So I only went when I could find someone to go with me. The one time I tried to go on my own to Central Park I encountered an unsavory character who flashed me and I was pretty upset about it. It’s sickening to think there are men out there who would do such a thing to a child, and it makes me sad that girls all over the world are unable to do many things they love because they feel, and in fact are, unsafe.Maybe this is why hard core birding is still a pastime dominated by men.

The following year saw an increase in opportunities for birding with the Linnean Society and on other trips with friends I made along the way. I loved attending the monthly meetings of my hometown bird club – we met at the American Museum of Natural History, at night, and I felt so privileged to have access to this magical place during a time when it was closed to the general public. I always detoured left as I walked through the Hall of North American Mammals – rather than walking straight towards the Alaska Brown Bears I made for the diorama featuring two timber wolves running across frozen Gunflint Lake in northern Minnesota, with deer tracks visible in the snow, the aurora borealis on the horizon and a Great Gray Owl surveying the scene in the background. For some reason the museum always smelled like pine trees. After this peaceful walk through the dimly lit, deserted hall I entered the Linder Theater, bustling with the activity of birdwatchers and amateur and professional ornithologists excited about reconnecting with friends and colleagues and eager for the evening’s program. It was 1972.

Two years later I would attend a talk that changed my life. That’s a story for another time.

Birding with Rip Van Winkle

What does this mean, birding with Rip Van Winkle? Learning what birds might have been seen by the “real” Rip Van Winkle during the time of the American Revolutionary War would be wonderful indeed – before the loss of so many now iconic species due to anthropogenic activity including Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker – but my title refers to the feeling I’ve had many times since returning to active birding in April of 2017. So much has changed! For one thing, there is now eBird, an online database of bird sightings, photographs and audio recordings from all over the world. Devised by a number of ornithologists including Frank Gill of National Audubon Society and John Fitzpatrick of Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, this is a way that everyone, from ornithologists to serious birders to people who just enjoy looking at birds, can contribute valuable information about bird populations and their distribution. No longer need one keep bird lists in paper notebooks or other static formats – we can log them and analyze them and compare them over time – and we’re even encouraged to compete with each other as a way to get more people outside and gathering more and more data (I have mixed feelings about this because of the expenditure of money and fossil fuels when birding trips inevitably require driving – something we unfortunately didn’t think much about in the Old Days). I love eBird for so many reasons, not least of which is that, while I love to be out watching birds, all by myself, it is no longer something I do just for myself: I can leave my data behind for others to use.

So there’s eBird. And there are cell phones! Now you can use a phone to 1) access the eBird app and log your sightings in the field, 2) get directions to birding locations 3) record bird sounds, 4) text your friends to alert them to noteworthy birds and even send them trail maps if they get lost, 5) grab a quick listen to a bird song online or look at photos if you need to refresh your memory, 6) check out what others have been seeing while you’ve been out, in case you need to change your plans and find a rara avis elsewhere. These little gizmos have revolutionized birding.

And finally, one of the harder things for me to adjust to is the many changes in nomenclature since “my day”. When I woke up from my long nap and returned to birding, titmice and chickadees had become Baeolophus and Poecile instead of Parus, and all the Dendroica warblers had morphed into other genera. Blue-headed Vireo, which was an old name for Solitary Vireo, is once again the common name for Vireo solitarius. The list of changes is long. I assume there are good reasons for them, which in itself would be a change. I remember cases when names were changed because someone on the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist Committee had a “feeling” about a species’ relationship to another one or its distinctness from it, but I think the process is much more rigorous now. Maybe I’ll go into that in another post.

So all of this has led to the title of this blog. The long hiatus in my birding activity is harder to explain, but chalk it up to the demands of launching an academic career and raising a family. I wish it had not happened (the hiatus that is, not the career and family), because I’d be a way better birder by now, but that’s water over the dam and one can only move forward. But one can look back, and reflect on the world and its changes, and I’d like to do that while I can still remember! Hence, Birding with Rip Van Winkle. Hope you enjoy it.