College, a much feared and anticipated life stage to teenage birders. Rumors fly. There's no time for birding; everyone quits when they start college, distracted by academics, girls, and beer. Are these terrible stories the truth? Yes, for some people. But in this post, we'll hear from a couple young birders who kept birding in college: Hope Batcheller, a freshman at Cornell University, and, uh, myself.
1. What is your campus list, and what are a few of the highlights?
HB: Slightly over 100, but hopefully increasing rapidly this spring migration. Highlights include Caspian Tern (from my dorm window!) and Mourning Warbler.
NG: My campus list currently stands at 122, though I am adding birds daily with spring migration. Far and away the most unexpected bird was a Northern Shrike that I spotted while out for a run in January. Others—Mourning Warbler, Sora, Bonaparte’s Gull…
2. Describe some of the best birding spots on campus
HB: Although some would argue that it's not part of campus proper, the Cornell Plantations include wildflower gardens, an arboretum, and cool trails within easy walking distance of the academic buildings. There's also Beebe Lake (ie, large pond formed by damming the river), which occasionally attracts interesting waterfowl and such. I've also enjoyed finding ways to get onto the roofs of buildings to get better views for hawk watching and Snow Goose migration. Often the doors onto the roofs are locked, but sometimes you can find open ones…
NG: One of the nicer things about Calvin, at least from my perspective, is its ninety-acre ecosystem preserve on the east side of campus. It’s got several ponds, some wet deciduous woods, and extensive successional fields. The best part? It’s a handy five-minute walk from my dorm.
3. How often do you bird on campus, and how do you fit it in?
HB: I scan the lake at least daily, and explore the plantations a couple times per week. On weekend mornings I'll generally bird the campus pretty extensively, if I haven't managed to convince someone to drive me elsewhere. Hour-long gaps between classes are also perfect for taking a quick birding venture.
NG: Ahaha. Well, that depends on the season. Back in January, I entered a sluggish hibernation, only getting out once a week at best. Don’t blame me too much—it was boring. Fifteen Tree Sparrows, a couple Downy Woodpeckers, a small band of chickadees…over, again, and again, and again. Now that migration has let loose, I’ve been trying to get out at least a couple times a day. I generally go birding off-campus on the weekends, but during the week I’ll often throw my binoculars in my backpack for between classes (or, to scan waxwing flocks in the treetops while “doing homework” in the library.)
4. Interesting situations…?
HB: One of my favorite incidents happened late last August. I was birding around Beebe Lake with some others, and we stopped to check a flock of chickadees. There was a Canada Warbler among the more common species, so we enjoyed that for a while before beginning to move on. Something about the habitat reeked of Mourning Warbler, though. We laughed at the improbability of that, since Beebe Lake rarely hosts the more funky migrants. Just as we resumed walking moments later, however, a gray-hooded warbler perched right in front of us. There was a pause before we all started laughing explosively, for Mourning Warbler it was indeed. The lesson? Smell, in addition to sight and hearing, is apparently an essential sense for bird identification.
Another time, when I was walking back at night, I thought I saw something fly across the walkway. It must have been an owl, probably an Eastern Screech. The one problem: it was in a tree directly in front of the girls' dorm windows. I considered running back to my room, grabbing spotlight and binoculars, and investigating, but my friends advised against it. I suppose they were probably right…
NG: Back in February, Calvin had its first snow day since the presidency of George Bush—senior. Of course, I went birding. Slogging through the twenty-or-so inches of snow back in the ecosystem preserve didn’t produce much. As I rounded a bend, I noticed, much to my horror, a couple, uh, making out beside the trail just ahead. It was too late to turn back; I had been spotted. Now, twenty inches is a LOT of snow, and sticking to the trail seemed to be the only prudent option. What to do? I surged forward, muttering a terse greeting, and continued on my way. It was really, really awkward.
5. Are there any other birders on campus?
HB: Yes, there's actually quite a good community here. As of this semester there's a student birding club, which has regular trips, meetings, and other activities. We also share our campus sightings via a texting list and online, which enables us to spread the word quickly about cool species on campus.
NG: No, I am utterly and completely alone. *Sniff*