May 19, 2017
Three Saint Vincent College students participated in the 34th annual New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding at Cape May, New Jersey, on May 6.
Jason Fisher of Cheswick, a junior biology major; Zach Shoff of New Stanton, who graduated on May 13 with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science; and Jenni Urban of Glassport, a junior environmental science major, accompanied by their teacher, Dr. James S. Kellam, associate professor of biology, formed a team they called “The Bearcat Bird Nerds” which was one of 71 teams competing to find the most species of birds in a single 24-hour period.
As a part of their participation in the event, the Bearcat Bird Nerds sought outright gifts and pledges totaling nearly $500 which will fully fund a new bird-feeding station at Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve at Saint Vincent College, the conservation organization they chose to raise funds for.
In addition to raising funds for conservation programs around the world, there is a scientific value to the competition. The bird lists that are compiled provide a snapshot of which birds are at Cape May on a certain day, and which birds are not. By comparing these lists year after year, scientists can determine how migratory patterns are changing as well as how changes in habitat affect species populations and distributions.
This was the first year that Saint Vincent College sent a team to compete in the World Series of Birding.
They set a goal of finding 147 bird species during the event. This was the average number that teams in the Cape May County division had found in 2016, and they figured they would be average. “Our goal was much too ambitious,” Kellam admitted. “Our official total was 96 bird species. This is the number of species that all four team members identified together, either by sight or by sound. We found another 10 species while scouting on the Thursday and Friday before the competition, but those do not count in the official total.”
“We aren’t really competitive folk but there are several reasons why we didn’t perform as well as the other teams in our division,” Kellam explained. “First, many teams were aided by a special phone app that alerted people where certain rare birds had been sighted. We couldn’t get the app to work.”
“Second, we would have detected more birds if we had better strategies and travel logistics,” Kellam reported. “Finding a large number of species in a short amount of time requires a detailed itinerary to visit a variety of habitats at certain times of day. For example, where and at what time would we find the most nocturnal birds? Some species like the owls would be found in forests at night, while the rails could be heard in the marshes at the same time. Those are different habitats and we had to travel between them. We had to be in deep forest to hear the ‘dawn chorus,’ an assembly of warblers and thrushes that sing most frequently at dawn. Meanwhile, we were looking for certain shorebirds at low tide, or high tide, or on the Delaware Bay side of the peninsula, or the Atlantic Ocean side of the peninsula; so our timing and travel to these locations had to be just right. It probably wasn’t. The more experienced teams did this better.”
“Lastly, a lot of these birds were new to us, so it took a while to identify them,” Kellam added. “We had study sessions every Tuesday during the spring semester, concentrating on a list of 151 species that I compiled. All of the 96 species we found on May 6 were on that list, so all were familiar to us, at least on paper. However, identifying them in the field was still a challenge. Was the bill on that shorebird blunt-tipped or sharp-pointed? The answer would help us determine if it was a Greater Yellowlegs or a Lesser Yellowlegs. I added 29 species to my life list.”
“Regardless of our performance, we had an amazing experience,” Kellam concluded. “We bonded over the hours and hours spent in the rental van, laughed over things that probably weren’t very funny but seemed so due to lack of sleep, and learned a vast amount of ornithology by conducting this marathon of a survey.“
The birds documented by the Bearcat Bird Nerds included Brant, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Red-breasted Merganser, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Glossy Ibis, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Broad-winged Hawk, Clapper Rail, American Oystercatcher, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Lesser Yellowlegs, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Laughing Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Tern, Forster's Tern, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Barred Owl, Common Nighthawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Chimney Swift, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Fish Crow, Purple Martin, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Marsh Wren, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Seaside Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Boat-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Finch, American Goldfinch and House Sparrow.
Saint Vincent College’s participation in the World Series of Birding was made possible by support from A.J. Palumbo Student Research Endowment, Elizabeth and Tom Andreoli Traveling Scholar Endowment, Saint Vincent College Department of Biology, Saint Vincent College Office of Marketing and Communications and Jim Wilson, SVC Class of 1972.
The World Series of Birding is organized and hosted by New Jersey Audubon, an independent membership-supported organization. The event is endorsed by the American Birding Association, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and sponsored by numerous environmental, conservation-minded businesses and individuals.
Kellam pursued his undergraduate study at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, earning a bachelor of arts degree in human ecology and continued to graduate school at Purdue University where he studied with two nationally-known ornithologists. He completed a Ph.D. in biological sciences and wrote a dissertation entitled, Downy Woodpecker pair bond maintenance in winter. He completed internships at the Smithsonian Conservation and Research Center (now called the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) and at the University of California at Berkeley.
Photo: The Saint Vincent College Bearcat Bird Nerds, from left, Jason Fisher, Jenni Urban, Dr. James Kellam and Zach Shoff.
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