Taking Flight with the Biology Department
Every May for the last 15 years, Dr. Jan Reber of the Biology department has taken her Vertebrate Natural History class to the shores of Lake Erie for the Biggest Week in American Birding. During this one-week event, thousands of birds take temporary refuge on the southern shores of Lake Erie—making it a prime time for bird-watchers, and Reber’s students, to observe and learn as much as possible.
Senior Biology major Chris Chartrand went on the trip in 2018 and claimed, “I developed a larger appreciation for birds and just how diverse they really are. During the trip, we were able to see several different species.”
In fact, Reber said students are often able to observe anywhere from 75 to 110 different species of bird during the trip. This mass influx of birds at Lake Erie happens because it’s a prime location for birds to rest during migration. “We call [the birds] neo-tropical migrants because they travel long distances between breeding and wintering seasons,” said Reber. “This particular location provides excellent habitats and a launch point to cross the Great Lakes into Canada.”
The majority of the bird-watching during the week occurs on a long boardwalk that winds through a wooded area. Watchers make their way along the boardwalk, pointing out every bird they see. Oftentimes, the bird-watchers can be just as entertaining as the birds themselves.
“[The trip] also gave me an appreciation for the people who study birds. The time they put into learning birdsongs and minute differences in feather patterns is quite amazing,” said Chartrand.
The students love the trip. It lasts all day Saturday and ends just after lunch on Sunday. Each student gets a checklist, so they can keep track of all the species they see. In terms of student response, Reber said, “It’s always a highlight. It’s just really fun … If you’ve ever watched birds, they’re funny. They’re flamboyant and outrageous and loud. They’re just interesting.”
Chartrand agreed. “I think the trip, and the class in general, helped me appreciate the amount of diversity in animals that the earth contains.”