Spring Ornithology 2005
Program Description

Sixteen students were enrolled in Spring Ornithology 2005, a Group Contract. The program was field-based, which means that everything taught on campus was meant to serve us in the field. Students and faculty spent 23 days in the field together; in addition, students were given five days to pursue their field work independently. We travelled some 3740 miles and camped at ten sites in Washington and Oregon, exploring landscapes that ranged from seashore to desert, from virgin conifer forest to sagebrush desert, locating and identifying some 235 species of birds at those sites and on the road.

The program began on campus, with a series of lectures that described the world of birds with progressively narrowing focus. Our first short field walks were on campus as well, and were designed to teach some of the novices how to use binoculars and spotting scopes, and to begin learning the process involved in identifying birds.

Lectures continued on campus and in the field over the course of the quarter. Readings were assigned in all required texts, including The Birder’s Handbook, California Raptors, Ornithology (Gill), and a booklet describing skinning and specimen preparation techniques. Students were provided a detailed introduction to library resources having to do with birds.

Preserved specimens from The Evergreen State College Museum of Natural History were used to teach several laboratories, including one that familiarized students with the ordinal characters definitive for North American birds. Another lab allowed students to examine in detail and dissect a fresh bird specimen, and by that means to learn much about bird topography and anatomy, and standard measurements that are taken of birds.

Students were instructed on procedures involved in the preparation of scientific study skins of birds, and in subsequent laboratory meetings were encouraged to prepare skins from frozen birds salvaged earlier. All students participated, some putting up as many as five skins. These specimens were accessioned to the Museum, and constitute a permanent contribution to the world of science.

Our first five-day field trip took us to Lincoln and Douglas Counties well east of the Cascades. Studying in and around four campsites and at various stops along the way, we emphasized shrubsteppe birds and migrants at the beginning of the spring migration. On this trip we set our pattern of avoiding organized agency campgrounds whenever possible in favor of settings that provided more wildness and less organization. We camped on a state Wildlife Area and three Bureau of Land Management sites, one of them a creek canyon. One of the features of this trip that was especially valuable was the better part of a day spent with federal and state resource agency personnel. Two of them in particular were particularly generous with information and time; they led us around the country and provided detailed perspective on their agency responsibilities and obligations. They also provided us with campsites during a spate of bad weather. When we finished this trip most of the students had developed or improved their bird identification skills.

Our second week-long trip was to the Washington coast, where we focused out studies on the annual shorebird migration. We observed a dozen species of shorebirds at several sites on Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, as well as the ocean beaches. Shorebird identification is often challenging, as is the task of accurately counting flocks that may number in the tens of thousands of birds.

Each student chose a species to study and to research in several ways. The objects of this requirement were to familiarize students with the original research literature and to allow them to make independent observations of the behavior and ecology of a species of their own choosing. The third field period of five days allowed students to pursue their independent species work alone or in small field groups.

Early on, students were taught how to maintain records of field observations by means of a rigorous and demanding system originally established by the pioneer California naturalist Joseph Grinnell. This system requires the note-taker to employ a small field notebook regularly throughout a day, recording species seen, numbers, landscape components, mileages, localities, and related information. Then, on a daily schedule, usually in the late afternoon or after dark, information in the field notebook is transcribed and enlarged upon in a journal format, following consistent format requirements. Separate accounts are maintained of species that are of particular interest to the student. The transcription and expansion typically takes two or more hours, and must be done every field day. Using a narrow-tipped technical pen and high quality paper, students in this program wrote on average three pages for every field day, in addition to their species accounts. Virtually every student accounted for each of the 23 combined field days, and most wrote accounts for additional field days.

A day trip preceded our fourth field excursion of three days to the east side of the Cascades, centering on Wenas Campground north of Yakima and a habitat type new to us. There we had an opportunity to study a number of species we found only there and on the road, including some woodpeckers and a hummingbird. Our return trip took us over White Pass; that route was also rich in new species.

Our fifth and final field trip started with a drive to Ashland, Oregon. We camped near there that night and the next morning were taken in tow by two of my ex-students now associated with Klamath Bird Observatory, Nat Seavy and John Alexander. For the next two days they hosted and taught us as we worked our way east over the mountains toward our destination in southeast Oregon. John and Nat showed a number of new species, including the rarely encountered Great Gray Owl, and on the second morning, joined by another Klamath Bird Observatory person, provided a detailed and very successful demonstration of mist-netting, bird processing and banding. This instruction represented a remarkable opportunity for students and faculty alike, and was much appreciated by everyone. We camped the night before on the grounds of an old U.S. Forest Service guard station, at the edge of an aspen bordered meadow surrounded by virgin forest.

The next day we drove east across Klamath Marsh, visited Fort Rock State Park, and finished our day at Malheur Bird Observatory, and 80 acre preserve of old sagebrush belonging to me and developed to allow the housing of good numbers of students. This tented camp has hosted students for some 25 years, and is used as a base to explore the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding country, an area internationally famous as a birding site, especially during the Memorial Day weekend, which was part of our visit. While in this vicinity we were able to add a large number of species to our lists, and the students were able to witness the assembly of the birding elite, who come annually to the Refuge headquarters at this time of year in search of rare birds.

We censused raptors, observed shorebirds and herons, searched for, found, and studied the nests of several species of passerines, learned more about bird vocalizations, and toured more new habitats. We also visited a number of cultural sites and interacted with locals.

At Malheur Bird Observatory as well as over the whole quarter, we shared cooking, packing, and other responsibilities that were required to function comfortably and efficiently in the field. This required more or less equal effort by each program participant, and it worked very well and included some very important learning.

The cooperation that characterized the logistic aspects of our program prevailed also in terms of instruction. Originally the student body included a very wide range of experience, ranging from students who had never used binoculars before to those who were veteran bird-watchers. Those with well developed skills were of huge importance to those whose skills were developing, and the Program Aide contributed significantly to the success of this program. And it is my judgment that this Group Contract was enormously successful.

All 16 students completed the work and the quarter. Individual evaluation conferences were held in the final week of the quarter, and we pooled our resources to establish a webpage that describes our work in graphic detail, and includes images of many of the birds we saw and studied. We refer interested parties to the following web address:


Suggested Quarter Credit Equivalencies:

Ornithology – 8 units*
Field Ornithology – 8 units*

Faculty: Steven G. Herman, Ph.D.

Program Aide: Andrew Beck, B.S.