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Campus Bird Walks at Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve
It’s 7:20am on a Thursday, and I drive up to the barn at Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve (WPNR). We recently changed back to Eastern Standard Time, so the sun is already above the horizon, peaking between layers of cloud. It’s a warm and dry morning for November, and I skip putting on a warm coat and hiking boots, which is part of my normal dress for campus bird walks.
I have led campus bird walks every week during spring semester since 2018. These run from 7:30-8:15am and alternate locations between the wetlands at the Gristmill and today’s location, WPNR. This year is the first year I’ve been leading walks in fall semester as well as spring.
I never have more than a handful of people show up, and that’s okay. I started leading them for my Ornithology students, and then the students wanted to bring friends along and I was elated. Today, anyone can come and walk around with me to see what we can see.
What we do depends on who shows up. If I get a novice birder, we walk slowly through only a small part of the Reserve, looking and listening for the common species. I’ll spot a bird and help my companion find it in the pair of binoculars I’ve lent them. I’ll also point out the calls and songs that I hear, pulling out my Merlin phone app to show them a picture of what bird we are hearing.
When one or more of my advanced students show up to a campus bird walk (these are optional for them), we’ll work as equals to record what we see and hear. There’s plenty to learn among us, since inevitably there are less common vocalizations spoken by a common bird that we didn’t recognize at first. Each individual bird can make dozens of sounds, which makes identification challenging but quite fun. Mysteries are always fun! Other things that might give us trouble are some raptors that fly overhead and disappear quickly into the distance. If we didn’t see the hawk’s tail or shape of the head, or if it was silhouetted against the sky, the bird might remain a mystery.
Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve has a bird feeding station just behind the barn. There will always be Northern Cardinals, Mourning Doves, Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers there. Also, the bird feeders are a great place to see (and practice comparing) White-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and House Sparrows.
This morning, after a brief look at the bird feeders, my group moved to the boardwalk that passes over the small cattail swamp next to Saint Vincent Drive. We saw three Swamp Sparrows. This is good habitat for them, but I only find them here about once a month, so it was a good find. They flit around between cattail stems and adjacent thicket, always chirping, but only softly. They go about their business without caring much about our presence, but they don’t spend more than a second in any one spot.
Meanwhile overhead, there were berries on a tree (one of these days I’ll identify the species), and numerous birds were silently feasting on the berries. Or were they? Catching some birds with my binoculars, they appeared to be House Finches, small brown and creamy-white birds. Males have a delicate red-wine tint on their fronts, as if they have flown into the sunrise’s faint morning colors and taken some of them away as a souvenir. It surprised me to see the finches feasting on fruit because they are primarily seed-eaters. As we watched, though, we saw the birds snip the fruit open with their beaks and extract the seeds from inside the fruit. The flesh of the berry was ignored.
This is in contrast to birds like American Robins that consume berries whole. The robins digest the fruit and defecate the indigestible seeds in different locations, effectively spreading the plant seeds away from the parent plant and helping it spread across the landscape. The House Finches were clearly not trying to gain nutrition from the fruit’s flesh, but rather from the seed itself. Avian digestion of fruit can be a very complex process, and while some bird species allow the hard seeds of a fruit to pass through the digestive tract, others including finches break the hard seeds apart and digest them (1). In the case of the House Finch, no viable seeds pass through the gut to spread plant seeds through the environment (2). The finch is a predator, not spreading the tree seeds but killing them instead. That seems like mean behavior, but the tree produces countless seeds, and surely some of them will escape this species’ digestive tract. It’s best not to judge the ways of nature, as millions of years of existence has given it much wisdom, and our 45-minute walk is not even a speck of time.
The bird walk at WPNR wrapped up seemingly fast. We spent a lot of time admiring the Swamp Sparrows and the House Finches, but we recorded 13 other species for a total of 15. This was about average for a bird walk in November; analysis of my past records of bird walks in Westmoreland County during the last 10 Novembers have averaged around 16 species (3). Overall, if I consider all months of the year, I’ve recorded a total of 71 species at WPNR in the last 10 years.
(1) Rio, C. M. del, & Restrepo, C. (1993). Ecological and Behavioral Consequences of Digestion in Frugivorous Animals. Vegetatio, 107/108, 205–216. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20046309
(2) Godínez-Alvarez, H., Valiente-Banuet, A., & Rojas-Martínez, A. (2002). The role of seed dispersers in the population dynamics of the columnar cactus Neobuxbaumia tetetzo. Ecology, 83(9), 2617-2629.
This article is written by Dr. Jim Kellam, Associate Professor of Biology at Saint Vincent College.