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For the birds: Professor organizes annual birdathon

Bowdoin students, faculty and staff observe Maine birds for sport.

May 5, 2017

This afternoon, students will venture outside—binoculars in hand—for Bowdoin’s third annual Birdathon. The rules of the event are simple: Teams of five work to identify—either by sight or sound—as many bird species as possible over the course two hours.

The event is organized by Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Natural Sciences and Chair of the Biology Department Nat Wheelwright to continue Bowdoin’s tradition of scholarship and research in ornithology by getting students, faculty and staff involved in birding.

According to Wheelwright, birdathons are traditional practice among ornithologists, who participate in “big days” in which they see how many species of birds they can spot in a day. Wheelwright wanted to bring a variation of this practice to Bowdoin.

The event grew out of Wheelwright’s Bird Song course and was expanded to include more participants.

“Knowing how busy Bowdoin students, faculty and staff are, I knew we wouldn’t have time for a big day. So, I thought, how about a big two hours?” said Wheelwright.

Teams make lists of the species they identify. Each species listed must have been observed or heard by at least three members of the team. For rare or improbable species, participants must submit photographs, audio recordings or a carcass.

Observations are restricted to the state of Maine, and competitors are allowed to use any mode of transportation that does not use fossil fuels.

“If you want to whitewater kayak, be my guest. You’ve got two hours,” said Wheelwright.

Prizes are awarded to the top three teams with the longest lists of approved species.

Last year, two teams tied for first place with 28 species on their lists.

Liam Taylor ’17 participated in the Birdathon last year and will do so again this year. He explained that the Birdathon is an experience most enjoyed for fun rather than for competition.

“It’s not fun to compete even when you feel like you want to when you’re out there meeting new people and seeing new things,” said Taylor. “[I]t’s fun to have a sport where it can be competitive and that can all be good natured.”

The Birdathon is open to everyone, regardless of prior experience with birding.

“It’s come one, come all,” said Wheelwright. “If you know somebody who knows somebody who is in the Huntington Club—which is the undergraduate bird club—or someone who took Bird Song, or someone who has taken Ornithology, tag along. It could be the start of a lifelong interest.”

Cordelia Orbach ’17 echoed Wheelwright’s sentiments, explaining how she developed an interest in birding after taking Bird Song and participating in the Birdathon.

“Before Bird Song, I had a fear of birds and hated them. I took the class because I had to for my INS, and I loved it,” said Orbach. “Now that I’ve done the Birdathon, I do my own noticing of when birds come back.”

Wheelwright hopes that the event will inspire participants to better understand and protect their natural environment.

“The broader idea behind it is to turn people into naturalists and to make them a little more mindful of where they are, and better stewards of the earth, and to see if we can kind of turn the tide a little bit in a period of doom and gloom, and make people more optimistic and more engaged in protecting their natural heritage,” he said.

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