SPRING 2006/VOLUME 20, NUMBER 2
Teaching of Todies and Tropical Birds
In the Dominican Republic, students become keen observers of birdlife
CHIRP, says the playback tape. Eighteen of us stare intently into the vegetation, binoculars ready. CHIRP! I see a fluttering movement so I look up. A tiny bird with a whitish belly and bright red throat appears on a branch directly overhead. The Broad-billed Tody, endemic to Hispaniola, flies out of the tree and perches on a low dead branch, the bright sunlight illuminating its brilliant emerald green body. We raise our binoculars and collectively ooh and aah as we admire this stunning bird. This has been one of the highlights of the Tropical Ornithology field course in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, led by André Dhondt, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell and director of the Lab of Ornithology's Bird Population Studies. This year, Sara DeLeon and I are the graduate teaching assistants.
None of the 15 undergraduates in the course has previous ornithological experience. They are not allowed to take field guides on our excursions. They must make sketches and write down detailed descriptions of the birds they see in the field. Then, back in the classroom, the students who haven't seen the bird must use the field guide to identify the species based on their peers' descriptions. After André describes the nuances of behaviors and silhouettes of the commonest birds here, the students no longer need their binoculars to distinguish Northern Mockingbirds from Gray Kingbirds or Green Herons from Great Blue Herons.
The students are quick learners. We have already advanced to wintering warblers by day three. Northern Parulas and Cape May Warblers forage high in the trees and move so quickly that the students abandon sketches in favor of copious notes. "Did you see an eyering?" they query each other. "Did it have wingbars? What color was the throat?"
The Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispaniola, one of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean sea. Hispaniola hosts 26 endemic bird species. In our first week we have seen several of them: Palmchat, Hispaniolan Woodpecker, Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, Black-crowned Palm-Tanager, and Broad-billed Tody. Hispaniola has two tody species: the Broad-billed Tody in the lowlands and the Narrow-billed Tody in the mountains. Why is there only one species each on Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica? No one knows for sure.
As the days unfold, we encounter other mysteries. One lucky morning we catch two Mangrove Cuckoos in the mist nets. Both have buffy throats and bellies, but one has a prominent yellow eyering and a small amount of black behind the eye; the other lacks the eyering and has a larger black ear patch. Their bills vary slightly in shape. The field guide illustrates two races: one on Cuba and the Bahamas and the other on Montserrat, Dominica, and Guadeloupe, but both have yellow eyerings. What is our bird without the eyering? Is it a juvenile? Is there a third race that hasn't been described yet? We wished we had more time to answer these kinds of questions.
André's enthusiasm and passion for birds is contagious. At the end of the two weeks, students who had never looked at a bird before have acquired enough knowledge to lead local bird walks. They have all completed a mini-research project involving bird observations in the field and presented their results to the group. They have learned about avian ecology and evolution in afternoon discussions of primary research articles. Total immersion into ornithology? watching, drawing, discussing, and listening to birds every day?has transformed these former novices into keen, observant birders. We have had the privilege of watching many fascinating and beautiful birds that we haven't seen before. The course was great fun, and we all came away with more questions than answers.
Mari Kimura is a graduate student in Cornell's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Fuller Evolutionary Biology program.
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