Taking flight

Students get outside for weekly ornithology field trips

This spring, students from Jim Nestler’s Ornithology class are getting outside for hands-on birding experiences. 

Students gather at Rigby Hall on Thursday mornings to ride in one of the university’s buses to different birding locations around the Walla Walla area. Destinations have included Rooks Park and Bennington Lake in Walla Walla and McNary National Wildlife Refuge near Pasco, Washington. 

Nestler, professor of biology, periodically points out the bird species he sees as they drive between locations. When the bus arrives at a destination, the students step outside with binoculars, telescopes, and notebooks, which they use to identify and record bird species.

“One of my favorite things we’ve learned this quarter is that the color of feathers is a lot more complicated than I thought!” said Harrison Jennings, a senior biology student. “Not only are feathers colored based on pigments like those found in human hair, but we also see more complex structural colorations like the arrangements of the feathers themselves on a microscopic level.”

In the classroom students have learned details about bird anatomy and classification. Out in the field they put what they have learned to use by identifying the types of birds they observe. The number of birds they find depends on location and weather, but it’s not uncommon for students to see 35 or more species of birds on a given field trip.

“I enjoy watching students develop their skills during the class,” said Nestler. “Trying to use binoculars to follow a Tree Swallow which is flying a dizzying neck-breaking path overhead can be daunting and frustrating. But after a few weeks even the ‘newbies’ are learning to find, follow, and identify tiny sparrows and warblers.”

Biology faculty members have had to be creative with planning labs during the last year with COVID-19 protocols in place. After a challenging year, Nestler is excited to be back in person this spring and exploring the natural environment with his students.

“Biology is an interactive hands-on discipline, so being able to physically meet for labs in all of our courses is crucial for giving students the best opportunities for learning and understanding. Some of the restrictions are still challenging for this class, such as the need to travel in a big bus for physical distancing, but it sure beats trying to do labs online.”

Students take Ornithology class for many different reasons. Some have grown up birding but have never learned specifics about classification. Others are exploring how an understanding of birds may enhance their career goals.

“I think that ornithology will be beneficial with my career goals of animal care. And I’m excited to have outdoor labs. I have enjoyed the change to get outside and see so many new birds and birding locations,” said Rebekah Fink, senior biology student. “I have been birding since taking Dr. Nestler’s Natural History of Vertebrates class Spring 2020 where we were required to spend labs viewing new animals outdoors.”

After teaching the Ornithology class at WWU for over 30 years, Nestler still loves hearing from former students who have become lifelong birders after taking this class. 

To learn more about the biology department visit wallawalla.edu/biology.

Posted April 23, 2021

Rebekah Fink looks through a telescope at birds across a pond.
Learning how to properly use the features on binoculars and telescopes can enhance the birding experience.
Jim Nestler, professor of biology, points out birds to his students
Having a seasoned birder like Nestler (center) along on trips can help students know just where to look and identify the birds they see.
A group of biology students look at birds over a pond at McNary National Wildlife Refuge
Nearby bodies of water are a great place to spot a variety of birds.
A painting of an owl sent to Jim Nestler from one of his former students
"Every year I have students who were in Ornithology in the distant past, as long ago as 30 years, who call or email and let me know they still love birds, and in many cases have gotten their children excited about birds. I feel very lucky to have had some role in their continued interest in and love of biology. One former student even shared with me his new-found interest in painting owls," said Jim Nestler