A group of University of Mary Washington students gasp as they spy two bald eagles flying from their large nest over the winding Rappahannock River and into the surrounding woods.
“Those are immature bald eagles,” says one student who notices that these eagles have not yet developed the iconic white feathers on their heads. That won’t happen until they are at least 4 years old, adds another student.
These awestruck birdwatchers are discovering the species firsthand as part of Professor Andrew Dolby’s ornithology class during one of several field trips throughout the semester. On this recent trip to the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Warsaw, they also observed the elusive bobwhite quail, which is regularly heard calling its own name, “bobwhite, bobwhite,” but is rarely seen because it stays down low in tall grasses and its population has been declining. Along the way they spotted their first ruby-throated hummingbird of the season, a white-eyed vireo, a yellow-breasted chat and a grasshopper sparrow.
“You only see these in managed grasslands,” says Dolby as he points out a grasshopper sparrow flying out from the grass and in front of the group. “It almost sounds like an insect when it sings.”
Dolby and his charges listen for bird songs and then position their binoculars for a view of their fluttering friends before they fly away.
“Do you hear that? It sounds like ‘pleased, pleased to meet you,’” says Dolby as the students listen for a hooded warbler and then try to spot it high in the trees.
Dolby has seen thousands of birds in his lifetime, but he fondly recalls one unusual species–the Hoatzin, known for its unique ability to digest leaves, which he saw on a trip to the Amazon, and the iridescent plumage of the hundreds of species of hummingbirds which he saw on a trip to South America.
Dolby not only introduces his students to the field of ornithology, but also gives them exposure to the many career possibilities available to students who graduate with biology degrees.
And by the end of class, they will be able to identify more than 50 birds, not just by sight, but by their songs.
Test Your Bird Song Knowledge