JACKSON, Tenn. – April 15, 2010 – Nine biology students and two professors recently returned from a trip to Georgia and Florida better equipped to identify birds and understand marine animals.
Andy Madison, associate professor of biology, and James Kerfoot, assistant professor of biology, taught ornithology and marine biology as companion classes during January term. Students took both classes at Union for two weeks, then took a 10-day field trip to southern Georgia and mid-Florida to study wildlife.
Madison, who taught the ornithology portion of the course, said the group traveled to several different locations, including Okefenokee Swamp and Jekyll Island in Georgia and Melbourne, Fla. While still in Tennessee, they took field trips to Reelfoot Lake, Natchez Trace and the Land Between the Lakes.
“We would go to different habitat types, looking for birds,” Madison explained. “One of the main goals was to identify birds, secondarily to identify their behaviors. Thirdly, our goal was to relate birds to ecology and ask, ‘Why do they live there?’”
While identifying birds, the group spotted two endangered species, the red cockaded woodpecker and the Florida scrub jay.
In addition to observing approximately 130 species of birds throughout the course, students were able to interact with marine life in ways generally impossible in West Tennessee.
Kerfoot said some of the students came to call their fishing experiences the “dead fish society.” A cold spell two weeks prior to the trip resulted in a massive fish kill, he said.
While in Crystal River, Fla., the group was able to swim with manatees, another endangered species. Madison said the cold spell had pushed many manatees into warmer springs, where usually fewer would be found.
“We saw at least 50 manatees, so we were blessed in that regard,” Madison said.
Joshua Smith, a junior conservation biology major, described the experience as a highlight of the trip.
“Most of us had never really done anything like that before,” Smith said. “It was just terrific.”
From a marine biology perspective, Kerfoot said one of the most valuable aspects of the class was to teach the importance of conservation.
“We talked about why it’s important to study marine-protected areas,” Kerfoot said. “In these places, everything flows to the ocean. If we aren’t good stewards of the environment, then shame on us. … That was reiterated in everything.”
Through the classes, Smith said he was able to gain a better idea of the sort of work conservationists do.
“It was a good experience to be able to feel out whether I would like to be doing this for the rest of my life,” Smith said. “Bird identification was practical. Techniques for analyzing fish population and catching fish were very practical.”
Madison said, “I’m finding that one of the major values of field trips is every single place has a unique thing to offer. … It’s important for anyone to become familiar with the differences in this country.”
Madison said it was the first time the two classes had been taught together. Marine biology had never been offered at Union, to his knowledge, and ornithology had not been offered in several years, Madison said.
Both Madison and Kerfoot said students have already expressed an interest in the class, and they hope to offer it again.
Smith said, “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
By Katie Shatzer (’10)