An Avian Affection

Birds are among the easiest wildlife to observe, which may be why birding is one of the nation’s most popular hobbies. URI faculty and URI’s Kingston Wildlife Research Station have been the starting point for many alumni who’ve made careers out of their love of birds, and for many others for whom bird observation is a peaceful pastime—or an all-out obsession.

By Todd McLeish

Gently holding a sparrow in his hand as nearly two dozen students stand in a socially distant circle around him, Professor Peter Paton quizzes his field ornithology class members about bird anatomy and identification. After noting feather types, preferred foods, migration routes, and other details about the species, he hands the bird to a student to release into the nearby forest. And then he repeats the process until every student has released a bird.

For most students, it’s the first time they have ever held a wild bird, and it’s a magical moment. The glittering smiles on their faces suggest it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.

The class is gathered at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station, where thousands of birds have been captured, banded, and released every fall for more than 60 years, a site that is the highlight of Paton’s weekly class field trips. Located less than a mile from campus, the research station is the former home of the late Douglas Kraus, a long-time chemistry professor whose interest in birds occupied as much of his time as did chemistry. Before he died in 2000, he donated his house and 82 acres of land to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island with a stipulation that URI manage the property for wildlife research.

Students in Professor Peter Paton’s field ornithology class get their first opportunity to hold and release wild birds.

Paton holds a black-capped chickadee and quizzes students on feather types.

Ever since then, graduate students in the Department of Natural Resources Science have lived and worked at the property and continued to band birds on a daily basis during fall migration to learn about trends in bird populations. They capture birds using a series of nets—like fine-meshed volleyball nets, collect physical measurements about each bird, and place a metal band around one leg so if they are captured again elsewhere, their migratory movements can be determined. With nearly 60 years of data, the field station is one of the nation’s longest-running bird-banding stations.

With nearly 60 years of data, the Kingston Wildlife Research Station is one of the nation’s longest-running bird-banding stations.

“The number of species we capture each year hasn’t really declined over time, but the number of individual birds has seen a major decrease,” says Paton, who has managed the research station with Professor Scott McWilliams since 1998. “We’re probably down by about 30 percent, which is similar to national figures. On a really good day, they used to capture 150 to 200 birds, and now a good day is 100 birds. That’s a substantial decline.”

A recent study found that North American bird populations have decreased by about 3 billion birds in the last half-century, due largely to habitat loss. Scientists worry that human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.

Paton measures the wing of a tufted titmouse and assesses the condition of its flight feathers.

The activity at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station is just one element of a wide variety of bird-related research, education, and outreach undertaken by URI faculty and staff.

“Birds bring you outside. You can go anywhere on the planet and see a bird.”
—Peter Paton, Professor of Wildlife Ecology

Professor Paton had planned a career as a medical doctor, but he got hooked on birds when he was in college, and those plans changed. “I like to be outside, and birds bring you outside,” he says. “You can go anywhere on the planet and see a bird, and because they have wings and can fly, you never know what you’re going to find in a given area.”

In addition to overseeing the bird-banding station, Paton has conducted research on sparrows, seabirds, shorebirds, and other varieties. Some of his current work examines the potential impact of offshore wind turbines on migrating birds.

And McWilliams? He calls himself a physiological ecologist who studies the physiology of bird migration.

“My group studies any bird that migrates, and over the years we’ve studied songbirds, woodcock, sea ducks, Arctic nesting geese, and everything in between,” he says. “The common denominator is that they move across the landscape throughout the annual cycle.”

According to McWilliams, one of the biggest challenges for birds during migration is their need to store large quantities of energy to fuel long-distance flight. To maximize their ability to do so, they have evolved the ability to increase the size of their digestive system in preparation for migration, reduce it while migrating, and increase it again when they stop to refuel.

Professor Scott McWilliams studies bird migration. He says, “migration takes guts,” because it is not only a challenging undertaking, but it requires dramatic changes in the physiology of the avian digestive system.

Professor Paton’s students stroll down a path at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station to check the nets for birds.

“Migration is a fasting and refeeding cycle, which the gut makes possible,” he says. “That’s why we say that migration takes guts. They’re trying to maximize the amount of energy and nutrients they get from what they eat.”

McWilliams and his graduate students have spent two decades studying the physiology of migration by capturing birds in Kingston and on Block Island, and studying those birds and the foods they consume. He also has a long-term research project on the woodcock, an unusual game bird sometimes called the timberdoodle. His project involves studies of their life cycle, and their feeding and breeding behaviors. After years of monitoring these activities, McWilliams is preparing the first woodcock management plan for the region.

Clay Graham, M.S. ’20 inside a wooden shed with a colleague preparing to place a metal band around the leg of a gray-cheeked thrush he holds
Clay Graham, M.S. ’20 (foreground), prepares to place a metal band around the leg of a rare gray-cheeked thrush to track its migratory movement.

Clay Graham, M.S. ’20, earned his master’s degree working with McWilliams on the woodcock research, focusing primarily on quantifying the fat and protein in the birds as they prepare for migration. He spent last fall as the lead bird-bander at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station.

Growing up in Ohio, Graham started birding in fourth grade, and he has known since middle school that he wanted to become an ornithologist. “I was always fascinated that just about any bird could drop into my backyard,” he says. “Once I learned to drive, I was birding all over northeast Ohio. Birding allows you to go to different locations that you otherwise wouldn’t go.”

Like Italy.

Graham spent time on Ventotene, a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Italy, doing bird banding as part of the “Progetto Piccole Isole,” or Small Islands Project. They processed similar numbers of birds as in Kingston, but the birds and the banding culture were very different.

“It was a little more high-class than what I’m used to here,” he says. “We’d be drinking espresso in the field, and we didn’t start the day until 8 a.m. because we were waiting for birds arriving from Tunisia.”

URI research associate Charles Clarkson has had his share of international birding experience as well, but he is especially drawn to the Tropics. He operates Antbird Tours, a bird-watching tour company that showcases the birds of Panama and elsewhere in Central and South America, as well as occasional tours to Europe and Africa. He was raised in the mountains of Virginia in a farmhouse with no electricity or running water, so he spent most of his time immersed in the natural world and quickly gravitated toward birds.

URI research associate Charles Clarkson leads a bird tour in Panama.

For the last five years, Clarkson has managed the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, an exhaustive effort to document the distribution and abundance of birds across the state. Working with 140 volunteers—including URI alumni Christopher Raithel ’76, M.S. ’07, Dierdre Robinson, M.S. ’99, and Cynthia Landers Szymanski ’71, M.L.I.S. ’73—the project confirmed that 150 bird species breed in the state, a slight decrease from the 155 confirmed during a similar atlas project conducted in the 1980s.

Although fewer bird species were found to be breeding in Rhode Island than previously, the news is not all bad. Rhode Island is now home to breeding bald eagles, common ravens, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and several other species that were not detected 35 years ago. And some species, especially those from the South, have expanded exponentially in the state, like red-bellied woodpeckers, which increased their distribution in Rhode Island by more than 3,000 percent (yes, 3,000 percent) since the first atlas, probably due to the warming climate.

“The biggest takeaway message is that, for a small state with a high population density, Rhode Island has done an exceptional job of conserving open space, which has allowed us to maintain a large number of breeding species and add a few new ones,” Clarkson says. “If we continue to see the erosion of our forests from suburban sprawl, that isn’t going to continue to be the case. But right now, Rhode Island is doing an exceptional job at conserving the habitats that these birds require.”

Numerous alumni have also caught the bird bug—many of them introduced to the bird world through Paton’s field ornithology class. Some of them have made careers of birds and bird conservation.

A common tern perches on the head of Kate Iaquinto ’05 at a seabird nesting colony at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on Cape Cod, where she was monitoring nesting success.

Kate Iaquinto ’05, for example, never imagined herself working with birds. She started out as a marine biology major, then switched to wildlife conservation and biology, which led to a research project on piping plovers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through URI’s Coastal and Environmental Fellows program.

“That’s where it all started,” says Iaquinto, who now serves as the manager of the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. “I started doing shorebird work and that led to a permanent position at the Monomoy refuge on Cape Cod.”

While at Monomoy, she captured shorebirds to study avian influenza, then investigated endangered red knots to learn about their migration and where they spend the winter. As the refuge manager at Bandon in Oregon, she doesn’t spend nearly as much time focusing on birds as she would like, but she still makes time to help out with surveys of puffins and shorebirds, as well as habitat restoration projects to support marsh birds. It’s a career she largely credits to her time at URI.

“I didn’t grow up knowing any of what I learned in Peter Paton’s field ornithology class,” Iaquinto says, “so I’m really thankful for that experience. It got me the job I have now. You come out of that wildlife program with the coursework you need to qualify for a biologist’s job at Fish and Wildlife. That program served me well.”

Ryan Kleinert ’12 had a very similar career trajectory, beginning with monitoring piping plovers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and eventually becoming assistant refuge manager at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. But his interest in birds started a little earlier.

Ryan Kleinert ’12 holds a rare saltmarsh sparrow at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine where he is monitoring their breeding.

Jen Scranton ’09 poses while photographing birds in the Panama Canal Zone in 2019.

Detail of one of Ryan Kleinert's bird tattoos—a wood thrush on his arm.
Detail of one of Kleinert’s bird tattoos—a wood thrush.

He had a hiking friend in high school who took him to a refuge near their homes in New Jersey, and “that’s when birds first captured my heart,” says Kleinert. “That’s when I realized they were these magnificent manifestations of life. Their antics and behaviors spoke to me. I especially love waterbirds—their migratory patterns, their breeding behavior, their foraging behavior. A lot of it relates to my love of the water. I’m a surfer, first and foremost, and waterbirds make their homes on the wetlands and on the coast.”

He advertises his love of birds every day with six elaborate bird tattoos on various parts of his body, including an albatross, great horned owl, Carolina wren, and wood thrush.

“I think tattooing can be a very aesthetic, interesting, and pleasing art form,” he says. “So what better way to honor and represent the critters that bring me joy and put smiles on my face than getting them tattooed on my body?”

“I realized [birds] were these magnificent manifestations of life. Their antics and behaviors spoke to me.”
—Ryan Kleinert ’12

Jen Scranton ’09 agrees. Although she doesn’t watch birds as part of her career, she, too, has a half dozen colorful tattoos illustrating her passion for birds, each of which represents a milestone in her birding life. A certified addictions registered nurse in Providence, Scranton finds bird-watching provides “a calming mindfulness” to her life.

“It’s almost a form of meditation,” she says. “Recently, it was quiet before it started raining, and all I could hear was the sound of chickadees, like little whispering peeps. Homing in to those different bird sounds really helps ground me. In the high-stress job I have, that’s the most important part of birding for me.”

Birds also influence where she vacations, from Ecuador and Costa Rica to South Korea, Panama, and Antigua. “I don’t usually go just for the birds, but the birds bring me to a new place, and that starts my journey,” Scranton says.

Pedro has photographed 1,600 species of birds. Above, a purple velvet coronet (Ecuador).

Carlos Pedro ’76 in Ushuaia, Argentina, on a self-guided birding and vineyard trip. Behind Pedro are Megallanic penguins.

Carlos Pedro ’76, on the other hand, takes birding to the next level. Recently retired as executive director of a job training and placement program for economically disadvantaged people, he hikes up to 65 miles each week in search of birds around Rhode Island. For the last 10 years, he has consistently been among the top birders in the state, and in 2020 he saw more bird species in Rhode Island in one year (309) than had ever previously been observed.

Carlos Pedro ’76 hikes up to 65 miles each week in search of birds around Rhode Island.

“When I was young, I was always interested in nature, and then in 2000 I really started looking at what birds could be found in different parts of the state, and I got hooked,” says Pedro, who was the captain of the URI soccer team in 1975. “Mostly, I just like to be out in the woods, and birds give you something to pay attention to. It makes you more aware of what’s around you.”

Pedro has seen about 380 species of birds in Rhode Island, 3,900 worldwide, and he has photographed 1,600 species, including more than 100 of the world’s 300 kinds of hummingbirds. He has traveled to 30 countries to watch birds.

Among the close-knit community of competitive birders in Rhode Island, Pedro is always among the leaders. “It’s a competition, but it’s really not,” he says. “It’s a challenge to see how many you can see in a year, but mostly it’s a self-challenge. We all let each other know what’s where. If you find something rare, you share it. It’s really just about having the time to put into it.”

Regal sunbird, Uganda, photographed by Carlos Pedro ’76

Many other former URI students turned to birding as a hobby sometime after graduation as a way of getting exercise, enjoying nature, or reducing stress. And in the age of COVID-19 lockdowns, as people spend more time at home and outside, even more alumni are discovering the joy of birds and bird-watching, whether in their backyards or beyond.

For Kathy McKiel Faella ’80, who spent 38 years working in the URI Academic Computing Center, it was photography that drew her attention to birds. And the pandemic.

“I’ve always liked photography, and that naturally brings you to nature,” says Faella. “And with the pandemic, there’s not that many other things you can do, so we’ve been home watching the birds in our backyard and taking a lot of walks.”

While she doesn’t claim to be an active birder, she has an affinity for owls, cardinals, and tufted titmice. “It’s the details I can see in a photo that really fascinate me—their beaks and eyes and claws,” Faella says. “And, of course, we’re drawn to the colorful ones and the ones we’ve never seen before.”

Debra Cole ’78 photographed this great egret while she was kayaking in Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, R.I. She was “reminded that, while I do love to travel, there is so much beauty close to home.”

The pandemic also boosted a budding interest in birds for Debra Cole ’78. She retired from a career in the URI controller’s office just two weeks before the pandemic was declared, canceling her many travel plans for the year. As a retirement gift, her hiking friends gave her a pair of binoculars, so she has been spending the year watching the birds in her yard.

“I’ve always fed the birds, but now that I’m home all the time, I’m splurging on new feeders and different types of food,” she says. “Now that I have more time to take in my surroundings, I’ve been treated to sightings of many birds that I had missed during the rush of my workaday life.”

Faella has no desire to look beyond her backyard and nearby hiking trails for birds, though she does occasionally watch an online webcam of nesting bald eagles in Florida.

She isn’t the only one. “Bird-watching is increasing in popularity everywhere,” says Paton, “especially now, when so many activities are necessarily happening outside rather than inside. When a rare cuckoo from Europe showed up in Rhode Island in October, at least ten of my former students went to see that bird. It’s a great feeling to know that I got them hooked.”

More than hooked, in fact. Between the field station, faculty research, and ornithology education, URI and its graduates contribute significantly to the growing knowledge base of bird biology and ecology and play a vital role in bird conservation.

Now that’s something to tweet about. •

Photos: Nora Lewis; Courtesy Charles Clarkson; Debra Cole; Kate Iaquinto; Ryan Kleinert; Carlos Pedro; Jen Scranton

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