A Year of Walking Across Campus

By josh • Nature, Wildlife • 25 Mar 2014

It’s been a year now that I’ve been working at the University of Vermont.  While the change in career isn’t one I anticipated, necessarily, it has worked out pretty well.  I haven’t felt this mentally and physically healthy for a decade, and it’s really nice to be in an academic atmosphere again.

A big part of the improvement has been a fact of life that causes great irritation for many of my fellow relatively-new-to-UVM co-workers.  There’s very little parking around the central campus, so those of us without much seniority must park in a garage by the hockey rink at the southern extreme of campus.  It’s about a 3/4 mile walk from there to my office in the Waterman Building.  My daily commute has gone from 55 minutes (each way) in the car to 5 minutes in the car and a 12-15 minute walk.

This walk has provided me a minor daily increase in physical activity that has been surprisingly beneficial.  It also gives me a brief period of enforced meditative time at the beginning and end of the workday.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to use my morning walk to count birds.  There are some considerations about this that affect the utility of the project:

  • I’m generally not carrying optics, so this is strictly a birding-by-ear and naked eye endeavor
  • I’m usually moving at about 3.5 mph, which is much, much faster than when I’m out with the express purpose of finding birds
  • My route varies on occasion; when the windchill gets below -15F or so I often walk underground and indoors for about 1/4 of the route
  • There are no natural communities here- every portion of the walk is strongly anthropogenic

That said, the mostly consistent protocol and regularity of collection make the data start to take shape in meaningful ways.  I’ve entered 2 to 5 eBird checklists for a full year now.  I missed a few weeks when I was on vacation or parked in a different spot, and in the summer I rode my bike frequently enough that the checklist entries were notably fewer.  Here’s what I’ve found:

uvm_campus1

uvm_campus2

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It probably shouldn’t be a surprise (though it’s a little depressing) that the species that are most frequent and abundant are non-native.  We’ve provided some pretty good habitat for adaptable, aggressive cavity nesters like House Sparrows and European Starlings.  On my route, the House Sparrows use the exposed beams of the parking garage and various niches in a heating plant near the University Heights residence halls.  The Starlings are nesting in a hollow, rotten cornice on Adams Hall.

This coming year I’m looking forward to seeing some of the jagged lines smoothing out and the holes filling in as I add more data.  It’s gratifying to see the regularity of seasonal migrants like Chimney Swift (usually around the central heating plant behind Royall Tyler Theater), Common Grackle, and Chipping Sparrow.  It’s also been fun to observe the seasonal movements of our year-round species, especially Ring-billed Gull and American Robin.  The Robins (and Cedar Waxwings) have been on campus en masse for several weeks, with a flock of nearly 200 at times using the fruit trees on the athletic campus, near the reservoir on Main Street, and along College Street.  By this week they’ve stripped the trees bare and I only counted five Robins and no waxwings on my walk this morning.

Other highlights for the year were catching a few warblers passing through during spring migration, a Fish Crow atop Patrick Gym in July, and, perhaps most interestingly, fairly regular flyovers from waders and waterfowl such as Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Double-Crested Cormorant, Green-winged Teal, and Mallard.  Given that I’ve often seen them passing over the UVM Green headed east, I suspect that they’re moving from Lake Champlain and the wetlands of the Barge Canal to the Winooski Falls area.

One surprise has been the lack of birds that use the UVM Green.  I rarely see many birds here despite the fact that it’s the most amply vegetated portion of my walk.  Gulls fed on the crabapples in the fall and robins have done the same in the spring, but it’s rare to encounter any birds in the trees at the south end of the green other than an occasional Black-capped Chickadee, House Finch, or American Crow.  I’d speculate that this is because so many of the trees on this portion of the green are exotic conifers.  We simply don’t have many bird species here that are adapted to use Dawn Redwood!

I’m planning to continue these counts as long as I can.  I think they may be even thinner in the warmer months starting in August because I’ll be biking to work nearly every day, but a count or two a week seems feasible.  Even if I ever get a better parking permit (ha!) I suspect I’ll still park at the garage much of the time.  It will be harder to convince myself that it’s a good idea when it’s 25 below though!

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