Thursday, March 13, 2014

Duke Gardens and Wildlife Surveys

gray squirrel

Duke Gardens is an ideal place to practice skills I've learned in "Wildlife Surveys," a graduate school course at the Nicholas School of the Environment offered in the spring semester. The varied landscape provides an important training area where my classmates and I can perfect our identification and observation abilities in a beautiful environment full of wildlife.

As part of our Bird Surveys section, we sat on the grassy knoll sloping down to the Asiatic Arboretum pond. First identification exercise: waterfowl. This massive pond has a proliferation of both exotic and native species, and we learned the field markings of hooded mergansers and wood ducks - both North Carolina year-round residents. A great blue heron refused to be left out of the party and landed gracefully in a tall cypress tree directly behind us.

observing and recording
We curved around the edge of the pond, pointing out ruby-crowned kinglets, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, and white-breasted nuthatches. New and experienced birders alike enjoyed learning together and spending a sunny Friday outside.

"I chose Duke Gardens to practice birding because it's one of the only easily accessible spots on main campus where we can see both passerines (perching birds) and waterfowl," our instructor, Dr. Nicolette Cagle, wrote me in an email. "I wanted the students to be able to practice observing different families of birds."

Wildlife Surveys and Duke Gardens
"My favorite part of Duke Gardens is the gorgeous Blomquist Garden of Native Plants," Cagle continues. "It's a fantastic repository of the Southeast's native woody plants, and it attracts lots of native birds as well."

white-throated sparrow
The Blomquist Garden is full of more than just birds. Our second Wildlife Surveys' unit described mammal observation, and I made loops around the Blomquist Garden  looking for one of our most ubiquitous animals: the gray squirrel.

I watched them forage along the ground, dart into trees and bushes, and stow away more than a few bird-feeder seeds for the duration of the winter ahead. Sketching and recording their movements in my outdoor notebook, for an hour I practiced the craft of a long line of field naturalists, including Charles Darwin, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, who spent their lives observing the natural world.

Each month for the duration of the semester, I will continue to write my naturalist observations of Duke Gardens. Though I have been visiting the Gardens multiple times a week since August, this is an opportunity to enjoy and learn about the Gardens in a new, more nuanced way. Earning class credit for birding? That's just icing on the cake.
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Blogger and photographer Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

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