Ornithology class enjoys bird watching in Florida

April 23, 2013
Contact: Maryville College Office of Communications
865.981.8207; communications@maryvillecollege.edu

What could be better than Spring Break in Florida for a student at Maryville College? A required weeklong trip with two professors probably is not a typical answer.

The upper-level Ornithology class, co-taught by biology professors Dr. Drew Crain and Dr. Dave Unger, featured a six-day trip through some of the best birding locations in Florida. Dr. Unger summarized the reason for the trip: “By taking our students to Florida, they gain an appreciation for the tremendous diversity in our natural world.”

During the trip, the 10 biology majors kayaked to Nassau Sound to watch Osprey capture fish, watched nesting roseate spoonbills and snowy egrets in St. Augustine, examined bird fossils at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville and saw pelicans and migrating warblers in Jacksonville.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge was formed in the early 1960s as NASA purchased the land when the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral was built. Today, the 140,000-acre refuge is home to more than 330 bird species, many of which are hard to find anywhere else. While on the island, students saw herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, scaup, oystercatchers and terns.

One of the most spectacular sightings was the threatened Florida Scrub Jay, which is only found in peninsular Florida. The significance of seeing the scrub jays was not lost on the students. With the students’ hearts racing and smiles on all faces, junior David Haskins '14 shouted “I can die now!”

The trip was filled with not only spectacular birding, but also much laughter and camaraderie among students and faculty. Student Tyler Carter '13 said “I feel like Dr. Crain and Dr. Unger are my best friends who could also give me an F.” If the excitement and enthusiasm shown in Florida is any indication, no one in this stellar class will receive an F.

The upper-level MC Ornithology course is offered every other spring, and students spend as much time outdoors learning about birds as they do in the classroom. While the Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides unprecedented access to birds of Appalachia, access to waterfowl and shorebirds is limited. Florida provided the ideal contrast to Appalachia, as Unger explained: “it is an ecosystem wholly unlike anything that we have here in east Tennessee. The humid, subtropical climate provides habitat for many unique species like the American white pelican and glossy ibis.”

The trip was made possible by a collaborative agreement between Maryville College and Jacksonville University. During the fall, Jacksonville University brings students to the Smoky Mountains to study amphibians and reptiles, whereas in the spring Maryville College takes students to Florida to study birds. Both JU and MC provide free housing and reduced meal-plan rates, which makes such trips affordable for students of both institutions.

In total, 76 bird species were documented on the trip, most of which the students had never seen before.

Student Matthew Hale '13 summarized the student sentiment for the trip. “This trip has been the most rewarding and fulfilling experience I’ve had at Maryville College. Would I give up my Spring Break to do that again? In a heartbeat.”

This story was written by Dr. Drew Crain, Professor of Biology at Maryville College. He can be reached at drew.crain@maryvillecollege.edu.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2014 semester is 1,213.