What I’ve Learned About Teaching

I haven’t had extensive classroom teaching experience yet: I TA’ed forestry practicum twice over the summer at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and TA’ed 2 sections of introductory astronomy lab when I was an undergrad. My students helped teach me how to helpfully communicate new concepts, and a few ubiquitous patterns played out, such as: you always get some great students and some tough ones. Some are kind, interested and/or have a special talent for the material. Others are rude and/or just frustrated, and take it out on you or the class material in some way. Some just don’t care, and either quietly tune out or make it obvious. In some way, though, I reached most of them before the end of the course.

Generally speaking, I do think I dislike the broken system of grading as motivation. It’s not motivation to truly learn and remember a concept for its sake. I do understand the concept of introducing students to something they can draw on later if they must, and sometimes forcing them to learn it for a test might be what makes them remember something about it down the line. Also, sometimes you have the good fortune of teaching them about a generality within the framework of your specific topic.

Forestry Practicum

I was responsible for teaching intro. to birding (which was a blast)! Some students had a natural interest, whereas others only had to learn it for the course, so there was a baseline gradient of engagement.

Intro. Astronomy

I don’t think this class had any prerequisites, and was open to all majors. Some took it as an easy science class to tick off their science requirement, since it was designed to be friendly to non-majors. Some students were my friends, in the same year and degree program as me (junior physics major at the time).


The Steps to Getting Started Birding

  1. Just look/listen from your window, deck, backyard, etc.! Notice birds you see around you. Take note of what you can identify and what you can’t (sights and sounds) and let your curiosity drive you to investigate.
  2. Get a good field guide and study up! Learn what’s around you by looking at seasonality and range maps.
  3. If you’re able, set up some kind of feeder that brings birds closer to you, so you can observe them from a convenient location near your home.
  4. Get binoculars so you can better observe all that is around you.
  5. Go for a walk and see if you can find different birds than those that are in your backyard, and might be expected based on your field guide.
  6. Join a local club that organizes bird walks, and go on some of their guided field trips with experts. You’ll learn a lot from being around others who have been doing this for awhile! You might find a local area, county or statewide organization.
  7. Make birding friends to go out with and explore. You can learn a lot from each other, and also help each other in the ID process.
  8. See where it takes you, what’s interesting to you about birding and why you want to bird. Maybe it will lead you on trips around the world to see birds! Maybe it will help you appreciate your outdoors experiences more, by thinking about the avian life around you. Maybe it will inspire you to contribute to citizen science. Whatever it is, I hope you learn a little more about the birds around you, so we can think more about them and what we can do for conservation, even in our backyards.

My Favorite Places I’ve Been Birding

Phew — just typing that title sounds daunting; there are so many! I don’t know how I’m going to break this list up but I figured I’d at least start it and chip away as I go. Please comment regionally with your favorite places too! My current home city is Duluth, MN so my favorite places in the state…

  • Canal Park
  • Minnesota Point
  • North Shore Scenic Drive: as the name implies, this goes along the north shore of Lake Superior, with lots of pull-offs
  • Agate Bay
  • Sax-Zim Bog
  • Pine Island State Forest (Toumey-Williams Rd.)
  • McGregor Marsh State Natural Area (SNA)
  • Cook Co.: the water treatment ponds can have surprising things, and there’s lots of nice bog here, far enough north to get some real boreal specialties in roadside habitats
  • Carver Co.: back closer to “in town”, a rural area adequately birded by Twin Cities birders in search of farm fields


  • Wisconsin Point
  • Crex Meadows Wildlife Area
  • Buena Vista Grasslands
  • Lake Maria
  • Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)
  • Wyalusing State Park
  • Schurch-Thomson Prairie
  • Rose Lake SNA
  • Door Co.
  • Trempeleau Co.: including the NWR, it’s a fun area to explore
  • Sauk Co.: this was a frequent birding destination for us because of all the unique natural areas in the county, including…
    • Spring Green Preserve SNA
  • Dane Co.: this is where I lived for 4.5 years during my Ph.D., so I spent a lot of time on campus. I used to do the Big Green Birding Year (BIGBY) which meant finding as many species as I could on foot/by bike, so I walked and biked much of Madison, WI.
    • Pheasant Branch Conservancy
    • 9 Springs
    • Lerner Conservation Park


  • Chicago: there are lots of small city parks, and lots of birders, so it’s likely something interesting will be found
  • Sugar Grove Nature Center

South Dakota

  • Roughlock Falls
  • Haakon Co.: farm fields for days!


  • campus: there was an AOU meeting here in 2015!
  • Wichita Mountains NWR
  • Great Salt Plains State Park


  • Hampton Creek Cove


  • Western Regional Park
  • Centennial Lake
  • Patapsco Valley State Park
  • Ocean City inlet
  • Assateague State Park
  • Truitt’s Landing


  • Assawoman Wildlife Area


  • Great Dismal Swamp NWR
  • Huckleberry Trail
  • Heritage Community Park & Natural Area
  • Pandapas Pond
  • Cascades
  • the Blue Ridge: broadly…
    • Appalachian Trail
    • Blue Ridge Parkway
    • New River
  • Mountain Lake
  • Claytor Lake State Park

North Carolina

  • Outer Banks: this area likely needs no introduction as a tourist destination
  • Pickens Nose
  • Jackson Park
  • Dupont State Forest

South Carolina

  • Clemson Experimental Forest
  • South Carolina Botanical Garden
  • Lake Conestee
  • Huntington Beach State Park
  • Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center
  • Pitt St. Causeway
  • Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA)
  • Edisto Beach
  • Savannah NWR
  • Anderson Co.: home of Townville, the bird mecca of the upstate.
  • Beaufort Co.: this is where I did my M.S. field work on golf courses, so I went on a number of private properties as well as natural areas in the county.


  • Georgia Botanical Garden


  • Storm Water Treatment Area 5/6
  • Everglades National Park
  • Lee Co.
  • Collier Co.: my parents used to have a beach house there, so I birded a lot of places (mostly wherever I could walk)
    • Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

My Experiences as a Student

This is my processing of what I’ve experienced, having been a professional, full-time student until last year, when I finished my Ph.D. at 29. At this point, I’ve sat in classrooms much more than I’ve been in front of them, and I can perhaps illustrate the brokenness of the curriculum/semester/grading/course scheme best through my experience taking Plant Taxonomy. “Plant tax” was an elective for me; I took various plant electives out of personal interest. I found my passion in ornithology, and that gripped me through the semester and beyond. I had an opportunity to learn about plants, though, and I took it. However, my retention was embarrassingly low: I say that because at various points in my life, I’ve tried to re-learn what I learned that semester. That, in and of itself, bothers me; what about it didn’t take the first time around? Did I not feel like I needed to know it at the time? (Now, I still don’t “need to know” it, but I choose to try to identify plants, hence going back over the skills found in the class.) I do think of it as a sort of brokenness in the academic system, in that I paid good money for a course that I ultimately didn’t remember the necessary skills from when I wanted to use them. That course would have done me better when I had a reason and/or general desire to learn about plants, as evidenced by perhaps my attempt to do it myself and realizing what skills I was lacking.

I’m not sure how to fix it without thinking way out of the box, meaning that perhaps there just isn’t the formality of 4 years and a degree within a block of time right after high school in your life. Maybe you learn skills as you go, taking electives as part of job training. Maybe degrees last for shorter times (3 years) before you take an internship or your first job in your subject. It would be cheaper, and thus alleviate the burgeoning debt system currently in place. I know some programs that already do something like this, and they seem to be the most successful/acclaimed. Maybe undergraduate research is a requisite in year 3 in science fields.

There could be many benefits to not being a full-time student for 4 years starting at age 17 (for me). When I look back, I gawk at my immaturity, but also see how life to that point trained me to be a full-time student (after all, it’s what we do ’til we reach college: we train to get good grades all day, 5 days a week to get to the best school). I can honestly say I wasn’t so “ready to learn” specialized skills of my field until later in life. I think I saw this phenomenon in physics majors that were returning students (perhaps case in point, I was a physics major at one point in this journey). The returning students were focused and, quite frankly, brilliant. Was it because life experience taught them what they wanted, and they had a renewed direction in taking classes? Were they just more mature than us? Did their advanced brain maturity make them better students? Sometimes I feel like the last question is true: while my brain was certainly most ready for creativity, broad curiosity and variety of information when I was younger, my older brain seems better at putting information into a classification system and thus deep learning now. Is it just because I know more, that I have a better “file cabinet” in my head? In any case, while I’ve also lost the undergraduate discipline of working on homework for hours, I am tempted to revisit concepts I couldn’t place back when, to see how I would approach them now. It feels like I just have more plain common sense, including about academic topics.

Herein lies the conundrum: I was privileged to go to college, and have parents that were able to pay my full tuition. That meant I got to be a carefree undergrad far from home, and thus meet a whole new community of lifelong friends outside of everything I grew up around. It broadened my horizons and taught me some new things about life. As many say, the most important things I learned in undergrad weren’t in the classroom, so I hesitate advocating a removal of this structure, when I loved it and found it to be so beneficial. It taught me things about self-reliance to solve problems, function in the real world and decide who I wanted to be.

However, perhaps here the disconnect is obvious. While my undergrad experience was educational by definition, it provided me only the basics for what I do now in my career skill- and knowledge-wise. Maybe we have to stop pretending that a 4-year undergrad is some grand job training center, and admit it’s more of a life-training center, and mostly for people who had similar (and relatively sheltered) life experiences. Some of that learning happens in the classroom, and my exposure to many different ideas and fields helped shape the way I think as a scientist, and that’s invaluable as well as somewhat intangible. I can’t dismiss, though, what the freedom to be a computer scientist, and then a physicist, and ultimately a biologist did for me. Maybe the importance of undergrad is indeed to expose you to many ideas to teach you to be a better and more well-rounded thinker (hence required core areas outside of your major, though for the cost in today’s student debt world, I’m not sure I like that anymore). What it arguably didn’t do is train me how to do my job, and that’s OK for me, because “I” had the money to spend and the time to figure it all out along the way. I want to pause this tangent, though, before it devolves into a degree inflation rant (which will be saved for another post).

I know I’m not saying anything new here, and experts have and do re-hash these ideas all the time. I’m thinking forward to continuing my career in academia, what I believe the institution I work for should be, and ultimately what my career as a professor should be in order to best serve the students I teach. I feel I need to think in terms of ideals in order to steer things in the right direction.

Recommendations for Birding Gear

I was heartened to see that even Popular Mechanics is getting into birding in their own way, but I wanted to make a few tweaks to this list, as, well, a birder! Here are some additional or alternative things to consider purchasing for your birding ventures…

  • spotting scopeI have a Swarovski 80mm ATS angled spotting scope, which rocks! Ultimately you’re going to have to see what fits your budget (or start budgeting to save up for a scope)!
  • binoculars: again, this will mostly depend on what you can afford to spend…and in the optics world, the more expensive really is the better!
  • Scopac: this is a handy little pack that allows you to attach your scope and tripod for easier carrying on your back while also keeping it setup for easy spotting. The pack allows you to carry light essentials.
  • Sibley guide to birds app: it’s the most expensive bird guide app out there, but by far the best and well worth the price ($20). It also beats carrying the guide around when you’ll already likely have your smartphone with you.
  • Peterson’s Birding By Ear


  • hat
  • gloves

My Journey Looking Through Binoculars

In the many articles I see out there on how to get started birding, they talk about essential optics, so I thought I’d share my journey through binocular ownership. We had an old pair of binoculars at my home, that I would use to occasionally look at birds and other things outside. When I took ornithology, I got the bare minimum required for class: a $40 8 x 32 tiny pair on a string from some outdoor store. I made due with those for lab, though I’d sometimes take a peek through the better binoculars of classmates or my TA’s. Nonetheless, I could find birds in them and could usually get sufficient detail for what we needed to do for class. Those lasted me until the end of the semester, when I landed my first field job.

Then, I made what felt like a significant upgrade at the time, to a $100 (i.e. low-end) Nikon pair to take to S.C. That field job turned into my M.S., where I did the absolute best I could with those binoculars as I got into birding seriously. For what it’s worth, I think it helped teach me careful and creative observation skills I still use today. (Worse binoculars help you use more cues to identify the bird, right? 🙂 ) Those binoculars made me really patient to watch birds, as I “maxed them out” looking hard at things I now use my scope for. I just kept birding, and tried not to let my equipment limit me.

Not long after the start of my Ph.D. in 2012, I actually broke those binoculars, and my grandmother bought me my current pair: Swarovski Swarovision EL 10 x 50 binoculars. They may well be the last pair I ever own. They’re top of the line (though there have been some upgrades now to design here and there, as to be expected). I got those because it’s now part of my career, and I plan to watch birds as long as I can in this lifetime. In other words, it was a future investment purchase, that in my book has already paid off. I need the professional tools of my field, and I use them often.

So, I provide this anecdote as to what helped me make optics decisions, and at what point I upgraded. Obviously, you’ll need to choose what’s right for your budget both timing and cost-wise. Don’t let sub-par binoculars (or even lack thereof) stop you from birding; you’d be surprised by how much you can get by with a cheap or old pair. You might ask to borrow a pair from friends if you don’t have anything and can’t afford even a cheap pair.

Watching Birds: My Early Experiences

My Story

I didn’t really know a lot about birds when I was young beyond what my dad taught me from our backyard feeders, but for whatever weird reason, I tried to memorize our old Audubon guide when I was little. I was never sure of my knowledge, though, without a true birding mentor. Maybe it’s a personality trait of mine, but this lack of confidence kept me from trusting my “matching” of the pictures in my guide to anything I saw outside. Nonetheless, I’d guess at identifications outdoors, silently from a car window or when out at a new place. I’d hope that this bird I’d never heard anyone else talk about was in fact what I saw in the photos. I remember seeing a painted bunting on the cover of a magazine and thinking how amazing it would be to see that bird (which brought it full circle when my 1st field job ended up focusing on nest monitoring for that species). A formative experience that sticks out to me was when I was in middle school, and a good friend and I went to a camp to learn about the Chesapeake bay watershed. I finally saw several of the birds up close that I’d gawked at in our bird book, and also had the identifications confirmed by our counselors from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I came home with a shiny heron-shaped pendant that I’d earned from my attention to the avi-fauna of the trip!

After my childhood interest in watching birds got put on the back-burner sometime in high school, I found myself drawn to learning about birds again as an undergrad. I was a burnt out physics major, looking for something else to revitalize me after a time of personal hardship. Before I switched my major, I took up hiking with my family’s old Audubon guide that I borrowed during some weekend trip home. I started at Mountain Lake, one of the closest spots with a lots of trails well-known around campus. The first bird I remember identifying along a hike was dark-eyed junco, again a bird I had never really “heard of” commonly talked about. So I wondered, was it unusual? Was my ID therefore wrong? Yet, it matched the picture, description and range perfectly. I descended back down the trail and found a bird list at the nature center, and was happy to find the word “junco” listed on it. I felt better about my ID. I kept the bird list with me, and later intending to join one of the guided bird walks, I showed up to a scheduled hike in the spring only to find it cancelled. Yet, with no binoculars, I noticed a flurry of small birds in a tree near where the walk was supposed to meet. I would later find a kinship with a classic ornithology paper I read once I started my M.S., because as I painstakingly sat trying to visually track the varied active birds in that flowering tree, I noticed that certain species seemed to hang out in different parts of the tree. That observation helped me focus enough to identify the birds in front of me, unperturbed by my sneaking up on them amidst their early morning foraging.

After I switched my major into biology, I was drawn to wildlife electives. When I took ornithology, my childhood fascination with birds fully reignited, and I felt it was what I meant to pursue as a career. In a funny twist, I had to buy the Sibley Guide (still my favorite bird guide) for class, and years later during a CBC walk with my now-birding-friend Matt Hafner, it became apparent that I may have bought it from him when he worked at a local bird store in Blacksburg! Armed with the bare minimum tiny binoculars I had to buy for lab, I was hooked into birding from the first outdoor venture, and finally had the help of knowledgeable TA’s Julie Danner (née Castner) and Jonathan Moore pointing out birds in the field to feel confident in assigning species ID’s to the birds I saw. I felt I had the tools in hand now to truly start birding, and so I did. It was perhaps the first time I couldn’t wait to do my homework, which was weekly bird observations. I relished walking to a new spot, with the hopes of seeing new bird species and learning more about bird identification. Our class had a great time for the remainder of the semester, and afterward, my TA’s recommended me for my first field job, which became my M.S. thesis project. In that time, I upgraded to a still-low-end $100 pair of Nikon binoculars that lasted me throughout my M.S. degree. The rest is, as they say, “history.” To everyone who has helped me along the way, I am eternally grateful, and am happy to now be in the community of birders and bird researchers. Birding continues to be my passion, as both a hobby and a career!

Your Story?

When did you become interested in birds? Are you at all curious about our feathered friends right outside your window? What has been your experience interacting with birds and other wildlife? Please comment below!