Something to Squawk About: Ornithology at Chincoteague

By Jessica Richardson '17

Summer sunshine, sandy beaches, and chirping birds—not the typical classroom environment, but one that Dr. Nathan Thomas, associate professor of biology, enjoys thanks to SU’s partnership with the Chincoteague Bay Field Station (CBFS). On the eastern shore of Virginia, Ship students alongside other students in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education schools gain valuable experience at the field station on Wallops Island. And Thomas gets to share a personal passion during a three-week summer class.

Birds on the beach, formally coastal ornithology, is the topic students studied for three weeks at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station this summer.

Birds on the beach, formally coastal ornithology, is the topic students studied for three weeks at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station this summer.

Thomas loves to study birds, which is known as ornithology. Having taught at Ship since 2008, this past summer marks his fifth year of teaching at CBFS.

“It is a fantastic field station on the Mid-Atlantic,” Thomas said. “We get hands-on experience—a chance to be there and really in it.”

CBFS has two field stations: one on the shore of Virginia and another less than a mile from the Maryland state line.“You can talk until you are blue in the face and let them imagine what you are talking about,” Thomas said. “Some of [what you are teaching] doesn’t click until you see how it works.”

In his coastal ornithology class, students explore a variety of habitats, including marine organisms and birds, marshes, and the associated ecosystems. Thomas said students get bits and pieces of this from their campus courses, but at CBFS they can spend time in the field and see the organisms. During the course, one of the major things he and his students do is habitat observation. They spend about 70 percent of their time in the field.

The field station has multiple boats and kayaks that are used for bay and ocean work. The vehicles allow for use of all of the waterways.

What I enjoy more than anything else is that during the course, the students get so excited and really get into ornithology.
— Dr. Nathan Thomas

Currently, coastal ornithology is listed as a special course. However, at the end of this year it will exist as a regular course instead.

Thomas said each course has a maximum of twenty students from multiple universities and colleges. There are typically five courses offered during each summer session. The course is unique in that it does come with additional cost and preparation. Thomas said it is still relatively inexpensive, and he reminds students that they must prepare to be away from home for three weeks.

Ship students who have taken the course have provided positive feedback to Thomas. One year, his students developed a field guide that included all the things that they routinely observed that were not birds, such as the humorously named plastic bag pelican.

“What I enjoy more than anything else is that during the course, the students get so excited and really get into ornithology,” he said. “They are spending time on their own in the field and not just doing it as a course requirement.”

Thomas’ excitement about birds started at a young age. He recalled trapping birds while they were at the birdfeeders, then later observing and identifying them with his mother’s book of birds. Thomas’ grandmother also was curious about birds and often went to him for answers, he said.

That initial passion for birds has now extended to an excitement for teaching at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station.

“I’m excited about the field station because field opportunities are imperative for the proper education of a field biologist, dare I say any biologist.”

CBFS operates as a separate entity. The summer courses are run by representatives from the participating universities such as many of those in the State System. Shippensburg University is a full-time member with the field station and pays to belong, according to Thomas. Several other summer courses have been offered by other SU faculty.

“The students should take advantage of it, because even though there is a cost individually, the cost is lower because of our membership level,” he said.

Most students who participate in the program are either biology or earth science majors. “Students can gain a different perspective, and that is huge,” he said. “We live in a world that is largely disconnected from the outdoors; even in biology that is true.”

Thomas encourages students to get out and try new things that are available through Shippensburg University and, if possible, through the Chincoteague Bay Field Station.

“Students should take advantage of the many opportunities that are available at Shippensburg whether they are directly related to their major or not, because you are not going to get the experience again,” he said. “Get out of your comfort zone, enjoy, and take advantage of your time in college.”

Jessica Richardson ‘17 is an intern for SU Magazine.