Francis Commerçon whips his binoculars up to his eyes, and the eight or so other people milling around him follow suit. They follow a small white shape as it floats lazily above Barr Lake, the namesake of Barr Lake State Park.
“It looks like a Bonaparte’s Gull,” Commerçon said.
A chorus of hushed gasps follows, and some begin to aim spotting scopes, or telescopes specialized specifically for watching birds, towards the species in question.
The group are birders – or bird watchers for the uninitiated – on a field trip organized by The Field Ornithologists at Colorado State University.
Commerçon, a senior fish, wildlife and conservation biology major, and his friend and fellow FWCB student, Megan Miller, formed the organization in 2015, focusing solely on their shared passion for birds. They called themselves The Field Ornithologists at CSU, or CSUFO for short.
CSUFO offers a unique opportunity for students, faculty, and local residents to connect with nature through birds.
“Before CSUFO, the CSU Community did not have a specific outlet for all those interested in birds to share and kindle their passions,” said Commerçon. “CSUFO has brought together those interested in birds from disparate parts of campus, and it has lit a passion for birds in numerous students who had not previously given much thought to birding or avian ecology.”
Since its inception, the club has recruited dozens of members and has transitioned to new leadership as more people begin to cultivate an interest in the subject. Commerçon reflected on his time as an officer of the organization.
“I love seeing younger students learn about the thing I love so deeply,” said Commerçon. “… People I did not know when (Megan Miller and) I helped found the club are now at its helm, organizing their own events, calling their own meetings, and gaining indispensable leadership experience in the process. I feel like I have invested my entire undergraduate experience into this organization. I am contemplating migrating onward. My baby bird has learned to fly.”
The day of the Bonaparte’s Gull sighting, approximately 20 attendees gathered at Barr Lake State Park to witness a bird banding demonstration. Birds are caught in large, nearly invisible nets along the perimeter of the forest. They are then fitted with small aluminum bands around their ankles to study where they are going, how many of them survive, and to share an intimate portrait of these mysterious creatures with anyone who might be interested.
Meredith McBurney, a biologist and banding education specialist with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, holds up a drab yellow bird. “Does anyone know what it is?”
Answers start punctuating the silence from the crowd.
“Yellow Warbler?” someone offers hesitantly.
“Orange-Crowned Warbler,” someone else chimes in.
“Blackpoll Warbler,” a third guesses.
McBurney smiles and points towards the third person, indicating that their answer is correct. A collective “Ooooh” echoes throughout the group.
With the assistance of Commerçon, McBurney educated the spectators on this species’ migration and when they typically start to see them coming through the Front Range.
These trips typically require early mornings and occasionally long days, but the reward is often well worth it for many aspiring naturalists. They not only provide reflective experiences on the world behind one’s computer screen but offer learning experiences far beyond those of the classroom.
“I like being able to take students to places they’ve never been before to see things that we’ve only read about in textbooks,” Miller said. “It’s helped me value the things I experience even more. I sometimes forget that people go their entire lives without watching a Wilson’s Warbler flit through a willow collecting insects in the tip of its beak. Or listen, really listen, to the incredibly complex song of an American Robin. In the birding club I can share those experiences with other people.”
CSUFO has made it a goal to be accessible to people of many backgrounds and fields of study. The Barr Lake trip consisted of many students in ecology-related majors but also an English teacher from a language program at CSU, a Chinese teacher at The Confucius Institute, and even a three-month-old baby named Gabby, the group’s youngest member.
Commerçon hopes the club will continue to foster an environment of inclusivity among its members.
“You don’t need any experience,”Commerçon said. “We provide guidance, binoculars, field guides and carpooling to some of the most amazing places you have never thought to visit. Come to one of our meetings or our speaker seminars. This could change your life.”
Miller echoed these sentiments.
“We really, really do welcome anyone,” Miller said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever been bird watching before in your life.”
Since the club’s participation has blossomed, they have begun to turn their attention toward a larger goal.
“In our present era of local and global conservation concerns, bird conservation, avian ecology and bird-related environmental communication are needed more now than ever,” Commerçon said. “CSUFO has taken a large step toward providing the platform for an increased awareness, understanding, and appreciation for birds at Colorado State University.”
Next Meeting- Oct. 2 at 5:00 PM in Wagar 231
Collegian reporter Casey Setash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @caseylovesbirds.