Field course on winter ecology takes students north

Blaine Landsborough collects acoustic recordings in the snow.Blaine Landsborough collects acoustic recordings during a Winter Ecology of Birds field course in eastern Ontario. Photo by Blaine Landsborough

Instead of heading south for spring break, three University of Windsor students headed north during Reading Week to take part in a course on the Winter Ecology of Birds. The two-week course gave the students a hands-on learning opportunity to study how birds survive Canada’s harsh winter climate.

“I learned more in this two-week field course than I have in an entire semester,” said Melanie Lefaive, an undergraduate student from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences who took the course. “Waking up every day to go hiking in the woods, looking for birds, appreciating the peacefulness of nature — that’s what gives you the passion and motivation to achieve your goals.”

The course was offered through the Ontario Universities Program in Field Biology, an umbrella organization that allows University of Windsor students to take field-based courses offered through different universities.

Blaine Landsborough, a graduate student from the Department of Biological Sciences, said that a field expedition to Algonquin Park was the most memorable part of the course for him.

“The diversity of wildlife we observed was phenomenal,” he said. “We saw so many unique Canadian winter birds, including great grey owls, northern shrikes, spruce grouse, and Canada’s new national bird, the gray jay.”

Ines Moran, another graduate student from the Department of Biological Sciences who took the course, said her favourite experience was seeing a great grey owl hunt.

“The owl turned its head and flew silently to a spot where it had heard a vole. Then it gobbled up the vole in one giant swallow,” she recalled. “It was a regular day for this great grey owl, but for me it was the most memorable day of the year.”

Biology professor Dan Mennill, who serves as the University’s coordinator for the Ontario Universities Program in Field Biology, says the field courses are open to all University of Windsor students who take the prerequisite course: a second-year course in ecology.

“We have had many University of Windsor students succeed in courses that take place in wilderness areas of Ontario, as well as study-abroad courses in Costa Rica, Peru, the Bahamas, and China,” he said. “These courses are transformative experiences for our students, and often they serve as a launch pad for students to begin their careers in ecology.”

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