Sustainability at Foothill
Name That Bird
Get help from resident naturalist Gillian Schultz
As spring approaches, melodious sounds can be heard from song birds on campus — a reminder that Foothill College is a birding paradise, nestled against the Santa Cruz Mountains on 122 acres of wildlife-friendly landscape. If you follow the sounds, you'll likely catch a glimpse of one of the smaller masters of songs or a larger species perched in a tree or lamp post, flying across the sky, or hunting for a meal on the ground. All you need to do is look.
Once you start looking, the challenge is knowing exactly what kind of bird you may see or how to distinguish one bird from another. Is it a sparrow or a swallow, a crow or a raven, an owl or a hawk, a Red-tailed or Cooper’s? Fortunately, for those who want to know, Gillian Schultz, biology instructor and our own resident naturalist, is here to help!
“The transition from winter to spring is a wonderful time to watch for birds on campus,” Schultz explains. “First you listen, and then look to where the sounds are coming. With the more barren trees, it’s easier to spot the birds this time of year. Of course, it helps to have binoculars or a camera that can zoom in to capture an image of birds for identification, but eventually you can learn to spot birds with a naked eye.”
To get started, Schultz recommends you check out the online iNaturalist Birds of Foothill College she developed during her faculty sabbatical in 2013. It’s easy to find on iNaturalist.org by selecting Guides at the top menu and typing in Foothill College. She created one for birds; another for reptiles, amphibians and mammals; and a third for plants of the Foothill College California native plant garden, found near parking lot 5 and building 5000.
“The native garden area is a good spot to try out bird identification skills,” she says. "You’ll often find a territorial Anna’s hummingbird or a pair of Western Scrub jays nearby, though the entire campus is a great lab to learn about birds, other animals and plant species native to this area."
Her guide documents 48 species of birds found on campus, both resident and migratory, including the American Cliff Swallows that return to Foothill around April to nest through summer. These smaller birds build or return to existing mud nests found under the eaves of our wooden roofs, she says. Also, the Killdeer with their interesting calls will be more visible soon. A pair breeds on campus, and if you are lucky, you may even see their tiny babies running on the asphalt pathways. Though, according to Schultz, it's hard for them to survive here.
When reviewing the guide, you may notice one family of bird is missing — our beloved mascot owl. When asked if any owl species live on campus, Schultz said two — the Barn and Western Screech — have been reported here but that she’s never seen one herself, as they are active at night, and the the iNaturalist guide only lists the species she's confirmed.
Schultz's love for all things in nature started when she was young, and has followed through her professional life. After studying English and anthropology as an undergraduate on the East Coast, she moved to California to earn a Ph.D in botany and plant sciences from the University of California, Riverside. While plants have been her academic specialty, birds have been a hobby since her childhood, she says, starting with visits to her grandparents’ home in coastal New Jersey.
If you take one of Schultz’s classes, you’ll learn more about the plants, birds and other animals that make up the Foothill College landscape. She teaches a variety of biology classes on the main campus, including BIOL 9: Environmental Biology, BIOL 15: California Ecology and Natural History, and the more advanced BIOL 1C: Evolution, Systematics & Ecology.
“Biol 15 is probably my most fun class,” she says. “We focus on field biology, including taking field notes, identifying organisms, and using survey and sampling techniques, while exploring natural areas throughout the Bay Area.”
The class is offered on Fridays this spring quarter. Field trips include visits to Baylands, Henry Coe State Park, Edgewood Reserve, Pillar Point and Pescardero Marsh, Big Basin State Park, Steven Creek County Park, Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve and Ano Nuevo, Monte Bello Open Space Reserve, and Elkhorn Slough. The course fulfills a GE requirement for transfer to UC and CSU. It's also a great course for community members who want to take a class to learn more about nature for personal enrichment.
Joining the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society is another way to hone bird watching skills at Foothill. A group from SCVAS will be on campus on Saturday, June 3, for one of its biannual bird counts. When they were here in December, Marion Krause reported back that the best sighting of birds on the college grounds were many yellow-rump warblers, white-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows and white-breasted nuthatches behind the old boarded up home on Perimeter Drive, amongst the olive trees there.
Some birds caught on camera recently from the iNaturalist checklist include western blue birds, house finches, black phoebes, mourning doves and our resident red-tailed hawks. Schultz says a pair have been building a nest in a tree near parking lot 8, where her office is.
The red-tailed hawk has been a favorite on campus this past year, frequently seen boldly hanging out near the Campus Center. Though, occasionally, a Cooper's hawk, like the one pictured in this article cover, will make an appearance, too.
Also you can join Schultz for spring bird walks on April 20 and 21 (Th/F) at 8:30 - 9:20 a.m. Meet in room 5101, where binoculars will be available to borrow. If you plan to attend, please email her at email@example.com and include which date.
To learn more about the SCVAS bird count at Foothill and to sign up for the June count, visit www.scvas.org.