By: Abigail Castriotta ’21
On the two days following my graduation from Colby-Sawyer College, I drove 934 miles to Luzerne, Mich., a town I had never heard of in a state I had never thought of visiting. My dorm room was packed hastily into boxes in the back. In my head, I had time to unpack the whirlwind of the past four years as winding New England roads turned to the flat highways of the Midwest.
Four years ago, I was begging people to stop asking me what I was going to study in college. I applied to Colby-Sawyer undecided — there were just too many subjects that I was interested in. Yet, just four years later, I was beelining it to the woods of Michigan to focus my attention on one bird in one specific habitat for the entirety of the summer.
I was hired by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Research Center to conduct point counts of the Kirtland’s Warbler, a small yellow and black bird recently removed from the endangered species list. This little bird is very particular — it will only nest in Jack Pine forests between 5 and 20 years in age in Northern Michigan. In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of Kirtland’s Warbler males dropped below 200 due to decades of fire suppression causing forests to become too old and nest parasitism by the Brown-Headed Cowbird. A better understanding of the needs of the species and intensive habitat management have led to an increase in the number of individuals and the removal from the endangered species list. This species still requires population monitoring every summer and I was tasked, along with three other research assistants, with conducting point counts to determine if this was the most efficient long-term monitoring method.
After my first year at Colby-Sawyer, I double majored in studio art and environmental studies and tried to take classes that covered everything in between. For my capstone research project, I conducted avian point counts on the college campus and in New London, but ornithology was by no means the focus of my college education. While applying to jobs, I was reluctant to narrow my path just as I had been four years earlier when deciding on a major. I jumped on this summer ornithology position knowing that in the fall I could pursue a different passion if I pleased — perhaps art or agriculture or education.
In Michigan, I woke every morning with the Kirtland’s Warblers before sunrise and focused so intently on this small species that I soon began to recognize individuals by their slight variations in song. But early in the point count season, I realized that I was not only studying the Kirtland’s Warbler — I was also observing the entire interconnected system with intense curiosity. My Colby-Sawyer method of learning — observing the entire system before attempting to understand one aspect — was being put into practice. While slowly bushwhacking from point to point through dense stands of Jack Pine, I learned about the intricacy of ant communities, the cycles of flora and fauna throughout the summer, and the dependency on fire for healthy forest regeneration. I drew in my field notebook while walking dusty dirt roads to better understand the species and individuals that I had seen that day. During my time in town — at the laundromat, the car repair shop and the grocery store — I learned about the social and economic aspects involved in protecting a local endangered species. Time after time, locals told me that we should forget about the warbler, often citing that they had never seen one in their life. In reading about local history, I realized that the root of the problem was that people disagreed with the restrictions and controlled burns used to protect warbler habitats, missing the point that these measures maintained the health of the entire ecosystem — the same one they depended on for timber, hunting, fishing and fresh water. I am grateful to my Colby-Sawyer professors and classmates for fostering my wide breadth of study and always encouraging an understanding built from many perspectives and disciplines. The greatest tool that I have taken from my time at Colby-Sawyer is an intense curiosity and desire to continue learning.