Retired professors team up to launch online ornithology guide

BY MICHELLE KEARNS, reposted from UBNow

Release date: June 11, 2020

Bird watching.

In this age of social distancing, the migrating warblers, orioles and flycatchers are attracting new fans as they alight on Lake Erie’s shores en route to Canada for the summer. A new website co-created by a retired UB faculty member and a UB alumnus has been helping a growing flock of pandemic-era birders find the feathered visitors.

With video interviews of local experts, a list of hot spots and other ornithological resources, the year-old Birds on the Niagara Frontier has had a steady stream of at least 400 visits a month — a fact that delights Gerald Rising, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus in the Department of Learning and Instruction, and Michael Noonan, who earned his PhD in behavioral neuroscience from UB and is now a retired Canisius College biology professor.

“The data shows that we’ve got a good deal of interest,” says Rising, co-founder of the Graduate School of Education’s Gifted Math Program and author of the longtime Buffalo News “Nature Watch” column.

This is far better than they’d hoped for. “When Gerry and I were starting this, we didn’t know what to expect. We resolved ourselves: If we had 100 viewers, it would be worth it,” Noonan says. “What I’m thrilled to conclude from that is that people are coming back month to month … That’s exactly what we want.”

Noonan launched the site to help beginning birders learn where to go and what to look for. When he decided to do this project, he tapped Rising, whom he considers to be the “dean of Buffalo birding and nature education.” For years, the professors worked together on the board of the Friends of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.

“It was a wonderful year of learning,” Rising says of the experience working on the website.

Rising and Noonan have been pleasantly surprised by their fortuitous timing. The site was ready just as more people turned to birding as a safe, socially distant pastime. It features Rising, who at 93 is a dynamic presence. He leads the conversations in the site’s series of 12 video shorts — one for each month.

Rising started tracking birds as a boy in Rochester. His experience spotting warblers just before the annual May lilac festival when he was 13 remains one of his most memorable.

“Big crowds weren’t there yet because the bushes weren’t completely blooming at that time. But we got there because those lilac bushes were filled with warblers,” Rising recalls. “It was just spectacular. I was a beginning birder at the time. I have never in the rest of my birding life had an experience like that.”

As for his success as a naturalist, Rising credits his creative right-brain bent, a little math and his vocation as a teacher. “My mind turns more to science than it does to other areas because of my mathematics,” he says. “Like any educator, my general concern is with the betterment of society. That’s what we do. A lot of my friends just go bird watching. They keep lists … I keep those lists, too. My interest goes beyond that in trying to share it with others.

“It’s a hobby. It keeps me entertained. I enjoy getting out and seeing birds, and I can also contribute to the science of ornithology.”

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