New Kensington blog on birds dovetails with research and international studies

February 17, 2016

UPPER BURRELL, Pa. — Not since the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie “The Birds” has the campus been aflutter about endothermic vertebrates. Last semester, first-year biology students at Penn State New Kensington created a blog about birds native to the Republic of Cuba, the campus' country of focus.

The “Birds of Cuba” was a first-year engagement project for the fall biology class, "Basic Concepts and Biodiversity," taught by Bill Hamilton, assistant professor of biology. Students learned about the evolution of the major groups of organisms, including the fundamental concepts of biology. Hamilton’s class focused on more than 20 species of avian endemic to Cuba.

“Each student in the class chose a native bird species of Cuba,” said Hamilton, who blogs about trails in western Pennsylvania. “Using online databases and the library, students gathered general and scientific information about their birds. These species pages represent the compilations and syntheses of their research.”

The warm-blooded, egg-laying vertebrates were researched and posted on the blog site. Ranging from the Antilliean palm sprint to the Cuban blackbird to the loggerhead kingbird, the birds were described in detail and accompanied by photos. The project was designed to help students learn to research, as well as gain knowledge about the island nation, which campus students have been studying since the fall semester.

“I learned the importance of research and the difficulty of finding and using worthy resources,” said Ryan Kieffer, a freshman landscape contracting major. “The research also gave me a little understanding of the climate and conditions in Cuba.”

Kieffer, who runs his own business, Kieffer Landscaping, studied La Sagra's flycatcher, a small bird that belongs to one of the largest groups of birds in the world. It is known for its distinctive call, a “slightly slurred whistle zweenk or rising wink, repeated twice,” according to Kieffer's research. It is endemic to the islands of the western Caribbean — Cuba, Bahamas and Grand Cayman — but sometimes vagrants can be found in south Florida and occasionally as far north as Alabama. The collective nouns for flycatchers is “outfield” and “zipper.”

”Although it is a relatively simple and plain looking bird, it is extremely uncommon,” said Kieffer, the recipient of a Hazel L. Hug scholarship from the campus and a Daniel J. Eichenlaub Trustee scholarship from the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Little research has actually been done on the bird."

The Plum native expects to graduate in 2019. Although the New Kensington campus does not offer the landscape contracting major, its 2+2 plan allows Kieffer to fulfill his general education requirements before moving on to the University Park campus to complete his bachelor’s degree studies. New Kensington’s learning environment helps Kieffer keep up with his studies and on top of his company.

“Penn State New Kensington offers smaller class sizes, and that appealed to my learning style,” Kieffer said. “I commute and it is close to home, which I really like. I could have gone to a community college, but I wanted to go to New Kensington because of the prestigious level of education.”

For Kieffer's research on La Sagra’s flycatcher, visit

To view the “Birds of Cuba” blog, visit

Biologists’ blogs
Hamilton, along with his wife, Deborah Sillman, senior instructor in biology at Penn State New Kensington, write about the birds, insects, mammals and flowers that herald the arrival of the seasons. On their blog site, "Ecologist's Notebook: Reflections on the Natural World of Western Pennsylvania," they report on their observations around their Apollo home and on local nature trails, as well as the campus trail.

Their primary observation venues are the Roaring Run Trail and the Rock Furnace Trail in Apollo. The 5-mile long Roaring Run Trail follows the Kiski River and terminates at the village of Edmon. The 1.5-mile Rock Furnace Trail follows Roaring Run from its confluence with the Kiski River to Brownstown Road in Apollo. The trails are maintained by the Roaring Run Watershed Association.

The biologists posted their 11th observation of winter Feb. 11. “Why Do We Feed Wild Birds?” is about Hamilton tabulating his annual cost ($750) and time (92 hours) to take care of birds, as well as squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks and deer, and weighing it against the benefits. Not surprisingly, he writes, “It is, indeed, a pleasure to be part of the natural world! It’s a feeling worth much more than the cost. We should all strive, though, to give our birds as healthy a diet as we can and also as a clean and as predictable a feeding place for them as possible!”

The first blog on the coming of spring should be posted during the last week of February — maybe sooner if that prognosticating groundhog Punxsutawney Phil is spot-on about an early spring for 2016.

To view their blogs, visit

Nature trail and virtual trail
In addition to blogging, the husband-and wife team oversee the maintenance of the campus nature trail, which turned 30 in October, and the virtual nature trail, which is still a young teenager at 14.

Constructed in 1985 by Hamilton’s biology students, the trail serves as an environmental education resource for the campus community and local school districts. It meanders through a forest on a ridge before heading down to a ravine. White ash, red and white oak, and yellow poplar trees stand sentry on the ridge, while American beech and red maples guard the stream that cut the ravine.

“You can hike the loop of the trail just to feel the peace and quiet and restfulness of the place,” Hamilton said. “It also can be hiked with the intent of identifying trees, wildflowers and mammals.”

The Alcoa Foundation invested in the refurbishing of the trail in 2007. New signs and a system of tree markers were installed. In addition, more trails were added to the original pathway. Former campus student Chris Hone, a graduate of the School of Forestry at Penn State, located and identified 25 species of trees along the trail. Hone’s work was condensed into an arboretum guide.

Envisioning the benefits of an electronic version of the trail, the Alcoa Foundation invested in the campus' virtual trail. The virtual version went online in 2002 and continues to be a popular destination for school districts. It is a practical alternative to a field trip.

“The virtual nature trail still draws almost 3,000 visitors a month,” Hamilton said. “It has over 100 species pages describing the plants and animals that can be found along the trail.”

For more about the nature trail, visit

To view the virtual trail and the arboretum guide, visit

  • Birds of Cuba

    A La Sagra's flycatcher out on a limb. The small bird is native to Cuba and the western Caribbean.

    IMAGE: Allan Hopkins

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Last Updated February 17, 2016