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Image of a Warbler in leaves on the ground.

Worm-eating Warbler spotted near the Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo in May of 2019. Photo by Sue Barth.

Published June 9, 2020

BY MICHELLE KEARNS

During the pandemic, people are flocking to ornithology with help from UB GSE professor emeritus

Retired math education and biology professors team up to launch an online guide

In this age of social distancing, the migrating warblers, orioles and flycatchers have attracted new fans as they alight on Lake Erie’s shores en route to Canada for the summer. A new website featuring retired GSE math education Professor Emeritus and co-founder of the Gifted Math Program, Gerald Rising 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 its two creators, Rising and Michael Noonan, a UB alum who earned his PhD in behavioral neuroscience and is now a retired Canisius College biology professor.

“The data shows that we’ve got a good deal of interest,” said Rising.

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,” said Noonan. “What I’m thrilled to conclude from that is that people are coming back month to month … That’s exactly what we want.”

Noonan, a fellow naturalist, 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,” said Rising 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 turn 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,” said Rising. “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 said. “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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