Flight of the Faculty: Steve Herman looks back on 35 years of summer migration

August 25, 2017
Steve Herman in the field

Heading south for the summer might seem a strange notion to a bird. But for faculty emeritus Steve Herman, the annual drive from greater Olympia to the wilds of innermost Oregon is a practical matter.

Over the years, Herman and his ornithology students have netted, processed, banded, and released more than 24,000 birds.

“My favorite of them all is the Brewer’s sparrow,” Herman says. “It’s a small desert sparrow that’s very plain. Its only field mark is that it has no field marks. I’ve had more Brewer’s sparrows go through my hands than any other person in the world.”

That’s the level of experience and dedication students encounter when they sign up for Summer Ornithology: Birds in the Hand. This intensive, immersive bird-banding course is Herman’s baby—and it takes place entirely in the field.

“We go to Steens Mountain and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for two simple reasons,” Herman explains. “First, we catch many times more birds in our nets this way. The birds we catch are leaving the desert and flying to a nearby lake.

“Second, I purposely take students out of their daily routines and away from distractions,” he laughs. “My students are so far out in the wilderness that they have little choice but to learn.”

Before any of that learning can begin, however, “there’s a hell of a lot of work to be done.”

Preparations begin well in advance when Herman and his teaching assistants track down the many pieces of equipment and supplies needed for the weeks ahead: enough tents, cots, tables, chairs, sleeping bags, cooking appliances, dishes, and utensils to accommodate a group of 30.

For students, the experience is seamless. They arrive for the first morning of the course, board vans from the Evergreen Motor Pool, and embark on the experience of a lifetime.

The travel itinerary includes a stop at Fort Rock, a volcanic plug where Herman teaches students to identify nesting Prairie Falcons. The next day, they set up permanent camp at Fish Lake, 17 miles up the west side of Steens Mountain. For two and a half weeks, they live and breathe the practice of field ornithology.

But for Herman and his students, the course is about much more than academic study. It’s about kinship and camaraderie with a group of fellow naturalists.

“When you spend 17 days in the wilderness, you develop a unique bond,” Herman explains. “I think of the meals I’ve shared with my students, the stories we’ve told sitting around the campfire… even the mad rush to coordinate trips to the Laundromat 90 miles away. Those are the memories that stick with me.”

Herman considers the course a labor of love. “Young people energize me,” he says. “I learn from them as much as they learn from me.”

And so, like the swallows returning to Mission San Juan Capistrano, Steve will again lead his band of fledgling birders to a classroom in the wilderness. Three weeks later, they’ll return to civilization boasting a wealth of firsthand field experience.

Late in his teaching career, Herman’s mind sometimes turns to the topic of legacy. He can point to multiple generations of students who’ve gone on to do important field work and conservation.

“My life’s work has been to produce scientists who will seek to protect wildness,” he says. “But I also just really enjoy teaching people about birds. I’ve been lucky to get to do that for a very long time.”