KINGSTON, RI – May 9, 2022 – It is long before sunrise at Point Judith. Salt spray mixes with a frigid autumn wind that seems to creep up your neck. It’s too early for walkers along the shore. But a lone figure stands atop a two-story concrete bunker left over from World War II. Point a microphone skyward.
Instead of searching for enemy fighter planes, Sam Miller is tracking bird migration as part of his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and conservation biology at the University of California, College of Environment and Life Sciences. Rhode Island.
Miller’s interest in wildlife dates back to his pre-teen years, when he would borrow his mother’s camera to take pictures of any wildlife he could find. “And then that moved on to taking pictures of birds at our feeders,” Miller said. “He went on to wonder what species those birds were and put a name to the image. I opened my first field guide and started flipping through the pages and seeing all the different birds I never knew existed. From there, I started going out and looking for them.”
Miller first considered a biology major, but the lure of the outdoors was strong. “I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and wildlife conservation seemed like the most appropriate major,” said Miller, who is graduating in May from URI. “I wanted to focus on being more outside of dealing with animals, rather than the heart of the matter of studying cellular life and its more medical aspect.”
Originally from Gambrill, MDMiller came to URI as part of her college search and fell in love with the area. “I saw that they were doing some really interesting research here. I love studying and observing bird migration in the Northeast. This is one of the best places to watch the fall migration so I figured I could keep myself busy. And besides that, I also liked the size of the school and the campus. It was kind of a good compromise between a small campus and the overwhelmingly large ones.”
One of the highlights of Miller’s time at the university came in November when he discovered a sharp-tailed sandpiper, a bird that belongs to Siberia, while leading a birding event at the Galilee Bird Sanctuary in Narragansett. He had recruited approximately 35 birders and was searching when a bird exploded in flight right in front of him.
“He was extremely shocked, and I think he was just as shocked as I was,” he said. “My heart skipped a beat for a second, and then I realized it didn’t seem to line up with anything I had in my memory bird bank.”
Eventually, the rare bird sighting was confirmed, and Miller realized that the sighting made an important contribution to the birding community. It was the first time a sharp-tailed sandpiper had been seen in the Ocean State.
Experiences like that were part of the reason Miller continued with his initial choice of wildlife and conservation biology. “I loved all the classes in my major because they really had a focus on experiential learning outside of the classroom.”
That experiential learning was the reason Miller spent many hours standing atop a Point Judith bunker, pointing a microphone at the predawn sky. He was listening to bird songs to gather data on his migration for a class.
“I was able to get a grant that gave me enough money for microphone technology, but other than that, I was on my own with the birds. It seemed appropriate for my entry-level research to have a bit of a high-tech microphone, but mostly doing it with human labor,” he said.
“I’m still working on data analysis of that through a course that URI Professor Peter Paton recommended. So everything has a way of fitting back together.”
The next few months will find Miller working with a bird biologist from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which is an exciting prospect for him.
“I’ll be busy running around the marshes and doing aerial surveys of colonial waterfowl and marsh sparrows and more. I’ll be doing all kinds of fun projects this summer,” Miller said. “My first day is before graduation, so I’ll get down to business.”
Hugh Markey wrote this press release.