by Jennifer Sosa
If you enjoy the outdoors and wildlife, then the Biology-2306 Introductory Wildlife class at South Plains College may be just for you.
This three-hour course is offered every spring. It meets once a week on Thursdays. And best of all, the class takes two SPC funded wildlife trips every year.
“It’s a special class,” says SPC student Shelby Wilson. “You get to learn things that not everyone else does. It’s not like our core classes where we all must take English, government, and history.”
Wilson is one of five students and three SPC faculty members who packed up their gear and left on the Thursday before spring break for the first trip of the semester. It was three nights and four days at the Graves’ ranch south of Ozona, Texas.
The ranch is in Crockett County. According to Wilson, it’s in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas.
He describes it as being rolling hills covered in 12 to 15- foot- tall juniper, cypress, and mesquite trees, and very little grass.
“This experience allows you to see the perspective of what a biologist or scientist does in the field,” Wilson says. Wilson is majoring in wildlife management. He hopes to become a field biologist.
“We were basically field biologists for a couple of days,” he says, “and we were basically practicing.”
Students were practicing a lot of hands-on activities in the great outdoors, according to Associate Professor Kristin Bingham, the chair of the SPC biology department. She teaches Biology- 2306. She’s also been on many of these wildlife trips.
“And that’s what the trips are really centered on,” Bingham says, “is getting people who may or may not have ever had an experience in the outdoors like that, a safe place with instruction.”
The campsite for this trip was in a basin area, according to Bingham. It was a flat spot between trees where each student pitched his or her own tent with a sleeping bag. Another huge white canvas tent served as kitchen, dining area, and classroom.
It’s the big white tent where Wilson says everyone gathered each evening. That’s when he says they all got their research journals out and wrote down what happened throughout the day.
It appears students had a lot to write about. According to Dr. Megan Keith, students identified different kinds of birds, learned how to trap animals, and learned how to do biological surveys. Keith has been teaching at SPC for six years. This trip to the Graves’ ranch is her 8th SPC wildlife trip.
“We saw more birds than anything on this trip so that was the most successful thing on this trip,” she says.
Wilson says students saw white crown sparrows, scrub jays, and a hawk. “The hawk swooped down where the other birds were getting water and caused a disturbance,” he says. They were also able to hear a small group of turkeys gobbling near the campsite, he says, and they saw them briefly.
The campers spotted a small herd of Nilgai across one of the ridges, Wilson says. According to National Geographic, Nilgai are the largest antelopes from Asia and are native to India. “We could hear them, and weren’t sure at first where the sound was coming from,” he says. “We knew it wasn’t cattle because it was obviously something else making that noise.”
Campers also report capturing a scorpion and a raccoon but released them after observing them. “We would set live traps for animals so they can learn how to safely catch them and identify them, and, of course, how to safely release them,” Keith says.
If the weather is nice and warm, Keith says, students often go find snakes and lizards. But the weather, on this trip, especially at night, was not at all warm. All say the temperatures dropped down to 18 degrees for several nights.
Organizers say everyone was prepared with extra outer wear. “I’d rather be over-prepared than under-prepared,” Keith says.
Part of that preparation, Keith says, includes bringing extra supplies and having a “plan b”.
Jon Marc Moore, department chair of the SPC kinesiology department, started going on these wildlife trips in 2011 as the van driver. Now he says he goes as the “unofficial picture taker”. This year, he says his years of camping experience came in handy.
“I have camped all my life,” he says, “if not just regular camp, then motorcycle camp. So I had really nice stuff – a good tent and sleeping bag that kept me warm. And a lot of us that have been there and done that before took extra stuff, because we know students don’t have it.”
Keith says there is always a “plan b” for these trips. “If the weather gets bad on any trips,” she says, “we know the cities that we are close to so if we need to get a hotel, we can.” This year, she says, the campers did not have to resort to “plan b”.
“We drank more hot chocolate than I think we ever have,” Kristin Bingham says.
Despite the cold, with plenty to learn and see, the students were able to build relationships with one another and make memories. Students partner up on these trips which allows them to interact and bond with one another individually outside of a normal class setting. Wilson says he spent time with another student on the trip and found they had a lot in common.
“There’s nothing better than seeing somebody outdoors, doing something they never thought they could do and having the time of their life,” Bingham says.
Moore agrees. “When it’s hands on,” he says, “you can’t beat that.”
There is one more trip scheduled before the end of the semester. Once again, students will pack up their gear and head to the great outdoors.
Shelby Wilson says he highly recommends the class. “Not only is it a fun class,” he says, “there is a lot that you get to learn, and you may look at the world differently.”