As a sophomore in a class with Professor of Natural and Environmental Sciences Nick Baer, environmental science major Taylor Spadafora ’20 loved how enthusiastic he was about the material. He became her mentor, and at the end of the year when he offered her an internship working with him to research flat flies and avian pathogens as part of the Cape May Raptor Banding Project in New Jersey, she accepted.

Will you describe your internship?

The internship was an opportunity for a learning experience I would not have had otherwise. Flat flies are lifelong parasites that feed on blood, so when you test the fly, you test the bird without being invasive. I worked with Professor Baer to capture migrating raptors, or birds of prey, in order to record their data and to collect the flies to test for West Nile and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE).

Taylor Spadafora ’20 holding a small raptor

My responsibilities began on Cape May when I helped set up the banding stations. Even though it was the middle of summer and we were doing physical work, I enjoyed the experience. Professor Baer had explained the banding stations with their mist nets, bow traps and Dho-Gaza nets, but I couldn’t grasp how they would work until we set up the stations. I also put together flat fly collection kits, entered data and conducted additional flat fly research.

In mid-October, during the raptors’ migration, I returned to Cape May along with two other students and Professor Baer. We spent 10 hours in the blind on a rainy, windy day watching the sky for our first raptor. Although the wait was long and cold, we passed the time by playing card games and enjoying each other’s company. Just as we were about to call it quits and pack up, we caught a hatching year Cooper’s hawk, which is a forest hunter with short, stout wings. We were so excited!

The next day we caught our first of 38 raptors within minutes of getting the station set up. The number of raptors we were collecting was overwhelming at some points, but it was definitely the best day on the job. We processed two merlins, two Red-tailed hawks, a kestrel and a Northern Harrier, six Sharp-shinned Hawks and 26 Coopers.

Raptor taking flight from Taylor Spadafora's hand
What was the most memorable experience from your internship?

The most memorable moment was holding the Red-tailed hawks. I will never forget how I felt when Professor Baer passed them to me. I was amazed by their size, and by how beautiful and powerful they were. The size of their talons and beak made me a little nervous, though, too. When the birds flapped their wings, I could feel just how strong they were.

What did you learn during your internship?

Though I was interested in them for a long time thanks to my dad, I went into this internship with almost no knowledge of raptors. I was amazed by how fast I was able to learn to identify the species, age and sex of the birds. I also learned how to measure wing chord and tarsus length, and to band the raptors.

Another important skill I learned is how to work with others in situations that can be somewhat stressful. When someone spotted a raptor coming in that I didn’t see, I had to be sure to listen to what they needed me to do to make sure it was safely captured.

Professor Nick Baer and Taylor Spadafora ’20 examining raptors tail feathers
What did this experience teach you about yourself?

It proved I am in the right field – I can see myself doing that for the rest of my life!

What should incoming students know about life at Colby-Sawyer?

I have to say that I love the Natural and Environmental Sciences Department and feel very lucky to have such incredible professors who provide me with so many learning experiences. They have expanded my academic horizons and there are many more opportunities ahead. I am taking River Communities this semester, and I am so excited to travel to the Colorado River Basin as part of the field study course.

Overall, my advice for incoming students would be to manage your time. I wish I had known just how quickly college would go by. I only have two semesters left, and it still feels like I just got here.