World-class ornithologist Dr. Fred Alsop says, “I’ve been teaching for 42 years, and I’m still having a good time.”
A professor in the ETSU Department of Biological Sciences, Alsop likes to tell students who take one of his classes on birds, “This class will change your life,” and it does. “From then on,” he points out, “those students won’t notice just ‘birds,’ but individual species. They will hear birdsong and know who is singing. The students may go on to careers that have nothing to do with my class, but they will have knowledge and a possible hobby to carry with them throughout their lives.”
A graduate of Austin Peay State University, Alsop went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville before coming to ETSU, where he served nine years as department chair.
His favorite times are taking classes of students into the field. Every fall break, he takes a class to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to stay in a beach house, cook for themselves, and learn about the ecosystems from the ocean inland, across marshes, and into wooded areas.
“The greatest challenge for students is the day we go out on a boat,” Alsop says. “They may have a great time viewing whales, Sargasso seaweed and birds in transit from other seas that are not seen on our coastal lands. But, many have never experienced riding in a boat on the ocean before, and some learn that their stomachs don’t like the experience.”
In February, Alsop takes his class in the opposite direction. “We go to Reelfoot Lake at Tennessee’s western border. When we arrive at dusk, we go to a field to watch the American woodcocks, or ‘timber doodles.’ The males begin their mating display by giving a call and then soaring up to heights of 200 feet and spiraling back to earth, with the wind making a twittering noise through their feathers.”
Later, Alsop begins his imitation of the barred owls’ call, to bring the large birds close to the group, and he can hear students snicker at his attempts. However, he notes, “By the time we get into the van to go back to the house, I can hear all of them trying to master the call.”
Alsop also spent years training Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and federal personnel about bird identification and habitat management. For this service, he was presented with the Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s highest honor, the Z. Cartter Patten Award.
The author of 18 books, Alsop has been requested to compile the definitive bird book for the state of Tennessee, a three-year project with one year to go. “The book will have two formats,” Alsop explains. “There will be a hard copy and an interactive DVD with color illustrations of all 400 species of birds in the state, along with vocalizations for most of the species. And, an electronic book version will be available online.”
A team of ornithology experts is assisting Alsop, and acclaimed wildlife artist Ray Harm is contributing many of his bird paintings.
Of his own lifelong birding hobby, Alsop says, “There are some 10,000 species of birds in the world. I have been fortunate enough to look for them in 18 countries, often when I am leading a group of fellow bird lovers. So far, I have seen and identified 3,600 of those species.”