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Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Outdoor Classroom

Each of us can name a defining moment or event that has shaped our lives. I was eleven years old, soon to complete the sixth grade, unaware how the morning would impact my life. It was the time of year when the tender leaves of oaks unfurl chartreuse against the backdrop of blue sky. Later, I would refer to this as the time of warblers.

In the sunlight of a May morning, our sixth-grade class walked single file onto the yellow bus that would transport us to the Watchung Nature Center. At the center, staff naturalists efficiently divided our class into two groups before leading us into the wild heart of nature. For half the morning, half the class would learn about insects, while other half studied birds.

As instructed, I held up the hand lens to the face of a fly and stared lock-eyed with what appeared to be a thousand eyes. This was my first close-up encounter with a creature that had nearly 360 degrees of vision. No wonder flies were impossible to swat! Soon after my encounter with the compound eye, I was equipped with a bug box and net. I rustled the grass and shrubs to find butterflies, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, leafhoppers, and ants. My world was filled with the six-legged critters that flew, crawled, and chomped away at everything green.

Although my morning with the insects was fascinating—certainly better than any bookish lesson in a stuffy classroom—it could not compare to the thrill of birds. For the first time in my life, I was handed a pair of binoculars and instructed to spot the singers. The naturalist explained how each bird was specifically adapted to its habitat and how the shape of the bill was a clue to where the bird lives and what it eats. We learned that conical-shaped bills belonged to seedeaters and thin bills to those that picked bugs from under bark. We observed yellow-rump and black and white warblers flitting high in the oak canopy, busily picking insects off leaves and twigs with their slender bills, as mourning doves cooed from woody perches and red-tailed hawks let their voices tumble in shrieks from the sky above. We spotted a mother robin sitting on a clutch of blue eggs in a nest made of dried grass and mud. Below her, a rufous-sided towhee scratched in the duff for insects. Blue jays and cardinals called from the thicket as I fell under the spell of birdsong and color.

That evening, I asked my father for a pair of binoculars. I was hooked. I have been birding either professionally or for enjoyment ever since. Often I think back on how lucky I was to have that special morning at the nature center.

Last week I participated in another exceptional morning. I arrived at the Bandelier National Monument bird banding station at about 9 a.m. Wildlife biologist Steve Fettig and his Latin American interns, Diego and Pilar, had been monitoring the nets since sunrise. Steve held a ruby-crowned kinglet in his hand, carefully banding, aging, and weighing the diminutive migrant.
For nine years, Steve has been operating the banding station in conjunction with the Park Flight Migratory Bird Program.  The program works to protect shared migratory bird species and their habitats in both U.S. and Latin American national parks. The data Steve collects provides information on how the birds use the diverse habitats of northern New Mexico.

As part of the program, local school children visit the station to gain firsthand knowledge of animal-habitat relationships. The kids engage in activities highlighting species diversity and adaptation.  

At 9:30 a.m., thirteen sixth graders arrived. Beth, a naturalist from the Pajarito Environmental Education Center, greeted the students. Since the group was small, Beth and I would work together with the children. After a mist net demonstration, we led the class into the forest to see it was able to support the bird species that each child had chosen as his or her “identity” for the morning.

This chilly morning in the Jemez Mountains would become a defining experience for many of these children, shaping lives that cared about the natural world, a world where science matters. At the banding table, we watched as thin metal bands were painlessly clamped onto the delicate legs of juncos, siskins, and warblers. Each child was eager be chosen as the one to release the captive bird back into the wild. Faces were bright with awe as feathered life was placed into the palm of the lucky child.

Two boys, Jack and Will, vastly different in their demeanor, remained at the station with their mothers, after the rest of the class departed. I heard Jack asking Steve how could he learn more about the birds in the area. Will remained silent as he raised his binoculars and scoped every tree and shrub for birds. These youngsters were hooked.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! outdoor classrooms look like a really great idea. It seems like my kids would be able to learn better by going to one of those lessons, instead of staying indoors. Thank you so much for sharing!