Students explore the life of birds through BRDC's Avian Adventures

Galax Middle School Enrichment Week (June 15-19)

Avian Adventures

On Monday afternoon William Roberts (board member of Blue Ridge Discovery Center and Scott Jackson-Ricketts (program director of BRDC) introduced the art of birding to Mark Robinson’s biology enrichment class. After sharing names and a getting-to-know-one-another session, we began by holding up bird flash cards to determine what birds, if any, the students recognized. We followed with handing out bird field guides and giving the students a chance to familiarize themselves with how to use the guides. From there we showed Cornell’s All About Birds website, where we listened to a variety of bird songs and calls. The kids were given a chance to choose what bird they would like to hear and view videos of. We also introduced the ‘I Wonder’ board, upon which the students could attach any questions they might have relating to birds.

In preparation for going outside, we reviewed how to use binoculars, including the importance of adjustments specific to the user. Mr. Robinson suggested we head down below the school to a shady area surrounding a grave yard. And so, we launched our field identifications that would comprise much of the rest of our week.

Tuesday, William, Brenda Bonk (president of BRDC), and Scott joined Mr. Robinson and his class at the Matthews State Forest. We set up a field station, brought out the binoculars and field guides, and after handing out clipboards with data collection sheets, we chose a trail and started listening to and looking for birds. Our first bird of the day was an indigo bunting, of which every person got great views. We listened to a red-eyed vireo who remained hidden, got close looks at the tufted titmouse, and learned the song of the towhee as well as watching it sing.

Back at our field station we wrote down our notes, what birds we saw and/or heard and where. For a mid-afternoon break, we opened up the bird parts box and brought out wings, skulls and feet of a variety of avian critters.  The students were able to compare great horned owl skulls and wings with its much smaller cousin, the Eastern screech owl. We examined turkey, great blue heron and Northern flicker parts, which brought up discussions on niche, habitat, and adaptation. For instance, the kids showed great interest in how birds specialize in food acquisition, paying close attention to the difference between the heron’s bill and feet and those features of the owl.

We spent the remainder of our allotted time taking to another trail, but this time each kid chose a bird for themselves to find. We had three hits: blue jay, Northern cardinal and a crow.

Wednesday, we met in the MSF Headquarters parking lot to start birding in a different habitat. Here we found Northern mockingbird, Northern flicker, European starling and red-winged blackbirds. We hiked to our field station, spent some time on writing down our data, and then took a trail to the open field surrounding the fire tower. Along the trail we picked up a scarlet tanager who was so cooperative that everyone was able to focus through their binoculars on him as he sang away. Exclamations from the students were appropriately, “Wow, that’s beautiful, so pretty”, etc. We heard and then found a Carolina wren, several blue jays, and crows; and after returning to base camp, listened to both an ovenbird and a wood thrush.

Changing pace, Brenda and I shared the wonders of owl pellets, spreading out charts, toothpicks, tweezers, magnifying glasses and tightly wrapped pellets. Each student was given two pellets to dissect, while we explained what exactly is a pellet and what to expect. Surprisingly, not one of the kids had ever encountered an owl pellet before, so they found this exercise especially interesting. One student had 5 small mammal skulls in his first pellet, a record in our experience.

We also made time to go over the wonder board and encouraged the students to ask more questions.

On Thursday, under Mr. Robinson’s sound suggestion, we met at the other end of the MSF, off of White Pine Road, and set up our field station in the shade on the forest road. Just down the road from there, a bridge crosses over a small creek running through a sycamore stand and offering us another contrasting habitat. The kids were somewhat distracted by the creek, where they discovered a baby turtle, an enormous crayfish, and a few small ticks. The surprise bird for that hike was a hooded warbler, who also gave everyone a chance to get good looks. It sang the entire time we were down there.

Returning to our field station and water chest, we were entertained by several red-bellied woodpeckers, most likely a family of very active juveniles. We took a break, with Brenda attaching bird cards to each student’s back. Then each student was instructed to ask questions such as, am I blue, am I a small bird, is my bill long or short, and so on, which the other students answered. Eventually the birds were identified.

For our last walk of the week, we headed down off the forest road and onto a foot path which Brenda was familiar with. Mostly winding through the woods and changing elevation, this meandering path offered up our only chance at a pileated woodpecker. It called and honked, coming closer, but never close enough to see. For consolation, we pulled out the field guides to show each other what that bird looked like.

Friday, we met outside behind the high school, set up our tent and tables, and commenced building bird houses and feeders that William and I had previously kitted out. It took all hands on deck to supervise this project, which required the use of power screwdrivers, screws, nails and paint. Eventually every student had either a feeder or a wren house.

For the third time, the kids were shown the flash cards…and amazingly…most of them now knew the names of most of the common birds. We then played the same game from yesterday, with similar success. As another step in committing their birding experience to memory, we had each student draw a bird of their choice, and all managed to accomplish that task.

The grand finale combined the sharing of National Geographic’s Birds of Paradise book, full of dazzling photos of these incredible tropical birds, and our wonder board questions. For instance, one of the questions was why male birds are colorful while females by contrast are drab. This gave rise to how could the birds of paradise get away with such outlandish and bright displays. The answer, to some degree, is that those particular species in their habitats are relatively free from predatory pressures, thus allowing the males to be selected by the females creating subsequent generations of increased attractiveness. I think the kids got it, though one of the boys could not get over why the males spent so much time and effort trying to gain the attention of such drab mates.

We tallied 25 species which is not bad during hot afternoons at this time of year.