Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer School Birding

Even though this school year was a tough one, I decided to teach summer school.  Money talks, ya know?  I became more enthusiastic after being told it would be "project-based enrichment" and I could teach anything science-themed.  I could figure out some cool stuff to do in three and a half hours a day, four days a week.  No problem.

For the first few days, my students learned more about the planets and made a solar system mobile.  Then I decided to have them explore my favorite subject- birds.  Nine of the thirteen students were in my class during the school year, so they were used to me talking about birding, seeing my bird photos, and helping me maintain our hummingbird feeder.  But this time, I wanted to get them more involved.  So I went down to the Tucson Audubon Society and checked out a class set of binoculars (thanks guys!).  They were very eager to begin and I was excited to lead my first official bird walk.  After showing them how to focus their binoculars on something in the class, we were out the door.

How do you focus these things again?
After a few tries, most of them got the hang of it.  We have a very big school yard, so I was confident we would see a decent amount of birds.  We started by looking at some doves and a Killdeer visiting puddles left by the sprinklers.  A Say's Phoebe sat nicely on the fence for them to try to focus on.  Later, three Western Kingbirds flew right over us.  All the kids liked the name kingbird.  They instantly became the coolest regulars we would see on all of our walks.  I was thrilled when I spotted the resident male Vermilion Flycatcher doing his flight-song display high in the sky.  They loved his bright color.  In the desert area behind the school, we spied a pair of Gambel's Quail on top of a mound of dirt.  Surprisingly, they let us watch them for a few minutes.  The kids were even able to tell me the differences between the male and female.  They really were using their binoculars correctly!  In 30 minutes we managed to see 17 species, not bad for the first day!  For the next four mornings, despite 80+ degree temperatures, we were out there looking for birds.  We managed to add a few other species including Cassin's Kingbird, Barn Swallow, and Turkey Vulture to finish with 23...YAY!  Other teachers and even the principal have come to our classroom to see our impressive list of birds we keep written on the board.  

I was so happy with the results of our first bird walk that I showed them (with the projector) how to enter our sightings into eBird.  On subsequent bird walks, they became my counters and memory of what we had seen.  Back in the classroom, they helped me enter the information into eBird.

We couldn't stay outdoors forever, so we did a few indoor projects.  The first one was paper-bag Bald Eagles.  It's hard to see in the photo, but some of the eagles are in very interesting plumages (to be covered at a later date).  Most of them insisted on wearing their binoculars for the photo.  One student even brought his own from home, and a compass (in case we got lost on the playground).

paper-bag Bald Eagles
Next, I had them draw their own imaginary bird species and write a story about it.  There were four-headed birds, rainbow-colored birds, birds with multiple tails, a bird with three eyes, a kingbird that could walk on water, and kissing birds (yuck).

imaginary bird species
They also made their own bird feeders out of old water bottles.  I poked a hole for the stick and they inserted it as a perch.  Then they filled them up with bird seed.  Luckily, I was smart enough to close the feeding holes with tape before seeds got all over the school and their parents' cars (you always want the custodians and parents on your side).  Their homework was to hang it in their yard over the weekend and report any bird activity.

water bottle bird feeders
We also left one hanging near our hummingbird feeder at school to see what it would attract.  

We checked our feeder Monday morning and found the House Finches using it.  Some students noticed that these were the same birds they had seen over the weekend at their feeders.  One boy said that he saw a White-winged Dove at his feeder eating the birdseed off the ground.  Yes!  As a teacher and birder, it's very rewarding to see seven year-olds identifying birds after only seeing them a few times.  On our walks this week I've been asking them what the birds are.  You'd be surprised how often they're right.  Our last project will be to make edible bird nests and eggs made out of pretzel sticks, honey, and jelly beans.  Mmm...

If you missed seeing bird photos in this post, you can get your fix over at my blog:

Jeremy Medina


  1. Jeremy... Your post is so moving, so encouraging, so inspiring, that it has me sitting here crying. Thank you, so much for all that you're doing to improve the quality of life for these kids, and to ensure a bright future for bird conservation. I've said this before, but I'll say it again, you are a hero!

  2. I wish you were my elementary school teacher! (Maybe I could have started my birding passion earlier)

    Those sound like awesome enrichment activities and kids are such eager learners. Glad they have you as a mentor.

  3. As an environmental educator I find stories like this incredibly inspiring. Thank you for the great work you do!

  4. Awesome stuff Jeremy! These students will all remember, many years from now, the care and effort you showed. They'll also remember lots of the birds!

    You're doing a great service for everyone involved. Thanks for sharing it here.

    1. Thanks Laurence, hopefully they will remember.

  5. Jeremy, this is awesome! I loved reading about all the things you did with the kids. It is always FUN when we teach our kids what "WE" enjoy. I am amazed at your work!

    1. Thanks Cynthia, I hope you're having a relaxing summer break!

  6. Great stuff! Well worth the effort of teaching youngsters something they will remember for a long time. Some may even become teachers themselves.

  7. Get them young, get them forever!

    Splendid post.

    But what is the kid in the yellow shirt on the RHS of the first picture looking at!?

    Stewart M

  8. Terrific post Jeremy, you are inspiring for introducing your students to birds!

  9. This outstanding post makes my heart sing, Jeremy! I had a big smile on my face while reading it. Oh how I wish I had a nature-loving teacher like you when I was growing up. I do have one fond memory of a kindergarten teacher who had us use crayons and fill in the drawn outlines of colorful birds like Baltimore Orioles, Northern Cardinals and Eastern Bluebirds. I was smitten way back when. You are a true inspiration!