Budding Birders?

It has been raining on and off for the last two days, which leads to interesting times leading hikes with fifth graders.  The rain brings out the greenness and freshness of everything, and some interesting connections get made in the kids’ heads: this afternoon I heard our woods compared to both Harry Potter and the Lion King.  Apparently in a fifth grader’s imagination, Scotland, Africa, and Ohio all look similar.

My students this week all brought cheap little pairs of binoculars to camp with them.  Sometimes this can be frustrating when I’m trying to teach them about, say, decomposition, and all they want to do is use their binoculars to spy on another passing trail group.  However, it also leads to some fun discoveries.  This afternoon two kids who were walking a little ways ahead suddenly stopped, looked very intently at something, and said “What kind of bird is that???”  I looked, expecting something conspicuous like a cardinal or maybe (if we were lucky) a Pileated Woodpecker, but I didn’t see anything at first.

“Where?  I don’t see–”

“Right there!”

Oh.  A tiny brown bird with a white eyeline, bobbing up and down as it foraged on the ground at the edge of the muddy trail.  I had been keeping an eye for Louisiana Waterthrushes all spring, ever since someone told me they nest along our stream, and now my fifth graders had found one for me!  I tried to convey to them that this was actually an interesting find despite the fact that it was just a little brown bird, and they seemed to get it.  I need to remember to show them a picture in a field guide tomorrow.

The photos in the post have nothing to do with Louisiana Waterthrushes.  They’re photos I’ve taken recently of three of our spectacular native wildflowers, Ohio spiderwort, shooting star, and wild columbine.

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Living Where the Action Is

As I’ve mentioned before, I currently live in staff housing at the outdoor education center where I work, specifically in a building that doubles as a raptor rehabilitation center.  Surrounding the building are cages housing our permanent residents (avian residents, that is – the human residents have bedrooms inside), and this area is open to the public, which keeps life pretty interesting.

The inside of the building is off-limits to the public, but that doesn’t mean much to some people.  Earlier this week I heard someone knocking on the front door and it turned out to be a man who was visiting and had some questions.

MAN: Are there more birds in the back cages?  Can I go see them?
ME: No, that’s where our rehab birds are, the ones that are going to be released back into the wild.  (Incidentally, that area is roped off and has a “staff only” sign.)
MAN: Oh, really?  Do you ever let people adopt them, like, as pets?  It would be real cool to have a hawk or something.
ME: Um… no.

A pet hawk??  I wish I were making this conversation up, but it really happened.  I think it even topped the woman who wanted to know how she could get some eagle feathers to use in some New Age ritual.  (Answer: unless you’re a registered member of an American Indian tribe, you can’t, and even then there’s a waiting list.)

Then yesterday I came back after breakfast to find a cardboard box sitting on the porch.  I eyed it for a minute, thinking, I really hope there’s not a baby owl or something in there that someone decided to drop off anonymously.  Then I thought, nah, no one would ever do a thing like that; this box probably belongs to one of my housemates, and I should leave it alone.  Big mistake!  The box actually turned out to contain an injured woodpecker, apparently deposited there by someone who’s a bit fuzzy on the definition of “raptor.”  I can’t fault whoever it was, really, because they were trying to help an injured animal, but it was still strange.  Like one of those stories where someone leaves a baby on the steps of the church.  Or the beginning of Harry Potter.  If Harry Potter were a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

To sum up, living here is never dull.

A Day in the Life

7:30AM: My alarm goes off.  I get dressed in my staff T-shirt and name tag, then head to…

8:00AM: Pancake breakfast featuring our very own maple syrup!

9:00AM: I feed the resident Red-shouldered Hawk and Broad-winged Hawks their dead rat, and clean up leftover entrails from yesterday’s dead rat.

10:00AM: Two buses full of sixth graders arrive on the property.  We cheer enthusiastically as they disembark and make sure everyone gets reunited with their luggage.

10:30AM: I find out my trail group is going to consist entirely of girls.  Ten sixth-grade girls.  Heaven help me.

11:00AM: I meet my girls… and they are AWESOME and really hilarious.

12:00PM: Lunch – grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Everyone in my group cleans their plate, which means we get to do a clean plate club cheer.  “Wasted food, no no!  Wasted food, no no!”

1:15PM: We head out on a hike to the pine forest and back, three miles round trip.  We talk about decomposition and check out fungus and slugs and rotting logs.  We look at the purple undersides of the leaves of forest-floor plants.  We smell spicebush, wild onion, and pine needles.  I tell them about how the trail we are walking on was first worn by migrating bison hundreds of years ago, and I show them how to tell Osage orange, black cherry, and black locust trees apart by their bark.

4:30PM: Another naturalist and I supervise a bunch of kids building forts out of fallen branches, one of my absolute favorite activities.  No two of these structures are ever alike.  You can see the wheels turning in kid’s heads as they construct them.

6:00PM: Dinner.

7:30PM: Night hike.  After an introductory talk featuring a Barred Owl, my girls and I spend another hour on the trails as its gets dark, culminating in our sharing circle, where we pass around a lit candle and each of them says what they’ll remember most about their time here.  Despite the fact that they’ve been here for less than ten hours, they all have amazing things to say.  “It’s so nice to just spend time together without all the drama there is at school,” they tell me.  What’s more, several of them mention much they’ve loved having me as their naturalist.  Aww.

9:00PM: Done for the night.  Tomorrow morning I get to take these girls to the waterfall, the spring, the meadow… and after lunch they’ll leave and I’ll never see any of them again.