Today is National Bird Day, which has naturally started me thinking about the way we live alongside this diverse and beautiful classification of animal. We are so used to seeing garden birds hoping around the bird table and perching on fences — and this is especially true of my childhood, spent growing up in beautiful Norfolk — that it can be easy to become so accustomed to these fascinating creatures that we barely notice them going about their daily lives. Even the so-called alien species that Sir David Attenborough spoke of in his Wild Neighbours lecture are a commonplace sight across London‘s parks.
But last year I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect upon the beauty of birds, when I joined Around the Bend Nature Tours at Sarasota’s Audubon Center in Florida, during my press trip on behalf of National Geographic Kids magazine. Around the Bend Nature Tours provides nature experiences for schoolchildren and families at parks and preserves across the county, and the aim of my day with them was to join a group of children in at the Celery Fields to spot and identify various species of local birds.
The Celery Fields are 300 acres of county-owned flood mitigation area, and have proven to be one of the premier birding hotspots on the southwest coast of Florida. They boast 220 species of bird throughout the year, across flooded fields, freshwater marsh and open water.
Sarasota Audubon launched a special initiative for schoolchildren — the Celery Fields Explorers Program — five years ago, and since then, more than 4,000 schoolchildren have joined their program of environmental education.
It was one of these such field trips that I had the privilege of joining.
We took our binoculars and bird identification charts out onto the deck and enjoyed the long-range vistas on offer. Important factors to consider were the birds’ size, colour, shape and habitat. Together we spotted the eye-catching white outline of a Great Egret, searching for snails in the marshy mud.
A flash of bright colour revealed itself to be the purple and blue hues of a Purple Gallinule darting across the reeds. Its yellow legs and red and yellow beak make it a fascinating and distinctive bird to watch. It proved a favourite amongst the children.
Training to become young ornithologists does not stop with learning basic bird spotting skills, however. One of the most memorable parts of my day was seeing the children investigate specific bird characteristics by looking through the box of feathers, beaks and skulls, and using their ID charts to help identify which bird species they may belong to.
Ann Cruikshank led the students in touching and feeling the items, which were passed around the circle. The physical aspect of holding these curiosities had a real impact on the children’s learning. Most of the items came from birds who had deceased naturally in the environment and been collected by staff, or they had been donated by the local wildlife hospital after an injured bird passes away; facts which were quickly pointed out to the children.
Through examining beaks and feathers, we were able to discuss what the birds may eat by considering the shapes of their bills and how noisy their feathers are (i.e. would they able to hunt effectively?). The bones and skulls also helped to determine the features that help a bird to fly: light, hollow bones; wing span; wing shape, etc.
Catching sight of a Limpkin at the end of the activity gave us a perfect opportunity to take part in the ‘What does it mean to be a bird?‘ exercise. For this game, children become Limpkins and are challenged to discover all the difficulties that Limpkins and other birds face for their survival.
Finally, with a refreshed and renewed interest in the lives of birds, I completed my day at the Celery Fields with a look around the education center. Notice boards of bright tapestries of birds; a children’s corner including animal track identification; recordings of bird sightings and a map of the 300-acre Celery Fields all adjourned the walls and added to the sense of endearing care for the birds in the area.
After such an heart-warming and informative day, there was no way that I could leave without pledging my support and buying an Audubon Society badge!
What is the Audubon’s society?
The National Audubon Society is a nonprofit conservation organisation that protects birds and the places and habitats they live in, now and for future generations. Since 1905 they have used science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation to protect bird species throughout the Americas.
Named after natural history artist John James Audubon, the organisation looks to fulfil his vision of a world in which people and wildlife thrive. I discovered the following information in Florida’s Kennedy Space Center‘s Nature and Technology exhibit.
It reads: “John James Audubon is the most famous of all American natural history artists, renowned for his adventurous nature, his artistic genius and his obsessive interest in birds. In 1820, he set off on his epic quest to depict America’s wildlife, floating down the Mississippi River with nothing but his gun, artistic materials and a young assistant.
Unable to find secure financial backing in the United States, Audubon went to Europe in 1826. There he found both subscribers and engravers for the project. Over the next twelve years, Audubon divided his time between London and America. When abroad, he supervised the engraving and coloring of the prints. In America he traveled in search of birds to paint, arriving at the east coast of Florida in 1831 to find water birds and tropical species.”