National Bird Day: How can we teach children to love birds?

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.

Ring-necked parakeet in Richmond Park

Ring-necked parakeet in Richmond Park, photo by Kate on Conservation

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.

Looking at feathers, bird skulls and egg shells in the curiosity box, to help with identifying bird species.

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.

Great Egret

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.

Purple Gallinule

Purple Gallinule

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.

Studying the shape of the skull up against illustrations of different species of local bird

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.

A Limpkin, with its distinctive long bill

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!

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.

Audubon Society KSC

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.”

kate on conservation logo

Want to read more about birds?

Like this? Read more about my press trip to Florida


National Geographic Kids Magazine: Secrets of the Spotted Eagle Ray

Nat geo kids magazine Kate on conservation

This past week I reached a career milestone — my first feature published in National Geographic Kids Magazine!

I’ve been working at Nat Geo Kids for the last eight months, and although I’ve written articles for the website, editorial for the magazine and launched the new school’s primary resources service, this has been my first opportunity to write a first-person feature. In this case, it was about Mote Research Laboratory‘s work to tag and monitor Spotted Eagle Rays.

Spotted eagle ray feature in nat geo kids magazine

At the start of the summer, I was fortunate enough to be sent to Florida, to research conservation stories on location for National Geographic Kids. One of the location’s I visited was Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which is home to Mote — an independent, not-for-profit marine research organisation dedicated to understanding the population dynamics of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and coral reefs and on conservation and restoration efforts related to these species and ecosystems.

mote turtle patrol

My partner and I spent an entire day with the team at Mote — beginning with a 6am turtle patrol along the beach, looking for fresh crawl marks made overnight by female sea turtles coming on shore to lay their eggs.

Though at first we only found a couple of ‘false crawls’ (where flipper marks showed the female had returned to the water without digging a nest; perhaps because the area was not quite right, or perhaps because the timing wasn’t), we did eventually find a nest site containing eggs (verified by the Mote team gently digging round the area, recording, then covering the eggs back over with sand). It was an exciting start to the day, and one which hopefully will have a full feature of its own in the magazine!

Mote marine turtle hospital

Our second stop of the day (after some much needed breakfast on the go!) was a visit to Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital. Having cared for all five species of Sea Turtle found in the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida’s most frequently seen species; loggerheadsleatherbacks and green turtles, it was a real treat to experience the expertise of Mote’s hospital team.

We were given a tour of the hospital, which has admitted around 600 sick and injured sea turtles in the last 20 years, and saw turtles recovering from surgery (above left), one receiving care for a pretty deep wound on its underside from a boat’s propellor (top image above) and one waiting for surgery to remove several clusters of tumours (above right). This poor female was having her tumours treated in a special facility for turtles suffering from fibropapilloma tumours, because scientists are still learning how this disease is transmitted among turtles.

spotted eagle ray research boat

The final part of our day consisted of joining Senior Biologist Kim Bassos-Hull on one of Mote’s research boats. Though I didn’t really know what I was looking for at first, there was plenty to see – from pelicans diving to catch fish, to dolphins bobbing out of the waves ahead. The research team logged every marine animal we passed, noting down what the animal was, and taking a reading from the GPS device to determine the exact coordinates that the animal was seen from.

First one, then two, spotted eagle ray’s came into view and the boat’s crew sprang into action. The spotted eagle ray is a type of fish with a flat body and wing-like fins for gliding through the water. Like their stingray cousins, eagle rays defend themselves using stinging spines with a barbed tip. This particular species can be identified by a bright white spot pattern on their back.

We had the opportunity to see one of the creatures join the important monitoring programme after being caught, tagged and released. Hopefully it will help with collecting data about migration and breeding patterns of the species — which remain a relative mystery.


Now, I wouldn’t want to detail exactly what happened on the boat that afternoon; if you want to find out, you’re going to have to pick up a copy of National Geographic Kids Magazine this month! ;).


More about my work with Nat Geo Kids

Want to know what happened when I met Dr Jane Goodall on behalf of Nat Geo Kids?

Want to know more about Nat Geo Kids inspiring natural history learning?

Discover my work in conservation education with Discovery