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Teaching Moments at the BioBlitz

Lands End is a rugged northern corner of the city of San Francisco, commanding wonderful views of the Golden Gate from steep cliffs. It’s long been a place where people have visited for the wildlife, at first to hunt and gather and now mostly to walk and enjoy sharing nature with birds and marine mammals. Early on the first day of the Golden Gate Parks BioBlitz I joined more than a dozen volunteers waiting at Lands End to show school students and their teachers how and where to look for biodiversity.

The official goal was for “citizen scientists” to observe and record as many species as possible for experts to verify and enter into the grand tally of living things found in the 24 hours of the BioBlitz of Golden Gate Parks. The effective objective was to introduce youngsters to the biodiversity in their city, and show them how to use their senses to find and identify different species. From previous BioBlitzes in this annual series hosted by National Geographic and the National Park Service, we have learned that many students who participate have either never been to a national park, of if they have been to one, they have not known too much about the diversity of life in them.

Students pouring off their yellow buses at Lands End for yesterday’s inventories were quickly divided into small groups. I was with a group of fifth-graders from Jefferson Elementary School, led by their teacher Jennifer Partika. Mike Powers, a natural resource specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, had been designated as one of the experts to show them how to look for birds. He assigned some students to be spotters and others to take notes, but first there had to be a demonstration of how to use binoculars. As I observed youngsters experimenting with the binoculars to look at one another in the face or at the ground under their own feet, I appreciated what a big step some of them were about to take into the world of nature.

Shortly before the buses arrived, I was in a brief conversation with another expert, Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, with a background in avian biology and conservation from UC Davis, and a particular interest in bird population responses to urban development, climate change, and other human pressures. What birds might we see at Lands End this time of year, I asked. “We are in a cypress forest forest at the very northwest corner of San Francisco, so we have a wonderful chance to pick up migratory birds in the springtime, as well as nesting birds that are in the tops of the trees singing their little hearts out,” Fish said. “Anna’s hummingbird is very common around here, and there’s a white-crowned sparrow eating the bagel stash set out for us!”

 

Photo by David Braun
Photo by David Braun

 

What did Allen Fish hope to teach the students in a couple of hours? “Just to open up their eyes a little bit to some of the tricks of the trade. There’s a trick to seeing birds and not getting discouraged. It’s partly being quiet, it’s partly tuning your ear in, it’s partly seeing things. But the truth is these kids with their sharp, fresh young eyes, they are lot better equipped than a lot of elderly folks. If each kid sees one new bird, I think that’s the hook, a new friend that they make in a species sense.”

OK, I also wanted to learn something. I’ve often tried to memorize bird songs, but I tend to forget. Any tricks for that?

“The tip to remember bird song is to listen carefully and try and make a sentence out of it,” Fish said. “Yesterday we heard a bird in a marsh and I said this is “Machu Picchu” to me, but a high school kid disagreed. “It’s potato, potato,” he said, and every kid agreed with him. They had a whole new mnemonic that was theirs, and they own it.”

Armed with these tips, I left Alan Fish, Mike Powers and the others with their students to go on my own inventory along the cliffs to a lookout over the ocean and a spectacular view of Golden Gate bridge. Along the way I spotted (and heard) numerous birds, including some swimming in the ocean, sunbathing on the rocks, or flitting around in the trees. When I returned to the site of the inventories I noticed that the instruction of the students on how to look for birds had advanced considerably from how to focus binoculars. Now the budding scientists were finding birds easily enough, and their mentors were asking them to observe and record the finer details, such as the color of feet and flight patterns.

Download a brochure (PDF): Birds of Lands End (Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

 

Photo by David Braun
Photo by David Braun
Photo by David Braun
Photo by David Braun
Photo by David Braun
Photo by David Braun
Photo by David Braun
Photo by David Braun