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How a walk in a burned forest turned a nine-year-old into a birder

Christina Sherr (foreground, in blue shirt) and her daughter Delaney lead participants on a bird walk during the Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua in June 2015. Photo by Maya Khosla
Christina Sherr (foreground, in blue shirt) and her daughter Delaney lead participants on a bird walk during the Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua in June 2015. Photo by Maya Khosla

Today we’re posting a pair of articles about birdwatching with children that were first published in our June 2015 issue: Cure-all for Kids by Danielle Harris and Kid-tested Tips by Rebecca Deatsman. Their topic is of crucial importance for the lasting conservation of birds. Please take a look.

In addition, we’re delighted to present the essay below by Christina Sherr, the outreach coordinator for the John Muir Project, an organization based in Big Bear City, California, that advocates for ecological management of federal public forestlands. In the aftermath of this year’s western wildfires, it is lobbying against legislation in Congress that would roll back environmental-protection laws and increase logging.

Sherr has worked as a state park ranger, a ranger naturalist at Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, and a surveyor on a Black-backed Woodpecker nesting study. Here she tells the story of the day this past June when her nine-year-old daughter became a birder. Enjoy.

Birding the burn

by Christina Sherr

I recognized the exact moment when it happened. My daughter Delaney became a birder in the burn.

“Mom! There are baby woodpeckers in there. I can see their heads!” I was trying to keep my group of 29 Snag Forest Bird Walk participants moving on to our next destination. My daughter planted herself firmly on the ground 30 feet from the burned snag.

“Moooooom…I need your binoculars.”

That was the last I saw of my binoculars for the next four hours of our walk. One of the participants offered to show Delaney how to wear the binocular harness, but she deftly slipped it on. “I know how,” she said. “Wow,” said her would-be helper. “I had to be shown that three times before I figured it out!”

I was leading the walk during the Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua, a well-known birding festival held each June at Mono Lake, in eastern California. The two Snag Forest Bird Walks that I led were among several dozen outings offered at the chautauqua.

Read an article by photographer and author Marie Read about birding Mono Lake.

Delaney was my reluctant assistant. I had roused her from deep slumber at the tender hour of 5:30 a.m. two mornings in a row. I had served her cold oatmeal and had even forgotten the hot chocolate. She was dreading another long morning of walking up and down hills and “standing around looking at nothing with complete strangers for hours.”

It was hot. We had just trekked up and down a steep hill to our first snag forest — an intensely burned area just one year post-fire. My group was standing in the sun debating the identity of a small gray flycatcher. “Mom, I don’t get why you like this!” she whispered fiercely in my ear. A nearby participant overheard and smiled at me sympathetically.

I asked Delaney to count as many different wildflowers as she could in the post-fire snag forest. She counted up to 32 and asked for another snack. I challenged her to keep track of all the nest cavities we were seeing. She lagged behind the group, and we had to stop several times to wait for her. “There’s too many holes to count, Mom,” she said, exasperated. Then, she simultaneously heard and saw them — a nest cavity in a burned snag full of nestling White-headed Woodpeckers, almost close enough to touch.

For the next four hours, she was at the front of the group, proudly announcing each bird that she “found for us.” And found she did! Calliope Hummingbird, Cassin’s Finch, House Wren, Warbling Vireo, Dusky Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Tree Swallow, Green-tailed Towhee, Lazuli Bunting, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Clark’s Nutcracker, Steller’s Jay, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Black Phoebe, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Townsend’s Solitaire, and even an errant Osprey.

A Lewis's Woodpecker perches on a burned snag. Photo by Maya Khosla
A Lewis’s Woodpecker perches on a burned tree. Photo by Maya Khosla

To her delight, we observed many more active nests in three different burned forests — one year, seven years, and fourteen years post-fire. Among them, Hairy and Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Pygmy, White-breasted, and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadee, Mountain Bluebird, Northern Flicker, and Brown Creeper. “Mom, we should make a movie about all the babies in the burn so people will know about all the animals that are living here and that it isn’t just a bunch of dead trees!” Her energy was waning but her voice was filled with excitement.

The sun beat down on us in the snag forest as we neared the end of our morning together — a group of tired but satisfied birders. No one wanted the trip to end. I offered them an option of visiting one more snag forest on the way back to the town of Lee Vining, where we might have a chance to glimpse a rare Black-backed Woodpecker, a charismatic post-fire snag forest specialist. The group unanimously agreed to spend part of their lunch hour looking for more woodpeckers, before the next round of outings began.

My daughter was the first one out of the car at our last stop. Moments later she yelled “a black-backed woodpecker!” It turned out to be a male Williamson’s Sapsucker, an easy misidentification even for experienced birders. What’s more, the bird had an active nest in a burned snag above our cars. The chicks tittered high above us as I once again attempted to wrap up the field trip.

Our group was adjourning reluctantly when someone exclaimed, “Well, would you look at that!” Another birder rushed to focus his heavy spotting scope on a brilliantly colored male Western Tanager and the olive-green mate at his side.

The group crowded toward the scope but then parted like the Red Sea to let Delaney have the first look. Silently they watched as her lips formed the word “Wow,” but no sound came out. She was hooked.

Five reasons why birding is a cure-all for kids.

An environmental educator shares tips for sparking an interest in birds among youngsters.

15 resources for young birders.


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