Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
INNOKO: Birding with Children Helps Spark Interest in the Natural Environment
Alaska Region, June 5, 2012
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Dara Whitworth, Wildlife Biologist for Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, teaches a few birding basics in the classroom before moving to the outdoors.
Dara Whitworth, Wildlife Biologist for Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, teaches a few birding basics in the classroom before moving to the outdoors. - Photo Credit: FWS

It can be challenging to get thirty elementary and middle school students excited about songbirds, especially at 7:00 am on a summer morning. A group of thirty 5th to 8th grade students were attending the first Iditarod Area School District Science Camp in early June. On Day 2 of the camp (bird day), dew still clung to the grasses and fog obscured the far bank of the river at a local birding hotspot in McGrath, Alaska. A Lesser Yellowleg landed with a flurry of wings on a nearby sandbar, Bank Swallows flitted overhead, and a lone Glaucous Gull rode the current on a drifting log. The students noticed the mosquitoes right away, but it took a little coaxing for the kids to notice the birds.


Dara Whitworth, a wildlife biologist for the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, began the morning with a challenge. Even earlier that morning, she had set up eight printed and laminated images of local birds in habitats they are most likely be found, in order to help kids practice using binoculars to spot birds. She challenged them to find as many birds as they could. “Now who can find the bright yellow bird?” she asked the students after they had found three of the most obvious. They were surprised that a yellow bird lived in Alaska and began their diligent search, scanning the willow brush and river shore. Eventually, a cry went out “Hey, I found it!” and the others scrambled to look where one of the kids was pointing. The next challenge; who could find all eight? The kids spent the next twenty minutes trying to locate the rest of the laminated birds. Until one boy called excitedly, “Hey look, a loon!” and pointed to a large bird flying overhead. It was; a Red-throated Loon.

After learning how to handle binoculars and identify birds, the kids were told they would get to conduct their own bird survey just like a biologist does. Dara, along with two guest instructors (Cari Eggleston, from the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game and Kevin Whitworth, from a local Native Corporation), taught the kids how biologists collect weather data when conducting a survey, and had them record it in their journals. It was explained that, in Interior Alaska, many bird surveys relied on identifying bird songs rather than actually sighting birds, because the vegetation is often too thick to see many birds. So they had the kids listen to and memorize a CD recording of an Alder Flycatcher’s song. The goal was to count the number times they heard alder flycatchers calling around them during one minute of survey, and to see if they could identify how many individuals there were. They recorded their data in journals and identified on a circle, with them in the center, where they heard individual Alder Flycatchers. The kids were excited to share their results and see if they were right about the number of birds.

The final activity of the morning was a bird walk to look for the birds that had been hiding in the area all along. Now the kids were eager listen for the songs and be the first to spot the birds around them. They searched for bird tracks in the mud, asked the identity of birds that were calling, and talked about the birds they knew from back in their home villages. They were able to explore and discover; searching carefully for a nest when a pair of Spotted Sandpipers flushed suddenly from the grass.

The Innoko Refuge spent another hour or so with the kids in the afternoon; teaching about bird nests, migration, and the different groups of birds. Dara Whitworth also explained how and why biologists capture and band birds. It was apparent by the end of the day, that many of the children left with a desire and curiosity to learn more about the birds in their local environment.

Contact Info: Debbie Steen, (907) 786-3386, Debbie_Steen@fws.gov
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