By Martha Mcleod
Great migrants, beautiful sunshine, and extraordinarily brilliant students; it was another great youth competition in the Great Texas Birding Classic for our three teams of kids this past school year. I am a birding program sponsor at an elementary public school campus in southeastern Texas. Each year for the past seven years I have worked in collaboration with community members to mentor, coach, and prepare teams of students to compete in a statewide birding tournament. We worked with three teams of youngsters who were in the fourth and fifth grades.
Our year started out last September with 13 rambunctious students that were eager to meet weekly before school to learn about the avian life surrounding our little seaside community. Some of the students were a bit more adept at bird identification than others but all of them shared a love and fascination for the outdoors. This was a great starting point! We also supplemented our weekly classroom studies with monthly field trips to birding hotspots in the local area.
Week by week we led the students through studies of key identifying characteristics for specific groups of birds: the passerines, shorebirds, flycatchers, raptors, and so on. The monthly trips out into the field with the kids to find real-life examples of the birds we had been studying was always an exciting adventure. We never knew what raptors might be perched on highline poles just around the next curve in the road ahead of us. Once at our destination for the day, our mentors would take out their spotting scopes to share viewing time with the students. There is nothing that compares to the excitement and wonder seen on a child’s face the first time they observe a Baltimore oriole or vermilion flycatcher through the long lens of a spotting scope. Moments like those reaffirm my decision 24 years ago to make a career of teaching. My daily adrenaline rush comes from the fulfillment I get at nurturing and kindling joy and understanding with students about the natural world around them.
Months and months of practice led up to the finale of our year of birding with the kids: the state’s pinnacle event in the world of birding, known as the Great Texas Birding Classic. We compete in a category known as the Roughwings Division, designated for children up to age 13. A maximum of five students can be on a team. The team must choose a specific date between April 15 and May 15 for their Big Day, and then, the students must find and identify on their own as many species of birds as they can in an eight hour period, with the team mentors verifying all sightings. This might seem like an easy task, however, all team members must see and/or hear the species of birds, and they must all come to a consensus on the identification of the bird before they request confirmation of the ID by the mentors. Teamwork and collaboration are essential skills we work on all year long. Those skills are just as important as the learning to ID birds. Those are also skills that will follow the students throughout their lives into careers and family life down the road.
Once the dust settled and the contest was over, our three teams ended with 103, 102, and 101 species of birds – WOW! The 103 was enough for our fifth grade team to take first place in the Central Coast Division, with our two fourth grade teams placing right behind them. I couldn’t have been more proud of the comradeship, concentration, and determination shown by my students. It was a fantastic way to end our year of birding.
On the very last day of school, my fifth graders and their parents surprised me with a special gift for our outdoor wildlife gardens: a bench in my honor. Needless to say I was speechless. Sam, Kate, Kyleigh, Taylor, and Shelby will forever be in my heart. For years to come, any time I pass by that bench I will smile and think of them and the awesome birds we learned about and viewed together on our many field trips.
About the Author
Out There With the Birds is the official blog of Bird Watcher's Digest, featuring engaging content, commentary, and creativity from some exciting new voices. New posts appear several times a week, so please check back often!