Bird of the Week: Western Grebe

Western Grebe

Western Grebe. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This bird is famous for running side by side with its mate across the surface of the water and performing other courtship ballet. These are the parents that brood their chicks on their own backs while swimming, instead of in a nest, for two to four weeks until the young can catch their own fish. Oddly, the adults’ wing muscles atrophy during breeding season and they can’t fly. Look for them now on lakes in Cheyenne and around Wyoming.

Published May 26, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

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How to raise a birdwatching child

How to Raise a Wild Child cover

“How to Raise a Wild Child” by Scott D. Sampson.

Published May 25, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birds are always around to fascinate the young.”

By Barb Gorges

I’ve been invited to visit with a group of mothers to share with them a few tips on birdwatching with young children.

It’s been more than 20 years since our kids were preschoolers and I’m trying to remember just what my husband, Mark, and I did. We must have done something right: One son recently bought his own binoculars, and the other reports interesting birds from his travels.

I doubt we were very different from other parents who have a serious interest in a field or outdoor pursuit: You just take the kids with you. We took ours birdwatching, fishing, hunting, camping and hiking.

Of course, it isn’t necessary to be the child’s parent in order to mentor them—just more convenient.

Babies are as mobile as the distance you are willing to carry them–as long as diapers and milk hold out.

When kids start walking, you are suddenly limited to how far they are willing to go. They are a lot more willing if they are comfortable: warm and dry—or cool in the summer, protected from sunburn and bites, not averse to outhouses or bushes, with plenty of food and water, and naptime far in the distance.

How do you make a child interested in birds? Like so many other traits, you model it. No guarantee it will take.

The great thing about fostering an interest in birds is there are always birds around. And they have color, movement and sound. All you have to do is point. You don’t have to know much at first.

As kids get older, it isn’t hard to introduce them to a field guide full of colorful illustrations, then working together to figure out the names of bird species, or going online some place like www.allaboutbirds.org.

Toy binoculars are perfect for imitating adult birdwatchers. By grade school, kids might be able to appreciate what they are seeing through higher quality binoculars.

Don’t make up stuff when you don’t know the answer. It’s OK to say “I don’t know.” Look it up—or call me.

It’s OK if your child doesn’t become an ornithological know-it-all by age 7. Perhaps you observe your child is often distracted by rocks, weeds, sticks or worms instead. There’s a lot of nature to enjoy out there besides birds.

It doesn’t hurt to point out a pretty flower (try not to pick it) or insect or an animal track. Birders often learn something about a bird by observing its whole environment—food sources, nesting materials, perches, predators.

It’s OK if your kids find other ways to entertain (or distract) themselves while you bird. Maybe they would like to take along a sketchbook, a camera, or a butterfly net. But sometimes kids just have to dig in the dirt or chase around and be silly.

Every child is different so it is up to you to figure out what will keep yours interested in coming outdoors with you again.

If you want philosophical guidance, look for a new book called “How to Raise a Wild Child, The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature,” by Scott D. Sampson, known for his appearances on the PBS Kids show “Dinosaur Train.”

His worry is if more kids don’t get outside and learn to love it, nature will lose her constituency and the Earth will be ravaged until it can no longer support human life.

He wants to see more “hummingbird” parents rather than helicopter parenting, allowing kids to make discoveries. He wants to see school playgrounds filled with natural landscapes and objects, not asphalt and gravel. He wants kids to get dirty. He has a bibliography listing studies proving why spending time in nature is good for kids—and the rest of us.

Sampson’s book is a direct descendent of Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” (www.ChildrenandNature.org), but it has “Nature Mentoring Basics” and lists of things you can do at different age levels.

If you need more local ideas, check out WY Outside, http://www.wyoutside.com. This year they are holding the WY Outside Challenge.

My family camped a lot when my sister and I were kids, but I don’t remember either of our parents doing anything in particular, beyond sending us to Girl Scouts, to guide both of us into our love of the outdoors, except supporting us as we began to seek the outdoors on our own.

Not every child delighting in a wild bird is going to become an ornithologist. That’s OK. It is their appreciation for birds and the rest of nature we are after, hoping that it will foster good stewardship and a healthy life.

Bird of the Week: Green-tailed Towhee

Green-tailed Towhee

Green-tailed Towhee. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This large, elegant sparrow may spend a few days in Cheyenne mid-May, using its unusual two-footed hop to scratch in leaf litter looking for seeds and small insects. It nests in sagebrush, mountain mahogany and other western shrubs on dry hillsides. It keeps such a low profile, preferring to run or climb into shrubs when disturbed, that biologists have had a hard time describing its basic biology.

Published May 19, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Look for small shorebirds spinning in shallow water on the prairie, stirring up invertebrate prey. Unlike most birds, the female is more colorful than the male which does all of the parental care for this ground-nesting species. Eventually they all gather at the Great Salt Lake or other salty lakes to molt (to grow new feathers) and fatten up. Adults double their weight before making a 54-hour, nonstop flight to spend winter on the western coast of South America.

Published May 12, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal pair. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This small dabbling duck returns from Central and South America to nest in our thick prairie grass. Within a day of hatching, the young toddle behind Mom (Dad’s off growing new wing feathers) to swim in nearby water, but it will be nearly 40 days before they fly. The adults’ blue wing patch only shows when they fly, so the white crescent on the male’s face is a much better field mark.

Published May 5, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Of the 31 warbler species seen in Cheyenne since 1995, this one is the most common. We see both subspecies during spring migration: Audubon’s (yellow chin, western) and Myrtle’s (white chin, eastern). However, it’s the Audubon’s that nests in our mountains. When the weather is too cold for its favorite food, insects, unlike most other warblers, it can switch to berries.

Published May 27, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Killdeer

Killdeer

Killdeer. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This bird calls its own name. A member of the shorebird family, this species will settle for nesting anywhere flat and open: mudflats and even gravel roofs and golf course turf. If an intruder comes, a parent feigns a wing injury, hoping predators will think they are an easy snack and follow them away from the nest. It works most of the time, especially on mammals.

Published May 20, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.