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First Things First, I’m a Birder

When I moved to Reno, when I finally made it those 2400 miles across the country, do you know what was on the top of my to-do list?

Bookstore run.

Yes, I’m an avid reader (and writer), but my mission wasn’t the newest fiction or a literary classic. No, it was a Sibley field guide to the birds of western America. I had made it those 2400 miles without a guide, and had taken many-a picture in hopes of identification at a later date. And that day had finally come.

Of the new birds, I had seen many. My life list was getting quite the influx—it’s amazing that travel can do that!

I added to my list: horned lark, chukar, western meadowlark, loggerhead shrike, common raven, black-billed magpie, California quail, great-horned owl, Franklin’s gull, red-naped sapsucker, broad-tailed hummingbird, stellar jay, scrub jay, mountain chickadee- okay, I know I’ve lost most of you by now, but I’m on a roll- marsh wren, mountain bluebird, gadwall, mute swan, snowy egret, black-crowned night-heron, greater white-fronted goose, and a white pelican. Just to name a few.

Now, working in the different parks in Reno, I have seen so many life list birds that I never imagined would be chillin’ in Sparks Marina or Virginia Lake Park.

A couple weeks ago, I took a group of energetic sixth graders to Virginia Lake to count some birds. They were just as excited as I was, I think. We walked around the lake with our binoculars, field guides, and checklists. I walked into a bench (and only mildly skinned my knee—safety first, kids) when I spotted the resident mute swan dabbling in the water. And dabbling is one of my favorite bird things, often described (by only me, probably) as ‘butt up’ and searching for food. Lots of other ducks were dabbling too. Except for those diving ducks—they were diving up a storm!

The students and I watched a common merganser dive and resurface for quite some time. We even spotted a snowy egret hunting for tiny fish in the shallower of water, and a double-crested cormorant drying out her wings on the shore.

What a smorgasbord!

But the bird that truly stood out to me at Virginia Lake was the one that didn’t really stand out at all:

the gadwall.

They are dabbling ducks (oh, the dabblers) with mottled brown chests, white bars on their wings, and a little black tail. Males are a little bit sleeker than the females, but not by much. They are small and unassuming, and awesome.

The students were pretty excited about it. Here we thought it was just another mallard. But using our resources (field guides, binoculars, and the almighty power of observation) we were able to discern the differences and positively identify the gadwall.

Having ownership over the identification really gave the students the pride and the confidence to get into our activity. On the walk back, I talked to so many students about how cool birds are, which ones were their favorites, and how they could take their families to Virginia Lake and share their knowledge. Allowing kids to find that passion hidden in simply getting involved (and supporting that passion or interest) is what makes nature so amazing.

And getting involved is so easy, especially with birds. They live everywhere, and are accessible everywhere. You can sit in your backyard, by a window in your apartment, at your local park, or the playground at school, to listen, watch, and observe. My favorite thing to do with students is to try and distinguish between different species and, once we have a specific picture of a species in our heads, we can give them our own names based on what we observe (my personal favorites include the Tree-bird and Featherhead). I mean, I still get excited when I see a canada goose.

I really don’t mind those weird looks I get when I’m sitting on the floor in a bookstore identifying birds, or when I’m watching a specific bird for half an hour, or when I run into a bench while trying to spot a (sedentary) swan. Or even when I get left behind by the group because I’m watching a bird. Birds just hold such charm and have such powerful (and often hilarious) personalities. And I am so fortunate to share my love of birds with students. Hopefully they’ll be able to find something they are equally as passionate about. At the end of the day, that’s the goal, right?

And, as always, here’s to quails & happy trails.


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