The Brookline Bird Club has a long history of its experienced birder members encouraging and supporting rising young birders, and, for decades, has been scheduling trips targeted to children and families. But how do you give youngsters that experience that makes them birders for life? And once they’ve got the spark, how do you keep supporting their interest? The following are tips from BBC trip leader and educator Dave Hursh on how to inspire and lead trips for young birders:
- Get the word out! Once they’re on a bird walk, getting kids excited about birding is the easy part. But many families who would love to participate just don’t know about the resources available to them. Let your friends and coworkers with children know about the Brookline Bird Club, and encourage them to give it a try. Or, if you have school-aged children, consider spreading the word through a school newsletter or parent network.
- Know your audience. Different age groups will tend to respond more readily to different aspects of birding, so it’s important to try to determine early on the character of any particular group. The fantasy aspect of walking through the woods looking for birds may appeal more to younger children, while older kids may enjoy more the “collecting” aspect, such as completing a checklist, or the “cool factor” of finding a rarity.
- Scout a route. While it’s good advice to scout ahead for any trip, when leading a trip for kids, it’s especially critical to have some spots staked out where you know that birds will be found and visible. You don’t want a child’s first birding experience to come up empty. Keep the element of surprise – you don’t need to let on that you know what’s going to be there!
- Find a nest. Depending on the season, it’s good to locate a nest or two in advance. Hawk nests are wonderful, but even a robin’s nest is appealing. This kind of sighting allows kids – even very young kids who may not be proficient with binoculars – a guaranteed experience of observing something stationary and also a fascinating piece of nature.
- Bring a scope (if you can). New birders cannot always use their binoculars effectively. Having a scope ensures everyone can get an up close look at an oriole, phoebe, tanager, or any other relatively stationary bird. Plus, many kids have never have looked through a telescope before, and will think it’s cool.
- Learn names. Try to learn each of the kids’ names as quickly as possible and continue to address each kid by name throughout the day, especially the quieter and shy kids. Address each kid in turn every few minutes or so, to make each one feel involved and comfortable speaking.
- Provide a foundation. At the beginning, it can help to introduce some of the birds that might be seen on the trip, showing pictures from a print field guide or a phone, and highlighting the adventure of trying to track down these different birds. The approach to introducing the birds may be different depending on the age group and personalities of the kids present that day, and someone experienced working with kids can adapt to match the tone of the group.
- Let them find the bird. Dave describes a trip with 10- and 11-year-olds a few years ago where he told the kids if they found a Northern Waterthrush, which was “probably impossible,” then their parents would have to do their homework that night. After intentionally walking right by the spot where a waterthrush had been scouted, one of the kids spotted it, and they worked to identify it. On realizing what it was they all started jumping up and down screaming in excitement that they had found a waterthrush, and exclaiming that their parents were going to have to do their homework (the parents were there and had fun going along with it).
- Build a narrative. Especially with young kids, the goal is to create a memorable and an impactful experience. Dave will plan an “arc” for the walk, with a beginning (introducing the potential birds, dramatizing the adventure, highlighting the idea of the rarities), a middle (birding around different habitats, general exploration and pointing out songs, nests, or any other teachable moments), and an end (usually leading toward known spots, nests, or location of an aforementioned “rarity,”). The “rare” bird doesn’t have to be of hotline caliber, but can be a flashy or big bird (think scarlet tanager or great horned owl) that is something he’s explained the group will be lucky to find, creating the “big moment” of the trip. This appeals to the young child’s sense of fantasy and wonder, and creates a truly magical moment in finding the bird later on.
- See birds! Focus on birds that are easy to see, rather than birds that are frustrating. Even a very common birds like a robin or mallard can be a good opportunity, if the bird is showing well, rather than spending time on birds that are moving fast and are tough to see. In general, go for birds that are perched and out in the open, but in some cases if group members are old enough, they may be up for the challenge of finding a bird that is more difficult to see. It always is important to consider the character and abilities of the group.
- Stay positive. Sometimes birds may not cooperate and not everyone will see the bird. Stay positive and maybe switch to a funny topic, or start directly talking to the kid or kids who missed the bird about something else. Even something as simple as, “So what’s your favorite bird so far?” will keep the conversation going and get them thinking positively.
- End on a high note. It is great to try to end with something exciting, so if there is a hawk nest or rarity staked out, save that for last.
Leading trips for kids is about having fun, adapting your style to the group present, and feeling that you’re on an adventure with them. In short, you have to be a leader who remembers what it’s like to be a kid!