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Stories of Impact › Counting Birds, Enjoying Open Space

Counting Birds, Enjoying Open Space

On a cold Saturday morning in January, about 25 kids and their families trickled into the multi-purpose room at Bahia Vista Elementary School in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael. They were there to take part in the Youth Christmas Bird Count—the first time Marin has participated in an annual national census of birds begun in 1900.

Everyone was handed binoculars and were assigned to teams that would be led by expert birders from the three organizations sponsoring this event: WildCare, PRBO Conservation Science, and the Richardson Bay Audubon Center & Sanctuary.

Before venturing out to the nearby wetlands, mudflats, and tidal marshes, Juan-Carlos Solis, from WildCare, led a “Binocular Bootcamp”—in English and Spanish—showing people how to first spot a bird, and then, maintaining their gaze, use their binoculars to get a closer look.

Already, the first of the day’s many expressions of “Wow!” reverberated in the school courtyard as everyone practiced their new binocular skills.

Soon afterward, several Latino families from the Canal neighborhood started out on a path along the San Francisco Bay shoreline with Solis serving as their Spanish-speaking guide. Before long, everyone was spotting, viewing, and learning about gulls, hummingbirds, stilts, and various species of ducks. Solis explained about their coloring, behavior, and habitat, and taught the birds’ names in English and Spanish.

The group looked up birds in a guidebook, fed information to the official data collector (a 12-year-old), and used a telescope Solis brought along.

He even got everyone to mimic the movement of one bird’s neck during a mating ritual.

Although this event focused on identifying and counting birds, participants from the Canal were doing something for the first time that many people in Marin take for granted: having an opportunity to learn about and enjoy the county’s open space.

For one family who attended—three daughters and their parents—it was the father’s first experience learning about the natural environment of his neighborhood of 25 years. “I work a lot, so I don’t have a lot of time to spend with my kids,” he said. “It’s exciting to be out here with them, and it’s nice to learn the names of the birds we’ve seen.”

The same was true for the kids, who had convinced their parents to join them. “I like to see birds fly,” said one. “It’s been fun to watch,” said another.

The efforts to involve these families in enjoying and learning about Marin’s open space are funded under the Marin Community Foundation’s “Access to Parks and Green Space” Community Grant area, whose goal is to enable low-income residents to benefit from Marin’s unique natural environment. Other programs are engaging students by having them study the ecology of a local park, creating bi-lingual interpretive signs, writing science journals, studying birds around their schools, and taking part—with scholarship support—in weekend science programs.

Solis, who is director of education at WildCare, says that encouraging people to explore and enjoy the outdoors taps into a variety of cultural issues. “Often, we spread the word through groups that people already know and are involved in, like a soccer team. For others, it’s important to meet the person who’ll be leading a hike or some other activity. They want to know you if you’re going to involve their family in something they’ve never done before.

“And of course, language is very important,” he adds. While the kids know English, they often communicate with their families in Spanish, so having a Spanish-speaking guide is important.”

Solis also says that the activity itself has to be relevant and fun. “Birds can be a hard sell,” he reports. “They’re so small and often so far away. But this was a great start.”

In fact, everyone in this group said they’d come again, and next time, they’ll already know the names of some of their winged neighbors.

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