“How did you get started bird watching?” That’s the question I’m often asked, and I usually tell the 1977 story about Evening Grosbeaks on a nearby roof – I had to know more about that flock of parrot-like birds.
But truth be told, the story should begin with my grandmother. She lived in another city and had an extensive flower garden and bird feeders. We stayed with her on visits and one of my vivid childhood memories of those visits was sitting with her at the window looking at the birds. She had a children’s book, a Golden Guide for birds, and she encouraged me to identify those we were watching. Soon after I received my first of many Golden Guides, the one on birds, followed by others on insects, butterflies, reptiles and amphibians, and rocks and minerals.
Because it is the season for gift-giving, I have some suggestions, and Golden Guides are certainly among them. But the essential gift any adult can provide for a child is time in the natural world, both at home and in the wild. My grandmother took the time to stimulate my curiosity about birds and nature, and followed up with books. I am immensely grateful to her.
Every time I visit the Billy Frank, Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, I am encouraged to find many young families out for a walk, giving a similar gift to their children. There are moms and dads pushing strollers and showing their kids birds, plants, reptiles or other wildlife.
This I believe strongly: Children have an innate curiosity, and it will focus on what they’re experiencing, whether that is TV, computer games, TikTok or the natural world. It’s up to us to expose children to nature regularly if we want them to see this as a “normal” part of life. To have a beautiful garden in summer and a bountiful harvest, you have to plant the seeds in spring. The harvest for kids is a lifelong recognition that we are a part of the natural world, and that we share responsibility for its future.
The Nature Shop at the wildlife refuge has a huge selection of children’s and young adult books. The era of children’s nature books being limited to Golden Guides is over. For young children, there are sticker books, coloring books and age-appropriate story books. For older children and teens, there are all sorts of books, including one called the “Young Birder’s Guide.”
And there are many other gift ideas. I particularly was taken with the nature playing cards and nature puzzles.
Today young people are very used to getting their information from the Internet. Books are somewhat expensive, of course, but they have one advantage – they separate the recipient from their screen and, perhaps, stimulate a more leisurely, contemplative approach to learning. Maybe that carries over to learning out-of-doors, where there is no hurry.
Binoculars are also important gifts for children. They are likely to be thrilled to see things close-up. But don’t spend too much and be prepared for them to get lost or broken. Similarly (and less expensive) might be a magnifying glass or lens. A Jeweler’s Loupe costs about $5 and can give children, or anyone, a greatly magnified view of rocks, leaves, snails – anything that stands still for inspection.
More than anything, I always recommend time with children in our wonderful Thurston County nature asset, the Billy Frank, Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. There is a $3 admission charge at the refuge, and that leads to another possible family gift – a $12 annual pass. (Incidentally, admission to the refuge and all other federal natural areas is free to active-duty military and their families and veterans are eligible for a free lifetime admission pass).
Liam has broken the Year List record for Washington, hitting 377 species earlier this month after he and his mother made a dash across the state to find a wandering Black-throated Blue Warbler in Spokane. He is now at 378 after seeing a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Mt. Vernon.
If you want to get an insight into Big Years and the chase for who can identify the most bird species, I recommend a 2011 film titled “The Big Year.” It’s a good-hearted comedy about three eccentric birders chasing their Big Year while dealing with various life crises. It’s available on several streaming services and on YouTube.
George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at george@theJOLTnews.com
Photos for this column are provided most weeks by Liam Hutcheson, a talented 16-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.
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Friday, November 24, 2023 Report this