Donning cloth security harnesses, helmets, sketch books, and the sheer will to explore, students of Art Biology class head to the EcoTarium's Tree Canopy Walkway for an interactive bird watching session. EcoTarium educator and ornithology enthusiast, Alex Dunn, leads the group along with WTT founder, Lauren Monroe, and resident art teacher, Jen Swan. After Alex guides us through safety protocol we set forth, one at a time, across the first bridge. The Walkway consists of three tree-house sized platforms, interconnecting bridges, and a plethora of tether cables which dangle and stretch like metallic vines.
The students spend some time exploring each platform, clipping their carabiners back and forth between the web of heavy cables, before we're asked to settle on a specific platform with sketch book and pencil in-hand. On one of the platforms, surrounded by a group of students, Alex holds up a small speaker attached to an iPod. Suddenly, the excited energy of the group begins to focus into a quiet calm as the speaker unleashes the sounds of Black-Capped Chickadees mobbing an Eastern Screech Owl. Within moments, actual Black-Capped Chickadees descend into the tree canopy.
Alex, who has been into ornithology since the 5th grade, explains how the recording of the birds mobbing the Screech Owl is like a call-to-arms; the chickadees hear trouble and come to aid their brethren. In our case, they simply perch on the surrounding branches perhaps wondering what all the fuss is. The commotion doesn't only stir the Chickadees- we soon see other species appear in the foliage such as the White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Tufted Titmouse, and Blue-headed Vireo.
The students sit and lean attentively. Jen Swan encourages them to observe and illustratively document the birds even if the visibility is fleeting. In the coming weeks the students will implement some of what they learn in this experience to render 3d bird sculptures which they shape and paint themselves. It is a beautiful sight to behold, sharing this space with the students, teachers, and nature.
As Alex and I recounted the experience, I asked what was appealing to him about bird watching. “They don't stand still for you," he pointed out, explaining how he enjoys the challenge of the hunt. Alex also appreciates how ornithology is "part of this larger story", acting as an entryway to studying a vast and complex ecosystem. I interpret this into how we have to be vigilant and perpetuate awareness in order to keep the practice alive, keep our thirst for such knowledge satiated. I can't help but draw a correlation between these words and the experience of teaching youth! Learn more about local ornithology on Alex's blog.