BirdSleuth Ambassador: Phil Kahler
Kestrel Krew’s Big Day
By Phil Kahler
How many bird species can be seen in a single day? On May 5, 2013, from 3:00am to 8:30pm the Kestrel Krew, an enthusiastic group of 8th grade students from Tualatin Valley Academy, began their quest to find the answer. With the help of Dave Irons, a content editor of BirdFellow.com, a detailed itinerary was made to hit multiple habitats in the hopes of recording as many different species of birds as possible.
Overall, the Kestrel Krew covered over 200 miles to see wetland, coastal mountain, and beach habitats, and identified 139 bird species in a single day! Kolby Somers echoed the thoughts of his classmates, “It was very interesting how many birds we identified just by hearing their calls.” Most of the eighth graders said they would definitely do this again! “This trip was a real adventure,” says Mark Janta.The Kestrel Krew included Zack Fritzler, Mark Janta, Danny Rivera, Albert Roman, Katrina Santiago, Kolby Somers, Lucas Kahler, Kris Somers, Nels Nelson, Dave Irons, and Phil Kahler.
This single day just represents one opportunity Phil Kahler, a 6-8th grade science teacher at Tualatin Valley Academy, provides for his students. Being one of our most committed BirdSleuth Ambassadors, we asked him to share his insight on reaching out to students and getting them excited about birds. Here is his story:
Phil Kahler’s Story
As a child I first began watching birds that visited our family’s backyard feeder. My parents also took my sister, brother, and I on weekend excursions to explore nature, which frequently included bird discoveries. However the most significant early experience I had with birds began one July morning while staying with my two aunts near Sacramento. A baby mockingbird had fallen out of a nest, and after repeated attempts to return it to the nest, it became obvious to my aunts that the bird wasn’t going to make it without our intervention. Thus began my two aunts’ long career with wildlife rehab. Both of my aunts were wheel chair bound with muscular dystrophy, so they were perfectly suited to giving 24/7 surrogate motherly care to orphaned birds and small mammals. We were hooked! Every summer after our successful release of that first mockingbird, my brother, sister and I looked forward to spending a couple of weeks with our aunts to help care for orphaned birds.
During my undergraduate career with the National Audubon Society Expedition Institute, I was fortunate to have many opportunities to see and study birds. I was able to travel around North America and see some amazing birds; I am still kicking myself for not keeping a faithful life list. My senior year, I also did some field research with monitoring three feeding stations around town, similar to Project FeederWatch.
When I began teaching, I set out straight away to find a way to get my students outside. We had a natural green space and creek behind the school, so I was able to motivate my students and parents to help build a bird feeding station and observation blind. Not long after, a parent signed my class up with Project FeederWatch. My students and I have been involved in Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen-science projects ever since. We have had a continuous data set at our school since 1996. With this data set, my students have noticed changes in bird populations and local habitat. Some of my students have had their scientific reports about their observations published in BirdSleuth Investigator.
While younger kids often get very excited about studying birds and making new discoveries, sometimes it is a harder sell for some junior high and high school students. It is not always “cool” to admit you like watching birds. As a teacher, you just have to smile and keep enthusiastically leading the troops to making new bird discoveries. And it pays off! Years later I frequently have former students (and their parents) share with me how they still notice birds around them.
As I have learned more about birds over the years I have discovered new and interesting ways to include birds in my curriculum. I started out teaching bird identification and then counting numbers of each bird species with my students. Now my students keep their “life lists” on eBird, write scientific reports, dissect owl pellets, visit our local wetlands to see wetland birds, and make peanut butter pinecone feeders. My older high school biology students have conducted bird behavior investigations at our feeders, dissected pigeons, hatched chicken eggs, and studied feathers during lab investigations. Inspired by my amateur bird photography, some of my students have begun trying to photograph the birds that come to our school feeders.
I wanted to become a BirdSleuth Ambassador because I wanted to help other teachers share birds with their own students. I feel strongly about getting kids outdoors where they can have real-world experiences. If we want to raise an environmentally responsible citizenry, we must first foster a love and respect for living things within our students. Birds offer many opportunities to accomplish this goal. Birds also offer many exciting options for teaching students how to conduct scientific investigations. I am enthusiastic about what birds have to offer as a teaching tool. Teachers need to know that no matter their experience level, birds can still be used in their curriculum.
I think the most important thing for educators is to go ahead and get started, you can learn as you go. As you get more comfortable with birds, you can add things to your curriculum. The BirdSleuth modules make things quite easy to begin. Also remember that help is only an email or phone call away. Consider joining in on one of the BirdSleuth online courses, networking with birding experts in your local area, or chatting online with other BirdSleuth teachers. Enthusiastic birders and BirdSleuth teachers are more than happy to help when they can.