BirdSleuth Teachers Take on the Amazon Rainforest
By Barbara Jacobs-Smith, Resident Teacher Advisor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
In July 2014, three “BirdSleuth teachers” from around the United States converged in Iquitos, Peru. Our purpose was to attend the Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest, a life changing, cross-curricular professional development workshop for educators. We were there not only to discover new instructional methods and resources, but also to explore and learn about one of the world’s most important natural resources, the Amazon Rainforest.
Though we come from different school settings and teach students of various ages, we were immediately connected by our belief in the quality and depth of the BirdSleuth curriculum. Phil Kahler teaches 7th and 8th grade in Oregon, Pam Evans is a 6th grade teacher in Illinois, and I teach 3rd grade in Minnesota. Both Phil and I use Most Wanted Birds to introduce students to bird identification. I use it to prepare my third graders for participation in Project FeederWatch, one of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen-science projects. I also meet with a student birding group during the summer and employ Investigating Evidence to scaffold their authentic science inquiry projects, the results of which are shared at an Ecology Fair for youth research groups at the University of Minnesota. The Investigating Evidence curriculum is the backbone of Phil’s scientific inquiry unit. His students go through each step of the scientific method as they collect data at their school feeders, write research papers, and submit them to the BirdSleuth Investigator magazine for publication. Pam uses both Most Wanted Birds and Habitat Connections when her students study ecosystems and other life science topics. All three of us consider the BirdSleuth curriculum and materials as an integral part of our science instruction repertoire. Allowing students to investigate their own questions about birds allows them to develop science skills in an authentic way. Involving them in citizen science inspires action by lifelong learners within the United States and abroad. Ultimately, we hope to spark in our students the kind of curiosity and desire to investigate that took the three of us to the Amazon Rainforest of Peru.
Lilly Briggs, a member of the BirdSleuth staff, was one of the leaders on the trip. Lilly is the International Outreach Coordinator for BirdSleuth and has been involved in writing, adapting, and field-testing the first Latin American version of BirdSleuth called Connecting Kids Through Birds. This environmental education curriculum has a goal of increasing both children’s awareness of Neotropical birds and an interest in their conservation. While in Peru, Lilly presented activities from the curriculum to all of us participating in the Educator Academy while also facilitating an educator workshop for Peruvian teachers focused on its implementation. When we visited a local library for their Science Day, we were able to engage in hands-on exploration using these BirdSleuth activities with Amazon students and teachers. Watching these teachers and students using the BirdSleuth curriculum was not only a highlight of the trip for me, it literally provided me a moment of epiphany. I clearly understood that instilling an appreciation of birds in the local children is critically important for bird conservation. We want children looking for birds with binoculars rather than with slingshots, which is currently more often the case. It is heartening to know the Connecting Kids Through Birds curriculum is helping to do just that.
It is safe to say that our extraordinary experiences in the Amazon will enhance and enrich our classroom instruction moving forward. Participating in citizen science by submitting data to eBird and engaging in the Connecting Kids Through Birds activities has given Phil, Pam, and me new insights into and a deeper appreciation of bird migration and conservation. For all three of us, experiencing the incredible diversity of flora and fauna, especially the birds and primates, of the Peruvian Amazon was another highlight of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Our expectations were surpassed in all regards as we engaged in real life inquiry and citizen science, spent time immersed in the unbelievable ecosystem of the Amazon Rainforest, and made connections with others that will last a lifetime.
The penultimate experience of my Amazon adventure was a night birding excursion by boat on the Napo River. It was very dark on the river. We were floating along, shining our flashlights into the deep, black forest all around us, hoping to see the eye shine of nocturnal species. A strange, hauntingly melancholic cry could be heard in the distance. It was like nothing I had ever heard before, the mournful, whistled notes dropping in pitch and volume. Our guide, Lucio, a gifted birder and local inhabitant, told us it was the call of the Common Potoo, a bizarre looking, nocturnal bird that is rarely seen during the day. Usually perched on dead tree snags, it can remain perfectly motionless for long periods. Its cryptic plumage and upright posture make it almost invisible, appearing like the dead branch upon which it is perched. The Common Potoo reveals its presence with this eerie vocalization that carries for long distances. Our boat was quickly navigated into a side channel of the river. No one spoke as we silently glided along, the strange, eerie sound growing stronger. Lucio began to sweep the beam of his light up and through the branches of the overhanging trees when we saw it, the bright reflection of huge yellow eyes. He had located the elusive Common Potoo, providing us with a thrilling encounter with a life list species. It was, to quote Phil, “an incredible, magical evening,” and one I will not soon forget.
Author’s Note: I teach 3rd grade at Breck School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This trip to Peru was the first experience of a yearlong sabbatical that I was granted from my school. From Peru, I traveled to Ithaca, NY to spend the rest of my sabbatical year working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I had the honor of joining the BirdSleuth Team and serving as their Resident Teacher Advisor.