Getting Kids Out Into Nature

Raptor Research Field Trip

Last winter when we volunteered with the Puget Sound Bird Observatory, we asked if there was anyone who did raptor banding, because Annika was so interested in birds of prey.  We got connected with a local researcher, but weren’t able to go out with him last winter.  We tried again this winter, and yesterday Ben was gracious enough to let us tag along with him on one of his trips up on the Skagit Flats.  Ben is doing a study about site fidelity and demographics of raptor populations.  He does some banding and some resighting through the winter months.  We saw so many birds on this trip, but we weren’t successful at catching any for banding.

We started off in the rain.  Ben texted me as I was loading the car, wondering if we should still go.  My philosophy is generally to try, since often the weather isn’t as bad as it seems, and the forecast was for increasing clearing later in the day.  I must admit, I did have my doubts as we drove up I-5 in actual rain.  By the time we got up north of Arlington, though, the rain turned to a light mist, and finally stopped.  It was so nice to see a couple of sun breaks, and as we drove around the back roads of Fir Island, we even had the joy of a rainbow giving us hope.

skagit flats, birding with children, raptor studies, winter bird populations
Flock of snow geese

The first birds we noticed were the swans and snow geese.  Huge flocks of these impressive birds spend the winters in the expansive farmlands in that area.  When we rolled down the windows to take a photo of a field covered with white birds, the noise they made was something else! We saw so many bald eagles and their huge nests yesterday that we lost count.

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One of many bald eagles we spotted

Many other raptors were out, as well.  We were mostly after the common red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, merlins, and American kestrels.  We would try to find a hawk that was perched on a tree or a wire, and then set the little trap out on the side of the road and drive away.  In the trap was a mouse – the rodent was secure inside two layers of wire, and multiple loops of filament came off the top of the trap.  These acted like nooses to tighten around the talons of a bird that tried to grab the mouse.  The mouse would not be harmed, and Ben would come to grab the raptor, take down its data and give it a band on its leg.  The raptor would then be released, and hopefully resighted in the future.  Unfortunately, though we tried many times, no hawks or kestrels were interested in a mouse in a trap. (I’m sure the mouse was relieved!)

raptor research, scientific study
Mouse in trap

We still learned a lot, though. For one thing, the kids learned that science, especially field work, is unpredictable and sometimes boring and unsuccessful.  We saw many northern harriers flying over the fields, several red tails, and a Cooper’s hawk.  We spotted two birds that Ben had tagged before.  Annika said she spotted a kestrel in a field, and we turned around to verify it.  Sure enough, there was one perched right there!  No one else had noticed it.  This was the first trip I had seen kestrels in the wild.  In the grey light they looked at times kind of like robins to me, with their diminutive size and rusty coloration.

This trip consisted of hours of driving, looking and waiting.  The kids were pretty patient, but by lunch time they were getting bored and tired.

kids and science, skagit flats
Future falconer

Annika spent most of the day with her stuffed eagle perched on her arm, a glove on her hand to protect her from its plush talons.

kids in nature, birding with children
Bald eagle wrangler

Ben drove us back to the Park and Ride in the early afternoon.  What a great experience this was for us, even with our disappointment of not catching a live bird!  We are super thankful to Ben for making the time to bring us along and for being patient with us as we asked a lot of questions.

Here are a couple more photos from the last stop we made at one of the State wildlife preserves.

fir island, skagit flats, bird watching
Looking out over the tidal flats
fir island, skagit flats
Looking north toward Mt. Vernon
skagit flats, fir island, birding, winter raptors
Another eagle in the middle of the photo
kids in nature, kids photography, bird watching
Ben set up a scope to look through and Gabe tried to take photos through it

Post Script:  Several people have asked me how I got so lucky to find Ben.  You know, I think the secret is that I wasn’t afraid to ask people.  It was an interest of Annika’s, and so I looked for opportunities.  Of course, people are more willing to do things to help educate cute children, but I think it’s true many times in life.  If you are interested in something, ask around until you find a mentor or someone who is willing to let you observe their work.  Many people enjoy sharing what they do.  It never hurts to ask!

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