Salisbury students flock to bird project

SALISBURY — “It’s a spoonbill!”
Thus exclaimed Sophia Boise excitedly, as she dipped a slotted ladle into a bucket filled with water, reeds, sand and plastic bugs.
Sophia, along with her class of first- and second-graders at Salisbury Community School, was studying the eating habits of birds this past Thursday during the fourth and final of a series of visits from Otter Creek Audubon Society members. The youngsters travelled among six stations, where they used tweezers to extract gummy worms from “dirt” (crumbled chocolate cookies), sipped juice from a bouquet of faux flowers using straws, and performed and discussed other ways that birds use their specially adapted beaks to get food.
For Salisbury students, hands-on learning about birds is hardly unusual. This has been a year-long unit of study, thanks to the efforts of K-sixth-grade science teacher Amy Clapp and a partnership with Otter Creek Audubon, including Carol Ramsayer from the OCAS Education Committee. On Thursday, volunteers Barb Otsuka, Marcia Parker and Heidi Willis joined Ramsayer and Clapp in the classroom to assist with the activities.
The inspiration behind this integrated, interdisciplinary topic stemmed from a trip Clapp took last summer. She applied for, and won, a grant from OCAS that enabled her to spend a week last July on Hog Island in Maine attending a workshop on birding for educators.
The experience fueled a desire to bring her newfound passion into the classroom.
Last fall, Clapp applied for and received a grant from the Addison County Educational Endowment Fund that allowed her to purchase three bird feeding stations, birdseed for a year, bird identification books, and nesting boxes. The OCAS lent her a classroom birding kit equipped with binoculars, bird books and a blank journal that students filled with observations of the daily visitors to the feeder outside their window.
Clapp and her students posted their bird sightings to Cornell University’s well-respected bird tracking website, and used the university’s extensive ornithological resources to create their own bird books with drawings and information about each species.
And the education extended far beyond the classroom walls and new feeders.
Taking advantage of the passionate network of OCAS members and other local naturalists, Clapp organized “Exploration Fridays” throughout the year. Experts led nature walks, sharing their extensive knowledge of birds and the outdoors with Clapp’s first- and second-grade students.
“Our first bird was a redstart,” recalled student Jackson Gillett of the first nature walk. “And my favorite bird is a red-tailed hawk.” 
Clapp also invited teacher Rodney Olsen and his students in the Diversified Occupations program in Middlebury into her classroom to teach bird banding to the upper grades. Weybridge carver Gary Starr demonstrated carving wooden birds, and sent the first- and second-graders home with wooden ornaments that they had hand-painted themselves.
As a capstone of the year’s study, last Thursday first- and second-graders were presented with their own bird guides by Willis, a former Salisbury teacher, and fellow volunteer Gail Willis, a self-described “birding cheerleader.”
Listening to students showed that their studies were truly extensive: As a group of students prodded a bin of chocolate dirt in search of gummy worms, Otsuka asked what kinds of birds did this. While the immediate response was “robin,” second-grader Phoenix Popp added, “The common grackle does this, too.”
The enthusiasm garnered throughout the year culminated in a school-wide bird-a-thon, held the weekend of May 16. Volunteers from OCAS held a practice bird-a-thon prior to the event, teaching students how to identify species by sight and sound.
When the weekend came, students invited their families to go birding. Clapp described the event as “hugely successful”; 60-70 percent of the school participated and the students raised about $550 through sponsors to purchase bird-friendly plantings for the school. Approximately 60 species were identified.
Ramsayer described the bird-a-thon as “a remarkable way to transition school learning to the home setting,” commending how “Clapp pulled together a wide variety of community resources to educate, motivate and inspire her students through the school year.”
Clapp reflected on “the beauty of doing something without strictly curricular goals,” something that she valued from her time on Hog Island and strived to incorporate into her classroom. As for her students, Clapp said, “they’re doing this for real … it doesn’t feel like labor. It’s living, it’s learning.”
Next year, Clapp, Ramsayer and OCAS volunteers intend to continue to expand the Salisbury Community School’s study of birds since, as Ramsayer said, “birding has become a common language around the school.”
“Everything has snowballed,” Clapp concluded about the year. “One positive thing has come out of the next.”
Mary Langworthy is at [email protected].

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