Fourth graders at Chautauqua Elementary School take notes on museum specimens of birds local to Vashon. The birds were brought to school for the day by Gary Shugart, the collections manager at Tacoma’s Slater Museum of Natural History. (Susie Fitzhugh Photo)

Fourth graders at Chautauqua Elementary School take notes on museum specimens of birds local to Vashon. The birds were brought to school for the day by Gary Shugart, the collections manager at Tacoma’s Slater Museum of Natural History. (Susie Fitzhugh Photo)

Young students learn about birds from island expert

  • Tuesday, April 24, 2018 11:14am
  • News

Two dozen students stood silently in the woods behind Chautauqua Elementary School concentrating on a sound beyond the lawnmowers, the screaming children on the playground and the airplanes overhead. Harsi Parker pointed to her ear then to the trees above until the students could pick out the slurred, spirally whistle of a purple finch. They nodded and smiled as they heard it.

This was the last day of Parker’s portion of the fourth grade Birding Program, in which students got a chance to field-test some of the identification skills they’d learned in the classroom.

Vashon Audubon has had a part in teaching elementary students about birds since 1990, and this is the fifth year Parker has been the volunteer teacher. She covers bird identification, habitat, behavior, calls and songs. The students also get a chance to examine museum specimens, do bird-related art projects and take birding field trips to KVI beach, Nisqually Wildlife Refuge and the Chautauqua Woods.

It’s a mini version of the intensive Master Birder class Parker and her husband Ezra took in 2012 with birding legend Dennis Paulson at Seattle Audubon. Since then, the Parkers have become Vashon’s birding power couple — leading the free monthly Audubon field trips, organizing the Annual Christmas Bird Count and conducting seabird surveys. Harsi says it helps that they have shared this passion together.

“You can feed each other’s love for it over the years,” she said.

Parker teaches because she loves awakening that same passion in her students:

“I love their unbridled enthusiasm. All of them are somewhat interested, some are very interested, and a few are passionate and end up studying on their own outside of class. One of my students even showed up on the Audubon bird walk with her grandfather,” she said.

Learning songs and calls was a turning point in Parker’s birding life.

“It’s a huge asset, especially on Vashon where we can’t see the birds most of the time,” she added.

She especially enjoys sharing this skill with students.

“It opens up a whole new way of experiencing birds, and there are so many opportunities on Vashon to apply what they learn in class,” she said.

During the classroom sessions, she played birdsongs on her phone for the students to practice identifying. She turned the volume way down to test their focus and prepare them for the hardest part of listening to birds: hearing them over the noise of daily life.

Once outside, the students were mesmerized by the dramatic courtship display of a male Anna’s hummingbird. They watched him climb high in the air and swoop down in front of them repeatedly. Parker had them listen for the difference between his song and the sharp burst of sound the hummingbird made at the end of his swoop. She explained that the second sound is made by vibrations of air passing through the bird’s tail feathers. The students thought that was cool.

That moment illustrates why Parker will continue to teach children about birds:

“It’s a joy being there first-hand,” she said, “to see the unlocking of awareness in their minds of what’s around them and watch as it starts to make sense to them.”

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