The children, wielding clipboards and binoculars, walked single file across Grand Avenue on a recent Wednesday morning. Chatting excitedly amongst themselves, their teachers tried to get their attention. They quieted slightly as they reached the edge of Lake Merritt. The glimmering water shone in the fall sun as the children eagerly called out the wingspans of large brown pelicans flying above them.
Lake Merritt is a birding haven and a long-established bird sanctuary. Over a hundred types of migratory birds visit the lagoon each year, delighting bird enthusiasts and community members alike.
And for over 30 years, St. Paul’s Episcopal School’s third-grade classes have been helping keep track of bird populations. Established in the late 1980s, the birding program at the Adams Point neighborhood private school has been dedicated to teaching Oakland youth to understand, recognize, and steward Lake Merritt’s array of birds. The program also teaches the young birders math and is integrated into their larger science curriculum.
Kate Foley, one of the school’s third-grade instructors and a St. Paul’s alumna who has been teaching there for over 30 years—10 of those spent teaching the third grade—is dedicated to keeping the birding tradition alive. Foley didn’t start out as a bird watcher, but once she found out about the school’s avian observation program, she was hooked.
Foley spent her personal time reading up on bird-watching techniques and even attended a week-long training session by Cornell University for teachers creating birding curricula in their classrooms. She now leads the group of third-graders out to the lake every two weeks, integrating their classroom curriculum with real-world observations.
“I talk with them about being citizen scientists,” Foley said. “We talk about how it is important, it’s part of science, it’s part of being a citizen, reporting what’s happening to the environment. I think it’s very important for the kids to grow up with that and to learn about taking care of the area that we live in, that includes the creatures that live here.”
At the lake, the children are tasked with counting and spotting different types of birds. Foley prompts them to recognize the size, shape, and colors of different species. The kids excitedly call out their findings, scribbling furiously on their sheets of paper to mark down what they see.
“I like that we get to be with buddies and learn new things about ducks and different birds and tally them and see how many we find,” said one third-grader, Ama.
Another student, Neva, shared the questions that can arise from this activity, “Every time we come through here we see different birds and in this lake, we see a lot of fishes and stuff, and we wonder what kinds of fishes can the birds eat?”
Foley isn’t the only teacher out with the group. Lark Moore, the other third-grade teacher, was also new to birding when she arrived at St. Paul’s, but has since embraced the program wholeheartedly.
“I was super stoked when I got this job and they were like ‘Our whole third-grade unit is about birds’ and I was like ‘That is super sweet,” said Moore. “It’s always cool because there is always at least one bird that I don’t know and they ask ‘What’s that bird?’ and we look it up based on the size and shape.”
Foley said that alumni who attended the school many years ago often tell her about their fond memories of walking Lake Merritt to spot wildlife.
However, the bird study program isn’t just a fun and educational activity for St. Paul’s students. Over the years, the kids have made meaningful contributions to ornithological research.
Once back in their classroom, the kids tally up their observations, and once they have a consensus on the average number of each bird species they spotted, Foley sends their data to the eBird app.
Cornell University in upstate New York has a well-known Ornithology lab—ornithology being the study of birds and bird behavior—that has been a leader in helping study birds for over a century. Launched in the early 2000s, the eBird app created by the lab has allowed citizen scientists to track birds across the world. The eBird database currently holds 1.3 billion records of publicly contributed and available bird data.
“eBird data use ranges from research and monitoring to species management, habitat protection, and informing law and policy,” a Cornell Lab of Ornithology spokesperson told The Oaklandside. “eBird data have been used in hundreds of conservation decisions and peer-reviewed papers, thousands of student projects, and they also help inform bird research worldwide”
In addition to advancing the global study of birds, the students will use the data they collected throughout the year for their own projects. As the migratory patterns of the lake’s birds change, so do the kids’ areas of focus. The students go from spotting as many types of birds as possible to picking a bird of their own to focus on. By the end of the year, students will have engaged in multiple projects and activities that have rounded out their birding knowledge.
Foley hopes that the skills and knowledge that the kids learn in their time as St. Paul’s third-graders will set them up for a lifelong journey of learning, stewardship, and appreciating nature.
“I feel like it’s something these kids can do for the rest of their lives, so whenever you go, you can take a minute and notice a bird that you see,” Foley said.