Every day the kids wandered farther from our house collecting flowers for their journal until they started returning empty handed.
I knew that patience wasn’t an easy thing for a budding six-year-old and three-year-old, so I tried to redirect their energy. “Kyra, how would you like to add birds to your flower book project?”
Her droopy shoulders perked up. “Okay, let’s go catch some birds.”
I laughed. “We don’t collect birds like we collect flowers. How would you like it if somebody took you away from your Mommy and Daddy and put you in a cage?”
“That would not be so good.”
In seven years of being an Alaskan resident, we never found the time to stroll the boardwalks of Potter Marsh that wind about 1550 feet from a parking lot over a rich habitat for birds.
As soon as we arrived, Kyra ran towards the bluff without pausing once to look for birds. Ethan wrapped his fist around my pinky and pointed at anything that moved in the water or grass. “What’s that, Mommee?” And if I didn’t respond right away, he’d decide “fish” or “duck.”
The ducks he found were actually a family of Canada geese with four goslings. Peeking through the boardwalk fence, Ethan tracked the fuzzy gray babies as they wobbled in and out of the water.
He studied them silently with no expression on his face. I had time to photograph the geese and twist my long hair away from my neck so that the ocean breeze could make its way down my back.
Finally, he asked, “What do baby ducks do?”
The question caught me off guard and I heard myself ask him, “What do you do?”
He thought about it for a while, then responded, “Play. Play with Lightning McQueen.”
Kyra was in a state of agitation by the time we caught up to her. She wasn’t tall enough to reach the binoculars at the end of the boardwalk and I think she believed that that was the only way she could see a bird. I lifted her up and after a few seconds of blinking, she complained, “Nothing. I see nothing.”
She stomped her feet. “Patience. What is patience? I don’t know what patience is!” Then, she collapsed into a heap.
Christina Salmon, once told me how her son learned patience from bird hunting. She said, “To sit quietly in a bird blind for hour s at a time requires a good imagination for a six-year-old boy! You have to be alert, and watch the sky all evening, for a slim chance that a flock will fly overhead.”
Bird hunting wasn’t something we had access to, but bird watching, I realized, could offer me similar teachable moments. Bending down to her eye level, I asked, “Kyra, would you like to see some baby birds?”
She squeezed some tears out of her eyes and nodded.
Ethan proudly guided his sister to the crowd admiring the goslings. “See? The ducks play the toys.”
Kyra laughed, tears still glistening on her cheek, “Baby ducks swim in the water and eat grass. My answer is correct but Ethan’s is not correct.”
“Mine correct!” Ethan furrowed his eyebrows and pointed his index finger at his sister. “Babies play toys. Buz Lightyear!”
A few days later, Kyra wanted to try Potter Marsh again with her dad. We arrived at about the same time as the last visit, but I immediately noticed a dearth of birds and visitors. Kyra didn’t seem to notice as she proudly announced that she found a bird.
“Where Kyra? Show me?”
She pointed at a bird painted on a sign. Meanwhile, Ethan refused to walk. Curled up in my arms, he would lift his head occasionally and whimper, “Where are the babies?”
Just as I was about to doubt whether my kids were too young for birding, blue metallic streaked across the gray skies. A “cheerful series of liquid twitters” (according to my National Audubon Society Field Guide to Northern American Birds) sliced through the air polluted with a steady stream of gunfire sounds from the Rabbit Creek Shooting Park.
We identified it as a tree swallow. Both kids listened excitedly as I read from the field guide, “Tree swallows enjoy playing with a feather, which they drop and then retrieve as it floats in the air.”
Before returning home, the kids studied an arctic tern hunting for fish and counted 26 goslings in a crèche of five Canada geese families.
Birding engaged the whole family. Even Thomas downloaded a free app for identifying birds, which he said wasn’t very good. At one point, Kyra and Ethan did beg daddy for his iPhone. However, when Ethan pretends to be a gosling in my living room and Kyra peppers her journal with sketches of tree swallows, I’m hopeful that birdwatching might win their full attention someday.
Here are some of our favorite bird watching tools:
- Backyard Bird Identifier from National Geographic has a simple four question quiz.
- Bird Song Recordings from USGS entertained my kids for hours. They both chose their favorite “chirp” as Ethan called it.
- The Birders Library recommends several Bird Apps for the iPhone.