This class is for the birds

Brad Warrick's students were skeptical at first, but now they love to look for birds with him

Brad Warrick is always talking to his elementary school students about two things. One is football, a sport he played when he was in school. The other is birds.

Birds have fascinated Mr. Warrick ever since he was a boy. One day he was watching a bird with a red eye rummaging in the brush. He opened his field guide and found a picture that matched it. It was a rufous-sided towhee. "I was so excited about being able to identify it myself," Warrick says. Now he's been on birding trips to 30 countries and seen more than 2,250 of the world's 10,000-plus bird species.

"He's amazing," says Andy Van Noy, an eighth-grader in Warrick's private one-room school in Big Oak Valley, Calif. "He can identify birds without binoculars or a bird book - from five miles away!" he adds, exaggerating just a little.

Today Warrick is taking the class on a bird walk on his 70-acre ranch in northern California. It's the first warm, sunny day in a week. The class is hoping to see some spring "migrants," birds flying north for the summer. Fifth-grader Ariana Dale is eager to see something else - something in a nesting box Warrick put up in late winter. He asked her to keep track of it.

The kids step outside equipped with field guides, binoculars, and checklists of birds to look for. Within seconds Warrick spots the first bird: a tree swallow. Swallows eat only flying insects, he explains. So after the cold, wet weather, these birds desperately need to feed their chicks. Ariana hopes the sun has come in time.

'Don't forget our garbage cleaners'

Warrick sets up his spotting scope - a telescope on a tripod that magnifies birds 20 to 60 times. The kids take turns looking through it. They see a flash of turquoise on the bird's black feathers. So why is the tree swallow in their field guides blue?

"The sun changes the iridescent colors on the bird," Warrick explains.

The class spots a female Anna's hummingbird and lesser goldfinches at a feeder. Then, "Quick!" Warrick says. "There's a beautiful western kingbird in that tree!" The kids rush to take a look, find it in their field guides, and check it off their lists. "Make sure you see it," Warrick says, "because part of the fun is seeing how pretty it is.

"And don't forget our garbage cleaners," he says, sweeping his arm over the valley where large birds are soaring in circles. They're turkey vultures, and they eat the flesh of dead animals (carrion). They can smell carrion up to seven miles away. The vultures are very efficient fliers. They roost in trees until the morning sun warms the earth. Then they spread their wings and let thermals (rising currents of warm air) carry them effortlessly upward. Because they can fly using so little energy, they can go without food for weeks.

The group heads out, but doesn't get very far. Warrick has spotted a black-chinned hummingbird.

"It's in the scope!" he shouts, his voice rising. "Ellen, use your binoculars!" he says. "If he turns his head, you'll see a beautiful violet."

Next the class walks down through a huge field, watching out for rattlesnakes.

"Can I check my nesting box?" Ariana asks.

"On the way back," Warrick says. He is searching the field for a flash of brilliant blue. He wants to get a male western bluebird in the scope.

Soon someone spots one sitting on a rock about 50 yards away. "OK, scopers!" Warrick calls. "Isn't that a gorgeous bird?" Warrick has seen the most beautiful birds in the world - quetzals in Costa Rica and birds of paradise on the island of New Guinea, north of Australia. But he gets just as excited over the beauty of this bluebird, surveying the field below as a breeze ruffles his spectacular, royal-blue feathers.

Warrick's ear is as keen as his eye. "Oh! A western kingbird is taking food to its nest in the gutter of our house," he says. "I just heard its call." Then he hears another bird that has just returned from wintering in Mexico or Central America: an ash-throated flycatcher. "Listen!" Warrick says. "His call sounds like 'Quick! Three bricks!' " Everyone is quiet.

"I heard it!" says a surprised student.

The 'Tyrannosaurus Rex' of the air

Warrick teaches his class lots of interesting things: The cooper's hawk is "the T-Rex of birds." No bigger than a crow, it flies so fast and turns so sharply that it catches birds that larger hawks can't. The red-breasted sapsucker eats insects as well as sap. By pecking trees until sap runs, it attracts insects to eat. Wrens are secretive, hiding in brushy areas.

Finally, they come to a dead tree with hundreds of holes up and down its trunk. Ben Davis picks up an acorn shell. It is the same size as the holes on the tree. Warrick explains that an acorn woodpecker stored acorns in the tree for his winter food.

On the way back to the classroom the group passes a tree swallow nest. "They'll dive bomb us!" says Chris Dale, a seventh-grader who likes warplanes. But today they don't. Chris thinks swallows are cool.

The bird walk is almost over. Warrick was hoping to spot a special bird called a phainopepla, a black bird with a crest. "This is where I usually see him," he says, "but he's not performing for me today." Birding is like fishing, he says. You're not guaranteed to catch a big fish - or to see a special bird. But it's fun to try.

'Now I think birds are pretty cool'

Everyone walks up the hill toward Ariana's nesting box. The wind flattens the grasses in waves that fly across the field. The bluebird chicks in Ariana's box hatched before the bad weather. Are they still OK? The first bluebird brood of the year (they have two broods each season) has a low survival rate. Still, she has hope.

Ariana isn't tall enough to see inside the nesting box, hung on a tree trunk. Eighth-grader Chris Greiner approaches the box.

"Are they moving?" Warrick asks.

Chris doesn't answer right away. "One's moving," he says. Ariana shoots her fists into the air. A big smile lights her face.

"They're all moving," Chris adds. Ariana jumps up and down.

"That's such a relief!" she says.

Back in the classroom, the kids are supposed to be doing math. But field guides and checklists - with about 20 birds checked off - linger on their desks.

"At first I thought birds were kind of stupid," sixth-grader Jonathon Greiner says. "But now I think they're pretty cool. They have cool lives, and are interesting to watch."

With a mentor like Brad Warrick, any kid can find out just how cool birds are.

How to get started watching

1. Find a mentor. It's no fun to spend time looking for birds and not see many. Or to see them but not know what they are. That's why teacher and birder Brad Warrick recommends hunting for birds with an experienced birder.

Maybe you know someone like that already. If not, don't worry. Ask your mom or dad to take you on a bird walk sponsored by your local Audubon Society. (A list of local chapters is at: www.audubon.org.) Leaders of these walks love to welcome new birders. They may take you under their wing.

2. Get a field guide and binoculars. There are lots of field guides to birds. For children 7 and up, Mr. Warrick recommends "The Golden Guide: Birds of North America" (St. Martin's Press, $15.95). The guide's range maps tell you if a bird lives near you. Get a checklist of birds in your area from your local Audubon Society. Read up on some of those birds in your field guide before you go birding. Notice the "field marks" that will help you identify those birds.

If you can, get some binoculars. The ones best for birding are 7 X 35 or 8 X 40. (The first number is the magnification: 7 or 8 times. The second number is the diameter of the front lens in millimeters. The bigger the lens, the brighter the image.)

3. Start a list. Every time you go on a bird walk, take a journal with you to keep track of birds you see. Write down where you saw each bird, the date, what the bird was doing, and any other interesting things about your experiences. If you like to draw, you might add some sketches to your journal.

4. Observe birds in your yard. Once you've had some experience, try identifying some birds on your own at home. Learn their songs or calls. Put up bird feeders and a nesting box or two, perhaps. (Many birds have a second brood in the summer, so it's not too late to attract a nesting pair.) You'll love seeing eggs and then chicks in the nest. Don't bother the birds too often, though. I recommend Stokes backyard nature books (www.StokesBooks.com) as a resource. The books can tell you all you need to know about attracting birds and providing for their needs.

5. Branch out. Sign up for a class on birding at a nature center. Join the American Birding Association as a student member (go to www.americanbirding.org).

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