Imagine a group of ten people standing perfectly quiet, for ten minutes not a word, just the subtle rustling of the wind in the rushes along the shore of Lake Rebecca at the bank of the Mississippi in Hastings, Minnesota. Now the silence is interrupted by the sound of willow leaves brushing against each other and there in the greenery is a Cedar Waxwing. A soft, “Oh”, circulates amongst the group and you can almost feel the shivers of quiet excitement. This is the Hastings Birding group. It’s a quiet thing.
In a January edition of the Hastings Star Gazette I noticed a small paragraph indicating that Cornell Ornithological Laboratory was seeking community groups to become citizen scientists, observe urban birds, collect data and report to Cornell. I thought I would take a chance and request a grant for Lifeworks. Needless to say I was amazed in February when we were notified that Lifeworks was one of eighteen organizations chosen from more than 680 applicants nationwide.
What a minute, we don’t know anything about birding! Of course as part of being a recipient of the grant we knew we would receive guidance and information from prestigious Cornell University but we wanted to do our best so we enlisted a friend, Kevin Smith, avid birder, and recent retiree from the City of Hastings Parks and Recreation Department. Lifeworks has worked at the City of Hastings doing light janitorial since 1996 and Kevin has always been an advocate for our employees. Now we have what we need; interest for the bird project; the support of Cornell, and a trusted guide for our amazing adventure.
One of the requirements for the grant was to identify a specific area in which to collect data. We chose Lake Rebecca because it is handicapped accessible but also because we thought that the environment of the lake, river and grassy area would provide us with an optimum opportunity to view the sixteen specified birds. We needed an area the size of half of a basketball court – check. We needed to observe in all directions for ten minutes each week; Kevin provided not only his expert knowledge and guidance but also books, field glasses and a scope with a camera – check. And we needed to learn to be quiet, and being quiet was not easy.
The list of specified birds includes: American Crow, American Robin, Baltimore Oriole, Barn Swallow, Black-crowned Night Heron, Brown-headed cowbird, Cedar Waxwing, European Starling, House Finch, House Sparrow, Killdeer, Mallard, Mourning Dove, Peregrine Falcon, and the Rock Pigeon. You can read more about at the Cornell web site www.celebrateurbanbirds.org
After spending time learning and listening to the materials provided we began our weekly observations in early June. At first the group was clumsy with the field glasses and scope and they definitely had to perfect assuming a quiet behavior but as the weeks went on they gained comfort in recognizing the birds both by sight and sound. They also learned that being quiet and listening is an important ingredient to successful observation.
Finding the crow, robin and mallard came easy but learning to identify a cedar waxwing, or peregrine falcon, now that requires some patience. Kevin made sure that we learned about the other birds that make their homes in our area, the indigo bunting, the American bald eagle.
Each week the group returned to the Hastings center to enter their findings on the Cornell web site. Recording the data was just one part of our proposed project; we also created bird trivia cards, made photo greeting cards and crafted both bird houses and mosaics.
After seventeen weeks of observing, the birders wanted to share their citizen science knowledge and data with the people of Hastings. On September 22 we held an open house with interactive stations for all ages. What a thrill to watch our clients assume the role of expert, teacher, authority. They greeted their guests with enthusiasm and pride as they directed them around the displays explaining each step. I heard,
“I am Nicholas, can I tell you about the birds I know?”
“My name is Tina; would you like to try my bird trivia cards?”
And in return from our community I heard, “I didn’t know that.” “This is amazing, how beautiful.”
It was amazing, who knew that we had birders in our midst. Thank you to Cornell for giving us the opportunity to be contributors and educators. We watched 112 mallard ducks grace the shoreline and found one peregrine falcon circling the sky. The elusive Black-crowned Night-Heron escaped us but we learned so much.
There is a lyric by Fred Ebb that says it all:
Happiness comes in on tip-toe
Well what’d’ya know
It’s a quiet thing
A very quiet thing