Tag Archives: cornell

It’s A Quiet Thing

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.

Path leading to Lake Rebecca

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.

Lifeworks Citizen Scientists

Lifeworks Citizen Scientists

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.

Lifeworks Hastings Birding Art

Lifeworks Hastings Birding Art

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.”

September 22 Celebration Lifeworks Hastings

September 22 Celebration Lifeworks Hastings

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


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Leah and Laura. The Summer Ladies from Gustavus.

Leah and Laura – both students at Gustavus College in St. Peter, both studying psychology, both have warm smiles and sparkling eyes, and both have names that start with that start with an L.   Leah is volunteering at the Eagan center and is passionate about dance and creative movement. Laura is volunteering at the Hastings center and is passionate about art, pottery in particular.

Leah, Laura, Birds, and Art

Laura and Leah have been volunteering with us since early June and I had a chance to sit down with them this week to gather feedback about their Lifeworks experience. Neither young woman  had previous experience spending time with adults with disabilities, and both said early in the conversation that they were surprised about how easy it is to build relationships with clients at Lifeworks.

Every Wednesday Laura goes with a group of Hastings clients and staff to observe birds in a local park. Earlier this year the Hastings center was awarded a grant from Cornell University to do bird observation and data collection for the summer. Laura said that there are 16 birds that the group is assigned to look for using binoculars, eyes, and ears. She said they each created bird books and studied bird calls, it seemed like a big task in the beginning but now the members of the group know all sixteen birds both by sight and call. “Amazing,” she said.

Laura has also been impressed by the level of creative talent at the Hastings center. “The art is remarkable,” she said. “There is a dragon mosaic that one person made that is so intricate and beautiful.” Next week she will be going to the Dakota county fair with the client artists to see their work be displayed for the public, hopefully with a blue ribbon attached.

Leah has been moving through the Eagan center, spending time in each program room, finding out what makes that room and its members unique and different. She told me she was surprised at how easy it was to build relationships with our clients. I asked her why and she said, “Every one is so friendly, so welcoming, their personalities are so genuine. This is refreshing and different from other experiences I have had with new groups of people.” I said I need examples and she laughed,
“Well, Shirley is happy if I will just play a bean bag game with her. Shirley’s laugh is contagious, if she laughs I find myself laughing too. Or Shannon, she is so sweet and warm hearted, she loves it if I will just spend time talking and really listening to her. I am struck by the fact that it is so simple to make someone happy, I can’t help but feel happy too when I am here.”

August is upon us and the Gustavus ladies will be heading back to college soon. Laura will be a junior and Leah a senior. Both say they plan to come back when college allows, both say their time here was life changing and has helped them clarify where they are headed in their career path. Laura would like to be a social worker and Leah hopes to get her PhD. in psychology. After being with us for the summer they both say emphatically that they will direct their careers to work with people with disabilities. Thank you Leah and Laura, it has been our pleasure to spend summer days with you. The freckles and tans will fade, the warm days will come to an end but memories of friendship will stay with us forever.

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