Monomoy Students Flock to Yearlong Bird Program

An American Goldfinch goes for thistle seeds. This bird’s reproductive cycle is timed to the plant’s. (Photo by Sherri VandenAkker).

Seventh graders from Chatham and Harwich are getting a whole year to think about birds: their biology, the habitats they use and depend upon, and the threats they face on a daily basis.

The program is a new approach to leveraging Wellfleet Bay’s unique expertise to help schools teach fundamental science concepts and skills.

It began in October with introductory bird-focused lessons for the entire seventh grade followed by a field investigation. Later, students were given the option of taking part in a seminar, which includes a series of lessons on specialized bird topics and hands-on field experience.

Wellfleet Bay school programs coordinator Spring Beckhorn notes that the seminars also include introductory and follow-up lessons by seventh grade teacher, Melinda Forist, an avid birder herself. “Our partnership with Melinda is critical to the success of the program,” Spring says.

In November, students visited the sanctuary’s bird banding station to learn what kind of information is collected and why. The experience also included the rare and thrilling chance to see songbirds at very close range.

Monomoy seventh graders watch bird researcher James Junda attach a uniquely numbered band to a Chipping Sparrow’s ankle. (Photo by Sheila Hoogeboom).

Banding birds over a long period can reveal changes in numbers of birds and species. In a subsequent classroom lesson, Wellfleet Bay educator Christine Harris Bates showed the class photos of the sanctuary dating back to the 1930’s when there were far fewer trees. They also looked at pictures of the same sites today, most of them wooded.

What became the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in 1958 looked very different from the more forested landscape that exists now.

“If you were a Vesper Sparrow that prefers more grassland than trees, would you like it now or in the past?” “The past!” the students shouted in reply.

In an early February class about the biology of birds in winter, students were introduced to new terms such as torpor—a bird’s ability to reduce its metabolism to conserve just enough energy to survive a cold winter night.

Students were also invited to meet some stuffed birds, including a male Common Eider, set up on lab counters to inspire observations and questions (typically—“Was this bird once alive?” The answer is yes).

Students contemplate a Common Eider (and vice versa).

One student said the black and white eider reminded him of an Oreo cookie. The bill of a stuffed Common Loon was noted as being much sharper than the eider’s—suggesting to the kids that a loon’s diet includes fish.

Wellfleet Bay’s Christine Harris Bates asks students to compare the bills of an eider and a Common Loon.

Next up for this winter series—lessons on bird classification, issues surrounding beach management for threatened Piping Plovers, and a field investigation to learn what birds require for nesting habitat.

Will this special program create bird lovers? Maybe. But Spring Beckhorn says more important are the ecological concepts students are learning. “Through birds, the kids are discovering the interconnectedness of the natural world, human impacts on nature, the implications of climate change, and what they can do to help.”


Wellfleet Bay would like to thank the Mary-Louise Eddy and Ruth N. Eddy Foundation for making this yearlong bird education program possible in the Monomoy Regional Middle School. Our thanks also to Wellfleet Bay educator Heidi Clemmer for helping with this story.

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