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Learning on the wing: Bird Day returns to Santa Rosa’s Abraham Lincoln Elementary

The group of Santa Rosa elementary students was pitter-pattering around a lawn off West Ninth Street, peering into spotting scopes amid a racket of squawking, shrieking and flapping wings.

The sights and sounds all meant one thing: after two years of hiatus, Bird Day was back at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School.

“It’s a phenomenal experience,” said Principal Jeanine Wilson. “You can’t just pull this out of a book.”

She was touting the outdoor lesson on the eating habits, migration patterns and development of egrets and herons, species that use their long necks and legs and keen eyes to hunt in and around waterways.

The elementary students watched them Friday through spotting scopes carefully arranged by volunteers with Audubon Canyon Ranch.

The conservation groups Audubon Canyon Ranch and Madrone Audubon Society have for years studied these birds, who annually take up residence in the blue gum eucalyptus trees bisecting Ninth Street, just yards away from the school.

“Look at the tall one!” a first-grader said to his friends as they took turns peering into the scope that Emiko Condeso, ecologist with Audubon Canyon Ranch, had arranged. The student pointed to a great egret preening in the highest part of one of the trees.

The long-legged great egrets, smaller snowy egrets, black-crowned night-herons and cattle egrets — distinguished by orange plumage on their heads — all nest in the trees.

And the West Ninth Street site is one of the best-known Bay Area rookeries.

Jonathan Cruzcruz, a sixth-grader, said he liked the look of the black-crowned night-herons best.

“I like how its eyes are bright red, and the babies are so smooth,” he said.

The cluster of 210 nests on West Ninth Street is a key site for scientific study, too, with observers tracking the birds’ movements and needs.

Bill Bridges, a volunteer with Audubon Canyon Ranch, said he has come several times over the past several weeks to count the number of nests and chicks.

“It’s amazing to have four different species in one location,” he said.

Why do the birds choose to make their nests along a main route in a residential area of Santa Rosa?

“We don’t 100% know,” Condeso, the ecologist, said.

Susan Kirks, president of the Madrone Audubon Society, hypothesized that safety from avian predators is a major draw: no bald or golden eagles venture that far into civilization.

Passing traffic is the main threat if a baby bird falls from the nest, but Madrone Audubon Society members have worked to minimize the risk by erecting a perimeter of construction fencing around each tree and laying down straw to break their fall.

Sonoma County Bird Rescue takes the fallen chicks to be rehabbed at the International Bird Rescue in Fairfield. Later, volunteers release them in the Laguna de Santa Rosa, Condeso said.

Throughout the 25 years they’ve been nesting along West Ninth Street, the birds have been a source of both ire and excitement.

While the learning experiences they provide are welcomed, their droppings and the constant cacophony as they come and go have been less so enjoyed by the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Still, years of Bird Day events in which students learn about the ecological significance of the site have helped smooth some feathers, organizers said.

Audubon Canyon Ranch staff have also sought to deepen the learning experience by creating a curriculum teachers can use to introduce biology and ecology concepts to students before the big event. They include a great egret graphing lesson and activity books centered on Ephran the Egret.

“They start to respect the animals and the environment and their neighborhood in a much different way,” Wilson said. “We can teach it in the classroom, but when Audubon comes with the scopes and they get to see up close and personal and they hear it, it really makes a huge impact that they remember forever.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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