A birding haven

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Bird’s the word for many Valencia County birders, for whom bird watching is more than a hobby — it’s a passion and a way of life.

Photos courtesy of Friends of Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area: The Thursday Birders group, from Central New Mexico Audubon, come to Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area several times a year for bird walks.

“For me, as a person, I think (bird watching) helps me pay attention to the world around me,” says Molly Madden, the education coordinator for the Friends of Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.

Madden is one of many local residents who harbor a fascination with our feathered friends, a hobby, she says, that keeps you constantly learning, investigating and researching.

As education coordinator for FWWCA and a retired teacher, Madden shares her intrigue with Belen and Los Lunas fourth graders through the Birds of a Feather Explore Together program. The curriculum, which is an Audubon New Mexico program offered through FWWCA, is taught by Madden, Evelyn Brower and Inez Sisneros, all retired teachers from Belen Schools.

Audubon New Mexico travels to communities outside of Santa Fe, where it is located, to give day-long presentations in schools. However, Audubon agreed to give Madden and the other volunteer educators its curriculum and come down and train them so that they could implement the program in schools themselves.

Madden said this way the volunteers are able to break the program up over several weeks into five lessons, rather than try to teach it all in one day.

“We are now implementing this program in the Belen and Los Lunas schools on a regular basis, and so that they don’t have to come down from Santa Fe to do it — we do it,” said Madden. “This program just really fit Whitfield to the T.”

Madden says that birds are easy to study because you can count on them always being around and through all seasons, and they can offer valuable clues about the environment they live in. They can signal changes in their environment, says Madden, such as over or under population of predators or food sources.

“So birds, besides being beautiful and lovely to hear, and just interesting in so many ways, are important for us to be aware of,” she said. “So in our focus with the kids, and it is fourth grade very specifically because it ties in with fourth grade science concept of adaptations. We use our bird lessons to look at birds, but it’s also the bigger concept of adaptations.”

In the first lesson, the volunteers introduce the students to birds and examining what makes a bird a bird, the purpose of feathers and how to use a journal.

The journals they are required to keep, not for a grade, but for their own thoughts and observations about birds and their environment.

In the second lesson feathers, skulls, eggs, talons and nests are brought into the classroom and the students look at the different types of each and how they benefit the type of bird they belong to.

For example, they study the different types of beaks and how a hawk’s large, curved beak is different from a hummingbird’s long, needle-like beak.

By the third lesson, students begin learning how to use field guides to look up birds they might spot in the field.

During lesson four, the students take a field trip to the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area in La Costancia and spend time exploring, observing, and recording their findings in their journals.

Madden calls lesson five a wrap-up session when the kids dissect sterilized owl pellets. In this exercise, the students get an up close and personal look at how food webs work by looking at bones and other findings in the pellets and discovering what type of rodent, for example, that owl’s lunch might have been.

Madden says her interest in birding grew slowly over the years, but that the first time she began paying attention to birds in an “organized fashion” was while living in San Antonio, Texas, in the ’70s, which she calls a “birder’s paradise.”

She had friends who were interested in watching birds and they helped build her excitement for it, and at age 23 she acquired her first pair of binoculars.

She says being a birder is similar to being a detective or a sleuth in that you are often observing birds you’ve never seen before and have to go home, crack open your field guide and try and find the bird you were watching.

And when there are thousands of birds flying around the world, this isn’t always an easy task to pin-point a specific one. Spending time with other birders, she says, is where you learn the most.

“Since I’ve been (at Whitfield), I’ve learned tons,” she said. “You learn when you’re with other birders.”

And she says that any time anyone decides they have an interest in birding, there are always a lot of birders around who are eager to share what they know. She believes that in order to keep vibrant as humans, we must keep learning and keep asking questions, which, she says, is what bird watching gives to her.

Linda Heinze, outreach coordinator for FWWCA, says she joined the Audubon Society while living in Oregon 14 years ago, and learned a lot just from being around other birders.

For her, it was also a great way to meet new people and see new places. She recalled one adventure when she went out on a boat with a group to bird watch at sea.

Administration coordinator for FWWCA, Margette Pulis, says birding alone is fine, but that it is the most fun to bird watch with others. She says she enjoys birding with Heinze, who, she says, can hear birds and, unless it’s a mockingbird, identify it just by it’s sound.

“I like seeing birds with other people and having that ‘ah-hah’ moment,” says Heinze.

For both women, birds are full of lessons and insight.

For Pulis, birds teach her about “the color of life.”

“Really, each one has a uniqueness,” Pulis says, adding that there is a sparrow in her back yard that she’s named Tuffy, who has one little feather that sticks up out of his head, making him different for the rest. “It reminds me of the uniqueness and beauty of people.”

For Heinze, her favorite thing about birds is their “freedom to fly wherever they want and remind us there’s so much life out there.” She says bird watching is more relaxing than anything else because it brings her into the moment.

You have to be tuned in, she says, you can’t be worrying about this and that or you’ll miss the birds.

“Part of the fun of it is you don’t go out with expectations,” says Heinze.

She recalled recently watching what might have been sparrows chase a hawk from their nest, describing it as “drama in the skies.” And another recent incident in which she watched a male humming bird fly in fantastical figure eights while a female sat on a branch watching. She later realized she had been watching their mating ritual.

“The unexpected always unfolds before your eyes — you never know what you’re going to see. I think that’s what lures us in,” she said.

Birding also offers people an excuse to get out in nature. And Pulis says that when you are out birding you discover more than just birds, you get to observe bees, butterflies, flowers and all parts of the natural world.

Birding, says Heinze, helps people find the creatures’ places in the ecosystem. She used swallows as an example, explaining that they eat thousands of mosquitoes and how other birds eat insects that might otherwise decimate farmers’ crops. They help keep nature balanced, she said.

“That’s what we try to get across (at Whitfield), that everything has a place in nature,” Heinze says.

She describes Whitfield as a haven for birds that might not have a place to go otherwise, and that they have recorded more than 200 species in that area alone.

Both women agree that anyone interested in birding should not be intimidated to jump right in with seasoned birders. They also say that it is an inexpensive hobby and the only tools one really needs is a field guide, journal, binoculars, and possibly a good camera to take pictures for later identification.

For those interesting in birding, they recommend the following books: “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds,” by David Allen Sibley, “Birds of North America Western Region,” by Fred J. Alsop III, and “Birding Hot Spots of Central New Mexico,” by Albuquerque author Judy Liddell and Barbara Hussey.

Liddell will be giving a presentation from 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Sept. 22, at Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, and the ladies say this will be a good place for people to get their feet wet.


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.