Students help threatened birds on the James River
This bird, a female prothonotary warbler, has travelled 1,000 miles to get to this tributary of the James to breed, only to be held up in front of Anne Moore’s seventh-grade science class. As the 26 students watch in rapt attention, Bulluck attaches a new color band to help track the bird during its migration. The bird returns the favor by leaving a dropping on Bulluck’s leg.
Every year the songbird migrates between the eastern United States and Central and South America, coming north to breed. Twenty-five years strong, Team Warbler, a joint venture between Virginia Commonwealth University, the Richmond Audubon Society and the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, has been researching the birds and helping them populate. In Panama, the birds are being threatened by the human destruction of their mangroves. Because of the project, the population of these warblers has been on the rise since 1987.
For the past five years, students from Robious Middle School have helped the warblers by building birdhouses for the project. Thanks to a grant from VCU, this year is the first time students has been able to paddle downriver to see the boxes themselves.
“It’s a lot better than the usual science class” says 13-year-old Tess Monks.
Six-hundred boxes dot the waterline along the James and its tributaries, 76 of which were built by Moore’s class. Because of wear and tear by the river, 10 percent to 30 percent of the boxes have to be replaced every year.
Using the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s mobile canoe unit, the students paddle down this tributary of the James near Deep Bottom Landing, learning about the ecosystem and the birds. Every year, the foundation uses these canoes to educate 35,000 students about the bay’s waterways and ecosystems.
Trip leaders Brooke Newton and Josh Bearman are in canoes almost every day teaching kids about the bay. The educators are using the birds as a springboard for broader ecological understanding.
“Focusing on one issue lets them into larger issues of habitat loss,” Bearman says. “These kinds of projects are good for making a connection.”
Part of that connection includes learning about pollution and runoff from fertilizers, sediments and nutrients.
“We try to get students to understand that they may impact the water quality,” says Gwen Pearson, general manager of Virginia education programs for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “These students – since they’ve been studying since January – are very knowledgeable.”
Through the Internet, Robious has connected to schools in Panama, which are tracking the same birds. A few students have even had a chance to practice their Spanish by emailing students in Panama.
“It’s cool to have all the contact with VCU students and with Panama,” says 13-year-old Riley Ceperich.
The group beaches on a nearby shore so the students can conduct tests on the water quality of the tributary. Students test pollution and dissolved oxygen levels and examine submerged aquatic vegetation. If they get good readings, Newton asks the students to dance in celebration. One group performs the “Electric Eel Slide” after its reading.
“I think the students have a greater appreciation of the issues facing the watershed,” says Moore of the project, adding that the contact with VCU students and professors is beneficial as well.
After lunch, the group heads to the wetlands to study how plants and animals have adapted to living in the marsh. Some students have difficulty walking because of the mud.
“It’s pretty funny when the kids get stuck,” says Pearson.
“We almost had to leave one,” Moore says.
Building boxes isn’t the only way Moore’s class has contributed to the project. This year her class raised $166 to fund a suitcase full of ecological materials for student use in Panama.
“We want to expand,” Moore says. “We want to continue this.”