For the birds

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Students, from left, Jalen Wheelock, Nicholas Fefee and Joshua Watson fill a bird feeder with seed. Birder Dennis Demcheck is volunteer adviser to fourth-graders in Pamela Fry's classes at Westdale Heights Academic Elementary Magnet School on College Drive.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Students, from left, Jalen Wheelock, Nicholas Fefee and Joshua Watson fill a bird feeder with seed. Birder Dennis Demcheck is volunteer adviser to fourth-graders in Pamela Fry's classes at Westdale Heights Academic Elementary Magnet School on College Drive.

Westdale Heights fourth-graders participating in national Project FeederWatch

Fourth-grade teacher Pamela Fry not only tolerates her students’ rushing to the windows during class she encourages it.

Fry’s students’ classes at Westdale Heights Academic Elementary Magnet School on College Drive have a view of the school’s central courtyard.

The courtyard is planted to attract birds and butterflies. There’s a fish pond. There are vegetable plots.

It’s the birds that have Fry’s students leaving their desks to observe and record.

The students are field scientists reporting to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Ten years ago, birders across North America passed the 1-million checklist mark as part of Cornell’s Project FeederWatch which was begun in 1987.

Fry’s students are mentored by Dennis Demcheck, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist. Demcheck, a knowledgeable bird-watcher, has spent at least 100 hours of his own time helping the students learn about the birds outside their classroom windows.

The feeders attract a lot of house sparrows but, also, American goldfinches, tufted titmice, cardinals, blue jays, house finches, Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, red-bellied woodpeckers, a green heron that nested in the crape myrtles and hawks.

According to the children’s log, a red-tail hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern harrier, red-shouldered hawk and Peregrine falcon have visited the courtyard, thrilling the children and terrifying little birds.

“The other birds fly away,” said Clara Lloyd, 9. “The falcons eat some kinds of birds.”

Some of the sharp-eyed, junior birdmen and women say they saw an eagle during after-school tutoring.

“Odds are they didn’t,” said Demcheck. “But I’d never say they didn’t just because I didn’t see it. I’d wish I’d been there.”

There’s a question mark beside the northern harrier, too.

“They wanted to see a harrier,” Fry said. “They’d been studying them.”

Demcheck won’t rule out the northern harrier. They’re seen in Louisiana.

“I go with the flow,” Fry said. “A bird lands (in the courtyard), and there’s a spontaneous rush to the windows.”

Excited chatter ensues as the students identify the visitor, hash out their differences over species and, then, return to their desks.

“They know how to focus themselves,” the teacher said of her students.

Demcheck, who doesn’t have children of his own, was recruited by Scott Mize, a fellow hydrologist at USGS who’s had children at Westdale Heights for five years.

“Parents with children at this school are highly involved,” Mize said. “They make time for field trips. When there’s an event at the school, the parking lot’s full.”

As pleased as Fry’s been with Demcheck’s mentoring, the students’ artwork is an unexpected bonus.

“Dennis gave a drawing lesson,” she said. “We never expected the kids to draw birds.”

“We try to be sure they’re drawing birds they’ve seen, not found on the Internet,” Demcheck said. “So, we see a lot of drawings of house sparrows, house finches, cardinals and Carolina chickadees.”

Demcheck thinks he and the students connected when they began observing and talking about the hawks.

“It’s terrible,” he said, “to see a goldfinch getting eaten, but that’s the way nature is. We talked about the way a predator uses its hearing and eyes to hunt, and we just connected.”

For Camille Weindorf, 10, it’s entering observations and numbers on the computer each week.

Jalen Wheelock, 10, likes the sudden appearances and drama of the hawks.

Jaylin Marks, 9, has come to expect good things and surprises at Westdale Heights.

“I’ve been here since kindergarten,” she said.

“There’s this division between science and art,” Demcheck said. “But not here. There’s a seamless connection. Their drawings make me happy.”

Demcheck shuffles through a stack of printouts that show the children’s artistic interpretations of his bird photographs.

“Look at the beak on this cardinal,” he said, pointing to a drawing by fourth-grader Madison Moore. “That’s an accurate drawing of the bill of a seed eater.”

Then, he slid another drawing across the table. Demcheck likes Yasmeen Awad’s drawing of a male cardinal with hip-hop head feathers.

“I like this one, too,” he smiled. “It’s got attitude!”