Section 4 — Going Beyond Birding
The natural world is overflowing with fun and interesting things to discover. Birds are often easily observed but it is also important to spread the focus in as many areas as possible.
Sometimes it will be difficult to find birds but that doesn’t mean you need to stop being outdoors.
4.1. Take a Hike
4.2. Camping Out
4.4. Butterflies and Other Insects
4.7. Tree Study
Please note: we have not included hunting or fishing (and some other outdoor activities) here not because they are not worthy of pursuing but because they don’t fit the goal of this book: to get kids birding and participating in “non-consumptive” outdoor activities. We fully support responsible hunting and fishing but our expertise is on natural studies, particularly birding.
Section 4.1 – Take a Hike
Birding doesn’t always involve hiking but hiking can almost always involve a little birding. But going for a hike is an excellent excuse to find other fun natural things. Essentially, hiking is just walking in a more natural setting than a typical neighborhood. Most parks of adequate size have trails specifically for hiking.
Before heading out on a trail it is a good idea to have an idea of where the trail goes and how long it is. Many parks now have maps posted online that you can download and print prior to going. Plus, a lot of parks have signs with maps at trailheads along with markers throughout the trail’s route.
Hiking is a great outdoor activity because it is so adaptable. It doesn’t really matter how many kids (and adults) you are with, you can bring the family dog, and you can set your own pace, time, distance, and, within reason, your route. (It’s often a good idea to remain on the trail unless you really know your whereabouts.)
Hiking is also inexpensive. As long as your shoes are comfortable and can withstand the terrain. Wet or rocky conditions may require better, more supportive footwear. But if you plan on hiking a lot this is a great investment and still cheaper compared to other activities.
Hiking also requires no skill level other than basic directional awareness.
Plus, there are an ever-growing number of paved, handicap-accessible trails that offer everyone the ability to get out into some truly natural areas.
Beyond the fun of hiking are several “bonuses” that occur without even trying. Kids with attention difficulties often find being out in nature to improve concentration. Kids with anxiety or stress-related problems find hiking to be calming. The natural setting also provides mental stimulation and encourages critical thinking, questioning, and creativity.
With the growing number of kids facing physical health issues, specifically from being overweight, hiking encourages a healthier lifestyle without feeling like exercise. When you’re on a trail the focus is on the surroundings, exploration, and discovery, not doing a set number of jumping jacks or a timed amount of cardiovascular activity.
The only real downsides to hiking are poorly maintained trails (heavily overgrown with vegetation), situations where there are unwanted activities on or around the trail (biking, shady characters), bad weather, and an overabundance of biting insects.
So if your young one isn’t quite sold on birding, hiking can be a great way to get out there first. And being out in nature is the first step to becoming a birder.
Section 4.2 — Camping Out
Thankfully, there are many local, state, and national parks that encourage camping. Some get overrun with locals looking to party on summer weekends, but usually there are plenty of open spots away from the “riff-raff”.
Camping out is not for everyone but everyone should try it at least once. To get the most out of it, we suggest tent camping with no electricity. You aren’t required to rough it completely, but unplug from all the gadgets of the “real world” and escape for a night, weekend or longer.
It is important to pick a site that is flat and where the ground is soft enough to pound in tent pegs/stakes. If you bring extra blankets you can add padding to make a softer, more comfortable bed beyond just a sleeping bag. Just don’t forget your pillow!
Camping teaches all sorts of skills and takes you back to an age where you had less and needed to do everything for yourself. Water doesn’t come freely out of the kitchen faucet and your home requires a little patience and work to construct. (Although many tents are quite easy to put up, usually taking less than twenty to thirty minutes.)
Cooking outdoors is also a fun treat, even if it just involves roasting hot dogs and making s’mores. Getting a little dirty and dealing with the imperfections of being outside non-stop are challenges that will improve a child’s well-being and attitude for the rest of their lives.
Camping provides a unique opportunity to stay up past dark and listen to night creatures. If you are diligent, you can also find a lot of these night creatures by carefully searching with flashlights. This is a great way to hear owls and if you’re lucky, see them too.
Besides participating in the animal night life this is one of the best opportunities to look at the night sky. This will be much better in more wild places but many campgrounds are removed enough from city lights to provide a quite eye-opening look at the stars. You don’t need to know anything about astronomy (although this is yet another interesting outdoor activity) to appreciate the beauty and awe of the night sky.
As fun as it is to stay up late sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories, it’s also great to wake early in the morning to the chorus of birds. This dawn concert is one of the greatest experiences for a birder and for triggering an ongoing yearning to learn more about the natural world.
Camping affords you the convenience of being in a wild location to fully absorb yourself in nature.
Section 4.3 — Photography
Any form of photography can be done at practically any age. Digital cameras are priced well and most have all the features you need for creative photography.
Starting photography at a young age will keep a child interested in observing and documenting fun things they discover for years to come. A camera that can take good close-up (macro) shots is a plus, enabling photography of small items held in the hand.
As long as the child knows that a camera is not a toy but a tool, they will most definitely care for it. This is something that should be determined on a kid-by-kid basis.
Bird photography is a bit trickier with simple point-and-shoot cameras. Digital SLR cameras and telephoto lenses cost hundreds or thousands of dollars so are not as feasible for younger kids.
However, a point-and-shoot can be used successfully with a spotting scope in what is known as digiscoping. This is one way to get bird photos while spending less money (so long as you already own or plan to purchase a spotting scope).
We explain digiscoping in great detail in Part 2 which is geared toward teenagers.
Section 4.4 – Butterflies and Other Insects
“Butterflying” is another great activity outdoors, especially in areas where there is great diversity of species. Many newer optics enable really close focus distances and are perfect for watching butterflies.
You can also bring a net to catch and release species to better observe and identify. There are numerous books on butterflies and other insects. We recommend the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America and the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.
Surprisingly, kids who have difficulties staying focused in general often are the most sophisticated and dedicated at discovering bugs. If a child strays into this field by all means encourage their wondering mind.
Section 4.5 – Tracking
Tracking has become a lost art but can be extremely fun and lead do some neat discoveries. There are books on tracking and as soon as you learn the basic footprints, new discoveries will come easier.
Which way was that deer going? How many raccoons were in the drying creek bed? Is that a fox or a coyote track?
Along with tracking you can investigate scat (poop), owl pellets, feathers, bones, and more. The outdoor world is limitless in the amount of secrets out there just waiting to be unlocked.
A secondary but related-to activity of tracking is nest or den-building. This involves mimicking a wild animal in ways where the child creates an animal home of the natural surroundings. This need not be completely accurate but by pretending to be an animal it is easier to understand what animals need to survive and how nature works to assist in their survival.
This is a great backyard activity as well because it provides endless outdoor entertainment, creativity, and a place for a child to go to relax and think.
Section 4.6 – Gardening
Gardening is a great way to teach children about nature and food production. It also provides readily available helpers to dig, plant, weed, and harvest saving you much back-breaking work.
Seriously though, planting a vegetable garden improves the likeliness of children eating a wider variety of foods and provides a better understanding of where food comes from. Plus, tending to a garden, including any types of flowers, gives a great sense of fulfillment when it is time to harvest or the flowers are in bloom.
Even if the garden or particular plants do not turn out, protecting and caring for plant life is constant learning through action. Failures are, of course, part of any type of learning experience.
Gardening is also therapeutic for people of all ages. Kids playing in the dirt tend to be calmer and more relaxed (even outside of the garden). Plus, dirt holds all sorts of small life forms waiting to be investigated. Kids that play in the dirt are also thought to be more resistant to illness due to the germs the interact with which helps improve their immune system.
As many adults can attest to, playing in the dirt is always fun!
Section 4.7 – Tree Study
Scientifically known as dendrology, the study of trees never gets dull. In fact, all plant life is infinitely interesting and can often be a welcomed distraction when birding gets slow. Knowing your trees is extremely beneficial to finding birds. It helps determine the habitat and the likeliness of certain birds showing up.
Identifying trees is surprisingly difficult despite that trees don’t fly away (although they do migrate, just not in the same sense as birds). It can be confusing to know what to look for to determine what type of conifer you are standing under or which type of maple is shading your house.
Thankfully, The Sibley Guide to Trees provides an excellent, complete reference to most native (and commonly cultivated) trees of most of North America.
With a fully-loaded, detailed 30 page introduction, this guide begins at the beginning describing what makes a tree a tree and moves along on the taxonomy (how the trees are arranged in the book). These critical “baby steps” are all important for making full use of the guide.
Each component of the tree is discussed with accompanying illustrations and examples from species found throughout the book. The components include: leaves, flowers, fruit, twigs, buds, and bark.
These introductory pages are critical when it comes to knowing what to look for to make the identification.
The guide focuses on the majority of native trees of North America with the exclusion of those found only in southern Florida. This exception could be considered a bit of a fault, like leaving out birds found only in southern Texas. However, Sibley’s decision to do this in favor of commonly cultivated ornamental trees will be much more useful to the majority of tree enthusiasts.
The layout of The Sibley Guide to Trees is familiar to those who use Sibley’s bird guide. This design has proven to be not only visually appealing but functional for digesting the information and making an identification. Pertinent artwork is used for each species, so not all species show the full tree or other components that don’t aid in the identification process.
Some species have an additional highlighted box with interested facts about a tree, such as the Quaking Aspen):
“Groves of Quaking Aspen can all be parts of a single plant, each stem connected to a common root system. These single organisms can cover many acres, and one in Utah is estimated to be 80,000 years old, possibly the oldest living thing on Earth . . .” pg. 230
Range maps are also included to assist in knowing where to find nearly identical species.
With a better understanding of trees and other plant life birding becomes easier and the natural world becomes even more desirable to spend countless hours outside marveling in it.
There are many other activities that gets kids outside which is really the whole point. As soon as kids are outside they begin to absorb nature’s wonders in ways they can never learn from television, books, or schoolwork. So go outside and help open kids’ eyes to the real world.