Nest Watch

How do you make education “real” for students? It’s all about making it local and creating connection.

I have always wanted to connect my students to the natural world around them. That natural world can be experienced in our own school community. From our schoolyard I have seen many interesting avian species. And if student are around, I want to share this with them. I have pointed out a pair of adult bald eagles circling above the food court or a passing peregrine falcon (I’m sure most missed it!)

Just to the north of the upper grade playground, I noted a nest below the canopy in a eucalyptus tree. In all honestly, I had seen this nest over the past few years. This is a red-shouldered hawk nest and I was interested to see if it was going to be used again this year.

Red-shouldered hawks tend to reuse their nest across generations and I did not know how many years this nest has been in use.

An early morning field sketch of the RSHA nest.

On a Friday I brought my scope and tripod to school and I wrote “I Spy” on our agenda just before recess. This generated excitement among my students and I didn’t explain what it meant.

I introduced my students to my telescope (scope for short) and explained its uses and advantages over the naked eye (getting closer to wildlife without disturbing them) or using binoculars (seeing more details).

Pointing the scope at the nest was like a revelation to many of my students because it became magic, making the unseen, seen.

Students saw the nest but at the moment, in mid February, it was not yet occupied. But over the nest few weeks as I birded in the field, I started to see the signs of the changing of the seasons.

A crow flying with a twig, morning bird song, copulating red-tailed hawks, two red-shouldered hawks circling together and calling.

And then, on March 13, I drove to the street nearest the nest. In the distance I heard the local red-shouldered hawks calling. These are the most vocal hawks on the West Coast, despite the fact that the red-tailed’s call is more famous. From my right, a red-shouldered appeared and made a B-line to the nest! This was an amazing sight to see. I wanted to share this with my student the following day.

The red-shouldered hawk doing a bit of nest-keeping.

Nature doesn’t always do what you want it to. Just as I set up my scope to observe the nest, a red-shouldered flew from the nest, which a few students saw.

This made me more determined that we should have a weekly “Nest Watch” and share our observations with the rest of the school community.

To be continued. . .

Sans watercolor.
After a few washes.

My 50th Post: Maps

Maps, a way to find yourself or a way to document a passage.

Sketching has always been a journey, sometimes a physical one and other times an internal one. The byproduct of the journey results in a journal page, something that is left behind. That’s really what the sketcher tries to do: leave a record of an experience, a cityscape, a natural encounter, or a hike. In some of these leavings I have used a map to record the experience.

On my recent trip to The Sea Ranch I hiked along the coast from the Sea Ranch Lodge to the Olson Rec Center. There was nothing physically left of the journey but afterwards I memorialized the passage in a journal spread that noted the path and places names of the hike, as well as  the birds I encountered along the way. One being the Official Sea Ranch Bird (proclaimed by the sketcher): the northern flicker.

Bolinas Lagoon

This spread records a birding trip out to western Marin and  Bolinas Lagoon. This sketch was again done after the trip but it records the birds seen: great blue heron, bald eagle, Caspian tern, and Clark’s grebe. I also noted the mammalian life: harbor seal and coyote. When I look back at this page and the insert map, I am brought back to that May day in 2012.


An extremely rare bird sighting is always a subject for a spread, in this case the uncommon, common cuckoo seen at Watsonville Slough, south of San Francisco on September 29, 2012. This cuckoo was only the second record in the lower 48, a bird that brought people from all over the country to add this rarity to their North American life list. Luckily I didn’t have to go far to see this bird. I was able to get a quick sketch in the field (on the right side above my hanko) and I then added the cuckoo, both clock and bird at a later time. The map shows where the bird was first seen and where I (and many other birders) found the bird on the following day.


Another lifer and another sketch with a map. This time a pectoral sandpiper in western Marin.

RSHA Highlands

And finally a sketch that is not about a wayward rarity, lost on the west coast but a rather common raptor in the Bay Area: the red-shouldered hawk. This sketch records a series of  sightings of the resident pair of hawks that hunt my school’s playing field in the early morning before students arrive. I included a map to document the bird’s movements from hunting perch to the ground, to the soccer goal post (the “woodwork”), back across the field to the baseball backstop. On some wet mornings I have observed a red-shouldered eating worms like an American robin.

I have used this spread to teach my students how to take notes. It includes a lot of note taking strategies: writing, images and diagram, and of course a map. Ultimately it teaches students to pay attention to their environment, where the mundane is often extraordinary. But the first step is to look around you and see the wonder.