Birds, nature study, Necessary Provisions

The American White Pelican

02.15.09 | 5 Comments


When we arrived at Charleston Slough in Palo Alto CA and Seth announced that he was going to observe pelicans I thought to myself…wow gotta respect the kid’s enthusiasm.  I grew up frequenting this marsh and I could not for the life of me recall a single pelican sighting.  Seth has always had a thing for Pelicans.  When he was a toddler he had a hard time keeping his sea creature nomenclature straight.  So every time we would see pelicans he would yell, “look momma dolphins!” and point furiously at the sky.  I guess Seth put enough enthusiasm out in the universe for pelicans, because we sure got a good sighting!


If you are wondering what the weather was like at the Charleston Slough, well it was a little chilly.  As you can see in the picture above all the ducks were huddled “down in their down”.  If you decide to take children out bird watching in the winter make sure to bring warm clothes, rain gear, gloves and a hat.  We forgot the hat and I had to walk the whole way back holding Seth’s hood on with my hand.  This could have been avoided with a little more forethought on my part.


I did have the forethought to bring a sketchbook, bird book and some other provisions that we did not use.  It was a little chilly to draw with bare hands.  However, I simply forgot about books.  It was so engaging just to be out near the birds that the idea of anything but watching and taking photos slipped our minds completely.  We were able to identify a few birds using just our “bird map”, such as this American Avocet in the photo above.  “Bird map” is the name Seth gave his laminated folding local bird “quick guide”.   The “bird map” is lightweight and easier for kids to use than a book.  However, we held on tight because the “bird map” was really whipping around in the wind, and the thought of mucking about fishing it out of the mud seemed a little *too* adventurous.

I have fond memories of overhearing my mother and brother discussing what birds they had seen at the marsh, as they sat at the kitchen table sipping tea and debriefing.  It was heart warming to remember my brother as a young scout working on his birdwatching merit badge.  I can remember his child’s voice saying the word Avocet.  I repeated it in my mind every time we spotted another dipping down it’s long slightly curved bill to trowel for edible marine life.


I think this is a Great Egret, although the yellow on the legs is not characteristic.  Perhaps it is a Snowy Egret and I am simply not a good judge of size.  Back in the day I knew all the variations between egrets, but alas that knowledge has “left the building”.   Steph and I spent so much time in college sketching water fowl.  It’s odd to think that wingspans and feather shapes were deleted to make room for career and little boy.

Aside from birds the expedition provided other delights, like puddles!  Seth was wet past the calves by the time we had passed the first puddle.  Seth was careful to tromp through each puddle with a flare for the dramatic characteristic of four year old boys.  Although wet feet did not stop Seth from adventuring, next time I will insist that he wear puddle boots.


I tried to get Seth to stop and look at the puddles before he stomped in them.  Each puddle had a beautiful and complex series of bird tracks.  It’s good to help the kids see details like this because it ties the learning experience together.  Plus it’s never too early to start looking for tracks.  Perhaps next time we will have a little more material on tracks and we could try identifying the imprints.


Of course, our excursion would not be complete without stopping to collect rocks.  This is the Boy’s Almanac after all!  Seth punctuates his life with tool usage and rock manipulation.  There is nothing like picking up rocks and stuffing your pockets for the walk.  Although, Seth soon discovered that if he was going to race “fast like birds” it would be prudent to shed his gravel collection.  Our tool for the day/winter has been a pair of over sized, old-fashioned binoculars.  Seth uses them everywhere, at the beach, in the car, on the bike path.  Today was no exception.  However after borrowing them for a quick peek I realized I need to show him how to use the focus dial.


The American White Pelican


At first we could not identify the pelicans because they had their heads buried in their feathers.  Needless to say, the minute one unfurled its fabulous bill and throat pouch we were ecstatic!  For the most part the pelicans were busy snoozing, but they indulged us in the occasional preen and lazy wing stretch. I must say, it is astounding how really large they actually are!

Seth called it – it was a pelican day indeed!


The pelicans were the highlight of the day for our amateur birdwatcher.  However, there were some aspects of the marsh that may have eclipsed his observations.  For instance, Seth could not be persuaded to turn around and witness the awesome flight patterns of this flock of birds (we could not identify them using our “bird map”, best guess: Long-billed Dowitcher or Marbled Godwit).


Being at such a low elevation and in such an expansive open space the marsh provided a profound sense of exposure.


In contrast, this vast exposed space is home to the smallest of creatures.  The intimate and tiny is just as pronounced as the huge open sky.


Best guess: Least Sandpiper

Even with inclement weather it is good to take children outside.  The douse of fresh air and new experience stimulates thier bodies and minds.  Don’t forget to record what species you see either in your back yard, in the marsh, on the prairie or in the snow!  Happy Birding!

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