Watershed Wonders

“Was that a kitten I just heard in the surrounding chaparral? It sounded like a very young one too!” Anybody who knows me would understand my immediate elation at the prospect of finding a baby kitten to take under my care and nurture into adulthood. Although that scenario did not materialize, my anticipation was rewarded through an equally exciting discovery.

The sound was the call of the endangered California gnatcatcher! Upon hearing a return call, my guide, Jayne Lesley, a volunteer of San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve with 40+ years of experience as a birder, informed me that there were at least two out there -- she directed me to look where I might see them. A minute later we saw one as it flitted by! Jayne could identify it by the way it was flying. It did not stop to pose nicely so that I could take a good look at it with my binoculars (as wild animals rarely do), but I did see a gnatcatcher. 

Farther up the trail we heard the call of the California thrasher, and sure enough, we were able to view it right where Jayne expected it to be. 

I participated in the monthly bird count at the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve in San Diego, California under the guidance of Jayne Lesley. I was in total awe of her ability! I had not realized the complexity of bird counts; they are not as simple as seeing and counting, but rely heavily upon hearing, particularly for those species in the scrub and chaparral because they are easily hidden by the flora.

As with the gnatcatcher and the thrasher, you are more likely to detect many bird species by hearing their call before you actually see them. You can even estimate how many there are around you by the number of response calls. Jayne recommended that I get a bird call app to my phone so that I could practice learning to recognize the calls of birds in the area.

I downloaded one the next morning and used it in my backyard, being careful to keep the volume high enough for me to identify a call but low enough so that nearby birds could not hear it; I learned that hearing recorded calls can confuse and cause undue stress to resident species. I was able to apply what I learned at the bird count to successfully identify and observe a song sparrow - it was really pretty neat.Although I am already a nature lover, this bird count experience added a whole new dimension to my awareness and enjoyment of the outdoors. I have learned more about the identification of wildlife species that reside near me and I have deepened my connection to the natural world around me. 

This bird count was only one of the many exciting activities in which I was able to participate through my graduate Internship in the Advanced Inquiry Program this summer. San Elijo Lagoon is managed under an umbrella organization known as The Nature Collective. Their vision and mission goes beyond just caring for the natural area to include outreach initiatives with the surrounding community. They aim for the lagoon and associated watershed to be seen as part of the community itself and not as a separate and exclusive area. If people protect what they see as their own, including the community in caring for the land will establish a sense of stewardship.

As a high school science teacher, my goal was to learn more about the local San Elijo Lagoon area and all it has to offer so that I can facilitate ways to get high school students from my school involved in outdoor experiences to learn scientific methodologies, connect with nature and grow their ecological awareness.

Ultimately, I hope these hands-on experiences will nurture their role as conservation stewards. What better way to develop a sense of place and feeling of community that will lead to future actions in conservation stewardship than to have them participate in the actual care and protection of it?

The nature preserve hosts six different types of plant communities, as well as underwater habitats and the fauna each supports, all within a 900+ acre area. I have discovered that it holds a wealth of learning and hands-on opportunities that are accessible to my high school students since it is only a couple of miles away from the school.

During my internship, I wanted to learn all I could about its history, ecology, the scientific methodologies being used to protect, monitor and restore this area.I attended restoration events removing invasive species and collecting native seeds, bird count monitoring, and researching the local environment’s history, development, and native flora and fauna. Throughout every aspect of this internship, my head spun with the possibilities for curriculum creation and student involvement, including the potential for the involvement of environmental clubs outside of my classroom.

The Nature Collective relies a great deal on its volunteers, who also help with ongoing restoration of the lagoon. Volunteer involvement is a really good way to pull in residents of the area and promote a sense of community. Not only did I get a sense that the volunteers feel ownership of the areas in which they have worked, but during the time that I attended, I saw neighbors passing by stop and thank the volunteers for their efforts.

Effort, appreciation, awareness, and ownership of the area is being nurtured, which will hopefully continue to advance stewardship actions. The restoration really has become a community effort that is continuing to grow. I am inspired to facilitate the involvement of my high school students in a similar capacity.

I began this internship with limited knowledge of the lagoon and the potential for connecting high school students to this natural area. Although I have only skimmed the surface in learning about the potential for this relationship, I have developed a clearer idea of how I might begin to develop curriculum and provide opportunities that will enhance students’ understanding and caring for the local ecology.

As a first step, I have begun the process of establishing a partnership between my school and The Nature Collective. This would involve students throughout the campus and focus on providing opportunities for them to participate in learning about and volunteering at the lagoon. I met with a group of club officers from another high school that was spearheading a similar initiative. It was inspiring to see these students in action and reaffirmed my opinion that students are indeed the hope of our future. I hope to continue to facilitate the development of stewardship among my students.

Photo: AIP student, Trish Hovey, learns to identify local birds during her summer internship at San Elijo Lagoon in effort to further engage her high school students in native ecology.