Pickering Journal: Sixth Graders Invade Audubon Center


“Oh, my gosh, they are so cute!” a sixth grade student whispers after peering into a bluebird nest box during a hike at Pickering Creek Audubon Center. Talbot County’s 340 sixth grade science students visited Pickering Creek in May for a field experience that culminated from multiple classroom lessons about wetlands, birds and climate change. Seeing the baby birds up close is an exciting moment for each student that builds a personal connection to local wildlife.

Student pairs use binoculars and bird guides to identify as many birds as possible during their field trip at Pickering Creek.

During each field trip to the 400-acre wildlife sanctuary, the sixth graders hike along the forest and meadow trails that are home to many residential birds like Northern Cardinals and migratory birds like Tree Swallows. Short competitions ensue when students use binoculars and field guides to identify hidden bird pictures in the meadow’s brush. Later, the students play a game, acting like birds competing for food resources on their nesting grounds. A “normal” year becomes much more challenging when an unusually warm winter results in plants blooming weeks before the migratory birds arrive in the spring, creating unforeseen competition for resources among the student “birds.”

Students pull on waterproof boots and walk out into one of the Center’s 15-year-old restored wetlands, where they find crayfish, tadpoles, dragonfly nymphs, snails, and diving beetles. The small aquatic animals found in the water depend on specific temperature ranges in order to survive. The students consider how the health of the habitat might change if the global temperature increases just a small amount, causing more frequent hot days in Maryland and the water temperature to rise above its normal range.

As a global issue, climate change is often framed as a problem for the Arctic or low-lying islands far away, but the focus on local wetlands not only gives students a chance to see how climate change will affect human communities and wildlife on the Eastern Shore, but to also participate in positive solutions.

A sixth grade student holds up a crayfish found during a wetland survey at Pickering Creek.

In class, students learn how burning of fossil fuels results in Earth’s atmosphere trapping more heat on Earth. In a wetland soil lab they learn how the low-oxygen condition of the wetland soil enables it to store carbon for thousands of years. That characteristic of wetland soil makes wetlands a “carbon sink,” or a place that stores more carbon than is released. When the students add plants to the new wetland on their field trip, they are increasing the soil’s capacity to capture and store heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Students walk away from their field experience with a firm grasp of the local impacts of climate change on wildlife—and also with knowledge of community-based solutions. One student reflected, “I wish people knew that climate change affects animals finding food, not just your electric bill for air conditioning!” Asked what actions they or the community could take to help local wetlands, students respond with ideas ranging from cutting their carbon footprint to planting more native plants for local birds and using renewable energies.

This project is supported in part by the Chesapeake Audubon Society, MADE CLEAR and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. Pickering Creek Audubon Center sees Eastern Shore students of all grade levels for hands on, standards-aligned environmental education programs in both classroom and field-based experiences. Educators and schools interested in developing a program for their students should contact the Center at 410-822-4903 to begin planning for the 2017-18 school year.

Birding Competition- Student pairs use binoculars and bird guides to identify as many birds as possible during their field trip at Pickering Creek.
Crayfish – A sixth grade student holds up a crayfish found during a wetland survey at Pickering Creek.

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Mark Scallion
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