Science, nature and fun at the Estuary Center Ecology Camp


OLD LYME — Using tongs, toothpicks, tweezers, chopsticks, sieves and tongue depressors, a group of campers called Fledglings worked Wednesday morning to test which tool was most efficient for scooping up grains of rice the size of ants, small sponges representing fish, absorb, and leaves of plants that float in the water.

Insects, fish and plants are three types of food that birds eat, and the tools represented birds’ beaks of various shapes and sizes.

Which beak has an advantage over others for each food source? What types of beaks belong to birds that eat each type of food?

These were questions the Fledglings, a group of 5- to 7-year-olds at Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center’s Ecology Camp, pondered as they experimented with how each tool worked and how much food it could or could not hold.

Camp Advisor Morgan Allen gathered the group to ask what tools go with the beaks of three birds – a warbler, a duck and a blue heron – displayed as photographs on an easel.

For the warbler, she held up the colander, then the tongs and then the chopsticks – all three were rejected by the campers. When she held up the tweezers, the chicks gave thumbs up.

“This is our Black and White Warbler and what are they eating?” Allen asked. “What was on the tray on the table?”

“Beetle!” answered the chicks.

“Yeah, that bird eats bugs with that beak,” Allen said, hanging the tweezers next to the warbler photo.

The campers identified the pliers as the best tool for fishing and adapted the shape of the pliers to the beak of the fish-eating blue heron. They found the sieve to be the most efficient tool for picking up aquatic plants and adapted it to the beak of the duck, which feeds on aquatic plants.

Campers try out different tools during a bird beak adaptation activity at Ecology Camp at Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center (CT Examiner).

Across the lawn, camp supervisor Sophia Alano spoke to the Falcons, a group of 8- to 10-year-old campers, about how birds’ beaks are useful for eating different foods.

For example, she said, hummingbirds have thin, straw-like beaks so they can pull nectar from flowers.

“But a hummingbird definitely couldn’t eat fish,” she said.

The Falcons worked on experiments using the same types of tools as the Fledglings, but added timed experiments showing how much food each tool could hold in a 30-second period, and recorded their data for later discussion.

A camper notes data for a bird’s beak activity at Ecology Camp at Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center (CT Examiner)

“Think big and question often”

Heather Kordula, director of the estuarine center’s education program, said activities at the ecology camp are designed to be tactile and visual — in this case, using the device that easily adapts to the species of bird’s beak.

She said this week’s theme is “Super Scientists!”. and explored the “technologies” of biology, ecology, ornithology, hydrology and more, with campers studying plant and animal adaptations and water and soil quality.

The activities are meant to be student-centered, said Kordula, who creates the curriculum.

“It’s based on what I see where campers’ interests are headed. When I see friends really like bugs, we try to do something about bugs. If kids really like birds, we try to tailor activities to that,” she said. “Because if they look forward to learning about it, then they’re going to be more engaged and happier than if we said, ‘That’s what we think you should learn.'”

Alisha Milardo, director of the Estuary Center, which is part of the Connecticut Audubon Society, said all of the activities were created to give children a chance to explore and try new ideas.

“Our students come from all over Southeast Connecticut with different backgrounds, cultures and dreams,” said Milardo. “The campers have an opportunity to maybe discover a new skill, to find a different purpose, something exciting for them that they might not have during the college year – and here, during the summer, they have that opportunity and that skill.”

Milardo said the Estuary Center also offers activities and programs throughout the year — in school, after school, and outside of school.

“Heather makes sure that whatever activity they think of, they enjoy it, but they think twice, they question it again as they learn. That’s a really important part of our camp – thinking big and questioning often,” said Milardo.

Campers experiment with tools that can catch fish during a bird beak adaptation activity at Ecology Camp at Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center (CT Examiner).

Bird beaks, food and habitats

At the end of the activity it was time for lunch. The students grabbed their lunch boxes and spread out under the shade of a tree.

Teddy, a Falcon who is nine years old, summarized the morning’s experiment.

“We learned that a different bird has different bird beaks for many different foods,” she said. “Like, if a hummingbird tries to catch a fish, they won’t be able to catch it because they are [beak] is destined for nectar.”

Austin, also nine and a hawk, said he learned that birds need specific beaks to live in specific habitats.

“You also need a specific beak to get fish, you also need a specific beak to collect leaves, and sometimes you need a specific beak to get larvae like a woodpecker.”

To catch fish, Austin said a bird needs a beak with a “long, pointed opening” and a wide action, similar to the way pincers open and close.

“And for the leaves you would need something like that [sieve] to get them out. You can just pick it up from under the leaves.”

For beetles and maggots, he said, a thin beak — like the tweezers — is best so the bird can “pick and grab into the wood.”


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