Learning to Love Nature at New York City’s Field Station

Learning to Love Nature at New York City’s Field Station

At Black Rock Forest, students learn about research from conservationists and biologists. 

By Kate Baggaley
Published: 09/13/2013

"Some of these kids have never been birding or even used binoculars before," says Danielle Bunch. "I just want them to be cognizant of what's around them. I'm introducing them to birds to open their eyes and ears."

The students in "Flying High Ornithology" go birding, dissect a (roadkill) hawk, and capture birds in mist nets. Already they have have succeeded in spotting a great variety of birds, including scarlet tanagers, chickadees, worm-eating warblers, vultures, wood thrushes, and catbirds. But, says Bunch, "They all remembered the mnemonic 'drink your tea' so when we see [Eastern] towhees they get excited."

The forest's more colorful birds have also made an impression. "My favorite bird that I've seen is the orange variant of the scarlet tanager," says student Joshua Simmonds-Raphael.

And some of the students are even thinking about how to carry what they've learned back home. Jenny Zhao, who regularly visits Brooklyn's Prospect Park, says, "If I learned more about the species of birds around there it would be really interesting to actually go birdwatching."

Enthusiastic teachers are key to the program's success. When he was designing the program, Kidder's first hire was Maenza-Gmelch, who had already taught small field ecology courses for students at Black Rock for four years. "The fun part," she says, "is I'm sure that these kids have heard in a classroom setting about ecology and migrations and things like that." But at Black Rock, "they suddenly find themselves involved in a whole body experience for research. They're actually in the water setting traps, they're learning the birdsongs, they're eating blueberries, they're smelling certain plants to identify them."

"Sight, sound, everything is involved with the research at Black Rock. They're very motivated. They motivate me."

Another challenge, though, is making sure that the program's city kids, like the students in "Flying High Ornithology," have a chance to appreciate the natural world. "Kids are so nature deprived," says Kidder. "I hate that term, 'nature deficit disorder,' but it's so true. If they live in a place that there isn't nature, and they never meet people that are engaged in nature or professional scientists involved in nature, what are the odds that they'll ever become? And as citizens voting, what are the odds they'll ever care about things like birds?"

Kidder has seen firsthand how powerful meeting real scientists can be for kids who would never otherwise consider conservation work as a vocation. Once, he took a group of kids from inner city Newark, New Jersey, on a field trip to the Delaware Water Gap. He booked a bear biologist to come speak to them--a bear biologist who, by fantastic coincidence, turned out to be a woman born and raised in Newark. "That was a priceless moment," Kidder says, particularly for the girls. "You could tell from their questions that they had no idea that somebody from their background could be a bear biologist." 

At Block Rock, he finds that kids are especially "excited because they've never seen a grasshopper." His aim is to give urban students an opportunity to make nature relevant to themselves, and to discover that growing up to study nature, to track birds and wrestle turtles, is a viable career path. The irresistible and breathtaking moments--the snapping turtles and scarlet tanagers and snakes on mountaintops--have a deeper purpose.

And, in the future, he hopes to expand the program and reach even more kids. "I would love to involve the [Cornell] Laboratory of Ornithology and do some bird recording out here and the technical things about birdsong and neuroscience and bird brains," he says.

"I think a class about that for older students or even young college students would be extraordinary."

Con Edison failed to claim Black Rock Forest in the 1960s. Today, the outside world is still intruding, albeit in a much more welcome way. The 3,850 acres of mountain, stream, and woodland so close to New York City serve as a living laboratory for scientists, local students, and city kids alike--as long as they enter Black Rock on its own terms. Though Kidder feels that a week is "plenty of time to acclimate to nature," the most difficult adjustment for city kids occurs after the sun sets. "They're so used to streetlights, as soon as they see how dark it is, their minds to murder and ax murderers and horror stories." 

But, when they finally venture out into the darkness, they are amazed by how bright the stars are.

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