Bird Lane Interpretive Trail

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Birding can be incredibly exciting…when you actually see birds.

Taking large groups of students out on the trail in the middle of the day when the birds are least active and the students are most active is not a recipe for success. To help introduce and give students a taste of birding we created a bird lane trail with the help of a volunteer artist.

Bird Lake Trail Sign

Local bird species were painted on marine grade plywood and coated for protection and placed out on the trails at numbered posts. Now students can practice the use of binoculars, a science tool for elementary age students and find birds before they fly away. Along with the interpretive trail there is a field guide that provides additional information on each bird species. Now if only we could get them to sing.

You do not need to paint birds to make a trail around your schoolyard. You can use pictures. Try out the Birding Beat Lesson from Flying Wild.


David Alexander is author of the Buzz Into Action & Hop Into Action Science Curricula.  He enjoys making nature more accessible to people and wildlife.  You can follow him at


Citizen Science & Wood Duck Boxes


The wooded wetland forest around my home supports a variety of cavity nesting birds. The wood duck (Aix Sponsa), in particular, is a bird that searches out excavations or openings in trees where she can lay her eggs.  Due to habitat loss and because the forest is young there is a “housing shortage” that does not offer adequate nesting location in old large trees.  To assist the wood duck in finding shelter we continue to build and install many boxes.  With the help of local scouts looking for Eagle Scout projects and NJ Fish and Wildlife we have been able to  install over fifteen boxes within West Essex park adjacent to the Passaic River.

When we open boxes after the nesting season is complete there are a variety of surprises to find.  Its common to have mice living in the substrate at the bottom, wasps building nests under the top of the box, screech owls in the winter months (and their pellets) and potentially even a flying squirrel although I haven’t experiences that yet myself.  We hope to find shell membranes, pieces of eggshell, feather down and any other evidence of nesting or use of the box by Wood ducks. All findings are of note and are kept recorded in a journal with the box #.  We also record the gps mark of each box, date of each observation, hole orientation, hole size, box height from water or land, if climbing wire is installed on the inner cover, and if a predator guard in installed.

While habitat protection is ideal as a primary means of protection of these cavity nesters, there currently exists limited shelter availability. When artificial nest boxes are placed in the best locations according to our citizen science research, the nest box monitor can effectively increase the population of a species and make it a common sight as it was many years before.

Student Created Song Bird Ceramic Art

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I’m always looking at environmental education as action and not information so I like projects that are authentic, tangible and experiential. Of course, these projects also need to tie into the curriculum.

Project based learning helps students take ownership of their learning. In this case art is used to help connect the students with nature yet in a way that encourages interaction and learning. With the instruction of Ivan Bratko, students were asked to select local native bird species and create an anatomically correct model for display on a group art piece. They focused on zooming in on the details of the bird to make an accurate representation of physiological structure of the birds bodies.  In doing so, they recognized many unique adaptions of their chosen species. Bird feeders were setup near the classroom for living observation and field guides and birding resources were also made available for study.

At the completion of the project, students proudly celebrated the unveiling at the Essex County Environmental Center’s Earth Day Celebration with the congratulations of the Essex County Executive and certificates acknowledging their participation.

David Alexander is author of the Buzz Into Action & Hop Into Action Science Curricula.  He enjoys making nature more accessible to people and wildlife.  You can follow him at

Citizen Science & Bluebird Trails

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Citizen science volunteers work hard to encourage and maintain suitable nesting sites for bluebirds. Bluebirds around where I live have been in decline due to habitat loss and also habitat succession as the farms of yesterday have been turning back into forests removing the broad open meadows once common place. To help assist beautiful bluebirds, nest boxes are placed in the remaining open meadows.  Bluebirds like to forage in these open areas and also require nesting shelters that are out in the open. They will not nest too close to the forest edge or within likely due to competition with other bird species for those nesting shelters.  It turns out that placing two nest boxes back to back or within 15 feet helps to allow tree swallows to take up one box and bluebirds to live in the other. This relationship works because the tree swallows will defend their territory against other tree swallows but allow bluebirds to move in. Bluebirds and tree swallows tolerate one another because the bluebirds are feeding from the ground level whereas the tree swallows feed in the air with their acrobatic maneuvers as they swoop up flying insects.

Bluebirds work hard to create a suitable home for their young and will aggressively protect it.  They face increasing nesting competition due to non-native birds like European starling and house sparrow. Fortunately, when a good location is provided they can have up to three broods a season.

Tree Swallow at Becker Farm Bluebird Box

Tree Swallow at Becker Farm Bluebird Box

Citizen Scientists can monitor these nest boxes to help provide adequate shelter for them to bring up babies.  Nestbox monitoring sheets often include the following information that is gathered: Nest box #, Species, Nesting Activity Notes, Nest Completed Date, 1st Egg Laid, Total Eggs Laid, Hatching Date, Total Eggs Hatched, Total Fledges and Date Fledged.

We can use the data to identify the suitable habitat elements that support bluebirds, document resident bird populations, increase available shelter for bluebird species recovery and promote a stewardship ethic that cares for our natural environment.

Consider installing a single box or an entire trail of boxes during National Nest Box Week in February to have them ready for the spring season.

Bluebird Eggs in Box

Monitoring Bluebirds at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

To learn how to properly construct a bluebird house and much more, visit the North American Bluebird Society.

Share your efforts with the community : )

Share your efforts with the community : )

The Nest Seekers by Chris Bickel


Congrats to my friend Chris who recently released a book titled “The Nest Seekers” about a group of citizen scientists that go out to collect data on bird nests. See my review below and click the book to check it out!

Chris’s book “The Nest Seekers” takes students beyond their familiar backyard knowledge of Robin’s nests and further into the exciting and diverse world of birds, birding and bird nests.  The writing cleverly captures both the joy and challenges of citizen science for young readers.  After reading, children will undoubtedly be looking high and low, acting as wildlife detectives the next chance they get to have an outdoor adventure.” –David Alexander

The Nest Seekers by Chris Bickel

Mist Netting for Bird Banding


Visited the Cape Cod Natural History Museum to observe a master bird bander at work, it’s always cool to see what turns up in the net.

Hairy Woodpecker

Rufous Sided Towhee

Mist Net

Wood Duck Box on Passaic River

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A few years ago my friend Mike and I placed some wood duck boxes along the Passaic River in West Essex Park. Paddling with campers today we came across one in the floodplain and were able to paddle right up to it. Fun challenge for the kids navigating through the trees and good opportunity to see the box upclose during a bird themed week.

Wood Duck Box

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