Science, Nature and Fun at Estuary Center Ecology Camp

Campers experiment with tools during a bird beak adaptation activity at Ecology Camp at the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center (CT Examiner)


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OLD LYME —  With tongs, toothpicks, tweezers, chopsticks, sieves and tongue depressors, a group of campers called the Fledglings worked Wednesday morning, testing which tool was most efficient for picking up rice grains the size of ants, small sponges representing fish, and leaves of plants floating in water. 

Insects, fish and plants are three types of foods that birds eat and the tools represented bird beaks in different shapes and sizes. 

Which beak has the advantage over other ones 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 Ecology Camp at the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, considered as they experimented with how each tool worked and how much food it could or could not pick up.   

Camp counselor Morgan Allen gathered the group together to ask which tools matched the beaks of three birds – a warbler, a duck, and a blue heron – displayed as photos on an easel. 

For the warbler, she held up the sieve, then the tongs, and then the chopstick — all three were voted down by the campers. When she held up the tweezers, the Fledglings gave the thumbs up. 

“This is our black and white warbler and what do they eat?” Allen asked. “What was on the tray on the table?”

“Bugs!” the Fledglings answered. 

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

The campers identified the tongs as the best tool for catching fish and matched the shape of the tongs to the beak of the blue heron, which eats fish. They found the sieve was the most efficient tool for scooping up aquatic plants and matched it to the beak of the duck, which has a diet of aquatic plants.

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

Across the lawn, camp counselor Sophia Alano talked with the Falcons, a group of 8-to-10-year-old campers, about how bird beaks are adapted for eating different foods. 

For example, she said, hummingbirds have a skinny, straw-like beak so that they can extract nectar from blossoms. 

“But, a hummingbird definitely could not eat a fish,” she said. 

The Falcons worked on experiments with the same types of tools as the Fledglings, but added timed experiments showing how many pieces of food each tool could pick up in a 30-second period, and notated their data for later discussion. 

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

“Think big and question often”

Heather Kordula, education program manager for the estuary center, said the activities at Ecology Camp were designed to be tactile and visual – in this case, with the implement easy to match with the type of bird beak.  

She said this week’s theme was “Super Scientists!” and explored into the “ologies” of biology, ecology, ornithology, hydrology, and more, with campers looking at plant and animal adaptations as well as water and soil quality. 

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

“It’s based on what I see the campers’ interests are veering toward. Like if I see friends are really into insects, we try to do something about insects. If kids are really into birds, we try to gear the activities towards that,” she said. “Because if they’re excited to learn about it, then they’re going to be more engaged and happy versus us kind of being like, ‘this is 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 are created to give children an opportunity to explore and try new ideas.

“Our students come from all over southeastern Connecticut with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and dreams,” said Milardo. “The campers get an opportunity to maybe discover a new skill, find a different purpose, something that’s exciting to them that they may not have during the academic year — and here, during the summer, they have that opportunity and that ability.”

Milardo said the estuary center also offers activities and programs year round – in school, after school and out of school. 

“Heather makes sure that in every activity they’re thinking, they’re enjoying, but they’re double thinking, they’re questioning it again, as they’re learning. That’s a really important component of our camp —  to think big and question often,” said Milardo.

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

Bird beaks, foods and habitats

At the end of the activity, it was time for lunch. Students grabbed their lunch containers and spread out under the shade of a tree. 

Teddy, a Falcon who is nine, summed up the morning’s experiment.

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

Austin, also nine and a Falcon, said he learned that birds need certain beaks to live in particular habitats. 

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

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

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

For bugs and grubs, he said a skinny beak — like the tweezers— is best, so the bird can “peck into the wood and grab.”