When I first arrived at Conserve School in northern Wisconsin, I knew that seeing a Black-capped Chickadee, one of my favorite birds, was a good omen.
By Sarah Toner
When I first arrived at Conserve School in northern Wisconsin, I knew that seeing a Black-capped Chickadee, one of my favorite birds, was a good omen. I was right—Conserve turned out to be wonderful—but now I had a serious dilemma. How was I to describe my amazing experiences at Conserve School in a post for The Eyrie: the delicious food (waffles today!), the outdoor classes (cross-country skiing like the 10th Mountain Division in history class), or the beauty of the campus (the gorgeous forests, the stunning architecture, or the spectacular sunset over my dorm last night)? I decided to mull it over on a nice, long ski. I also had an errand to run: my homework for science was to scour the 1200 acre campus for a small area in which to record phenological observations. Obviously, I had to look for a good birding site!
While pausing to check in on the resident porcupine that lives in a culvert under the trail, I noticed a deer trail heading back into the woods. Curious, I changed into snowshoes and followed it into a transition zone between an open deciduous forest and a dense, coniferous thicket. The edge habitat ran right through the area, providing me with access. I marked the site on my GPS, paced out a square, and made note of how to get back into the forest, while a friendly Hairy Woodpecker greeted me.
My thoughts turned to some of my adventures during the past month. My history class had been studying the Trans-Antarctic Shackleton Expedition, whose members had gotten stuck in twelve-foot thick ice and tried to cut their way out. Our class tried a reenactment by cutting holes in twelve-inch thick ice on a frozen lake. It was cold, windy, and tiring work, but in an hour we managed to cut a channel just one foot wide by four feet long. After the expedition failed to cut their way out, their ship sank, and they had to pull boats across the pack ice to safety. Pulling our class’ boats twenty feet was grueling enough, let alone pulling larger boats eight miles in a day!
But studying Antarctica in history is only the tip of the iceberg. My art class built snow sculptures of famous environmentalists, such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir; in science class we are learning how to categorize trees and manage a healthy forest ecosystem; and Field Instruction teaches us everything from yoga to rock climbing to snowshoeing. My highlight of the week, however, is on Wednesdays, when we listen to a special guest talk about current environmental events such as fire ecology or mining, and then we perform community service projects. I am in the Birding group, which coordinates Project Feederwatch, hangs feeders, and plans birding events.
On the first day, as our Birding group headed outside to hang feeders in front of our dormitories, I flushed an odd-looking bird. Later, Drew, another young birder, pointed it out when it returned.
“What do you think that is, Sarah? Probably a Pine Siskin.”
He turned away, but I continued staring at the bird’s rump, wondering why it was missing streaks. Then the bird turned toward me.
“Drew! That’s…I swear that’s a Chipping Sparrow!”
This Chipping Sparrow was about a month too early, one of very few February records in northern Wisconsin. I raced inside, grabbed my camera, lifted the viewfinder to my eye…and watched the bird fly out of sight. Drew and I scoured the area, trying unsuccessfully to refind it and get a picture. We discussed how to separate Chipping Sparrow from American Tree Sparrow: I had clearly seen the dark eyestripe (my favorite field mark for separating the two), the lack of rusty shoulders, and the slightly rusty cap. Without a picture, however, our word could always be doubted.
A few hours later, after school, I glanced at the feeders. I was stunned to see the Chipping Sparrow sitting nonchalantly on the new feeder, eating seed. I raced back inside, grabbed my camera, and slowly approached it, snapping pictures all the way. While none of them were very good, they clearly showed a Chipping Sparrow. Strangely enough, one person looked at the photographs online and called it an American Tree Sparrow based solely on the ruddy cap, but the record was accepted into eBird and I am still thrilled about finding it. It makes the Red Crossbills seen during math class seem a bit anticlimactic!
Having scouted out my phenological observation site, I decided to ski on and do some birding. The bird life around Conserve right now is slow, but Drew and I are looking forward to spring, when the warblers return and the birding picks up. We currently have a competition to see the first warbler. In the meantime, crossbills and redpolls are the highlights of the feeders, Bald Eagles fly over every day, and Brown Creepers and kinglets skulk in the Balsam Fir. Gray Jays and Boreal Chickadees have been seen here in the past, and Northern Saw-whet Owls and Long-eared Owls possibly breed as well. There are even fresh Black-backed Woodpecker signs at Inkpot Lake, a remote and birdy lake on campus, so I headed there to check things out.
I scanned the far shore for signs of Black-backed Woodpeckers, crossbills, or ravens. I paused, noticing a brown dot with two white specks in the grandest tree on the lake. I lifted my binoculars and gazed through them at a Bald Eagle. Bald Eagles are common in the area—most classes have had a flyover by now—but this one was sitting still, staring right at me. He turned his head to his right; then to his left; then straight at me again. Interested, I mirrored him, scanning the lake to the right, then left, then looking back at him. I felt the connection between us: two observers, separated by a frozen lake, watching each other.
I stood still, staring at the eagle for about fifteen minutes until I heard a sliding sound behind me. Another student, Emily, was coming down the hill. I pointed out the eagle and we gazed at it, watching the stately bird for several more minutes. It continued to look deliberately right, then left, then center.
The lovely, quiet lake and the solemnity of the eagle’s precise scanning—these images are what Conserve School is about. It’s about learning to see the beauty in nature and remembering it—by reenacting history, by sculpting likenesses in the snow, and by recording our own observations, such as field marks on vagrant Chipping Sparrows and the details of watchful eagles. At Conserve, we deepen our love of the natural world by looking at nature through different lenses, just as Emily and I watched the eagle watching us.
About the author: Sarah Toner, 15, has been birding since she was 8. She lives in
southeast Michigan but wants to move to beautiful Whitefish Point,
Michigan. She doesn't have one favorite bird, but likes drab, brown
northern birds such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and
Rough-legged Hawk. She was a member of the 2011 ABA Tropicbirds team in
Texas and attended the 2011 Camp Colorado. Sarah also received first
place in the 10-13 year-old writing division and third place in the
illustration division of the 2010 ABA Young Birder of the Year contest.