Birding with children? Why not start them young? As a gal who birds where ever I am, that means I'm birding with my children in tow, whether it's just running errands or standing on our porch or out birding someplace special--birding is simply built into our lives.
My daughter is still portable and obliging of anywhere I take her, but my son sometimes objects to my birdie-ness. So I have developed systems for making it fun for him, and any other kids who join in. Last weekend my sister and I took our kids to the eastern part of our state to see migrating Lesser Sandhill Cranes numbering in flocks of thousands, and the trip showcased all the fun and novel things I like to include when taking children on a birding excursion to ensure they come away loving the experience.
Here are the tips I recommend:
Look for wild birds en mass
Those Lesser Sandhill Cranes number in the thousands. This emphasis on volume is hugely impressive to kids, and easy for you--the birds are there for all to see and very little effort is required to see them. Some online research to a birding festival or local Audubon or nature center should lead you to some notable bird hots spots in your region. We joined the annual Crane festival in Othello, WA, which organized the bus tour from which this below photo was snapped as the cranes flew overhead to their roost.
If there's a live bird close up, even better (under specific circumstances)
The Othello Sandhill Crane festival invites agencies and organizations from across the state to set up displays and tables, and every year the Raptor Club from Washington State University's school of Veterinary Medicine come with their captive, rehabbed birds. The bird handlers are all club members, most of them science or vet students at WSU. We were allowed close proximity (but absolutely no touching, for the safety of human and bird) for observing each other.
I LOVE getting close to a wild bird that is accustomed to captivity, as it's a chance to observe in detail the glory of a bird's plumage and movement. Let me say I would never approach this close to a bird in the wild as my encroachment puts them at risk of greater than normal stress and distraction from foraging and from predation.
Proximity like this is valuable for children in understanding the vitality of other creatures, which is sometimes more of an idea than a reality when we are mostly watching birds from afar.
Combine the outings with other activities
Children may have a low tolerance for a single activity (Imagine that!), so we mixed in two hikes during the day, and let the boys throw a few rocks where it was safe to do so, as well as point out any birds we saw. We plied the boys with chocolate through the less exciting parts of the route, and once we reached the highest ridge, the kids took one look at the big sky view and got a hurricane-like second wind. I have to remember that enthusiasm ebbs and flows with children, and the whining is worth the eventual thrilled squeals when they see the 50-foot high gravel pile and tear off toward it. Especially when from the top of that gravel pile they see cranes flying overhead so low it seems they could reach up and graze a feathered underside.
Keep a lookout for other items in the landscape
Gotta love rednecks. They leave all kinds of things behind; old couches, toilets, beer bottles and shell casings. My son was pleased beyond his wildest dreams to find the landscape of the Potholes Natural area outside of Moses lake strewn with shell casings of every color of the rainbow. What I find as destructive trash my son saw as collectible treasure. As I huddled in the wind trying to orient my binoculars to the scant birdsong audible in the wind, he ran around collecting as many casings as he could pocket.
Thankfully, the kid loves rocks, shells and petrified wood as much as those casings, and the next day he got his fill of more natural treasures when we visited Frenchman's Coulee area along the Columbia River. Which leads to the next suggestion in birding with kids.
Behold any free (or included) entertainment
The rock climbing scene at Frenchman's Coulee is the stuff of fit hipster dreams--colorful tents dot the area to the side of the parking lot, tens of 20 and 30 somethings quietly press themselves into the rocks all around, and not a spot of garbage flutters in the warm spring wind. The children watched the climbers curiously for a while, then tried a bit of bouldering themselves, while sis and I scouted for Say's Phoebes.
Spend money locally, and share why you're there
Communities where these birds live need to hear from those visiting that the birds are the reason for our stay and investment in the local economy. Many rural economies depend on tourist dollars, so it's important to spend your money locally, rather than bring provisions with you. The more your spend, chat with the shop owners about the bird festival (or casual birding visit), the more reason that community will consider birds and their conservation as a good thing.
Demonstrating this to your kids will rub off on them eventually (I promise). They'll remember the visit as more than just passing through, but as contributing to the greater good.
Know when to call it a day
My sister and I have dedicated stamina for hitting the ground for the day, but the kids aren't there yet, not even close. Pushing them to bird, or at least, accommodate our birding while they are otherwise occupied in the same landscape, does come with limited duration. Over the weekend, we granted them ample time in the hotel pool, dinner at 4:30 pm, and plenty of time to sleep in. We hope that they'll like these trips, after all, and the last word when we got home was, "I want to do that next year!"
If you'd like to read more about birding with children, here are other articles I've written with links and trip ideas if you're in Washington: