Riparian Wetlands: Birds and the River

Overlook in Owen Sowerwine Natural Area
Overlook in Owen Sowerwine Natural Area

Through a grant from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, we have produced an extensive new educational trunk for educators and their students dealing with the importance of wetlands – specifically rivers and their importance to birds. The trunk has a sequential series of (fun!) activities that build on each other, is user-friendly, and has all the equipment and supplies that will be needed for a great learning experience! Spread the word to your teacher friends!

You can reserve any of our trunks on a “click-on calendar view” at our website under Lifelong Learning. Check us out!

For Younger Students:

1. Streamside Riparian Areas coloring page

2. Folding an Origami Jumping Frog and Tadpole

3. Moving / Still water Critter Comparison 

Field study using minnow nets, forceps and magnifying boxes – rivers vs.  sloughs

4. Produce, Consume or Decompose 

Examining the roles of different organisms in a wetland (adapt. Project Webfoot)

5. Chains and Webs 

Where does the food go in a wetland system? (adapt. Project Webfoot)

6. We’re All in it Together 

Synthesizing 3 food chains from a single energy source (Webfoot)

7. Wetland Zones  

Examining which animals and plants live in which zones of a wetland (Webfoot)

8. Wetland Metaphors

What normal human objects correlate to functions in a wetland (adapt. Aquatic Wild)

For Older Students:

1. Tadpole Pond

Students evaluate land use options around a woodland pond using “footprint” cutouts of different kinds of developments, interest groups, aerial photos and topographical maps.

2. What’s my Water Address? 

Students identify where they live on various laminated maps, trace their water  connections to the oceans with dry-erase markers, a write a complete “water address” – all the way to their house through the wastewater systems.

3. We’re all Downstream (and Upstream) from Somebody 

Students use laminated maps (with overlays showing political units and human  developments) to dry-erase trace all the connected streams back to their sources for four branches of the Flathead River. They then draw the boundary around all the connected water to identify the “watershed”. They then do the same with the Flathead being a sub-watershed of the Columbia, and discuss effects of downstream and upstream actions.

4. Water Pollution Dilution Solution? 

Students simulate a point-source toxin using a succession of clear glasses of water and food coloring, adding a small amount of water from each to the next one in line. Water in the last glass looks clean, but is it?

5. “Concentrating” on River Birds

Following up on “dilution” above, students do a math exercise with role-playing a simple food chain from phytoplankton to osprey. They use poker chips of Increasingly larger value to follow the “energy units” needed to sustain an osprey to breeding age. The teacher shows the math in a long equation on the board as students use large-number calculators. (Phytoplankton produces ten units, and when done, the osprey needs about 10 quadrillion units.) Then the students are informed that they were really following molecules of DDT or other persistent toxins. A discussion of “bioaccumulation” follows.

6. Who am I? 

Using 17 laminated photos of local river birds, students play a game to try to match the bird with 17 sets of six or seven natural history facts about one of the birds. The facts start more general and obscure, and get increasingly specific.

7. Where is My Food Web?

Students each “claim” one of the same birds from the previous activity, and construct a food web of interrelationships between organisms in that food web. They then attempt to construct a web of interrelationships that have nothing to do with food, and introduce the concepts of mutualism, commensalism, parasitism and symbiosis.

8. Migration Highways 

Using a series of large to small scale maps and a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website, students draw likely migration routes for local riparian birds, identifying stopping places, food sources on the way, specific habitats they may be looking for (north-south mountain ridges, river systems, long valleys, etc.). They then discuss local opportunities to see this in action – Hawkwatch on Mt Aeneas, West Valley cranes, Lower Flathead waterfowl, winter waxwings in town.

9.  Migration Adventures

  Using selected local bird paper “puppets”, students play-act the adventures and  hazards of birds on migration, and map their routes according to the timeline. (adapt. from Songbird Blues)

10. Songbird Headaches

At an outdoor site, students play a modified game of migration tag, with simulated stopovers using paper plates as bases with limited carrying capacities. Students then draw different good news-bad news statements in the North or South or on the way to determine their survival. (adapt. From Songbird Blues)

11. Migration Headaches

This is an optional activity in the sequence, similar to the previous outdoor game  but more active, concentrating on water birds, and graphing the different mortalities through different migration cycles. (adapt. from Aquatic Wild)

12. Schoolyard Bird Survey

This activity simulates the yearly spring Breeding Bird Surveys done worldwide, but at stopover points in or near the schoolyard. Students are a time-keeper, a recorder, or an observer, and use data sheets similar to those done on the “professional” surveys. This activity can serve as good preparation for activity #14. (from Songbird Blues)

13. Sounds of Solitude 

Using spring-season MP3 recordings (from Bruce Tannehill) taken in OSNA, students do extended listening with eyes closed, practice distinguishing bird songs from each other, mapping other sounds on a sound map, and naming birds with some teacher help — and practicing ID through repetition, written phonetic representations, pitch, cadence, and habitat. This is also either stand- alone, or preparation for a spring field trip to OSNA (#14).

14. Bird survey In Owen Sowerwine Natural Area. 

This is a convenient natural extension of the previous activities. In most cases, Audubon volunteers will be willing to assist classes with navigating trails and identifying birds by sight or sound. Flathead Audubon has various trunks available for loan which have binoculars, field guides and bird lists. In some cases, assistance with transportation costs is available as well.

15. Conquering the Invaders (I Can Help!) 

This activity is a role-play with students being various invasive plants and  animals, and the class inventing methods to control or eliminate them. Booklets and posters will determine the best control measures for each. A very logical extension of this activity would be to include a field experience and service project in Owen Sowerwine Natural Area – identifying invasives there and hand-removing them. This could easily fit as an afternoon activity with activity #14 done in the morning.

16. The Changing River 

Students will use large-scale aerial photos of the braided Flathead River just east of Kalispell from the 1930’s, 1950’s, 1970’s, 1990’s and recent – to chart with clear overlays and dry-erase markers the channel-shape changes over time. The Flathead River has been nearly everywhere in Valley over the last 10,000 years, as is shown by the fossil channel marks on the photos. Students will examine the rates of channel change, and whether dams and historic floods have affected the birds-eye look of the river.