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Ignite the Spark for Learning about Nature

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Ignite the Spark for Learning about Nature

It was a cold, drizzly early morning—7:30 am on Sunday. My mother roused me out of bed every Sunday for six weeks in the spring to accompany her on the “bird walks” organized by the Cleveland Audubon Society in one of the nearby Metroparks. I was at that surly teen age, probably 13 or 14. I frankly did not enjoy it much! It was cold. It was too early. Most of the people attending were older and I did not relate. The binoculars I was using were my grandfather’s old ones—heavy and difficult to focus, and I hardly ever got a good look whatever bird of the moment that everyone else was exclaiming about. Frustrating was the word!

Then it happened. High in the old sycamore tree at the beginning of the trail near the parking lot one Sunday morning was a bird sitting in the open where I could finally have enough time to locate it through the old binoculars. I could hardly believe my eyes! There was a strikingly beautiful chunky bird with a jet-black back, thick beak, and a spectacular triangle of rose red on its chest. Wow! I had never seen any bird as beautiful as this. From that moment on I wanted to find, see, and know every bird in the area, and everything about them! This was my “spark bird”—the Rose-breasted Grosbeak—the bird that turned me into a bird watcher and ultimately into a Naturalist.

Once the spark has ignited, you might find that you are now experiencing other “spark” events! For example, try examining small objects in nature like tiny flowers, or the hairy leaf from a tree, or the wing of a butterfly. Looking at something like the minute flower of bishop’s cap or miterwort through a hand magnifier will reveal white petals divided into a tiny feathery pattern. This plant could SPARK your interest in wildflowers and botany!

If your spark has ignited it’s time to help others find their spark. One of our favorite spark moments was while we were leading a trip for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was nearing the end of the morning session and we were walking down the path behind the restrooms at Newfound Gap. One of our participants had been having a challenging time all morning using binoculars that were small and hard to see through. This particular trail, though, is on a hillside where the tops of the trees down slope are easily visible from the path. Suddenly we all stopped to find a moving bird that someone had spotted. There it was, out on a bare limb, not too far away. We tried to help the frustrated woman, who by this time was ready to give up and go back to her car. There it is—keep your eyes on the bird and then bring the binoculars up to your eyes. Suddenly she spotted it: a Blackburnian Warbler! Spectacular. She was hooked.

You can help others find their spark, too, by supporting any of the fantastic nature study programs in your area! You never know how it might change someone’s life, no matter their age.

(photo by John Harrison)

About the Author:

Laura Mahan is a professional naturalist with an extensive background in natural history museums and science education. She is the former head of education at both the Cleveland and San Diego museums, and has an M.S. in Biology (botany and plant ecology).

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