“Bridging the Americas,” a program sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, helps that happen by connecting kids at each end of a bird migration path that stretches from the eastern United States to Central America. This year, 50 classes at 18 schools in the United States partnered with 50 classes at 17 schools in Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Colombia.
Last fall, as migratory birds headed south, second-graders at Lake Anne Elementary in Reston and Fairhill Elementary in Fairfax sent letters, photos, poems and art projects to the Merida School on Ometepe (pronounced “O ma tepay”) Island in Nicaragua. Recently, as those same birds headed north, these classes received packages from Ometepe’s kids.
Both Fairfax County schools had an extra treat because a teacher from each class went to Ometepe to meet the students there. The students got to see one another through a brief video conference.
What did kids learn about birds?
Each student in participating classes selected a type of bird to study. They mapped the migration route, learned about its diet and habitat, and studied the dangers birds face while traveling.
About 200 species of birds breed in North America and spend winters in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Birds that live both in our area and on Ometepe Island include Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, yellow warblers, ovenbirds, summer tanagers and ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Students learned that this hummingbird weighs less than a penny. The ovenbird builds a dome-shaped nest on the ground in the forest. Brian Boyce, 8, from Lake Anne, said, “The summer tanager eats wasps, insects and other gross stuff.”
Each year, many birds return to the same forests on Ometepe, often to the same tree! Scientists discovered this through bird banding, which is used all over the world to study the habits of wild birds. Birds from selected species are safely captured, weighed and measured. Then a tiny band with a number is placed on a bird’s leg. Each bird gets its own number. The band doesn’t affect the bird’s ability to fly, and it is released into the wild. Banding helps scientists learn about migration routes because all the bird information is kept in a database that researchers can study.
Life on an island
Ometepe Island has two volcanoes — one is active, the other is not — and is surrounded by a lake where people swim and fish. The Merida School is in a rural town at the base of the inactive volcano where many houses are made of wood and have thatched roofs. Lush forests, which are home to howler monkeys, are nearby.
A favorite sport at the school is baseball, but they hit and catch balls with bare hands (yes, really!) rather than bats and gloves. Ometepe kids love shimmying up the long trunks of papaya trees for the yummy fruit, said the Migratory Bird Center’s Mary Deinlein, who went on the trip with the Fairfax teachers.