Bird observation program for kids expanding in Lake and McHenry counties
A program to connect young students with nature close to home is expanding in Lake and McHenry counties.
A call is out for adult instructors for Birds in My Neighborhood, a volunteer-driven program for second- through fifth-graders that began in Chicago in 2013.
"It's more about connecting to nature near where you live," said John Cawood, education manager for Openlands.
The conservation group with Audubon Great Lakes, a regional office of the National Audubon Society, created the program, which is funded through the U.S. Forest Service International Programs. It will be available in spring to students in 30 Chicago public schools.
Birds in My Neighborhood had a limited run last year in Lake County, and those involved want to grow it there and expand to McHenry County.
Any elementary school in Lake or McHenry counties would be eligible, says Stacy Iwanicki, coordinator of natural resources education for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"We're in our infancy. We can only grow as large as we have volunteers for."
Iwanicki's turf includes Volo Bog State Natural Area in Ingleside and Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry. The program is being brought to Lake and McHenry counties in partnership with the Lake County and McHenry County Audubon societies.
"We've got about 5,000 people in our address book. I think we need to reach beyond the existing membership of the two Audubon groups," she said.
Volunteers don't need a birding background and can become involved at two levels. Instructors must commit 15 to 20 hours per season to attend mandatory training sessions and work with teachers to schedule three visits: an in-classroom lesson, a bird walk in the schoolyard and a field trip to a local natural area.
Field trip support volunteers commit five to 10 hours per season starting with a mandatory training session and attending at least one field trip to support instructors by identifying birds and chaperoning students.
"It's super simple. We train all our volunteers. Anybody can do it," Cawood said.
The first training session is scheduled for Jan. 16 at Volo Bog State Natural Area, with sessions to follow Feb. 13 and March 27 at to-be-determined locations. Anyone interested should email Iwanicki at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (815) 344-1294.
The program offers an easy way to disconnect kids from technology for awhile, supporters say.
"Birds are everywhere, and they're easy to observe," said Iwanicki, noting 207 species have been observed at Volo Bog. "Kids get enthralled with them. It lends itself so well to learning."
Cawood said there is a misconception that nature can't be nearby, even in urban environments.
"This program is designed to show kids that's not true," he said. "Birds can be an entry point to a whole new world and hopefully a lifelong love of nature."