Learning is for the Birds – Really

Rick Potvin, manager of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge (headquartered in Westbrook), leads students from teacher Sara Salerno's 4th-grade class on a field trip to observe Duck Island's birds.
Rick Potvin, manager of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge (headquartered in Westbrook), leads students from teacher Sara Salerno's 4th-grade class on a field trip to observe Duck Island's birds.

WESTBROOK - In this outdoor classroom, learning is for the birds.

Through the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Nature of Learning outreach program, nearly 70 Daisy Ingraham Elementary School's 4th-graders were taught about birds and the importance of protecting their barrier island nesting areas. The program, delivered in two, 90-minute classroom sessions and one, 90-minute field trip, was led by Rick Potvin, manager of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, in partnership and with the help of volunteers from The Friends of Westbrook Barrier Islands.

This curriculum, the highest-rated USFWS educational outreach program in the nation, was originally developed by USFWS in partnership with the Friends of the Norwalk Islands.

In the classroom sessions, students learn about bird classifications, characteristics, and habitats through hands-on activities and games. In addition, students learn specifically about the habitats and birds of the town's three barrier islands-Duck, Menunketesuck, and Salt-before taking a field trip to observe them. They also learn how use by people can be balanced with bird protection on the barrier islands.

Four, 4th grade classes participated in the Nature of Learning program. Each classroom traveled from the shore to Duck Island in the USFWS boat Housatonic.

While traveling by boat, students observed birds through binoculars.

"We spotted through our binoculars many of the birds we had discussed in the classroom such as the oyster catcher, snowy and great egret, glossy ibis, night crowned heron, osprey, plus seagulls, terns, ducks, cormorants, and even a few pigeons," said Deborah Rie, volunteer with The Friends of Westbrook Barrier Islands.

The Friends of Westbrook Barrier Islands was formed in the past year to work with the refuge staff, state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection staff, and the town's Conservation Commission to monitor and protect the barrier islands as important bird habitat. A second mission is an educational one to help inform the public about the role of the barrier islands and the importance of protecting them for the birds.

As part of that educational goal, the Friends worked with Potvin to organize this program within Westbrook's Daisy Ingraham Elementary School this year. Based on the success of this year's program, Daisy Ingraham Principal Kit Bishop has recommended that it be made a permanent part of the 4th-grade science programming.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to raise students' awareness of their own town's barrier islands and their importance protecting their town from storm damage, and also [for] providing resident and migrating birds a safe environment to rest, feed, and nest," Rie said.

The Friends of Westbrook Barrier Islands, coordinated by Westbrook's John Rie, is an advocacy group comprised of residents of Westbrook, members of the Westbrook Conservation Commission, staff from the USFWS's Stewart B. McKinney Refuge-Salt Marsh Division, members of Audubon Connecticut, and local and state politicians.

The group aims "to promote the preservation, restoration, education, and recreation opportunities of these unique Islands and the Harbor of Westbrook, while balancing their use by people with the protection of wildlife." The group of volunteers meet the third Wednesday of the month at the Refuge on Old Clinton Road.

According to Deborah Rie, these barrier islands are designated by Audubon Connecticut as an Important Birding Area.

"American oyster catchers are extremely rare birds and last year, the islands had three nesting pairs," said John Rie.

And Duck Island has the second largest egret nesting population of any island in the state.

The Friends group is continuing to expand its outreach and volunteer activities. Recently it installed educational wayside signs at Middle and West Beach and helped deliver the Nature of Learning program to Westbrook 4th graders. Friends' members also completed the "Be a Good Egg" community volunteer training program of Audubon Connecticut. Starting on June 7 every other weekend at low tide, these trained volunteers will deliver the Be a Good Egg education program at West Beach.

Friends' volunteers also have completed training to qualify to lead new "Island Keeper" patrols to monitor the islands and the birds nesting there using the USFW boat Housatonic and submitted a funds request for barrier island restoration dollars from the Department of Interior Coastal Resiliency Grant.

Anyone wishing to join the Friends of Westbrook Barrier Islands should check out the organization's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/groups/friendsofthewestbrookbarrierislands) managed by Jeff Gordon, or send an email indicating volunteer interest to John Rie at


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