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First Few Days at Tomás de Berlanga: Part 1

2012 June 10
by Seth Inman

Snapshot of whiteboard on Friday afternoon

I arrived at school early Monday morning to start working at the Tomás de Berlanga school (named for the man who first discovered the archipelago). I was to temporarily take the place of an English teacher who was still waiting for her visa renewal on the mainland, or “el Continente,” as Galapageños call it, and teach English to two classes.

For the upper levels of the school, classes are on a block schedule of eighty minutes periods, and my two classes were of intermediate English level 7th-9th graders and 10th-12th graders. Each group was of ten to twelve students that had all been born on one of the islands or el Continente, and some of whose parents speak English.

My goal for this first day was to spend the classes gauging the students’ English proficiency, their interest in birds, and especially their knowledge of Santa Cruz’s avifauna. One of the ways I did the former was via an exercise that one of the other English teachers, Eduardo, recommended: put a sentence on a piece of paper and cut it so each word is separated, mix them up, and give them to groups of students to put back together. I thought this was a great idea, so I took some time to think of sentences that might have several ways to be composed (both to ease the process for students but also to see if there were any trends towards certain structures).

The sentence-building exercise certainly helped determine what some common mistakes can be, so after tackling those issues I moved on to talking about some of the local birds, asking the students what they commonly saw and if they knew the English names for any of them. The older group seemed less knowledgeable about birds and sentence structure, but after four more days with them since then I attribute this more to initial differences between ages in motivation and willingness to share.


On Tuesday one of the basic-level English teachers was sick, so Eduardo, Adam (the advanced-level English teacher) and I consolidatedall the English classes, which meet at the same time, together to go on a bird walk outside the school. Tomás de Berlanga is 4km away from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz’s main road (called Baltra) and basically all of it is uphill—the Puerto is, of course, at sea level, while the school is in the humid highlands where Scalesia (the subject of another post, but for now I should say it is a native tree) grows. Once you make the turn onto the dirt (crushed red volcanic rock, actually) road, it’s about a four-minute drive (seven- or eight-minute bike) to the school, which is comprised of many classrooms separated by lava-gravel paths and a variety of trees. Before heading out, I introduced the students (of which there were about fifty, divided into three groups under Eduardo, Adam, and me) to pishing.

I first learned of pishing during an ornithology class weekend field trip to the Cornell University compost heaps. A birder friend who wasn’t in the class but works for the Lab of Ornithology had joined the group, and we walked through the late winter woods looking for chickadees and anything else that might be in Ithaca at the time. Pishing is done by making a “shhh” sound as if you were shushing someone and then controlling it by opening and closing your lips, pushing the sound out in bursts similar to a birds’ call (more detailed information on the practice is also for another post, and perhaps someone else’s). When my friend pished, some chickadees would flutter close enough to touch if we had amazing hand reflexes, and I was very impressed, especially since it was cold enough that I couldn’t stop my lips from sputtering when I tried to mimic him.

The first day on Santa Cruz, once my bags were in Reyna Oleas and Roberto Plaza’s house (I’m staying with them while I’m in Galápagos), I walked around their heavily vegetated humid highland property and pished until I was surrounded by at least sixteen Tree and Ground Finches and Yellow Warblers. I had known that Galápagos birds were still relatively unused to humans, but I hadn’t considered how easy it would be to draw them in! I mentioned in my last post that I don’t consider myself a birder, but perhaps pishing for fun contradicts that claim. Anyway, back to the school group:

I explained to the students that everyone pishing at once might confuse or scare the birds away, that nobody should try to chase the birds, and gave my two previously pictured guide books to Adam and Eduardo. We went walking on the group of dirt roads around the school and saw plenty of Ground (definitely Small, maybe some Medium) and Tree Finches (Small), dozens of Yellow Warblers, a handful of Mockingbirds, some Smooth-billed Anis, and a Masked Booby (one of the students’ father, who works for the Park, happened to be driving by with one in his truck). The students enjoyed pishing, especially when the results were so easily witnessed. Yellow Warbler females in particular seemed to be abundant and curious at the first pish. On just the second day of the week, everything pointed to a good track forwards and I was very excited to continue! I’ll have more to say about the next three days of the week soon.

Connecting Communities Across the Continent Through Birds – Cuba

2012 June 6
by Marta del Campo and Seth Inman

The House Sparrow was the bird most sighted at the Plaza de Armas, just across the Museum of Natural History in La Habana, Cuba. Photo by Raymond Belhumeur

Let’s take an imaginary flight to the Caribbean, perhaps as if we were migratory birds in the fall of the Northern Hemisphere. In these islands, we would discover so many people of all ages who want to learn about birds; both their year-long resident species and those that spend only the winter on the islands. The National Museum of Natural History in Habana, Cuba, has had a strong influence on the growing appreciation of and education about birds among Cubans. Every year they participate in the Endemic Bird Festival and lead many additional inquiry based projects and workshops for youth throughout the year. This year, one of their projects was an activity where kids spent some time drawing outside the museum, attracting the public with their artwork, and inviting them to come watch birds in a nearby city square. One never has to go far to learn about birds! All you need is the will, and a little time. This activity helped build a list of 17 species of birds seen that day, and raise awareness of birds and their urban habitat. The birds were right there in the capital city. Participants did not have to go far to watch them.  They just looked around to observe the beautiful birds. A little bit of art and a little connection to local children made people raise their eyes and start looking at the birds around them. This activity was part of the workshop “Birds, Urban Trees, and Me.”

Youth participated in activities at the museum, and invited people passing by to join the bird observations at the Plaza

Another inspiring activity that the museum arranged, also a part of this workshop, took place in a nearby park. Here, young participants had a specific question about the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a species of woodpecker that spends its winters in the Caribbean and the rest of its time in the US. They wanted to know if this bird had a preference for some trees in this park over others, so they checked 60 trees of 10 different species and found only a couple types of tree had the signature pecking holes of the sapsucker. The results of this simple study stimulated a wonderful discussion among the participants about the relationship of birds and their habitat. Generating awareness about how certain trees and not others could help birds. When you observe birds, do you also come up with questions about them and their habitat? Curiosity. What a wonderful quality!

Recently, Cuban biologists and educators who lead many citizen science and environmental education projects throughout the island visited the Cornell Lab. We hope that they will take new ideas and knowledge about birds and about our different programs and citizen-science projects to their communities in Cuba. Our collaboration strengthens the Lab, as we learn from strong and creative research and educational initiatives in Cuba, and they have an opportunity to learn from the Lab, our programs, and our scientists. It is so wonderful to collaborate with diverse groups across the globe. We can all help each other, as well as the birds, all over the world.


Youth observed the characteristic holes made by the migratory Woodpeckers on local trees

Next time, I will tell you about our collaborators in Uruguay, in South America. What wonderful activities connected to birds and their habitat they are holding in their communities!

If you would like to learn more about some of our partner organization across the continent and the Caribbean Islands, visit

Until next time!

Preparing for CUBs in the Galápagos

2012 May 28
by Seth Inman

Over the summer, I’ll be working with youth in the community of the second largest island of the Galápagos archipelago, Santa Cruz. This central island is the touristic center of the archipelago, and Puerto Ayora, its capital, is the most populated (and thus, urban) area in the islands. In particular, my goal is to engage students of the Unidad Educativa Modelo Tomás de Berlanga, a bilingual non-profit school five minutes from the center of Puerto Ayora, and create a youth-led project that focuses on habitat awareness and improvement, participatory science, and the arts, specifically through birds.

I will try to apply the framework of the Celebrate Urban Birds program to the Galápagos, using a list of around 16-20 focal species to teach those I can reach on Santa Cruz about citizen science as a tool for conservation and research while hopefully deepening an appreciation of their surroundings. I aimto give the students as much control as possible over what programs and art forms are utilized, because with children in particular, being involved in CUBs programs lends a sense of ownership and activism in their participatory science and bird-inspired artwork. By showing the diverse voices possible in science, certain aspects of it can be demystified for youth participants, and sharing their data and artwork can instill a sense of pride in their surroundings and effort at studying and sharing it, which makes all the difference to us.

CUBs has inspired many programs around Latin America before. In Cuba, for example, the National Museum of Natural History adapted the project’s spirit of scientific inquiry and organized a workshop for children that studied the tree preference of migratory Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in a park of Havana. Here’s my brief translation of their report.

Although it is difficult for me to create a perfectly suitable curriculum or succinct research question like the Museum’s without directly assessing the conditions in Puerto Ayora, I have been thinking of fun lesson plans and creative art projects that could supplement the more data-oriented facet of the summer program. What do you consider invaluable parts of a child’s experience when learning about birds? Please feel free to share your ideas here!