We all hear people say it: “Wait till you have kids, the way you spend your time will be completely different.” Well, right now, pre-children, I spend a lot of time birding. Given that birding generally requires patience, quiet, and a lot of walking, I knew people would be particularly doubtful about my ability to continue birding after my husband and I eventually start a family.
To test it out, this weekend I took my (almost) four year old nephew, Braiden, on a quick jaunt to Lake Jovita near Tampa, Florida. The good news is that birding and four-year-olds definitely go together, but I took away five lessons that will be helpful to anyone looking to bring kids along on wildlife adventures.
1) Expect to go slow. Really slow.
Lake Jovita was exactly a 12 minute walk from where we were staying with my parents-in-law, his grandparents. I expected a quick walk over, fifteen minutes or so surveying the lake, and then fifteen minutes to return and have some lunch at home. 45 minutes, tops.
Oh so wrong. Our whole excursion took two hours, with at least 40 minutes to walk to the lake itself. It wasn’t that Braiden was especially slow, he just wanted to look at everything. While our pace might have been slower, I ended up not minding, for reasons explained in tip #4.
2) Have them actively participate.
A four year old probably won’t be searching the leaves for bird silhouettes as actively as you, but that doesn’t mean they can’t participate. I had my Canon camera with me, and Braiden wanted to take pictures too. I handed him my smart phone, and for the rest of the trip he was the professional photographer. Near the lake we spotted a Red-Shouldered Hawk on a light pole, and he took multiple pictures as we strode by, reveling in all the angles (luckily the hawk just sat there gazing at us). He also took a rather nice photo of the lake, and when we rested on a shady bench we could compare photos. It was fun!
3) Show them what you see.
Braiden loved looking at the natural world. I pointed out the hawk, smaller songbirds, an Anhinga sunning on a tree branch, and a Palm Warbler. His favorite was the Turkey Vulture, which swooped low over our heads as we walked through a field. Kids are naturally curious, and the more we can spark their interest about the environment and its creatures, the better.
4) Pay special attention to what they see.
I may have shown Braiden some things, but he showed me a lot too. His height gave him a different vantage point, and his interest in everything helped him zero in on cool things I had completely missed.
At the lake, a wooden pier takes fishermen and women away from shore to cast their bait. He found two multicolored spiders to photograph that were actually quite beautiful – for arachnids. At a picnic table, he gasped at a very furry caterpillar, and we both watched its progress. His love of photographing trees meant I appreciated them too.
5) Never underestimate the power of a playground.
By the time we were headed home, Braiden was lagging. His footsteps were lethargic, his nose sniffled, and his eyes drooped. He was too heavy to carry for the half-mile back, and he wasn’t a fan of my constant kid questions (what’s your favorite color, what Halloween candy do you like, who is your best friend?). I was beginning to worry that I would have to alternate between carrying and resting, when we turned a corner and he suddenly saw the playground in the center of town.
Bingo. He was off like a shot, zooming through a grassy soccer field and making a bee-line right for the monkey bars. Braiden not only regained his energy, he quadrupled it. After showing me his sweet swinging moves, he made it the rest of the way home in a great mood.
Birding can be great in parks complete with playgrounds, so when out with kids I will always make sure to make a playground stop!
Though birding with Braiden was different than if I had been birding alone, I really enjoyed the whole experience. Not only did I see cool birds, but so did he, and he showed me lots of things I might not have noticed on my own. Cheers to the future!