Get Outside

Bringing the Birds of Costa Rica to a Vermont Classroom

A grade-school teacher travels to the tropics to inspire her students’ interest in birds.

For many teachers, summer vacation means a break from the classroom and a chance to recharge for the next school year. But for bird aficionado and elementary school teacher Amy Clapp, this past summer was a time to do research for her nature curriculum by going on her first-ever bird walk in Costa Rica.

On July 18, Clapp, a 42-year-old science teacher at Vermont’s Salisbury Community School, started a 10-day journey across the rainforests of Central America, searching for birds in different climate zones and various habitats. Clapp joined a tropical tour group, thanks to a grant provided by Fund for Teachers, an organization that supports teachers looking to improve both their classroom skills and the academic lives of their students.

A lifelong Vermonter, Clapp knew from a young age that she wanted to work with children. But her love for birds emerged just a few years ago, after she attended an Audubon nature camp on Hog Island in Maine aimed at teaching educators how to use nature to engage their students. “The most important thing I learned while I was there,” said Clapp, “is how powerful it can be to bring kids outside and let them discover on their own.”

The realization led her to an epiphany: Kids of any age can study birds. “In kindergarten the focus is on what makes an animal different from a plant,” Clapp explained, “and when you get up to fifth and sixth grade, we look at how weather patterns affect species migration. There are just so many ways to use birds to teach this kind of content.”

Clapp, a science specialist for grades K-6, decided to incorporate her new passion into her curriculum by creating a series of bird-inspired activities and programs, including building birdfeeders and leading a backyard bird count. “[Birds] are something that can tie together everything I do,” she said. “The energy it sparked in the kids was just unbelievable.”

Many of her more difficult students were willing to participate; Clapp noticed that even those with behavioral challenges seemed to find the birds “therapeutic.”

Despite her successes, Clapp felt she needed to learn more about birds to keep the momentum going. So she submitted a self-designed fellowship proposal to Fund for Teachers and was awarded $5,000 for her journey. “I feel I need to be a more professional birder, and this trip is going to open up a whole new door,” Clapp said before leaving.

Clapp wanted to learn more about bird migration patterns, conservation, and different habitats while on the trip. Starting in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, Clapp and other amateur birders—under the guidance of the Tropical Birding tour agency—explored Carara and Braulio Carrillo national parks, hitting the Monteverde cloudforest along the way.

Clapp hoped to see a wide variety of hummingbirds—these tiny birds have been an obsession of hers since she spotted a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in her backyard earlier this year and then learned about the “unbelievable” migration they take on. Clapp’s students, on the other hand, were most thrilled about the thought of their teacher seeing a toucan. “If you can get them hooked on one bird,” she said, “they are more willing to learn about the other birds that aren’t as exotic.”

Clapp, who sharpened up her binocular skills for this trip, says she felt a sense of duty to make this excursion, not just for her own growth but for the benefit of her students. “I want these kids to become passionate about taking care of the species on our planet,” she said.

Here are a few tips from Clapp on how to use birds to spark kids’ interest in nature:

  1. Get a birdfeeder.
  2. Bring the kids outside and let them simply watch the birds—they will get excited about seeing almost anything. Then encourage them to observe the different species’ habits. This activity can be improved with binoculars (they don’t have to be great, and even if they are made out of toilet paper rolls, it will help).
  3. Do a bird adaptation lab: Use various tools to pick up different types of bird food, then have the kids compare those tools to the beaks of local birds.
  4. Learn about a bird that has a “cool” story (e.g., the shorebird known as “Moonbird” or the young puffins in Audubon’s Puffin Project) and then teach the kids about it.
  5. Follow a live bird cam.
  6. Find out the 10 most abundant birds in your area and create a customized bird guide to use in your backyard. Then …
  7. Have a bird-a-thon to look for those birds.
  8. Get an expert (like an Audubon member) to lead a bird walk.
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