It’s never too early to begin birding, I discovered, when I had the pleasure of joining a group of energetic birders in Incline Village one recent morning. This was a group of about 12 little people, led by Kirk Hardie from the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS) and Olivia Cushing, Science & Outdoor Education Coordinator for Incline Elementary School, along with two AmeriCorps volunteers, Amy and Robin.
We were an impressive group as we set off down the road, making our way to an empty lot where McCourry meets Northwood. Our first encounter was with a banded caterpillar on the sidewalk, black on both ends and yellow-orange in the middle—possibly a spotted tussock moth caterpillar or woolly bear caterpillar.
A woolly bear caterpillar hibernates during the winter, producing cryoprotectant in its tissues and freezing solid. Once it thaws in the spring, it will feed on plant matter until it has enough energy to pupate and become an Isabella tiger moth. Once a moth, either species has only days to find a mate and produce eggs.
As we meandered through the trees, we were fortunate to spot a pair of ravens high up in a dead tree, giving the children an opportunity to use their binoculars. Ravens are large, completely black birds, larger than crows, with a throatier, deeper caw than a crow. They are smart, social and playful birds, sometimes exhibiting problem-solving behaviors. Juvenile ravens have been observed in orchestrated play, even taunting other species. They get more sedate as they age, just like humans.
They are opportunistic feeders, eating almost anything, which might explain their long life span in the wild—typically 10-15 years. In captivity or in a protected environment, they can live as long as 40 years. They mate for life and have dozens of different vocalizations they use to communicate with each other.
It was gratifying to see the children so engaged and enthusiastic about the various sights and sounds of nature. They proudly showed off their birding journals, in which are listed the birds they have spotted during their outings including the American Robin, Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Pygmy Nuthatch, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Red-tailed hawk.
Their eyes sparkle, their voices rise in excitement as they scour the sky for subjects. It’s easy to view these young learners as future “Keepers of the Lake”. We are blessed to live in this glorious blast of nature and all must do our part as stewards of Lake Tahoe. The more a person learns about his surroundings, the more engaged he becomes, creating a stronger connection to the earth. Along with this connection comes a fierce desire to protect it and all its inhabitants.
This adorable little birding club is but one of the many programs that the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science has to offer. For the elementary schools, there are in-class programs where students can learn about bugs, bats and birds. These programs are highly engaging and hands-on and focus on the native species around Lake Tahoe.
For the adventurous, inquisitive explorer, TINS offers day camps in the summer. Campers ages 6-8 get to poke around looking for bugs in tree bark, under logs and in the surrounding foliage. They learn about what bugs eat and what their role is in their particular ecosystem.
There are camps for older explorers who will learn about wildlife ecology, forest ecology, water ecology, and geology of the Tahoe basin while hiking, kayaking, and learning from various natural science experts.
They also offer field trips for elementary through high school students, visiting local nature areas to learn about topics such as bird banding research, winter wildlife survival, and general nature discovery.
Tahoe Institute for Natural Science has programs for adults, including nature walks, slide shows and presentations on many nature topics. In addition, interested amateurs can partner with scientists to collaborate on research projects. Some current studies include an annual butterfly count, mid-winter bald eagle count, the Christmas Bird Count and other projects involving specific species.
Look for “Citizen Science” on the web site for details on how to participate. Visit the web site TINSweb.org or contact Kirk Hardie at (775) 298-0065, kirk@TINSweb.org for more information about these and other programs.