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Students' imaginations take wing

Bird guide author shares lessons learned in field with fifth-grade classes

By David Desjardins, Globe Staff, 2/13/2003

The two wildlife artists huddled around the painting, the younger one proudly showing off his work: a watercolor depicting a great blue heron, spied along the shore of the Arlington Reservoir during a class trip.

''It's my second favorite bird,'' said Michael Mendes, a fifth-grader from the Stratton School, ''because it's so tall and it has beautiful colors.''

''Nice work,'' said the older artist. ''You captured some of the gracefulness of the great blue heron.''

That was high praise, considering the source: author and illustrator David Sibley, creator of the bird guide that bears his name. Sibley, who lives in Concord, visited Stratton Monday to talk about his own work and to view that of nearly 100 budding naturalists gathered there, the fifth-graders of Bishop and Stratton schools.

The visit was part of a cross-discipline art project designed to help advance the schools' science curriculum on the environment. The project was designed by Wendy Campbell, who teaches art at both schools.

Until last year, Campbell said, ''I knew the reservoir only as a place I took my kids swimming, and it seemed that most people think of it that way. Then I learned that some people think of it as the wildest place in Arlington.''

So began the Arlington Reservoir Art Project. Campbell began taking Bishop and Stratton students on trips to the reservoir late last year, to learn how its ecosystem functions and how it is threatened. After their visits, Campbell's students began painting pictures of birds that can be found there, and Campbell arranged to have them exhibited at various places throughout town. When a colleague suggested that she ask Sibley - author of ''The Sibley Guide to Birds,'' ''The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,'' and ''Sibley's Birding Basics'' - to talk to the students, Campbell e-mailed the author and learned that he was eager to visit.

On Monday, Bishop fifth-graders and their teachers traveled to Stratton to join fifth-graders there to hear Sibley speak and show slides of his work.

Sibley said he has been drawing birds since age 5. ''I'm sorry I didn't bring pictures of my early drawings; you'd be surprised at how bad they were,'' he told students. He said the key to being a good bird watcher is simple, yet hard to master.

''You remember the song in `Sesame Street', `One of these things is not like the other?''' he asked. ''Well, that's what bird watching is like: You have to try to spy what is different between one bird and another. Each difference you find helps you to draw birds better.''

Sibley has spent years traveling around North America, living out of a van while tracking down one subspecies of bird after another. In one slide, Sibley is seen in Maine making his sketches with his gloves on; another, taken in Arizona, shows him cooling himself in a stream, waiting patiently to observe a black hawk in flight. A third slide, taken from inside the van, shows an elusive blue grouse on his hood; its pecking at the windshield woke him up early one morning.

After a while, Sibley asked for questions from his young audience, and they had many.

''Do you use a camera?'' asked one student. At first he did, Sibley said, but he found that he ''wound up getting good pictures, but not really remembering the bird.'' When one student observed that birds' habit of staying in groups made observation difficult, Sibley pointed out, ''But that's what they want you to feel: They form flocks so that predators have a hard time picking one out.''

Sibley reviewed some of the paintings created by the fifth-graders, including a red-tailed hawk painted by Sylvia Hickman, a swan by Tori Hegarty, and a blue jay by Peter Weeks, all from Bishop School; and a Cooper's hawk painted by Jordan Vishniac and a chipping sparrow by Victoria Cunningham, both Stratton students.

Then Sibley sketched a peregrine falcon in flight for the students' benefit.

''Remember, when you look at a bird in the wild you're not seeing the actual bird's body,'' Sibley said. ''You're looking at feathers. The body of every bird is similar; it's the feathers that make the shape of the bird.''

The gathering Monday was videotaped for broadcast on Arlington cable television-access channel 8.

High schooler and Stratton alumna Courtney Bowman, one of those taping Sibley's visit, said the program would be broadcast within a couple of weeks.

Sibley's visit was the latest example of community involvement in the art project.

Members of the Arlington Reservoir Committee, which is part of the town's Vision 2020 Task Force, helped guide students around the reservoir, and developed a tour booklet for wider use as a result.

Marcia Hegarty, a children's educator at Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary in Belmont, conducted a workshop for the students on bird identification and using binoculars.

Marjorie Rines, an Arlington bird-watching expert and editor of Bird Observer of Eastern Massachusetts, accompanied the students as a guide and provided resources for further study.

The paintings the students created are ''remarkable in their detail,'' said Rines, so well executed that she was able to easily identify the pictured birds on first sight.

She particularly admired a pair of drawings of spotted sandpipers, created by Bishop students Anna Humphrey and Andrew Pereli.

''These are practically signature birds for the reservation,'' said Rines. ''They show up in both the spring and fall. You can practically count on seeing them.''

The project was a great success, said Stratton fifth-grade teacher Paula Foley.

''This was practically a model of cooperation between teachers, parents, children, and people in the community,'' said Foley. ''It shows the true essence of collaboration in education.''

The fifth-graders' artwork can be viewed on the Web at

Information on the reservoir is available at

This story ran on page N1 of the Boston Globe on 2/13/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.