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A Great Weekend With Great Egrets

February 28, 2014

Researcher holding Great EgretIt was almost one year ago that we began our LifeTrack: Great Egrets project at the Museum.  Researchers and educators from the Museum partnered with researchers at Lenoir-Rhyne University and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission to do something that had never been done before: tracking Great Egrets in near real-time via GPS trackers.  Scientists have tracked Great Egrets before, but they had to track the birds manually, a painstaking effort that often meant slogging through marshes and brush to find the birds and still resulted in an incomplete knowledge of their habits and habitats.  The GPS trackers on our birds are far more advanced and allow us to pinpoint the exact location of the birds remotely several times a day and have already provided greater insight into the behaviors of the birds.  But, we didn’t want to stop there.  We wanted to bring North Carolina’s school children into the project, to get their help studying our birds.  We sent out applications and selected 10 schools to participate in the project initially, one school per bird.  Teachers were invited to participate in the initial capture and GPS tagging of the birds and were given the basic information and tools they needed to bring the project into their classrooms, including daily updates on where “their” bird had been.  The goal was to offer a teacher workshop where researchers, Museum educators, and North Carolina’s teachers could learn about Great Egrets together and develop ideas for how to get students state-wide more involved in the project.

Thanks to the generous support of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership, we were able to offer a free teacher workshop at the beginning of February and took 15 teachers from across the state on a weekend-long trip to observe Great Egrets in the field.  We arrived after dark the first evening, so everyone briefly moved into their rooms at the lovely new Pocosin Arts facility in Columbia, NC and then gathered to learn about the Lifetrack: Great Egret project as a group.  The group also learned some basic bird identification skills before heading down the street for dinner and then turning in for the evening.

Frozen Lake Mattamuskeet at sunriseThe bulk of the workshop took place the second day.  After a quick breakfast, everyone packed into the Museum bus and headed to Lake Mattamuskeet before dawn to watch the sunrise.  The sight was breathtaking, particularly because the lake was completely frozen over.  But then we got right down to business and enjoyed a day packed full of activities and learning.  We practiced our bird identifications from the night before on a large group of Tundra Swans and Shoveler Ducks walking around on the ice.  We demonstrated how researchers trap Great Egrets to tag them and discussed how the GPS tags work and are attached to the birds.  We completed activities that the teachers can take back to their schools, such as calculating the total body weight of a bird and its tracker and then scaling it up so a kid with a backpack can see what it feels like to be an Egret with a tracker.  We observed Great Egrets in the field, classifying their habitats and recording their behaviors in activities that mimic the work of the researchers in the field.  We were treated to the awesome sight of thousands of Snow Geese on the ice.  At one point in the afternoon, we ended up splitting the group into four teams.  Two teams visited sites at Lake Mattamuskeet our Egrets used in the past to document the habitats according to the methods they’d learned earlier in the day.  The other two teams watched Egrets hunt and calculated the strike and success rate of the birds.  Then one team split off from the behavior team to take a sick Egret to a wildlife rescue center.  Interacting with that Egret and taking it to the rescue center was a highlight for several people on the trip.

Egret workshop activity on wingspan estimationThe third day of the workshop focused on data analysis.  We’d given our teachers the tracking data for their birds all along and given them access to the Movebank website where the data is stored and displayed.  We hadn’t ever shown them how they could use the data to answer scientific questions about the birds, so we led everyone through a data processing activity with the data we’ve amassed throughout the project.  We also discussed ways that the teachers might use the information they learned in the workshop in their classrooms and did a quick activity estimating wingspan of several large birds we saw during our outdoor observations.  And with that, the workshop was over!  After a fun and highly educational weekend for everyone, it was time to head back home.

We hope that our teachers will use what they’ve learned in the workshop to enrich the education of their students and bring real scientific research into their classrooms.  With the background information, activities, and hands-on experiences they gained in the workshop, our teachers should be well-equipped to lead their students in exploring the natural world and science through the lives of our Egrets, and help us learn more about these amazing birds as well.  In the end, everyone – researchers, Museum educators, and teachers alike – walked away from the experience having learned something new.  It was a great weekend with Great Egrets!

If you’d like to learn more about the LifeTrack: Great Egret project, please visit the  project’s home on the Movebank website.  The data from this project is freely available to everyone – we encourage you to use it to answer your own questions about the Great Egrets.  You never know when you might make an amazing new discovery!

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