On Saturday, May 13, the students and families of Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class at Peck Elementary headed to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a Birds in my Neighborhood® field trip. Around 50 members of the Peck community spent the day spotting birds, searching for bison, and exploring the bunkerfields of Midewin.
Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.
Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class learned about Chicago’s birds in the classroom, and had already completed two bird walks on school grounds and in Marquette Park. Saturday was an extra field trip, and one of the first Saturday field trips that Openlands has helped facilitate, and the result was spectacular.
Birds, Bison, and Bunkers
The field trip to Midewin started early at the Visitors Center where our friends from the Forest Service offered a brief overview of the area’s ecological and cultural history. Ms. Caponigro (Ms. Cap to her students) helped everyone in the group get acquainted with Midewin by translating the overview into Spanish.
“The Saturday field trip to Midewin was an amazing experience for our students and their families. To see such an expanse of nature and to learn about the history of the space along with identifying birds was something many of us will never forget,” explained Ms. Cap.
Openlands volunteers then led the students on a bird walk along the Explosives Road trail, and the families divided into two groups – one walk facilitated in Spanish and the other in English. Both students and families successfully spotted and identified many of the species using a bilingual guide provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.
The third graders correctly identified a tremendous array of bird species including great blue herons, turkey vultures, eastern kingbirds, killdeer, blue jays, common yellowthroat, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, dickcissel, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, a scarlet tanager (pictured above), American goldfinches, red-tailed hawks, and more!
In the afternoon, the families had time to explore the retired US army ammunition bunkers that dot the Midewin landscape and after a lunch break, we headed up to Iron Bridge Trailhead in search of the bison herd. By the end of the day, most of the students were proclaiming it the best field trip ever.
Midewin is truly a breath-taking place to visit. At 19,000 acres, it is the largest open space in the Chicago region, it contains 22 miles of mixed use trails, and the biological diversity present is simply stunning. One student, speaking somewhat overwhelmed, expressed their disbelief not just at the number of bird species they saw, but that so many bird species even existed!
An Important Grassland Habitat
Massive open spaces like Midewin are vital for numerous reasons: they are home to some of Illinois’ last fragments of native prairie and they offer shelter to hundreds of species in need of conservation support. But research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an indicator of future environmental stewards, and this data drives our education work.
For Openlands, schools are the intersection of people and nature. Our Space to Grow partnership transforms CPS schoolyards into green campuses and gardens after seeking community input to address its needs, and schools are where we often gather communities for gardening workshops and to plant trees. Those trees and gardens become home to wildlife for students to learn about through Birds in my Neighborhood, and together, these communities foster new voices and new generations in the conservation movement.
When we forge new partnerships with schools, we listen to the needs of communities. For example, when Openlands began these Saturday field trips, we reached out to schools that we knew have an established interest in the nature of our region. Peck Elementary, located in Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood has been one of those inspiring schools. Peck was one of the first schools to sign up for Building School Gardens, and they were among the first schools to embrace a Birds in my Neighborhood curriculum. Ms. Cap has dozens of stories of her former students returning to her classroom to discuss birds, and her students have always appreciated the Birds in my Neighborhood class lessons.
“The bus ride back was buzzing with nature disscussions. Not to mention all the jealous comments on Monday from kids who didn’t attend,” said Ms. Cap.
Sharing these experiences with students demonstrates the value of conserved public lands, and furthers our mission to connect the residents of the Chicago region to the nature around them.
Peck’s field trip to Midewin was a tremendous success. Many thanks go out to our Birds in my Neighborhood volunteers, the Forest Service staff who helped with site orientation, and to the staff at the Midewin Visitors Center, who offered us their shaded outdoor lunchroom for our break.
Saturday field trips to Midewin are made possible by the generous support of BNSF Railway and US Forest Service – International Programs. And of course, we couldn’t make these field trips happen without the passionate support of teachers like Ms. Cap and our generous Openlands members.
Ready to discover Midewin for yourself? We have a few suggestions on where to start.
If you are interested in becoming a Birds in my Neighborhood volunteer, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wish to support the program, please contact email@example.com or call 312.863.6261.