On a wing and a prayer

Jean McLeish

Goosewatch 2007 took flight this week, and the RSPB hopes more adults and children will take an interest in wildlife.It's just before dawn and a small group of adults and children are keeping vigil over the wetlands at Loch of Strathbeg, near Fraserburgh.

Soon they are rewarded for their patience, and the early morning stillness is shattered with the clamour of thousands of geese rising, whirling into the skies.

It's an unbelievable sight as the sun floods the landscape with golden light and flocks of geese fly low over the hide. For 10-year-old David Gilmour, it's been worth leaving his home in Aberdeen in early morning darkness.

David is a pupil at Forehill Primary and has been fascinated by wildlife since he was very young: "It's just amazing how they all take off at the same time," says David, well wrapped up against a biting, frosty wind.

This is Goosewatch 2007, one of many events organised by the RSPB all over the country each year to encourage adults and children to experience nature first-hand.

The Loch of Strathbeg RSPB reserve is the winter roosting ground for pink-footed geese. As many as 80,000 geese will stop here, exhausted after a 700-mile flight from Iceland. Some will stay over the winter, others head further south.

Jo McFarlane, RSPB community officer, explains the importance of this location: "Twenty per cent of the world's population of pink-footed geese are staying with us this year - sometimes it's more. They arrive here dehydrated after flying for seven to 12 hours from Iceland."

Since it started more than 100 years ago, the RSPB has been committed to educating adults and children about wildlife. It first brought children onto its reserves in 1967 and it celebrates the 40th anniversary this year.

Vane Farm in Perth and Kinross was bought by the RSPB specifically to bring children to see wildlife, and it has developed into the biggest of the organisation's field-teaching sites in Scotland, with about 2,500 children visiting each year.

Glasgow schoolchildren are now getting the opportunity to do the same - in their own backyard at Kelvingrove Park. The project is a partnership with Glasgow City Council and Culture and Sport Glasgow. The RSPB has staff on hand to talk to visitors about the wildlife. Primary pupils can visit the museum and park, where they can look out for kingfishers, herons, and ducks - as well as urban bird-life. It's the first venture of its kind to be based in the heart of the city.

"What we want to get across is that there is lots of wildlife in towns and cities and we can help by feeding the birds and improving our gardens," says Sarah Wiseman, RSPB education officer.

At Kelvingrove, cameras are mounted on nesting boxes and bird feeders, and images are beamed back into the museum, where RSPB staff can enlighten visitors about what's on view. Youngsters can also go on minibeast hunts, looking at invertebrates and other species in the park.

"It's really just opening their eyes to what's around them. I find that children, whether they live in the city or rural areas, are often unaware of the wildlife that surrounds them. Not just the rare wildlife, just the common everyday stuff in the garden - they just don't really know about it. And when they do start to notice, it's just brilliant," says Ms Wiseman.


A pilot project, Bird Friendly Schools, was launched by the RSPB in 54 Scottish primary schools last year. This year, another 50 Scottish schools joined the scheme and it is hoped this will be extended.

RSPB staff visit schools over the winter, taking bird seed, feeders and nest boxes. Officers talk to children about the wildlife they can spot on their doorstep.

In January, children can join the Big Schools Birdwatch, another RSPB venture where pupils identify birds in their neighbourhood and learn how to encourage wildlife.

There are 11 RSPB sites throughout Scotland where teaching field staff support school pupils, with most of the work linked to environmental studies in the 5-14 curriculum.

Sarah Wiseman, RSPB education officer, says the charity is doing more in-service training with teachers, enabling them to take children out and appreciate local wildlife.

At a time when obese children are making headlines, the RSPB's education activities help get children out in the fresh air and taking more exercise. In recent years, it has extended its work into nursery schools with children as young as three.

"What we hope is that we are providing the spark that inspires them to be interested in wildlife for the rest of their lives," says Ms Wiseman.

Information about RSPB field teaching sites and resources: www.rspb.org.ukteaching.

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Jean McLeish

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