What Does a Baby Bird Do?

Every day the kids wandered farther from our house collecting flowers for their journal until they started returning empty handed.

I knew that patience wasn’t an easy thing for a budding six-year-old and three-year-old, so I tried to redirect their energy.  “Kyra, how would you like to add birds to your flower book project?”

Her droopy shoulders perked up. “Okay, let’s go catch some birds.”

I laughed.  “We don’t collect birds like we collect flowers.  How would you like it if somebody took you away from your Mommy and Daddy and put you in a cage?”

“That would not be so good.”

In seven years of being an Alaskan resident, we never found the time to stroll the boardwalks of Potter Marsh that wind about 1550 feet from a parking lot over a rich habitat for birds.

As soon as we arrived, Kyra ran towards the bluff without pausing once to look for birds.  Ethan wrapped his fist around my pinky and pointed at anything that moved in the water or grass.   “What’s that, Mommee?” And if I didn’t respond right away, he’d decide “fish” or “duck.”

The ducks he found were actually a family of Canada geese with four goslings.  Peeking through the boardwalk fence, Ethan tracked the fuzzy gray babies as they wobbled in and out of the water. 

He studied them silently with no expression on his face.  I had time to photograph the geese and twist my long hair away from my neck so that the ocean breeze could make its way down my back.

Finally, he asked, “What do baby ducks do?”

The question caught me off guard and I heard myself ask him, “What do you do?”

He thought about it for a while, then responded, “Play.  Play with Lightning McQueen.”

Kyra was in a state of agitation by the time we caught up to her.  She wasn’t tall enough to reach the binoculars at the end of the boardwalk and I think she believed that that was the only way she could see a bird.  I lifted her up and after a few seconds of blinking, she complained, “Nothing.  I see nothing.”

“Patience, Kyra.”

She stomped her feet. “Patience.  What is patience?  I don’t know what patience is!” Then, she collapsed into a heap.

Christina Salmon, once told me how her son learned patience from bird hunting.  She said, “To sit quietly in a bird blind for hour s at a time requires a good imagination for a six-year-old boy!  You have to be alert, and watch the sky all evening, for a slim chance that a flock will fly overhead.”

Bird hunting wasn’t something we had access to, but bird watching, I realized, could offer me similar teachable moments.  Bending down to her eye level, I asked, “Kyra, would you like to see some baby birds?”

She squeezed some tears out of her eyes and nodded.

Ethan proudly guided his sister to the crowd admiring the goslings.  “See?  The ducks play the toys.”

Kyra laughed, tears still glistening on her cheek, “Baby ducks swim in the water and eat grass.  My answer is correct but Ethan’s is not correct.”

“Mine correct!” Ethan furrowed his eyebrows and pointed his index finger at his sister.  “Babies play toys. Buz Lightyear!”

A few days later, Kyra wanted to try Potter Marsh again with her dad.  We arrived at about the same time as the last visit, but I immediately noticed a dearth of birds and visitors.  Kyra didn’t seem to notice as she proudly announced that she found a bird. 

“Where Kyra?  Show me?”

She pointed at a bird painted on a sign.  Meanwhile, Ethan refused to walk.  Curled up in my arms, he would lift his head occasionally and whimper, “Where are the babies?”

Just as I was about to doubt whether my kids were too young for birding, blue metallic streaked across the gray skies.  A “cheerful series of liquid twitters” (according to my National Audubon Society Field Guide to Northern American Birds) sliced through the air polluted with a steady stream of gunfire sounds from the Rabbit Creek Shooting Park.

We identified it as a tree swallow. Both kids listened excitedly as I read from the field guide, “Tree swallows enjoy playing with a feather, which they drop and then retrieve as it floats in the air.”

Before returning home, the kids studied an arctic tern hunting for fish and counted 26 goslings in a crèche of five Canada geese families. 

Birding engaged the whole family.  Even Thomas downloaded a free app for identifying birds, which he said wasn’t very good.  At one point, Kyra and Ethan did beg daddy for his iPhone.  However, when Ethan pretends to be a gosling in my living room and Kyra peppers her journal with sketches of tree swallows, I’m hopeful that birdwatching might win their full attention someday.

Here are some of our favorite bird watching tools: 

  • Bird Song Recordings from USGS entertained my kids for hours.  They both chose their favorite “chirp” as Ethan called it.
  • The Birders Library recommends several Bird Apps for the iPhone.

The Inside/Outside Wars

This summer, I insisted upon a mandatory daily routine of getting outside.  At first, Kyra and Ethan couldn’t wait to race their Cozy Coupe, bikes, and scooters in our yard.  I proudly noted gear-tester talents manifesting on days that it rained.  A big smile broke across their faces when they remained dry while the world around them soaked.

Gear testers in training.

Kyra usually collected sticks, gifted me dandelions, and took Ethan on adventures.  Ethan enjoyed sitting on my lap on the deck and playing our “What’s that Sound” game.  Closing his eyes, he can now name every sound he hears accurately, including discerning the difference between a squirrel and a bird.

Lately though, I noticed that it’s harder to keep them outside for more than a few minutes.  Dandelions began to strap down their bikes and scooters the way the Lilliputians felled Gulliver while Kyra bargained, “If I go outside, how about I get to play with your phone?”


“Okay, how about we get juice?  Ice cream?  Marshmallows?”

Ethan tried, “How about watch Superman? Sesame Street? Something edu cation?”  And when that didn’t work, they would complain, “The bugs will bite me” or “It’s too cold.”

Recalling the plan I outlined in Dandelion Killer to explore what’s outside our doorstep, one day, I tossed onto the living room floor a bunch of guidebooks on flowers and plants.

“Kyra, I have a summer project for you.”

“Cool Mommee.  What is it? What is it?”

Measuring the amount of gleam in her eye, I found the right words to get the leader of the pack on board.  “How would you like to pick flowers in our yard and make your own book?”

She looked at me suspiciously, “I can make my own book?”

While she browsed the guidebooks, I found a handmade journal I had bought at Alyeska’s Blueberry Festival and never figured out what to use it for.   Dangling this journal and a box of art supplies in front of Kyra, I said, “You can start by decorating the title page.”

Two seconds later, she was done. In crayon, she had scribbled the words, “Mommy and Kyra.”  She slapped on some Spiderman stickers and then handed the journal to Ethan, who honestly was much more interested in tattooing himself with markers.

“Kyra, I can barely read this.  Do you want to make it darker?  Maybe, add some flowers?”

She already slipped on her shoes and was halfway out the door. “Let’s pick the flowers first!”

Delicately negotiating her “now that I’m done with Kindergarten, I’m in charge” attitude, I explained that once we put the flowers in the book, we couldn’t open it for at least 24 hours.

“Alright,” she said, kicking off her shoes, “Very quickly, okay?”

Now, the title page was exciting enough to entice Ethan’s attention.

 He insisted on carrying the journal and Kyra grabbed a guidebook.  Outside, they ran up to the first flower they saw, my one and only California poppy that had bloomed overnight, and picked it.  I made a note to myself that I had to read them Eric Carle’s The Tiny Seed at bedtime and show them how to be nice to plants.

Then, they started to fight over who could put the poppy in the book.  “Kyra, since you picked the flower, do you mind letting Ethan press it?”

“Fine,” she huffed and puffed.

“Look, there’s some purple stuff growing along the driveway.  But, before you pick it, Kyra, do you think we should find it in your guidebook?”

“That’s a good idea, Mommee.  Okay, you help Ethan and I will find this purple flower.”

I did have to teach Kyra how to use the guidebook, but she was very proud to name the Bluebell.

As the sun warmed my face, I recognized that this was one of those rare moments where I think I got my parenting right.

Here are some other ideas on nature journals:

Peaks, Glaciers & Kids – Part III

A few hours after Kyra and Ethan negotiated Root Glacier with crampons, we sit down for a four-course dinner at McCarthy Lodge .   Neil Darish, the owner and reigning Alaska SBA Financial Champion of the Year, winks at me from across the room as I shush Kyra and Ethan, the only kids here tonight.  Darish convinced me to bring the kids, saying that that’s what sets their restaurant apart from other fine dining establishments.

“I can do anything I want,” Joshua Slaughter, the 33 year old executive chef (whose pedigree includes Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville, California, WD~50 in New York, and Ducca in San Francisco) confirms later after dinner, as he drives us back to Kennecott Glacier Lodge.  “Like tonight, I found out at 2pm that I had to create four completely different menus.  Besides the regular guests, I had your kids, vegetarian, and kosher, now that was a challenge.”

Chef Slaughter has a pretty awesome job.  He works only 120 days out of the year.  A workday starts at 6am.  He makes breakfast until 10a.m.; sometimes he hops on a Cessna to a local farm or some remote location to harvest raspberries, salmon berries, or morels, then returns at 2pm to prepare dinner.

As soon as the cheese pizza arrives, Kyra devours hers in one gulp without even admiring the artistic presentation of the finest meal that she has ever eaten.  Ethan is more interested in our lox.  Or maybe, he’s still sore from being carried down the glacier after he dipped his foot into a water slide.

Grouchy 2 year old looks at fancy cheese pizza

As soon as the cheese pizza arrives, Kyra devours hers in one gulp without even admiring the artistic presentation of the finest meal that she has ever eaten. Ethan is more interested in our lox.

Both kids ignore their macaroni and cheese once they taste our seared halibut on a bed of kale and tomato bread pudding, drizzled in orange butter.

By the time, they consume our Copper River salmon balanced on potato gnocchi, encircled by a moat of carrot foam, I finish off their breaded chicken strips and fries, which I must say are the best I’ve ever had.

Darish laughs at our switch-a-roo and says that somehow Chef Slaughter magically manages to get picky kids to eat.  Later in his car, Chef Slaughter shares a secret with me.  The source of his magic is synesthesia, a gift where a person a smell a sound or hear a color. “I cook until the music sounds right,” Slaughter explains.

On Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while the adults enjoy an up to 28-course tasting menu, Chef Slaughter entertains kids with an 18 course menu of edible crayons, upside-down ice creams, or a salad their parents have to make in their mouth.

Spring Radish
Balsamic is absorbed through the root of an early season radish using a negative environment, then served on a copper spring. On a Facebook post, Darish writes, “The guest picks up the radish…turns the radish over and rubs the leaves in the oil — a 1-bite salad.”

Dessert is served nearly two hours after we start dinner.  Chef Slaughter takes his time to concoct the perfect chocolate pecan mousse for the kids.  He wows us with an apple tart on peach dust, accented with almond panna cotta.

Licking the last trace of mousse from her lips, Kyra holds her swollen tummy and says, “Oh, I’m sleepy.”  On her way back to the lodge, she passes out in the backseat of Chef Slaughter’s car.  After all, she has to save her energy for tomorrow’s job of earning a Wrangell-St. Elias Junior Ranger badge.

Ranger Beverly Goad asks Kyra and Ethan to raise their right hand and pledge to appreciate, respect, and protect all national parks.

Honestly, I’m still in shock that my kids dined with us at a restaurant listed in Food Wine Magazine  as one of 5 Top New Summer Destinations for 2011 and New York Grub Street as the #1 place in Alaska to dine.

Beef with mushroom, turned potato, peanut dust, demi & smoked salt.

Beef with mushroom, turned potato, peanut dust, demi & smoked salt. Photo Credit: Neil Darish.

Salmon with carrot gel and chive ribbons

Wild caught Copper River Red Salmon with carrot gel & carrot & chive ribbons. Photo Credit: Neil Darish.

That’s another reason why I love Alaska.  Daring visionaries like Neil Darish, Gaia Marrs, and Rich Kirkwood make it possible for families with young kids to enjoy a place as rare and remote as McCarthy-Kennecott.

Peaks, Glaciers & Kids – Part II

Ethan wakes as soon as we spot the toe of Root Glacier, a sticky mile and a half hike along the lateral moraine of Kennicott Glacier.  Eyebrows furrowed, he peeks at the glacier suspiciously from behind his sun, rain, and mosquito protection screen.  Kyra bounces excitedly ahead of our guide, Kate, who reminds me of the care free life I had before having kids.

Kyra orders, “Come on guys, let’s go.”

I wink at Thomas, relieved that we can finally hike this distance without carrying both kids.

Oh family hikes on glacier

Photo credit: Kate Schousen

Kate points at the moat running along Kennicott Glacier and says, “There are all these caves and under ice pathways people can explore at the end of the summer.  And once the deeper ones open up the surface water disappears and you can walk through the tunnels.”

Oh family standing across a crevasse

Photo credit: Kate Schousen

The photo I had hoped to capture of the four of us encircled by swirls of blue ice is not going to happen.  I try not to display any disappointment on my face.  Tomorrow, we are driving back to Eagle River and this “Alaskan adventure,” which took us several years to plan, will be over.  Since we had kids, “Alaskan adventures” seem expensive, brief, and unpredictable.  With every step I take on this trail, I worry that things might go horribly wrong like the snowmachine trip we took in March where our truck slid on a patch of ice resulting in damages we are still paying for today.  See Love + eMotion: Hike, not Mush.

When Kate announces that it’s time to put on our crampons, Kyra starts to dance, “Oh yeah! Oh yeah!”

I did too when Gaia  first told me over the phone that they could outfit young kids with crampons.  Gaia, who rode in a bail bucket at the front of a raft at age two, understood my frustration that my kids are too young for adventure travel.  St. Elias Alpine Guides does not have an age limit for their glacier hikes, simply a guideline that young children can either hike for at least five miles or be carried by sure-footed parents.

Fortunately, Gaia had also paired us with Kate who believes that helping kids connect with nature is her job. “Having kid-sized crampons is a way to help kids do this. The earlier a person can experience nature and enjoy being in the wild, the more they will value all of the things that nature teaches: serenity, self-reliance, finding personal limits, recognizing the finite nature of life and the infinite cycle of nature. Showing kids how to use crampons also increases their responsibility and sense of autonomy.”

But the doubt that trickled into my belly early this morning had drowned my wild side.  I tighten my crampons nervously as Kate arms my children’s feet with steel daggers.

2 year old Ethan puts on crampons

Kate says that Ethan is the youngest she's ever seen wearing crampons!

Kyra gets 10 spikes, because she had on Kahtoolas with extra short bars.  Ethan gets 4 because he had in-step crampons, designed to sit in the middle of an adult-sized foot.

Eyeing her crampons mischievously, Kyra asks, “Can I go anywhere I want?”

“Yes, there are no trails,” Kate says, “But you have to be careful.  Walk slowly.  Step up higher and step down harder.  More spikes in the ice, the safer you are. Also, walk like a cowboy or cowgirl.  And that’s all there is to it.  A little higher, stronger, and wider.”

“Follow me!” Kyra commands, then steps onto the glacier.  Grabbing her hand, Kate says to me, “I love her bold attitude.”

3 year old Kyra dances across the glacier

Kyra complains, “Hey, what about me?” She starts to do a dance routine, a bit of popping, a glide, and a swivel.

Together, they march up the glacier.  Ethan, seeing how easy his sister handled her crampons, waves off our anxious hands and runs up the glacier.

“Ethan’s pretty fast on those crampons, huh?” I say to Thomas.

Ethan corrects me, “I’m Superman!”

“No, I’m Superman.  You’re Buz Lightyear!” Kyra yells from the ridge.

When we all get to the top, Kate says, “Wow, Ethan, you’re the youngest person I have ever seen walk on a glacier!”

youngest trekker on a glacier

“Ethan’s pretty fast on those crampons, huh?” I say to Thomas.

Kyra complains, “Hey, what about me?”  She starts to do a dance routine, a bit of popping, a glide, and a swivel.

“You are so awesome!” Kate laughs.

“Kyra, please don’t kick yourself or your brother.”

“I won’t!” Kyra sighs.  Her dark sunglasses shield her eyes from me, but her tone suggests that she is doing a teenage “no duh Mom” eye roll.

After exploring blue pools and moulins, we had lunch beside a developing crevasse, where glacier melt shoots down like a water slide.

Kate hands us each a red Twizzler and explains that if we bit the ends off we could use them like straws.  Kyra sticks her head in the ravine and after a while complains, “It’s not working.”

Ethan demands a Twizzler too, but simply stands in the same spot sucking air.  After a few minutes, he says, “Mine’s not working either.”

The glacier water cools my insides and I down a whole pint before eating lunch.  I wish I could just lie down and take a nap and admire the view of Stairway Icefalls (according to Kate it’s the “second largest one in the world”) but the kids are rapidly adapting their jean ripping, dirt digging, rock throwing techniques to the melting glacier surface.

They stomp around with their crampons as if they are barefoot in a tub of grapes, making wine.  They seem completely at ease, balancing on their spikes, and stepping into blue icy pools of water which they measure with Kate’s ice pick.

Keeping a firm hold on her ice pick, Kate shakes her head in disbelief and says almost to herself, “I love this family.”