Mark Schilling, a teacher at St. John the Evangelist School, is on an enthusiastic mission to teach children, parents and anyone else to become naturalists by birdwatching. He leads the St. John Eagles Bird Club at the school.
Schilling’s 40-year history of birdwatching did not begin with him wanting to become a teacher.
“I realized that ambition after I became a naturalist/instructor at the Ashokan Center in the Catskills and really enjoyed interacting with the grade school kids who came there to learn,” he said.
Schilling has energy to spare, often rising between 3:00am and 4:00am during migration season to get an early start in a good location.
“I rise [early] so I can enjoy a few hours of identifying birds more often by the songs they sing than by seeing them. I have a strong auditory sense.
“May 20 is always a sad day for me because migrants that don't actually nest here have finished passing through on their way north."
Schilling started the school’s birdwatching club in 2018 after trails on the 17 acres of land adjacent to the school’s property (previously acquired in 2016) were completed by the Maryland Conservation Corps and parent volunteers.
“I took groups of no more than 10 to 12 kids at a time from the fifth through seventh grades for walks at 7:00am before classes began at 8:00am,” he said. “I soon realized that the accompanying parent volunteers enjoyed these outings as much as the students.”
Schilling created a blog for the bird club students in 2020 (www.stjohntheevangelist.weebly.com), when COVID-19 put a halt to in-person school activities, to encourage students to continue birdwatching on their own. His blog is comprehensive and immersive, packed with interesting links for all levels of birdwatchers.
St. John has already built one bird blind in the woods, a small, approximately 10-by-4-foot building made of recycled wood. It has a roof and is open on one side so the kids can enter and peer through its slats to observe the birds without being seen.
“I put down different kinds of birdfeed among the several feeders and on the ground to attract a greater variety of birds,” Schilling said.
St. John has received grants in the past for work on the trailhead property for more naturalist activities. Schilling hopes that money can be raised for a platform for a second bird blind on Cypress Creek so the kids can observe the wetlands birds along the trail.
Schilling is optimistic that interest within the school community will continue to grow and the birdwatching club can begin using the trails again in spring 2022.
“I began to see the students’ increasing curiosity about other flora and fauna,” Schilling said. “The woods can be scary to kids if they are not accustomed to them, and I hope that the kids who feel this way will become more at ease by exploring the wildlife here.”