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About Arlington

Lectures, Experiments and Tests Are for the Birds

Not all things with wings (ladybugs, bats, airplanes) are birds, but all birds have ears, noses and wings. Except the wingless kiwi. All birds have feathers, and, of course, they all fly. Well, not the swimming penguin or the speedy roadrunner. Yet they all lay eggs like their dinosaur cousins, and only use their nests when they raise their babies. The material of our fingernails, is the same as the spine of a bird feather. Oil keeps the feathers dry. This is what the preschoolers learn at the Long Branch Nature Center.

These are the experiments they perform:

Touch the feather to feel its softness. Drop the feather to watch it fall lightly "ffft-ffft-ffft-ffft" in a spiral to the floor. Examine the feather under a magnifying glass; little hands try to hold the glass and the feather at just the right distance before sharing the lens with the next person. Those same small hands fling water droplets from the feather to see that it won’t stick. Or they hold the feather still and level, balancing the ball of water that wants to roll to the edges and fall.

This is their test:

"Miss Barb" Leupold calls to her 15 waist-high charges seated crisscross applesauce on carpet samples in a room of stuffed wild cats and birds. The tiny scholars respond. Before them in a blue turtleneck and bird-alphabet tee-shirt (an oriole over the "O"), Miss Barb wears then shucks, rapid-fire, puppets from her hand:

She: "What’s this?"

They: "Cardinal."

She: "What’s this?"

They: "Crow."

She: "What does he eat?"

They: A jumble of responses.

She: A list of possibilities like grains and garbage. "He eats anything he wants."

One boy: "Fish?"

Miss Barb: Not really. "He kind of cleans up everything."

Puppets off, then on.

She: "What’s this?"

They: "Eagle"

She: "What does he eat?"

They: "Fish."

Another boy: "And rats."

More puppets and even pictures.

She: "Remember what keeps their feathers dry?"

They: "Oil."

This is what they build:

Bird feeders from half-bagels slathered in Crisco shortening and dipped into birdseed and raisins. Then we’re out the door to explore the grounds.

This is what I learn this day and others:

Miss Barb makes it look natural to keep a class of 15 preschoolers rapt. With a pace that keeps them moving and paying attention, she is perhaps the friendliest drill sergeant for the pre-school set. A former pre-school teacher and an assistant naturalist at the center, she would have read a story this day, but has forgotten her glasses.

As many as 22,000 people sign up for the programs at Long Branch and Gulf Branch nature centers each year. Some, like Eleanor Whitaker, don’t stop coming even after they’ve moved. She lived in Del Ray and has moved down near Mt. Vernon, but hasn’t found programming as good as this in Fairfax County, she says.

Those 22,000 visitors don’t include the people who just show up, or walk through with leashed dogs or on bicycles. It’s as Ashley Giglio of Arlington Forest says, "You do not need a program to come here."

As yet, there are no plans to cut the funding to the county’s two centers, despite the looming budget crisis facing the county.

It’s busy year-round at the centers. "Every season has its own special activity," says Alonso Abugattas, a park naturalist at Long Branch. The Flying Squirrel viewing season has just begun.