GEARHART — If the fourth-graders at Gearhart Elementary School suddenly had to eat like shorebirds, picking up their food with their beaks, they might go hungry.
That may have been one lesson learned this week when “Nate the Great” arrived from the Columbia River Maritime Museum to teach them how shorebirds adapt to their environment to survive.
With simple household objects, a willing student and a slideshow, Nate Sandel, 33, managed to entertain and inform the energetic 9- and 10-year-olds for nearly an hour.
By the end of the class, the students knew why some shorebirds have long legs, how they are protected by their oily feathers and what a shorebird might eat with a long beak.
The Museum in the Schools program offers a variety of science and history topics for students at all grade levels. Among the 65 topics Sandel has in his repertoire are seafaring life, which looks at the life of sailors; the Silk Road, which involves early trade routes; the life cycle of wheat and how it travels from Midwest farms on rail, barge and by ship all over the world; and the Lightship Columbia.
The topics match the museum’s mission, which is to relate education to the Columbia River and to the ocean. But the programs also meet schools’ educational requirements, said Betsey Ellerbroek, the museum’s education director.
“We look closely at curriculum standards, what teachers need to teach in social studies and science,” Ellerbroek said.
The program has gained so much popularity since it began in 1996 that teachers have learned to reserve Sandel’s appearances as soon as the school year begins. Last year, he made 775 presentations to 5,150 students. Many of those students saw him several times because teachers request multiple programs.
Sandel travels to an average of 25 schools a year, from Tillamook to Willapa Bay, St. Helens, Kelso and Kalama, Wash.
Offered to the schools free, the program is funded in part by the museum and by the Washington-based Quest for Truth Foundation. The program also received a grant last year from US Bank.
When Sandel visited Becky Seybold’s fourth-grade class Tuesday, the kids were ready for “Nate the Great” to teach them about shorebirds.
“We’re going to have some fun today,” Sandel told the kids. “It’s a ‘shore’ thing.”
With that, he asked for a volunteer, and Brock Nielsen, 9 jumped up.
Little did Brock know that he was about to become a shorebird himself.
“What kind of bird is a shorebird?” Sandel asked.
“Pelicans?” asked one student.
No, those are seabirds, Sandel replied.
Puffins? Herons? Cranes?
Nope – all seabirds.
That’s a close answer, Sandel said.
“You are right!” he answered. And what are the differences between seabirds and shorebirds, he asked and proceeded to answer: “Shorebirds get food they find on the shore, and seabirds get food they find in the sea.”
Sandel handed out cards with one or two words on the front and a few sentences on the back. Each time he talked about a part of a shorebird’s body, someone read a card out loud to describe the body part’s special quality.
He took a vest from a sack. When shorebirds are born, they have a kind of “bird underwear,” Sandel said. They have down feathers, like the feathers in down pillows or blankets.
Or vests. He put the vest over Brock’s shoulders, and Brock put it on.
Sandel pulled out some cloth “wings,” and began talking about the birds’ long, pointy wings that help them migrate long distances. Those “highway wings” can help a shorebird fly 19,000 miles in a season, he said, as he put a wing over Brock’s left hand.
“We’re going to give you wings,” Sandel said. “Don’t fly away on me.”
Next came the contour wings.
“When you’re looking for a lady, these feathers will change color,” Sandel explained.
The rounded wings, also drawn on white cloth, went over the pointed wings.
Hollow bones reduce the weight shorebirds carry when they are flying great distances, said Sandel, attaching some colorful straws – aka bones – to Brock’s pants with a clothespin.
A student read about how air sacs provide the bird a reserve of oxygen to enable him to breathe on those long flights, and Sandel attached a small blue bag to Brock’s chest with another clothespin.
Shorebirds don’t roost in trees, Sandel said, handing Brock a pair of rubber boots to pull on. Their long legs help them nest on shore without getting their feathers wet.
“The longer the legs, the longer the beak,” Sandel added.
He placed some clear goggles over Brock’s nose with a black felt “beak” attached.
Why do shorebirds have long toes? Sandel asked. A student read from the card that the large feet helped them from sinking into the sand.
“Think of them like snowshoes,” Sandel said, attaching a pair of “toes” onto the rubber boots.
He asked Brock to check the vest pocket. Brock pulled out a bottle of baby oil.
“Why do shorebirds have an oil gland?” he asked the students.
They have oil on their feathers, they replied. Why? To help them fly.
Without the oil, Sandel told them, water would penetrate the feathers, and the shorebirds would freeze to death.
They also talked about how sensitive shorebirds are to environmental changes. Even a disturbance, such as people walking on the sand next to their nests, can cause them to abandon their eggs, he said. That’s why people are being asked to avoid those areas when Western snowy plovers are nearby, Sandel added.
Oil pollution and the destruction of habitat by building construction on the beach also endanger shorebirds, he said. Then he pulled out a scrap of fishing net and a plastic bag – two things that can kill shorebirds if they become entangled in them. He placed the net around Brock’s shoulders.
What do shorebirds eat? Worms, crustaceans, snails and sandfleas, Sandel said.
“Ewww,” the kids exclaimed.
Throughout his presentation, Sandel had shown slides of various shorebirds, some with long legs and long beaks and some with shorter legs and smaller beaks.
He outlined a square on the floor with masking tape and dumped a bag full of marbles, straws, toothpicks, rice and small metal nuts and washers in the square. Then, to groups of students he passed out long tongs, tweezers, small scissors, plastic spoons and clothespins. He gave everyone small wax drinking cups.
“Are you ready to eat like a shorebird?” Sandel asked.
This demonstration was meant to show the students what type of food would be easiest to pick up with a certain size of beak. The long tongs, for instance, would be similar to an Oystercatcher, which can reach way below the surface of the sand for food without getting his head wet. The tweezers might resemble the beak of a Western snowy plover, which would have a shorter reach.
Sandel told the students they were to use their tools or “beaks” to gather their “food” – straws represented worms, marbles symbolized snails, rice grains were sandfleas and the nuts and washers became crustaceans.
After collecting the food in the cup (which symbolized the bird’s “stomach”), they would count how many of each type they had and would see how well their “beaks” picked up the goodies.
“Find the food that’s the easiest to pick up first and ‘eat’ as much as you can,” Sandel suggested. “Then go for the next easiest.”
Kids immediately jumped on the task, and chaos reigned for several minutes. Finally, Sandel ended the feeding frenzy.
In the end, those with the spoons managed to collect the most food, including the rice. Sandel admitted that the tweezers, which came in second, was supposed to “win.”
“I’m not sure how that happened,” he said. “The tweezers are the most like a shorebird.”
Sandel has been with the program for eight years. He first studied to be a teacher and took the core teaching classes, but he switched to major in history. The combination turned out to be just right for this program.
He makes five to seven presentations a day, going from classroom to classroom. He will be back at Gearhart in another two weeks.
When Sandel is not in the classroom, he’s thinking up new programs and creating the props he uses, or he’s in the museum doing interactive programs with families that stop by.
It takes a lot of energy to capture the students’ attention and keep them captivated, but Sandel hasn’t tired of it.
“I enjoy the job, but it’s a young person’s job,” he said. “It’s the kids that keep me going.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.