Students watch birds
Noted ornithologist John C. Robinson (left) helped Sherman Middle School and UW students spot Warner Park's 100th recorded bird species in early April. Submitted photo

Madison's Warner Park may be best known as home of the Madison Mallards baseball team, but it's also home to real mallards and at least 99 other species of wild birds.

Thanks to a group of outdoor-loving Sherman Middle School students working with University of Wisconsin-Madison student mentors, the list of wild birds that make the almost 200 acre urban park their home, or their temporary home as they migrate north and south, now stands at 100.

The first week in April the Sherman birding club, which includes sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students partnered with UW students, discovered the landmark 100th species in the park. It's a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a type of woodpecker, sighted with the help of nationally renowned ornithologist and author John C. Robinson.

Robinson was visiting Madison to give a talk at the UW on conservation and outdoor recreation.

Robinson's most recent book is "Birding for Everyone; Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers." He is black. Students were also with Robinson when they discovered bird No. 97, the American woodcock, which is known for its spectacular early spring mating ritual, which takes place from nightfall to midnight.

"It's pretty cool when we find a new kind of bird," says eighth-grader Jesse Kurzinski. "I'd say my favorite is probably the indigo bunting because their feathers are actually black, but because of diffraction of light through their feathers we see them as this amazing shade of blue."

The Sherman Middle School birding club is the brainchild of Trish O'Kane, a doctoral candidate who works with professor Jack Kloppenburg at the University of Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

"I was inspired by Richard Loos' book, 'Last Child in the Woods,' " says O'Kane. "So many kids, especially kids in the city, are growing up with absolutely no knowledge of nature or the joy of being outdoors in a natural setting. Being with these students as they experience a little wilderness in their own backyard is a delight. The kids have helped teach me about just letting go and appreciating the moment."

The birding club is also mapping other wild treasures of Warner, from plants and fungi to critters of all kinds.

Warner Park has just over 40 acres of undeveloped "wild" area out of a total of about 200 acres overall. But this portion of the park feels remote from the city, and provides habitat for a rich number of wild animals and birds. The majority of the park is set up for more organized, formal activities, requiring groomed playing fields, mowed lawns, paved parking lots and playground equipment.

In recent years, a growing number of North Side residents have joined together in a group called "Wild Warner" that observes, catalogs, celebrates and protects the wildlife that lives in the area.

Last year, during a "Wild Warner" bird hike, then fifth-grader Boaz Fink and his father met O'Kane. When Boaz entered Sherman last fall and heard about O'Kane organizing a school-based birding club, he was eager to join.

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Now he has become something of an expert on the migration patterns of the birds of Warner Park. He and his UW birding partner, Laura Lee Berrey, not only meet on Mondays after school, they also spend Thursday afternoons at the Lake View Library. They're putting together a migration map that shows the various species' travel routes across North and South America throughout the year.

What they're learning is that birds face many perils, both in the park and along their migration paths, where they not only face the rigors of travel but also predators, hunters, traffic, development and habitat changes and environmental problems. When the mapping project is done, they will present it to interested local environmental groups.

Boaz has also become an advocate for the wildlife he studies. He's learned, for instance, how some birds migrate to a very specific area each year, and that if conditions there are unsafe, they don't have other options.

"Like with the BP oil spill. You have water birds that have been flying for many hours. When they're tired, they have to rest. If it happens to be where there's oil, they don't have a choice, and they have to land in whatever water they can find. If it's polluted, it's a big problem," he says.

"They can't communicate. They're helpless. They can't tell us what they need so it's up to us to stand up for them."