January 06, 2010

South for the Winter

Fly Away Home + A Wetlands Birding Excursion

The magic of cinema allows you to fly as a goose's wing man with Anna Paquin as your co-pilot. Fly Away Home tells the story of Amy, a motherless girl, who teaches a nest of motherless geese how to fly. While spectacular scenery and adorable goslings keep the kids captivated, it's Amy's triumph over her mother's death that makes this film uplifting. The story begins when Amy moves to Canada to be raised by her eccentric father, an airplane designer. When she fights to save the orphaned flock, Amy bonds with her father, who teaches her to pilot a plane so that she can train the goslings to fly. Together, they lead the geese on a 500 mile migration, crossing over Canada and into the United States, where the press heralds her accomplishment. To watch Amy pilot the plane solo, with the wild geese honking behind her in formation, is exhilarating.

Fly Away Home packs an environmental message about the sad effects of urban growth on wildlife and their habitats, so we decided to find out how local birds were faring in our own metropolis. Part of the appeal of birding is that it's decidedly low-tech; all you need is a pair of binoculars, a local birding guide and the smarts to know where to find some birds. After a little on-line research, we discovered that migrating birds stop for the night at a wetland in our own neighborhood. When we entered the habitat, time slowed down and our fast-paced tweens spent fifteen minutes watching an elegant Black-crowned Night Heron working the marsh grass for food and a Snowy Egret standing at solitary attention across the pond, her clean white lines distinct against the green marsh. The boys were less focused on the wildlife, but identified a real Birder, who allowed them a long glimpse through his telephoto lens at cormorants hanging their wings out to dry. As we left, a flock of white pelicans circled the wetland, landing in such a graceful order that they seemed rehearsed. A collective sigh went up from the crowd around the pond, and our own junior birders joining in the chorus.

The Film

Film Title: Fly Away Home
Directed By: Carroll Ballard
1996, Rated PG, 107 minutes

KOTC Kernels Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this film:
  • Why This Film is Worth It: One of the best family films around -- in terms of message and beautiful film making -- this story requires some Kleenex while it teaches that the heart can rebound from tragedy. Our whole family loved watching the cute goslings adopt a teenage mother, and thought that watching Anna Paquin pilot a plane was really cool. Her passion for her feathered friends is truly memorable.
  • Red Flags: The opening scene shows the devastating car crash in which Amy loses her mother. Shot without words and presented almost as a dream, it's a tough opener. Warn your kids that it is coming or, if they're young enough to be upset, cue ahead to where Amy recovers in a hospital ward. Amy, who is thirteen in the story, struggles to get along with her father's new girlfriend (Dana Delaney) and throws a punch at a sheriff who tries to take her goslings.
  • Other Worthy Films: Carroll Ballard has made some of Hollywood's most sumptuous films. Lucky for young viewers, his favorite subjects have been children and animals. Don't miss Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf or his latest film, Duma.
  • Rental tip: Fly Away Home is based on the true story of Bill Lishman, a Canadian conservationist, who used ultralight aircraft to lead endangered animals to safe habitats. The DVD contains a fascinating documentary, The Ultra Geese, about his adventures with the geese.
  • COOL FACT: Anna Paquin won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1993 for her work in The Piano. She was nine years-old.
Cinema Savvy Our tips for talking to your kids about this film:
  • Cinema Savvy: Ballard constructs his film with such rich imagry that scenes are complete enough visually to tell the story without dialogue. Ask your kids to choose four images which could, on their own, tell this story without words.
  • Environmental Savvy: The topic of disappearing wetlands remains a key one for the environmental community. Can you identify where migratory birds would land in your neighborhood?  Are there any existing threats to this habitat?

The Adventure

Take a Wetland Walk and Look for Birds

Time Allotment: 2-3 hours
Age Recommendation: Stroller Babes to grandparents

KOTC Kernels Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Popcorn Adventure:
  • What Worked for Us: Birding is an acquired taste, but all kids love being outside. Some kids will be more interested in the identification process than others. Our older girls loved locating the birds, fiddling with the binoculars, and scouring the field guide to identify the birds. Our younger boys split their time between racing around the park and cataloging birds. The website www.whatbird.com is a good place for step-by-step identification.
  • Before You Go: You can find full length Field Guides at your local book stores which have extensive bird markings to assist in identifications. To order a laminated field guide, call (805) 499-9338 or click on www.localbirds.com. We found a laminated card listing the most common local birds at a children's book store. It's great if each child can use a pair of binoculars for this adventure. Ask around to see if friends have some you can borrow.
  • Rare Bird Hotline: Check your local Audubon chapter to see if birders in your region opera a Rare Bird Alert Hotline. Many communities have a recorded message which offers a detailed description of unusual birds in our area, and specific directions about how to find them
  • Migration Science: A cool new project called "Migration Science and Mystery" is underway in which students from around the country can watch birds on their migratory path up the West Coast this spring. Click here for details.
  • Backyard Bird Count: Birders around the country participate in annual Backyard Bird Count every February for a week -- join them this year from February 12-15 by clicking here. Last year 93,629 people counted over eleven million birds and the information gathered helps scientists and conservationists across the country.
City Savvy Our City Editors' tips for enjoying this Popcorn Adventure around the USA:
  • Anywhere: Check out the National Audubon site www.audubon.org; click on states and chapters to find good sites in your area. This helpful site has comprehensive birding spots listed by state. Or, use the Google Search Term 'wetlands' or 'migratory paths' and your city name.
  • Boston: The Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary is an urban sanctuary, located on the grounds of the old Boston State Hospital (500 Walk Hill St, Mattapan).  www.massaudubon.org. Or, visit Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (73 Weir Hill Road in Sudbury) for 3600 acres of riverfront. www.fws.gov/northeast/greatmeadows.
  • Chicago: Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary (4400N Montrose Avenue at Lake Michigan) attracts large numbers of migratory birds.  Head to the "Magic Hedge" to scope them out.
  • Houston: The Armand Bayou Nature Center, 25 miles south of downtown Houston, is the largest urban wildlife refuge in the United States. Take a hike through the prairie, forest or down to the bayou, or tour the 1800's farm grounds. Don't miss the Education Building's aquatic displays or Discovery Table with animal bones and specimens. Check the calendar for the Owl Prowl, canoe tours, pontoon boat cruises and Prairie Night Ride. www.abnc.org
  • New York: The Henry Luce Nature Observatory, housed in Belvedere Castle, is a simple but effective way to interest your kids in birding. Pick up a checklist of birds found in the park, and take them upstairs to look at the paper maché models of birds they should look for Explore nearby Ramble and Turtle Pond, too. The New York Audubon has has seasonally-specific checklists of birds and listings of the best places to bird wherever you live.
  • San Francisco: Egrets and herons nest at the Audubon Canyon Ranch along the Bolinas Lagoon from March until June. Stop at Parkside in nearby Stinson Beach for a meal. Harbor seals and plenty of other bird species readily visible.
  • Washington, DC: Rock Creek Park is the largest natural area in DC, and a great place for first-timers. Best bird-watching is in the western ridge of the park. Start at the Nature Center and head south or check out the dog park across from the Nature Center. South of DC (18 miles) is the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. As an established refuge for the endangered bald eagle, it's worth the drive.
Secret Agenda

Want to know some easy tips for bird identification?  A field guide and binoculars help.

  • Tip#1: If the bird is flying, try focusing on a single attribute rather than remembering everything. For instance, what color is the head, or the legs? One detail is often all you need to make your identification.
  • Tip #2: Most field guides have arrows pointing to markings which will most easily help you make your identification. (Petersons' Field Guides do this the best).
  • Tip #3: If you think you've seen a bird that your Field Guide tells you resides on the East Coast, you might have made a wrong ID. Try again!
Home Projects Our suggestions for extending this Popcorn Adventure at home:
  • Bird Feeding: Building a birdfeeder is a great way to attract local species. Check out www.birding.com for advice about what to feed the species where you live.

Cultural Connections

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

Film Festival

Want to watch more great wildlife films? Click here to be connected to the Kids Off the Couch store at Amazon.com.

Books Want to read more about birding? Click here to be connected to the Kids Off the Couch store at Amazon.com.