Birds (and youth bird-watchers) flock together at annual birdwatching event
Teaching life-long skills about bird-watching to the next generation

Look, it’s a blue jay! I hope I see an owl, exclaimed another participant. There was no lack of excitement at the Helen Fenske Visitor Center at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Basking Ridge, New Jersey (NJ) on this chilly February day. The group of teens and young adults that are part of the non-profit, conservation-oriented group Groundwork Elizabeth had traveled 30 miles from their homes in Elizabeth, NJ to participate in the 2024 version of the Great Backyard Bird Count. The annual event, which has been led by the Friends of Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (Friends), attracts participants from the communities adjacent to the Great Swamp NWR. The youth from Groundwork Elizabeth’s Green Team made the special trek out to the refuge to participate in the count as part of the Elizabeth Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership between the city of Elizabeth and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Friends.

Friends board member Kathy Woodward, who has long participated in outreach events related to the Elizabeth Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, led the youth and over 40 other participants on a guided walk to find, identify, and count birds on the Great Swamp NWR. Equipped with binoculars generously provided by the Friends, the teens located a turkey vulture soaring overhead. “Vultures do not have feathers on their face, does anyone know why?” Kathy asked the group. “Because they eat dead animals, if they had feathers on their face, it would get very messy!” she exclaimed, eliciting a surprised reaction from the youth. It’s fun interactions like these that keep Kathy and other volunteers from the Friends coming back to lead programs with the Groundwork Elizabeth team members. 

The Groundwork Elizabeth youth have become very familiar with USFWS staff and Friends members through participation at a growing number of educational and stewardship events hosted on the Great Swamp NWR. The Green Team members come out to the refuge to learn about conservation practices such as wildlife surveys and habitat restoration, before going back to their home city of Elizabeth to utilize those same strategies in their own community and act as conservation ambassadors for their friends and neighbors. Beren Delgado, Director of Youth Initiatives for Groundwork Elizabeth, excitedly states “…we love the partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Friends Group, the Service (USFWS) trains our youth in trail maintenance, invasive species invasive species
An invasive species is any plant or animal that has spread or been introduced into a new area where they are, or could, cause harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health. Their unwelcome presence can destroy ecosystems and cost millions of dollars.

Learn more about invasive species
removal and restoration work. Then we implement these skills in Elizabeth and surrounding communities to address environmental challenges in our cities such as heat islands and flooding.” The Green Team, Friends, and USFWS have collaborated on Great Backyard Bird Counts in the past, with Beren leading all three groups in search of
birds in parks throughout the city of Elizabeth in 2022 and 2023. 

For new Green Team member Krystal San Lucas, the Great Swamp NWR is now a place that she’s eager to bring her friends and family out to for a visit, stating “…today was my first time at the refuge…I got to see a lot of birds, it was cold but I still enjoyed it…I will definitely come back!”

Many urban youth are introduced to the National Wildlife Refuge System through the USFWS Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. Another first-time visitor to the refuge, Shakil Sims, works with Groundwork Elizabeth and the Housing Authority of the City of Elizabeth (HACE) Heat Program. After being introduced to gardening and the environment through those programs, he was excited to be learning about blue jays and owls on this trip. Shakil shared that “I didn’t realize how many people participated in bird counts…it’s amazing!” If the smiles on the faces of the Green Team members were any indication, this event provides hope for the future that the next generation will continue the annual tradition of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

This article was written by Lucy Crespo, Urban Community Engagement Specialist for the National Wildlife Refuge Association and Jared Green of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.