By Ilana DeBare
What do an art museum docent and a Golden Gate Audubon birder have in common?
That may sound like the start of a bad joke, but it was the core of a very good afternoon on the Richmond shoreline last Friday.
About two dozen museum docents from around the country – in San Francisco for the National Docent Symposium – crossed the bridge to attend a presentation by GGAS’ birding docents.
GGAS volunteers Judith Dunham and Elizabeth Sojourner shared their experiences as Birding the Bay Trail docents. Lisa Eileen Hern chimed in about her role as a Burrowing Owl docent.
And GGAS Volunteer Coordinator Noreen Weeden organized the entire presentation – which was more than a year in the planning.
“We get a huge variety of people using this trail — fishermen, sailboarders, roller skaters, dog walkers,” Elizabeth told the visiting docents. “So we’re able to talk to a great diversity of people about the Bay’s equal diversity of wildlife.”
The docents arrived by van at Vincent Park along the Bay Trail in Richmond. With picnic tables and a stunning Bay view, it was the perfect spot to share lessons from GGAS’ outreach initiatives.
In our Birding the Bay Trail program – started in 2009 – pairs of docents are stationed with scopes and signs along the shoreline path.
In our Burrowing Owl program — started in 2010 — docents bring their scopes to Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, where as many as five of the diminutive owls spend the winter each year.
The goal of both programs is to engage passersby, pique their interest in the birds all around us, and perhaps inspire a deeper commitment to safeguarding the habitats of the Bay.
And do all this in (usually) under five minutes!
“I’ll show up early, look for some charismatic birds like a Long-billed Curlew, and smile and say, ‘Do you want to see a bird close up?’ ” Judith said. “They look through the scope and a bird that was just a brown clump now becomes incredibly detailed, and as we say in Berkeley, it blows their mind. Because you’re contacting them spontaneously, they often move on. But it’s an opportunity to impart a kernel of information.”
There are obvious differences between museum docenting and GGAS’ docent program: One involves fixed pieces of work, while the other involves unpredictable wildlife. (A museum docent never has to worry that the paintings won’t show up that day!) And people go to museums with the explicit intention of viewing art, while many people on the Bay Trail are there for reasons other than wildlife.
But as Judith, Elizabeth and Lisa shared their experiences, the similarities between their work and that of the museum docents quickly became apparent.
Both the birding and museum docents try to educate people without intimidating them. Both aim to interact rather than deliver lectures.
That means making eye contact. Asking questions. Telling stories rather than reeling off long lists of facts or names. Providing hands-on – or in the case of birding with a scope – eyes-on experience. And listening to the personal stories that passersby bring to the experience.
Trail user: “You know, there’s a really big grey bird that I often see at the Berkeley Marina.”
Docent: “Yes, that’s a Great Blue Heron. That bird eats the same kind of food as the bird you’re looking at in the scope.”
The GGAS volunteers used the presentation as an demonstration of their educational techniques – telling stories, asking questions, and engaging the group in a spirited discussion of docenting challenges. And of course they followed up with an hour of birding!
It wasn’t the birdiest afternoon – high tide with just a handful of scoters, grebes and coots on the water – but the balmy weather and beautiful views of the Bay made up for that.
In comments afterward, the visiting docents gave the GGAS crew high marks:
Thank you for a well prepared and very informative event. Your passion and commitment are inspiring.
Your obvious delight at being birders is infectious.
Among the lessons of the day? Not only do museum docents have things in common with birders — but some museum docents are birders. As one wrote after the event:
Thank you, thank you. Wonderful afternoon. Some West Coast birds to add to my East Coast list.
Want to find out more about becoming a Birding the Bay Trail docent? Email Noreen at email@example.com. It requires a commitment of four hours on the trail per month. We also have openings for volunteer docents along Lake Merritt beginning in early 2014.