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        Lesson Plan - Terns & Plovers

        Learn about ornithology via citizen science in this lesson plan by Charles Bittle, a Lincoln Public Schools Science Teacher.

        STEM lessons are aligned to both Next Generation Science Standards and Nebraska State Standards.

        Lesson Summary

        Terns & Plovers is a story of the efforts to provide habitat for two endangered bird species and the unlikely partnership between heavy industry and biologist/researchers to care for and understand these birds. A part of the story concentrates on a single plover who was banded several years ago and who over-winters on the same beach in Florida year to year and then makes the trip back to Nebraska every spring to mate and rear a brood. Embedded within this story are interactive activities that teach students to decipher the codes that bird researchers use when banding the birds with various colors and flags. STEM lessons are aligned to both Next Generation Science Standards and Nebraska State Standards.

        Time Allotment

        30 - 60 minutes

        Learning Objectives

        Students will understand interdependent relationships in ecosystems, ecoysystem dynamics, functions and resilience in nature, biodiversity and how humans can develop possible conservation measures to protect endangered birds.

        Prep for Teachers

        Read through the lesson plan in advance. Ensure that students have access to internet enabled computers and have access to a printer.


        Download and print field journal (link on website and in lesson plan) for recording results.

        Introductory Activity


        Read: Go to the Platte Basin Timelapse site and begin reading Chapter 1: Terns, Plovers & the Platte. 

        View: Watch timelapse video taken at Rowe Tower, Central Platte, Nebraska, from the 2015 breeding season of tern and plover nesting habitat. 

        Watch the video interview of the Sand and Gravel Operators talking about their relationships with the birds and their unlikely partnership with the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership.

        Listen: Finally, listen to the radio story “Endangered Birds Depend on Heavy Industry for Survival.” Note: The “play” bar shows up at the bottom of the screen.  It may take a couple minutes to load.

        This is the introduction to the lesson as it provides a hook and a glimpse into the story that will be revisited later.  The story further allows for continuity when completing the entire lesson

        Learning Activities

        Read: Have the students begin reading Chapter 2 on Research & Monitoring birds.

        View: Watch the video of two bird biologists as they band interior least terns and piping plovers. 


        Discuss the following synthesis questions prior to exploring the learning object activities: “Breaking the Bird Band Code”.

        1. How long has the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership been working with local environmentalists, landowners and businesses cooperatively to protect these threatened and endangered birds? (Answer: Sixteen years since 1999) 
        2. How long have these birds been on the federal Endangered Species List? (Answer: Plover - since 1986 / Tern – since 1985)
        3. What time of year are the biologists working with the interior least terns and Piping Plovers? (Answer: Mid-April to Mid-August)
        4. Why are the biologists capturing a small chick? (Answer: for banding purposes)

        Activity: Once students have read, listened to and viewed videos of the story have them begin to explore “Break the Bird Band Code” with the Banding Toolbox online activity.

        Activity Explained

        Part 1: Break the Bird Band Code -  Students as Bird Biologists

        Using the Banding Toolbox, students will use a drag and drop system to learn about banding process for monitoring birds, specifically the Piping Plover.  The Tool Box is set up for students to learn through exploration.  Students read the instructions for selecting the bands and flag/region that will go on the bird’s legs.  Each band signifies a unique characteristic such as sex, banding year, site captured and site type. Students choose the color for each characteristic so that each bird may have a different combination of bands. One marker is consistent and universal among all banded birds: a USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) metal band with a numeric code that identifies an individual bird. A colored flag indicating the general region where the bird was banded and a unique combination of color bands on the lower legs indicate characteristics such as age, sex, year banded and the specific location the bird was captured. The scientists accurately record this information in their field journals and enter the USGS number in a federal database. 

        Read the Piping Plover Profile at the top of the activity. Click on each tab and read specific instructions. Download the field journal. Drag and drop the correct band onto the bird’s legs. Once all six bands are placed, the student will be prompted to go to the next acivity.

        Part 2: Record data in Field Journal

        Next, students will be prompted to “record” the data in the virtual field journal by selecting the correct band/marker in the drop down menus provided. Students may also be asked to record their band choices in their actual field journals.  This can be done by printing the available journal (pdf) located on the website.  

        This piece is very important, as students will be doing real science.  By having students become a scientist banding plovers, the connection between career and school becomes much more salient.

        All other data that can be recorded about the bird and the conditions in which the bird was captured must be written in the journal. All information here should be standardized so that there is consistency between all scientists (students). This information may need to be student or teacher generated unless students have access to weather web sites. 

        Students could record the following information: 

        • time of day captured (CST using 24-hour clock) 
        • temperature of the day (time of day captured) (Celsius)
        • wind speed (estimate) and direction 
        • weather from previous 24 hours
        • current weather conditions such as cloudy, sunny, windy, rain, etc. (estimate % of cloud cover)
        • any unique weather patterns or events for that year such as drought, flooding, wildfires, etc.
        • physical description of location: topography, landscape, 
        • any other relevant information stated by students/teachers such as description of what bird was doing before and after capture.
        • All the information in the field journal will be used for analysis by scientists. This is why information must be recorded accurately and efficiently to promote valid inquiry among scientists.


        Part 3: Quiz 

        Finally, students will proceed on to the Banding Quiz. Students are asked to study the band combinations on 3 given graphics (Piping Plovers with bands already present).  The student must then match the graphic to the profile that best describes the banding combination. This activity is the problem-solving piece using all the banding information gained up to this point.

        Culminating Activity


        Students now will share their journals with peers.  Scientists must do peer reviews of their work, which means showing the work with others.  Each student must explain why he/she chose the specific bands and justify choices to others.

        Students will also share any other data they collected in their field journals.

        NOTE: Positive, constructive criticism is an important part of peer review.


        Students will now need to use all their knowledge gained up to this point to answer the following questions.  

        1. How long has bird banding been happening and who started it all?
        2. Why should birds be banded in the first place? What is the value?
        3. How do scientists use the bands?
        4. Why do you think it is important to include all the color bands in addition to the USGS metal band?
        5. Why do you think scientists and conservationists care so much about working with a small Piping Plover?
        6. Have you ever spent so much time with something that is becomes familiar and perhaps you develop and attachment to it?  If you have something that you value explain what it is and why you value it so much.

        Students are guided to the idea that learning deeply about something or becoming familiar with something helps to better understand and protect that thing. This promotes conservation practices through teaching kids to love the earth.

        A follow up to this activity as well as another scientist link is the story of Erwin the Piping Plover.  This is the story of a single female plover and how it has touched the hearts of those who know her. Kids will see the humanity in plight of the Piping Plover, which is an important link between passion and true scientific research and sequential data-repeated observations within and between years.

        Link to Erwin’s Story 




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