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LEWISTON - Long after her Audubon Society training for her classroom, Marcia Nixon finally spotted a painted bunting that, when she first saw it in a book as a girl, had seemed too beautiful to be real.
After Nixon and her husband finished a walk along a trail at the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida, she glanced at some brush and, to her delight, spotted a little bird with a red chest, blue head and bright green back.
"It was such a pretty little thing. It was pretty amazing," she said. "Finally, I'm in my retirement and I finally got to see one. I've seen a lot of pictures but that doesn't count."
Nixon has been a member of the Buffalo Audubon Society since the early 1990s, some time after she signed up for instruction in classroom programming.
The organization she loves for the way it helps connect people to the outdoors has done that very thing for her, leading her to take up birding and study with experts.
"I would call myself a mediocre birder," she said, before describing the work she's done in the past few years to learn. "Just going along with a master birder helped me. I think I've found birding tends to be a lot of common sense."
She now knows to look for the basics as she tries to identify a bird: Size, shape and colors. Seeing a bird for the first time and figuring out what it is, is a thrill that comes with each new bird.
"When you spot one for the first time, it's an amazing feeling," she said.
And, it's catching on, Nixon said, thinking of recent studies. One from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports that approximately 47.7 million people were bird watching in 2006. Most - 88 percent - watched from home about 124 days a year. The 42 percent who took birding trips averaged 14 days of watching.
Nixon is among them. She is newly remarried - her third-grade Lewiston-Porter students knew her by her previous name "Mrs. Wagner" - and birdwatching is something she and her husband have been doing together as they travel. When they saw several painted buntings in the brush in Naples, Fla., in February, she put it this way:
"I got so excited. Jim did, too," she said. "I just got the binoculars on it and kept saying, 'Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!'?"
Audubon programs use bird lessons to teach? Tell me about one.
With "For the birds," naturalists go into several Niagara County schools for eight weeks of lessons indoors and out. Third and fourth grade. Niagara Wheatfield. Lewiston-Porter. I also had them in my classroom.
It's a great program and it uses birding to teach a variety of life standards. Math skills, graphing. Reading skills. The Western New York field guide. Common birds that they would see. They use cause and effect.
To me, personally, it's adhering to that old adage: "No child left inside." In developing birding as a recreation for kids, they become great observers. Buffalo Audubon obtained a grant to pay for this. Unfortunately the grant runs out this fall.
It culminates in a field trip. Jim helps me with the field trips. We meet at Artpark with the naturalists and school children.
You do "Birding Olympics?"
The students compare themselves to some of the talents and some of the things birds can do well. We have the students measure their "wing span," fingertip to fingertip with arms outstretched. Red tailed hawk. Four feet. Very similar to 3rd and 4th graders. A bald eagle has an eight-foot wing span.
We do another thing with the kids where they try to stare like a great horned owl. It can stare for hours before it blinks. The kids do a little thing to time each other to see how long they can stare without blinking. It's amazing. The children, some of them, can only stare for three or four seconds. I think some of the ones who have won the prize have done it for two or three minutes.
They also imitate hummingbirds and their wing flaps that go 12 to 80 times per second?
The kids try. They flap their "wings" and they time themselves. The kids try to do it and they don't come very close. So it's kind of fun for them to imagine.
Do you keep a "life list" of the birds you've seen?
I haven't formally kept a list until about five years ago. I have them on a legal pad. Two and a half pages. Two columns on each page. I haven't counted up how many species. Jim and I just got back from Alaska so we had added a few . I think we did 26 species in Hawaii that I never would have known were there without a master birder with me.
Your guide led you to an albatross nest?
He took us to a small neighborhood in Princeville, which is on the island of Kauai. He had us put our binoculars on. We saw a pile of a little bit of grass and not too much stuff under a shrub and we said, "Really?" We were a little surprised. All the sudden under the nest, this albatross chick lifted up its head and they really are a strange little thing. It was all fuzz. This thing looked up with this beak. I hate to use the word "homely."
They really are an odd little chick. It really was amazing. They were there in this neighborhood, apparently before the housing development came in. All the people in the neighborhood had signs up that said, "Albatross nesting area." We watched a couple come in and they waddled along in the neighborhood to find their own nest. You could sort of see little white dots with your binoculars. I can't say homely. He was adorable after awhile, after we watched him. That was really neat.

Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com