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Without any fuss or fanfare, 15-year-old Bellingham native Sylvia Briggs-Bauer describes herself as a youth activist with a passion for environmental action. Her interest started simply: with the hikes she goes on with her mother and watching the bird feeder in the back yard.

She also enjoys the documentaries of legendary British broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough. His 2020 film A Life on Our Planet had a particular impact on her. Attenborough uses the film to share his personal concerns from studying, filming, and teaching about the natural world. It moved Briggs-Bauer to share her own thoughts and findings. Columbia Nature News — named after her own neighborhood — was initially produced and distributed as a way to share the story of Sylvia’s garden, which is comprised entirely of plants native to the local area.

Later she would focus on a single issue for each newsletter, explaining an environmental concern, how it affects us, and how we can affect it. She continued for a couple of years until life, school, and sports caused her to take a short hiatus. But new issues are already in the works, and this latest incarnation adds information about local environmental events and volunteer opportunities she’d like her neighbors to know about.

The name of Sylvia’s effort, “Project Sparrow Hawk,” has been burned into the bottom of the side panel. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

A Neighborly Influence

One of those neighbors happens to be Lisa Citron, the founder and director of From A Child’s Point Of View, a nonprofit that blends art, education, and advocacy for young ones.

“Lisa has been like my adoptive grandma for a long time,” Syvlia says. “We’ve had a family connection, [and] we trade cookies and other neighborly things.” When Sylvia was in 4th grade, Lisa taught drama in Sylvia’s class and did art installations with the elementary school students. “We make a little art, and then we go put it out in the world and tell people our ideas from the children’s point of view.”

She remembers going to Lisa’s house one day and having a conversation about water – how it’s part of so many things, how we depend on it so much – and they agreed they should use that idea to create a project. She invited her friend Lilly, who invited her friend Raya, and they all decided to paint a mural together. But COVID came along and brought the supply chain problems that made paint harder to come by.

Sylvia has been hands-on with all aspects of the project, including researching how to build a box that will attract kestrels. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

A Team of Activists

Scaling down a bit, the girls decided to make a series of signs, instead, that spelled out a message like the old Burma Shave roadside advertisements. They first appeared in yards along their street, calming the traffic as people slowed to read them, and have also been spotted at events at Wayside Park and along Cornwall Avenue.

As the world opened up and paint was again easily obtained, the three young ladies created their design, and painted it on a tablet so they could share and enlarge it. With the help of some mural artists, they laid out a grid at the intersection of Lynn and W. North Streets where they crafted their depiction of the world, its waters, and local aquatic wildlife. They explain the graphic with the legend, “What goes down storm drains flows to wildlife in Bellingham Bay.”

Sylvia and her mother cross the lawn of Bow Sanctuary, who have agreed to host the box and the wi-fi feed. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

A Mission of Her Own

All the while, Sylvia kept her eyes on the skies. Along with her mother — naturopath, midwife, and professor Kim Bauer — she took an online course with Sue Cotrell through Raptor Studies Northwest. Like many beginning birders, Sylvia quickly fell for the American kestrel. Also known as the sparrow hawk, it’s technically a falcon but also described as a “really cute, little fluffy tiny hawk.”

Then, as an eighth grader, Sylvia started an environmental club at her school. The teacher who served as a mentor for the club spoke to her about a grant program called GripTape. It allows 14- to 19-year-olds to apply for funds that allow them to study their interests and direct their own education.

Sylivia’s years of interest and study met with an instant of inspiration, and a plan was conceived. On a drive into the Skagit Valley, she and her mother emerged from the wooded twists and turns of Chuckanut Drive onto the wide open straightaway of Highway 11. There, perched on a wire across the road from Bow Sanctuary, was an American kestrel. This was the kestrel’s habitat, with the fields its natural hunting grounds, and Sylvia saw the chance to watch her favorite raptor up close.

Built to the specifications preferred by American kestrels, the nesting box’s antenna can be seen just behind the side window. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

She applied for the grant to buy a tiny, wi-fi enabled camera to mount inside a nesting box she would build with her father’s help. She could watch and learn as kestrels moved in, and made a home and family, and then share the experience via the internet. After some location scouting, the owners of the sanctuary agreed she could mount her nesting box on their grounds.

The box was built and installed at the sanctuary, with camera and power in place, and the first residents moved in. Unfortunately, those residents turned out to be starlings, an invasive species that were keeping the local kestrel from settling in. Sylvia has evicted them, and now must wait until the next nesting season to go live with her video feed.

She keeps an eye on the nesting box and promises to let us know as soon as kestrels move in — and how we can watch along with her.

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