With only seven days left until Christmas, 6-year-old Gabriel Webster still wasn't sure yesterday what presents he wants. But if you ask him about his favorite bird, it's a no-brainer - the penguin.
"I like them because they waddle," Gabriel said, collecting sticks and trying to keep pace with the 11 other people looking for birds in the woods of the Otter Point Creek nature reserve.
Gabriel, of Bel Air, was one of six children who participated yesterday morning in the "Bopping with the Birds" event at the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center, where they mimicked the movement of birds to music before going into the Harford County woods to try to spot them.
"Bopping with the Birds" was one of seven children's and family events scheduled this month and next month at the center on Otter Point Road. The activities in the winter program include following fox trails and learning to cook outdoors.
"It's difficult to bird [watch] with kids," said park naturalist Becky Gallo. She said the combination of dancing and outdoor exploring is a way to teach children about animals.
"Younger kids think all birds fly," Gallo said, "To actually do the movements helps them learn more."
So, to the rhythm of the "Mexican Hat Dance," they hopped like sparrows.
To the quick "Flight of the Bumblebee" they flapped their arms like hummingbirds.
"These guys are like the helicopters of the bird world," Gallo told the children as she flapped her arms. "Quick! Quick! Quick! Keep your arms going. You can stop and drink, but keep them going."
Giggling and cracking gap-toothed smiles, the children raced around the room, except for 4-year-old Olivia Webster, Gabriel's sister, who said the dance was making her too tired.
North Harford Elementary School third-grader Leah Jacobson seemed to enjoy the pigeon dance as she bopped her head back and forth to the beat of pigeon-inspired music.
The turkey vulture, Gallo said, was her favorite because of its ability to ride on thermal heat waves in the air. As the children soared with outstretched arms to graceful music, Gabriel's mother, Michelle Webster, couldn't help noticing that it was "such pretty music for a turkey vulture."
Before the dancing, Gallo used pictures to help the bird lessons sink in.
"Sparrows have beaks made for seeds, so they do a lot of hopping so they can get their food," Gallo said.
"Can you find them in the city?" asked Lydia Braun, a third-grader at North Harford.
"You can find them in the city," Gallo told her.
And when it came to another feathered city dweller, the pigeon, Gallo offered its ubiquity as a lesson in animals adapting to different environments.
"You used to find them in barns, but they've adapted to city life. Now they eat popcorn and food on the streets."
Dustin and Nikki Barilow, parents of Kayla, 5, a kindergarten student at Bel Forest Christian Academy in Bel Air, said "Bopping with the Birds" was one of the many activities they signed Kayla up for at the estuary center.
"She loves being outside, playing with animals," Dustin Barilow said. "There's always good information." He added that it was clear that naturalists such as Gallo enjoyed the work.
But Gallo said she could not take credit for the activity because she and a music teacher adapted it from a lesson in the children's nature magazine, Ranger Rick.
Although Gallo said she usually likes the opportunity to teach adults as well as children in family group events, she said she enjoyed walking on the Discovery Trail with the children so they could have the chance to be outside after spending 20 minutes in the classroom.
The only birds sighted were ducks in the distance and a woodpecker in a tree.
Still, at the end of 30 minutes of hiking through the woods, Lydia said she had an idea for the kind of music she would select for her favorite bird, the woodpecker, whose pecking was music to her ears.
"Some kind of jazz," she said.
For more information about the winter events at the Anita C. Leight Center, call 410-612- 1688. Admission is free or $5, depending on the event.