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At Bethel Springs Elementary, this class is for the birds

“My thought is that I want to be the tour guide to show people, ‘Look at all this amazing nature right in our own backyard.’"

Fifth  grade teacher, Brian Quindlen gathers with his class as they get ready for bird watching at Bethel Springs Elementary in Glen Mills, PA. Wednesday, May 1, 2019.
Fifth grade teacher, Brian Quindlen gathers with his class as they get ready for bird watching at Bethel Springs Elementary in Glen Mills, PA. Wednesday, May 1, 2019.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Donning a hard hat and his best John Cena impression, Brian “BQ” Quindlen films himself live from the Fairless Landfill in Morrisville.

“BQ’s back, baby, and this place stinks! Hit the music!” An electric guitar shreds in the background of the Instagram video.

Between the indistinguishable rotting piles of yesterday’s cheesesteaks and Styrofoam containers, Quindlen stands, grinning, in his element, as he dictates the differences between the great black-backed gull (“This thing is a beast!") and the lesser black-backed gull (”My all-time favorite gull — in fact, it was my former Wi-Fi password ... I loved it that much") picking at the debris.

On this chilly winter morning, one man’s trash has become another man’s seagull-watching treasure trove. And for Quindlen, a fifth-grade teacher at Bethel Springs Elementary School in Garnet Valley, it doesn’t get much better than that.

“You spend your life advocating for wildlife, and people are out there looking for Pokemon in the real world, when there are incredible animals right in front of us here,” he said. “My thought is that I want to be the tour guide to show people, ‘Look at all this amazing nature right in our own backyard.’ ”

And although his usual venue for avian education and bird-watching (or birding, if you’re in the know) is Room 221 at Bethel Springs, the classroom is wherever Quindlen makes it — from a landfill to the woods.

“I just love that he loves nature like me, and I like that we go outside,” second grader Reilley Krigstein, a member of Quindlen’s Trailblazers environmental club and personal fan of the turkey vulture, observed during the group’s after-school hike. “Mr. Quindlen makes birding fun.”

The school’s nature club is a miniature version of Quindlen’s growing Garnet Valley Trailblazers summer camp. For the last seven years, campers and volunteers have tended to the trail behind the school (“Habitat is everything,” Quindlen says) and documented via conservation websites the 127-and-counting bird species they see. Especially notable birds, like the Mandarin Duck spotted in Delaware County or a snowy owl in Port Richmond, make it to social-media celebrity.

“I want to show [my students] all of this stuff ... because I want them to see it and experience it,” said Quindlen, who wasn’t far from his students’ ages in 1998 when he found his fervor for the feathered. Or rather, when it found him.

While his siblings were invested in sports and theater, Quindlen, a skinny 8-year-old kid from Malvern with a knack for remembering specifics about his favorite rock bands, had yet to find his niche when his mom enrolled him in the Earth Day bluebird box building class at the Upper Main Line YMCA.

He thought the class was a bust when he was the only one who showed up. Then in walked the other Brian.

“It was just me and this guy, the teacher, and his name was Brian, too," Quindlen said. "So we built all the bluebird boxes in the class, like six or seven of them, and then we hung them up. We connected right away. And then he started to show me all the different kinds of birds, and it was just fascinating.”

Over those bird boxes and a field guide at the Main Line Y, the two Brians built a friendship that would span decades. Brian Raicich, just 13 years Quindlen’s senior, encouraged Quindlen to identify the birds on the YMCA’s land, later traveling with him to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and Stone Harbor Point to visit the fauna.

“He’s my hero, really," Quindlen said. "He’s the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, besides my parents. And it was birding that connected us.”

Soon, Quindlen’s friends joined the makeshift birding club, and by age 14, he was teaching YMCA environmental classes of his own. As a teen, he took part in the high-stakes New Jersey Audubon Society’s Youth World Series of Birding, and later coached a team of high schoolers to victory in the adult competition.

When he’s not teaching, Quindlen is flying high, traveling the country with his "birding boys,” and delivering talks on avian conservation. And come this fall, he’ll have a craft beer named after his Instagram account, @birdingwithbq, at Bald Birds Brewing, located in — of course — Audubon, Pa.

“You think back to your favorite teachers — they had a youthful energy,” said Raicich, who will officiate Quindlen’s wedding. “And with BQ, it’s all youthful energy. Whether you’re quiet or the most loud person in the room, he’s going to get you involved.”

“He just brings a wealth of knowledge to our school, and it’s infectious,” said Bethel Springs Elementary School principal Steven Piasecki. “He helps that whole piece of environmental learning that sometimes gets confined to a day in April, during Earth Day or Earth Week, become something we can all celebrate all year round. Kids and teachers are coming up to him in the hallway, like, ‘Mr. Quindlen, what’s this bird I saw?' ”

For Quindlen, birding, in and out of the classroom, is all about gratitude.

“I feel like birds — everybody knows about them and sees them every day — but their nuances and details are so easily overlooked," he said. "People don’t stop and appreciate them enough. But without them, where would we be?”