Moro Canyon Walk

Braille Institute teen Veronica Sanchez, left, is led by Youth Assistant Katie Brazer as they begin oa hike of the Study Loop trail at Crystal Cove, Thursday. (Don Leach / Daily Pilot / July 10, 2013)

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Half a dozen visually impaired teenagers and a group of guides listened in silence in the middle of a tight trail at Crystal Cove State Park.

Some cupped their ears or turned their heads to hear the different bird calls they were trying to count.

"I got 10," said Nick Avalos, 16.

He and his classmates from the Braille Institute in Los Angeles were at Moro Canyon in Laguna Beach on Thursday. There they participated in a pilot project of sorts with Crystal Cove Alliance, a nonprofit partner of the state park.

The alliance is exploring the best way for visitors to learn about native flora and fauna in the canyon and possibly help officials keep a count of birds and plants.

Sue Magdziarz, the alliance's education manager, told the group of students, "You're helping us to design our environmental study loop," referring to a half mile of nature trail scheduled to open next year.

Before the students ventured into nature, they got a crash course in the types of plants and birds they'd encounter.

Nick and his classmates passed around clippings of different sage plants, rubbing them between their hands and sniffing them to learn how they smell and feel.

David Pryor, an environmental scientist with California's Parks and Recreation Department, played half a dozen recordings of bird calls so the students would know what to listen for.

"The way I can remember it is most people have said it sounds like the mewing of a kitten," Pryor said as he played a recording of a California gnatcatcher.

Crystal Cove Alliance has worked with the Braille Institute in the past. The two partnered up last year to help students become more mobile.

Then, visually impaired attendees at Crystal Cove had to learn to navigate 17 types of surfaces to get to the beach. There was also a science lesson in the ground they were trying to master.

"We started teaching them about beach science, the movement of sand, tides, waves, the whole thing, so they could improve their mobility and improve their independence," said Harry Helling, president of the Crystal Cove Alliance.

Such learning blends with the Braille Institute's mission.

"Our main focus is independent skills," said Alicia Cerna, a youth consultant for the institute. "We want to give them as many opportunities to experience things that sighted kids would experience."

Avalos said he was excited to learn about Moro Canyon's native birds — even more so than the opportunity to visit the beach and spend the rest of the afternoon building sand castles as planned.

Next time he hears a bird call, he might recognize it, he said, thanks to his trip through Crystal Cove.

"It's pretty cool, all the work they put into this place to make it how it is," he said.