Last week, long time friend and dedicated Audubon volunteer Rick led a fieldtrip to Elk County, Pennsylvania.  Rick grew up in St. Mary’s where we stopped to meet his parents and take a pit stop!  Then it was on to the (relatively) new Elk County Visitor Center in Benezette, PA, designed by Jamestown architects at Habiterra.  (Click a photo for a larger view.)

We were at the visitor center for only about an hour and a half – not nearly enough time to see everything there.  I never got into the Discovery Room, nor the gift store.  I didn’t have time to read all the amazing interpretation, or take the green building tour.  Rick treated us to the 20-minute movie about Elk in the object theatre – a little bit corny, but worth every penny and every minute.  It is a multi-sensory experience.  If you go, be sure to include it in your plans.  I’d love to say more – but no spoilers here!

After the movie, we headed down to the Benezette Hotel for a fine dinner and conversation.  We also met Eric there.  Eric is employed as a wildlife technician who tags calves and puts radio collars on adult elk.  He had secured permission from his supervisor to take us on some of the back roads where the public is not generally allowed, so that we could get a close look at some elk.








It was a day I will not soon forget! Many thanks to Rick, Eric, and to all the participants who filled the Audubon van and made the day so special!

The Perfect Nature Center

Hello, Dear Readers. Would you do me a favor?

At the Audubon Center where I work, we are in the midst of some serious strategic planning that will result in an updated Education Plan (that will lead to an updated Building and Grounds Plan, etc.)

Big Sugar Maple at AudubonThose of you who read this blog are an interesting mix of people – precisely the kinds of people we would love to have walking through the doors of the Center on a regular basis. So let me ask you: If you could design the perfect Nature Center FOR YOU – the one that would get you down there for walks, visits, and attending programs – what would it look like? What kinds of programs would lure you down? What kinds of events would you attend? What kinds of facilities would make you think of us – even for things not related to nature? What kinds of volunteer opportunities would you find most rewarding.

I’m not looking for “you-oughta” answers. I’m looking for intensely personal answers. What would get YOU down to a nature center?

If you want to answer confidentially to me, you can use this form. If you want other readers to see and possibly reply to what you’ve written, leave a comment.

Thanks in advance for your thoughtful responses.

Volunteer Trail Guide Thank You Field Trip

At the end of the busy school fieldtrip season, we like to take our volunteers to someplace different.  This year, we chose the Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve and Environmental Education Center:  8 miles of trails through a variety of habitats including some very, very old trees, and a newly designed green nature center building.  Everyone brought a dish to pass and we had a fabulous lunch!

Green Frog on Rock
A Green Frog let me get fairly close for a picture… then jumped…

Green Frog in Water
…and let me take another picture.

Sweet Viburnum or Nannyberry
I’ve been seeing this around, but never looked it up.  The nice thing about going hiking with a whole group of naturalists is that someone in the group is bound to know the answer to your question!  We all learned from each other.  This is Nannyberry or Sweet Viburnum.

Cement Walk by the Cattail Marsh
We like to visit other nature centers to see if we can steal any ideas.  We kind of liked this cement walk through a cattail marsh… We wondered what it would be like after a rain!  Could be fun.

FrogWatch Sign
Ginger was our guide.  Her FrogWatch signs were much cuter than Jeff’s.

Garter Snake
Rex caught and calmed an Eastern Garter Snake so we could all get a nice picture.

Two Toads
Holly and Karen caught these fine American Toads… or should I say chameleons???

Interpreted Trail Idea
I like this idea for an interpretted trail!  No paper booklets to get lost or littered… inexpensive… easy to replace, or even change by season.   May try to get our Junior Naturalist group to create some for our trails!

Rex with Northern Water Snake
Rex caught and calmed a Northern Water Snake for another reptilian photo opp.

Karen Hugs a 255-year-old Beech
There were some might old trees on the property.  This American Beech is reportedly 255 years old.  Karen practices her tree-hugging skills.

Pink Water Lilies 4
Reinstein is quite famous for the pink water lilies, which choke the ponds of any native lilies…  Very pretty, though!

It is always fun to reverse rolls – be the guests and let someone else lead the walk.  Many thanks to Ginger for the outdoor tour, and Meghan for the indoor tour (which I missed because I had to go back out and get some photos of the Scarlet Pimpernel).

Greystone Nature Preserve

We are blessed to have so many wonderful volunteers at Audubon. Take our trail guide volunteers, for example. Peace Pole at GreystoneThis spring there were thirteen folks who donated their time and expertise to help us guide thousands of children from dozens of schools and organizations along the trails at the sanctuary. A Discovery Walk is designed to introduce children to the natural world in a safe and informed way. We like to do this in small groups of 8-12 students, but with only 3 fulltime naturalists, that would be impossible. There were some days when we had as many as 80 children at the sanctuary at one time!

To make sure they all know how much we appreciate their work and their dedication, we offer a Thank You Field Trip at the end of each spring season. This year, we visited the property owned by two of our trail guides: Bill and Diane, pictured here with their dogs Little Bear and Holly.

Bill and Diane, Little Bear and Holly

In our tour of the property, it took us a long time to get past the house and the yard… so many interesting things to see. Bill and Diane are building this place with the help of some very talented local craftsmen and women.

Tour of Greystone

Inside and out, every effort is made to be as green as possible. The fish/frog pond was built to be a sanctuary for wildlife, as well as to provide water for the gardens. Rainwater from the roof is collected in a giant cistern underground.

Frog and Fish Pond
Green frogs and toads sang to us from this pond…

Circles are the theme… Even the gardens will be planted in circles around the Peace Pole. Nest boxes were in use by tree swallows and bluebirds. Even the strawberry patch concealed a nest!
Bird Nest in the Strawberries

Greystone Nature Preserve got its name from an enormous grey stone that now sits in a stone garden graced by a Peace Pole.
The Grey Stone at Greystone

The rock garden is filled with many, many unusual stones, some from an old collection belonging to Bill’s dad, and others that were wedding gifts to Diane and Bill. Wedding gifts? Yup. Bill and Diane told wedding guests that they didn’t need another toaster and encouraged each person to bring a special stone to add to the collection. There are awesome stones in that circle!

Wisdom Stones
Diane explained that stones like these with holes were Wisdom Stones to the Native Americans.

One of the contributions to the Stone Garden was an Inukshuk:

An Inukshuk is built in the image of man – two strong legs, a pelvic stone, shoulders, and a head. Read more about them by clicking here.

Grape Vine TreeWhen we could finally tear ourselves away from the features near the house, we wandered trails that took us past fields and forest. There were plenty of signs of Bill and Diane’s hard work. This property had once been a grape vineyard. In most places, they had gotten the vines under control, removing them from trees to release them to the sun… This one, however, they left for the turkeys. Have you ever seen a grape vine towering 20-30 feet in the air?

Around the bend to arrive at the teepee:


And here we are inside:
Inside the Teepee

Are you wondering what they are all looking at? Here it is:
Teepee Resident
A little Red Eft in Sarah’s hands. (P.S. Can’t wait to see how Jeff’s photo turns out…)

The property also affords a cool walk in the shady woods and down to a fine little creek.
Into the Woods

By noon, we were ready for our potluck lunch:
Trail Guide Luncheon
Staff and Volunteer Trail Guides (Sadly, not all were able to attend…)

We had fine food, conversation and laughter, sharing many stories from the busy walk season. We were all somewhat reluctant to leave and many of us have plans to go back when we can.

(Cross-posted at Audubon’s blog:

Thanksgiving with the Birds

I started visiting the Audubon Center and Sanctuary in the 1970s.  I took my children to Saturday programs and camps 10 or 15 years ago.  I’ve worked there for the past nine years.  Still, it took until this year for me to make it to one of Audubon’s oldest traditions – Thanksgiving with the Birds.

Making the soup... Tim Eckstrom adds his contribution...In the early days, before Jamestown Audubon Society had any property, the event was held at Allegany State Park.  Once the property on Riverside Road was acquired, the dinner had a home – outside at first… now mostly inside.

It all starts at 11:15 when the fire is started for the (in)famous soup pot.  The recipe?  It’s sort of a variation on Stone Soup, I guess you could say:  As folks arrive, they dump a small portion of any-kind-of soup into the pot.  Well, not any-kind-of…  They are supposed to avoid cream soups.  Broth soups only.

Jennifer Tries the SoupIn years past, not all have obeyed the no-cream-soups rule.  I know… I’ve seen the leftovers in the refrigerator the next morning…  not very appetizing.  So, understandably, I was a bit hesitant when it was time to sample the soup.

This year, it was pretty tasty… so tasty that there were barely any leftovers!

While folks enjoy soup outside, volunteers work inside decorating the tables and carving the turkeys.  A committee supplies the turkeys; all the side dishes are provided potluck style by the participants.

The Table Decorations Carving the Turkey

After dinner, there is always a program, often with slides.  Think about that.  People come and fill themselves with way too much food, including turkey with its supposed sleep-inducing  tryptophan.  Then we turn the lights down low, show some pretty pictures, and talk to them…  Doesn’t that sound like a recipe for disaster?  It did to me, the invited speaker!  (Yes, you heard it right… I wasn’t at this event as a fellow guest… I was on the clock!  I suppose my boss will tease me forever about how the only way she was able to get me to this annual event was to make me work on a Saturday!)

Watching the Birds

My talk was completely random.  Pictures made it into the slide show only if they were taken at the Sanctuary or of an official offsite event, and if they inspired an interesting story.  I gave prizes for people who were truly paying attention.  I think only one person snoozed a little during a two and a half minute stretch of 36 wildflower pictures that automatically advanced every 4 seconds or so…  Hypnotizing…

Anyway… I had a great time and might go back again – even if I don’t have to work that Saturday!  The food was great.  The company was great.  A fabulous way to kick off the holiday season. 

There are more pictures at Audubon’s Flickr Site.


Six Story Tree HouseMaddie and I visited Emily during “Family and Friends Weekend” at Wells College.  While Emily worked her shift in the dining hall on Saturday, I took Maddie down to Ithaca.  Before heading to the Moosewood for a delicious lunch, we scooted around the bottom of Cayuga Lake and up Route 89 to the Cayuga Nature Center for a quick visit, because Maddie had never seen Treetops.

Treetops is a six story tree house in the woods.  It was designed by high school students who then convinced the community to help them make their design a reality.  It is awesome to watch people discover it for the first time.  You hear them making conversation about whether or not they are on the right trail to find the treehouse… then suddenly… They are stopped in their tracks by the sheer magnitude of it.  After a short silence, you hear things like, “Oh my god!  This is AWESOME!”  If they are children (and sometimes even if they are grownups), you will also hear squeals of laughter and screams of delight as they begin to explore.

Inside the TreehouseThe outside of the 50-foot tower is covered with sticks giving the structure a Peter-Pan-in-Neverland feel.  But the inside is solid, safe construction.  There are all sorts of nooks and crannies and plenty of different ways to ascend and descend – from normal stairs to ladders and firemen’s poles.


Maddie at the Top of the TreehouseIn a couple of places, there are blue “nets” that you can walk across, if you dare!  The nature center has other fun nature-centerish kinds of things.  There’s a butterfly house, which I have never managed to visit during butterfly season, a collection of live animals, and a kids’ play and learn room.

All in all, it is a fun place to visit and if you are in the Ithaca NY area, you should make it a point to check it out.