North Branch Nature Center Expands Programs

by Sean Beckett

The warm spring winds mark the return of eastern bluebirds, the emergence of spring wildflowers, and exciting new growth at the North Branch Nature Center. Since the unveiling of our new community room in October, the Nature Center has already become a regional hub for dozens of partner organizations and a place in which thousands of guests can convene, learn, and conserve. But the new community-oriented facilities also came with new “software:” a new full-time staff naturalist funded by a generous grant from the Canaday Family Charitable Trust. This new position greatly expands the reach and diversity of the public programming that the Nature Center can offer.

I am that new full-time naturalist, and my primary goal over the next three years is to engage a much wider cross-section of humanity with our natural world. Birding or botany walks, while bulwarks of every nature center, are but a small slice of the possible entry points that entice and inspire Vermonters. There will always be a place for birding and botany at North Branch, but we are now developing offerings for new audiences at the “edges” of traditional nature programming. Keep an eye out for our “New to Nature” events this spring and summer: an exploration of 19th-century ghost farmsteads hidden in our forests, a “Bike and Bird” event to shatter the barrier between birdwatchers and mountain bikers, a “Feral Apple” outing to pick and press cider from long lost wild orchards, a community storytelling potluck to gather around common experiences and shared food.

To launch such a truly diverse program series, we’re cultivating a network of partner organizations with which to co-host collaborative programs. Rising tides lift all boats, and our collective impact sings when passionate partners work toward common goals from multiple angles. Our upcoming Montpelier BioBlitz (July 21–22) is a unique example of this sort of cross-pollination. The Nature Center, the Montpelier Conservation Commission, and the Montpelier Community Services Department will together be presenting the largest nature festival that Vermont has ever seen. This 24-hour event is heavily flavored by each of its three hosts and is packed with family activities, music, games, nature walks, live animals, camping, food, and more. Meanwhile, biologists from across the northeast will be conducting conservation-driven species inventories of all of Montpelier’s natural spaces. Designed to offer something for everyone, we expect this BioBlitz to be a partnership model that will inspire similar collaborations in future seasons.

My role is also to helm and expand the Nature Center’s citizen science initiatives. There are few better ways to build a lasting environmental ethic than by playing an active role in the research and conservation of our wildlife and wild places. This spring we expanded our amphibian conservation work with the launch of our Amphibian Road Crossing Project. We are now welcoming scores of volunteer “Crossing Guards.” These dedicated volunteers are stewarding over 130 migratory corridors across central  Vermont by rescuing salamanders and frogs from busy roadways while collecting data to assist state and local transportation planners in advocating for amphibian-friendly road design. As fall approaches, we’ll also be expanding our opportunities for volunteers to get involved in our bird and owl banding research.

Longtime nature lovers can also expect plenty of new opportunities to enrich their knowledge of natural history. Although we are working hard to connect nature neophytes to the Vermont wilds, we are simultaneously growing North Branch as a center for immersive natural history study. We’ve kicked off this initiative with a spring series of mini-courses in field ornithology, digital nature photography, and forest forensics, and will offer a similar menu of offerings this fall. The Nature Center will soon be launching a Montpelier chapter of the Vermont Master Naturalist Program for residents seeking a deeper understanding of their local landscape.

I join North Branch Nature Center from the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning Program, where my work centered on place-based community engagement around Burlington urban wilds. Before that, I worked several years as a field biologist and wildlife safari guide in the heart of the northern Rockies. Working around the country with critters and citizens of all stripes, I learned that living well, and living sustainably, ultimately comes down to building relationships: with our neighbors, with our community, and with the creatures flying, swimming, or growing around it. I see my role as staff naturalist as that of a community builder with an extra-large definition of community.

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