Gilsland Farm Environmental Center

The New Maine Farmhouse

©John Goodman
Windows in the Gilsland Farm Center in Maine (left) brighten and warm its classrooms, which are used for the nature programs coordinated by Judy Walker (right), the center's director.

At first glance, Maine Audubon's environmental center in Falmouth, a slightly blocky, cedar-shingled building just north of Portland on the Presumpscot River estuary, doesn't look revolutionary. But the appearance is deceptive. This five-year-old building at the Gilsland Farm Sanctuary marries the rustic style befitting its New England home with the latest advances in eco-friendly building technology.

One crisp morning, the director of property management for Maine Audubon, Bob Savage, stands where the Audubon center meets its surrounding wetlands, woods, and meadows, and points out the ways in which nature and design have been melded into environmental efficiency. A two-story bank of windows invites visitors in the building to explore the picturesque grounds outside and at the same time contributes natural light and passive solar heat via double panes insulated with argon gas. The building's long side faces south for maximum solar gain and winter warmth, while sunshades prevent overheating in the summer. A grove of stout conifers protects the building (and chickadees) from cold north winds.

"This building turned out radically different than I envisioned," says Savage. And by conventional terms, radical it is. It used far less wood than expected, and more glass, steel, and sheetrock--all of which can be recycled. The open look of post-and-beam construction was satisfied by substituting recycled structural steel. Where the architects did opt to use wood--in the interior trim, exterior framing, and shingles--the cedar, spruce, fir, and birch were all logged from Maine woodlands certified as "well managed."

It seems that no corner escaped careful consideration: Petrochemical-free linoleum and carpet cover the floors; ceilings are constructed with cast-off lumber; insulating roof panels once existed as newsprint and plastic bottles; and energy-efficient fluorescent lights turn off automatically in most unoccupied rooms. Even the heat seeping upward from the ground beneath visitors' feet--where it's most needed--has been retrieved from groundwater through a geothermal pump and is retained by the snug building, insulated with formaldehyde-free foam, which is twice as efficient as regular fiberglass.

Natural light floods the Gilsland center's spacious rooms (left), which offer an inviting view of the farm's original apple orchard outside (right).

"We've been preaching recycling and lower-impact technology for a long time," says Bill Hancock, Maine Audubon's director of environmental centers. "At some point, as an environmental group, you've got to walk the talk." Green building practices not only reduce the environmental costs of construction and create demand for sustainably produced materials, but as part of Audubon's 2020 vision of 1,000 nature centers nationwide, there is vast potential for spreading this ethic to the public. Each year, tens of thousands of people come to Gilsland Farm for programs ranging from natural-history day camps and nature-book discussions to birding festivals and environmental-education workshops for teachers. Besides enjoying the benefits of a state-of-the-art facility, visitors are learning by its example.

As in the Maine center, a permanent exhibit and signs scattered throughout the newly renovated education center at Aullwood in southern Ohio alert its 80,000 annual visitors to the reasons behind the green changes afoot. The Aullwood Audubon Center boasts floors made from renewable cork and recycled tires, tabletops built from wheat straw, and an entry desk that's crafted from trees that had to be cut for the building's expansion; the desk perches on a boulder unearthed when the basement was dug. People have already requested more information on products they've seen used in the center, says Charity Krueger, Aullwood's director.

In Wisconsin, Joel Krueger (no relation to Charity) of Kubala Washatko Architects works closely with Schlitz Audubon Center staff in designing their new facility outside of Milwaukee. A planned wetlands sewage-treatment system, which will use native prairie plants to break down waste, and photovoltaic panels that will add energy to the grid, will be connected to a computer system, to be used as a teaching tool for the 37,000 students the center serves each year. A good green building, Krueger says, is "simply designed, simple to operate, efficient, sustainable, and easy to live in." And, of course, it doesn't hurt if, like the Gilsland Farm Center in Maine, it blends softly into its surroundings, leads to miles of gentle trails, and offers year-round programs with which to cultivate an appreciation for nature.

For information on the Gilsland Farm Sanctuary, call 207-781-2330 or visit

--Murray Carpenter


Vanguard of the Volunteers

Birding With the Whiz Kids

Sloshing through the icy slurry, Nick Shallow pounces into each puddle he sees, his sister, Molly, close on his footsteps. Nick, 7, chirps chicka-dee-dee-dee. Molly, three years his junior, echoes the bird call--one of many in their repertoire. On this December morning, the temperature hovers above freezing, rain is pouring down, and a gray mist shrouds everything. But the weather hasn't deterred this duo--bundled up in hats, snow pants, and rain slickers--from spending the next two hours in a park south of Burlington, Vermont.

The brother-and-sister team is participating in today's Christmas Bird Count. Now in its 101st year, the nationwide count is more than just an annual outing of birdwatchers. Ornithologists and conservationists alike consider it one of the best tools available for assessing long-term trends in early-winter bird populations in North America. And, as these siblings prove, this example of citizen science has no boundaries.

But other than the patter of rain and the snow crunching beneath our feet, nothing is stirring. "Wherever the birds are, they're hiding," Nick notes. But they find something almost as good. Nick squats next to a set of footprints in the snow. "There's a lot of tracks here!" Molly shouts. A plastic card hangs from her neck with illustrations of animal tracks, and with the help of her mother, Molly compares them to what she's found. Her conclusion: squirrel tracks. She dashes ahead, the card flapping around her neck. About 20 feet farther on, Molly stops at a tree--a paper birch, Nick points out--where the trail seems to end. She looks up, a smile glued to her face: "A squirrel!"

Their parents attribute part of this precocious knowledge of all things wildlife to the preschool and summer-camp programs run by the local Audubon nature center. (Coincidentally, the kids' father, Jim Shallow, is the executive director of Audubon Vermont.) Both of these whiz kids can identify most of the birds in their yard.

Suddenly there's a sighting: "Crow!" Everyone turns. With binoculars as big as his head, Nick takes a closer look. Another crow caws from somewhere within the trees. The crow count grows to five. Other birds: zero. "It doesn't look like I'm going to see anything but crows," Nick mumbles. But after a few minutes of stomping in slush, he sees the situation in a more optimistic light. "A crow is not so colory as a cardinal, but it's still cool."

So will they be out again this year? "Probably," Nick replies, "if it's not so slushy." After a brief pause, he adds: "But I will do it even if it rains." Then he turns to his mother. "Can I have some new socks?" he asks. "It feels like I've got a bunch of squish in my shoes."

--Gretel H. Schueller


© 2001  NASI

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Between November 9 and 11, 2001, wildlife artists and exhibits will transform the historic town of Easton, Maryland, into this year's version of the country's longest-running wildlife art show. During its 31-year run, the nonprofit Waterfowl Festival has raised more than $4 million for conservation along the Atlantic Flyway, including nearly $120,000 that has been donated to the Pickering Creek Audubon Center in support of its outdoor education and agricultural programs. This year Pickering Creek will join the Jean Ellen duPont Shehan Audubon Sanctuary and five regional chapters, as well as the Audubon state office, in the local elementary-school building, where they will offer crafts, storytelling, and wildlife demonstrations to attendees. "If you're interested in celebrating conservation and the arts that weekend," says Maryland-DC development associate Jeannie Haddaway, "the best advice I can give is to come early and stay late, because there's a lot to do!"

The heritage of Audubon sanctuaries is an inspiring blend of the animals and plants preserved within their boundaries and the stories of the men and women who worked to make it all happen. Last May, Bernadette Castro, New York's commissioner for Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, dedicated "Jim's Walk" at Audubon's Constitution Marsh Sanctuary, along the Hudson River, in Garrison, New York. The ribbon-cutting ceremony with 150 guests officially opened the new 700-foot-long boardwalk honoring the memory of longtime sanctuary manager Jim Rod, who died in 1998. Already designated an Important Bird Area (IBA), the sanctuary was also named by Governor George Pataki as the state's 12th Bird Conservation Area.

A bonus for visitors to the Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary, outside Brownsville, Texas, is the array of colorful butterflies that frequent the subtropical plants in its butterfly garden. Now sanctuary manager Jimmy Paz can boast of a spectacular addition to the garden's rarities--a male mimic butterfly (Hypolimnas misippus) that wandered over from the Caribbean. Only occasionally seen in the southeastern United States, the insect is a native of Africa and Asia, where it mimics the coloration of an African Danaus. Entomologists speculate that its ancestors reached the Caribbean islands centuries ago on a slave ship.

High school students from all over the country spent two weeks last summer practicing their science with Audubon Vermont at its Program for Audubon Research for Teens (Take PART). One group of students monitored Vermont's endangered population of common loons, living in lean-tos near remote lakes and ponds to observe and report on signs of breeding; building floating nesting platforms; and, on a couple of all-night adventures, helping capture loons to measure levels of mercury in their blood. A second group gathered information for the Vermont Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians, taking 100 photographs of "herps" in new areas while adding important data to the atlas. For information on next summer's July program, call Larry Berrin, Audubon Vermont's education director, at 877-753-2165.


Chapter News

The choice between designating the historic Mulberry Grove Plantation a foreign trade zone (duty-free for manufacturing) or including it in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge expansion plan isn't a tough one for Ogeechee Audubon. This river plantation, where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, consists of mixed woodlands, tidal fresh-water wetlands, and old-growth forest sprawled along the Savannah River. Ogeechee and its ally, the Mulberry Grove Foundation, consider the setting ideal for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service natural-history center. The Georgia Port Authority, which now owns the site, and the Savannah Airport Commission, which filed the trade-zone expansion application, beg to differ. This river plantation, one of only about four as yet undeveloped, could be preserved through federal funding, says director of the Ogeechee Refuge Keepers Program, Lauree SanJuan. She offers another reason why it should be: "It is songbird heaven over there, and our songbirds need all the help they can get."

Hikers looking to enjoy the beautiful mixed hardwood and conifer forests just a few miles from the birthplace of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington's mother, may now do so at their leisure. Audubon's Northern Neck of Virginia chapter dipped into its endowment, matching a $179,012 grant from the Virginia Land Conservation Fund, to buy the property from Lancaster County. Since 1985 earnings from this endowment have been funding such efforts as conservation easements and Audubon Adventure Kits for local schools. "Borrowing" from the principal was well worth it, says chapter president Tom Teeples. The 254-acre Hickory Hollow Natural Area Preserve, once destined for development as a light industrial park, will now be preserved forever.


National Programs

A federal court may have brought temporary respite to the world's largest colony of Caspian terns, which, because their diet includes the endangered Pacific salmon, have endured hazing at the hands of the state and federal governments. A recent decision, lauded by Audubon as "a victory for sound science," mandates a comprehensive environmental-impact statement before further funding for hazing is released. Though the terns have been successfully lured 13 miles from Rice Island, just south of a major salmon hatchery in the Columbia River estuary, to East Sand Island, they are hardly out of harm's way. "Right now no one has responsibility for habitat management on East Sand Island," says Dan Roby, a USGS scientist and Oregon State University professor. "Unless the vegetation is cleared to keep nesting sites open, the terns have no place to go--except back to Rice Island. There is still no long-term plan here for Caspian terns."

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The National Audubon Society has more than 550,000 chapters nationwide. Find the chapter nearest you through our state-by-state information page.