By Laura Jean Whitcomb
In 1970, Dr. David Laughlin, a dentist in Woodstock, Vt., and a group of volunteers spearheaded efforts to study pollution in the Ottauquechee River. “Their efforts led to the first litigation over water quality in the state of Vermont and, ultimately, the court-ordered clean up of the river,” says John V. Dolan, president of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) in Quechee, Vt. That was only the start. In October 1972, David and his wife, Sally; June McNight; and Rick Farrar founded the Vermont Institute of Natural Science to “provide science-based nature education as a way to change attitudes and maintain a healthy environment.”
And for 40 years, VINS has been doing just that. From the avian infirmary (opened in the late 1980s) to the new home for the Nature Center (opened in 2004), VINS has offered thousands of people the chance to learn about their natural world and the opportunity to be inspired to actively care for it.
Because you can get overwhelmed with all there is to explore on the 47-acre Nature Center site, here’s a guide for a few things your family can do at VINS. “Between the programs, walking the trails and viewing the raptor enclosures, you can spend about one to three hours enjoying what VINS has to offer,” says Mary Donaldson-Graham, director of marketing.
Six things to do at VINS
See the Raptors: Some birds are sleeping. Some are awake — and almost interactive. (It seemed like the bald eagle was listening to our conversation, and perked up whenever my daughter spoke.) Some are hard to find; it was almost a “Where’s Waldo” scenario looking for the small, brown screech owl in one enclosure. But here at VINS, you’ll see the largest collection of birds of prey — bald eagles, hawks, owls and falcons — in the Northeast. There’s information about each bird on signage, and benches to sit and watch the birds. Take advantage of the opportunity to see a golden eagle, a raptor that is not native to this area and rarely seen in the wild.
Peek into the Animal Hospital: Nothing was happening during our visit, but there’s a one-way mirror into the rehabilitation department at VINS. If you’re lucky, you might see staff members giving a golden eagle a pedicure or splinting a heron’s leg. You can also see videos of first aid for birds at http://vtnature.blogspot.com
Explore the Nature Nook: Dare to put your hand behind the curtain? If you’re not brave enough to touch a bird’s skull, you can read a nature question and open a door to find the answer. Continue into the room and you’ll find frogs (native to Vermont), snakes, fish and turtles.
Creep around the Crawl Space: This new exhibit is a place where kids can put on a puppet theater, using animals to act out what they learned on their trip to VINS. Parents, there are chairs, so you can take a break for a minute. From the comfort of your chair, you can look at porcupine quills through a microscope or touch some natural artifacts, like the foot of a blue jay.
Go for a Hike: Wear some sneakers and go for a walk on one of the many nature trails at VINS. You can visit a vernal pool on your way to the ¼-mile Laughlin Trail, or walk along the Ottauquechee River on the ½-mile Lingelbach Trail.
Watch Birds in Flight: The birds are pretty spectacular in their enclosures, but it is a real treat to see them out in the open. VINS’ feathered ambassadors sit on the glove of a trainer, and fly overhead so kids of all ages can learn about the mechanics of flight, seasonal migration and the extraordinary abilities of raptors. Make sure you have a camera.
The VINS Nature Center is open daily, May to October, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Live bird programs are held at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Get directions online at vinsweb.org