Maple Sugaring Education with Audubon VT

Maple syrup is an important ingredient here at LCC and we were proud to support the Green Mountain Audubon Center’s Maple Sugaring Education Program this year.  One of their teachers shared some of the things they teach and the work they are doing to protect and support our precious sugarbushes.

Guest Post by Gwen Causer, Teacher/Naturalist at the Green Mountain Audubon Center

Spring, or mud season, as it’s known in Vermont, is all about maple for me at Audubon.  But this year I’ve774_resize also been thinking and talking about the birds in our sugarbush.  I teach outdoor education programs for the Green Mountain Audubon Center.  Once we tap our 500-tree sugarbush in early March the students start to flow in, regardless of how frozen the sap might be.   We bring the magic of maple to nearly 2,000 students during the six-week sugaring season, from preschoolers to seniors citizens.

We start with the sap.  At less than 2% sugar and nearly 98% water, students see and taste how watery this special ingredient is.  The youngest ones pretend to be a droplet of sap in a maple-sap-version of freeze tag.  I call out “warm days” and the kids run around the snow-covered field, happy to be moving in the sunshine.  “Cold nights” stops them in their tracks; they all crouch down into tiny, icy sap balls until the sun warms them up again.  The year’s maple season has been an unseasonably cold one, with just a few scattered days warm enough to get the sap flowing.

Moving into the sugarbush, we give students the tools to tap a tree on their own.  Our tool buckets are stocked with old-fashioned bit-and-brace drills, kid-sized hammers, measuring tapes to see if the trees are big enough to tap, and an assortment of maple taps.  Our “practice trees” are retired maple400_resize snags – dead trees that won’t be harmed by over-exuberant tappers.  I love seeing the problem-solving and team-work at play as the future-sugarmakers work in small groups to figure it all out.

Next comes the “Gallon Challenge,” a game that reminds me of an Easter egg hunt this time of year.  We fill forty milk jugs with water to represent maple sap, and then hide them in the forest.  Students search for the sap gallons and line up the jugs in a colorful-lidded array.  Seeing all forty gallons spread out in front of us, compared to a single gallon of maple syrup, never fails to make a big impression.

Then it’s time to put the kids to work.  Everyone lends a hand to gather sap from those 500 buckets hanging on our maple trees.  It’s amazing how much sap a class of kindergarteners  can collect on a warm, sunny day. Often it’s enough sap to boil down into 3 or 4 cups of maple syrup.

Back at our mini-sugarhouse students engage all of their senses: they feel the heat of the firebox, hear the sap flowing into the evaporating pan, see the steam rising from the pan, smell the warm, soon-to-be-syrup, and finally get to taste all four grades of maple syrup!  It’s a full-body maple-magic experience.

But back to those birds.  I’ve been asking all of my students a new question: What’s the connection between maple sugaring and birds?  The preschoolers see the giant holes in some of our trees and know that a woodpecker has been at work, either looking for insects to eat, or digging a hole753_resize to make a nest.  First-graders look up into the treetops and branches and talk about birds building nests in the springtime.  4th-graders start thinking about good bird habitat and the sources of food that healthy forests provide: acorns, beech nuts, cherries, hemlock seeds and loads of insects in the summer.  Middle-schoolers consider the difference between a maple mono-culture and a more diverse forest.  Different bird species utilize each layer of a healthy, resilient sugarbush: Black-throated Blue Warblers forage for insects in a dense understory with plenty of logs and woody material; Wood Thrushes nest in the shrubs and young trees of the mid-story; and Scarlet Tanagers prefer the tip-tops of the forest canopy for their nesting sites.

And what about the funny-named bird who, like us, loves sap? The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drills a series of small holes into the trunk of a tree, then drinks up the sap (and eats the insects that dine on the sap).  It’s my favorite bird/maple connection.

The Bird-friendly Maple Project is ready to give maple-lovers everywhere a way to support and promote sugarbush management that’s good for Vermont’s birds, forests, and forest-based economy.  Learn more about the Bird Friendly Maple Project: http://vt.audubon.org/bird-friendly-maple-project

This project is partnership between Audubon Vermont, the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association.