Gwen Causer looks out over the first snow of the season from her Burlington home as she talks about her 15-year journey at Audubon Vermont working in conservation and education as a teacher, naturalist and communications manager. Audubon Vermont’s mission is to protect birds, wildlife and their habitat through engaging people of all ages in education, conservation, stewardship and action.
“I got my start at Audubon in Huntington when my daughter attended preschool programs out there. I come from a plant background, so I used to think of birds as creepy little dinosaurs with wings,” she jokes. “Now part of my job is to focus on native Plants for Birds.”
Gwen thinking has evolved from those early days when she found birds a bit “creepy” to seeing the need to creating significant new habitat for them. Recently, Gwen helped coordinate a reforestation event in a pair of fields at Oakledge Park where Audubon Vermont and Burlington Parks, Recreation & Waterfront are restoring two wetlands. The City is managing the wetlands with a no-mow approach combined with native bird-friendly plantings. More than 120 volunteers helped plant 1,000 native trees and shrubs at a Tree Planting Day this past summer.
“Our partnership with Audubon is timely,” says BPRW Project Coordinator Jon Adams-Kollitz. “From the moment we began speaking about Audubon’s effort to support urban habitat and plant communities, it became obvious that our paths were destined to cross. With our Master Plan driven focus on ecology, our departments dedication to utilizing native plants, and sensitive stewarding of our natural resources, we are a perfect partner for Audubon’s mission. Plus, it is a great way for Gwen to bring her work into her neighborhood and home town.”
Working in her home town of Burlington is very satisfying for Gwen, since her approach to each project is place-based. At Oakledge Park, Gwen wanted to create a wetland that reflected the nature of the original wetlands. That goal involves working with local partners and volunteers. And learning more about where she lives.
“I looked at what was growing nearby and tried to work with people to recreate a natural community in these two wet fields. All of the plants came from the local Intervale Conservation Nursery,” Gwen said. “And I was amazed at all of the volunteers who came out over the course of the day!”
Walking into the south end of Oakledge Park on the Tree Planting Day this summer, it was clear something was up. The registration tent teamed with activity. A steady stream of volunteers trundled wheelbarrows from place to place moving native wetland plants. woodchips, and other supplies. Both wet meadows were full of people digging holes and hefting plantings into place in a well-coordinated effort.
“Restoration work requires good science, creativity and collaboration. In our partnership with Audubon Vermont, they bring all of these things to the table. Gwen Causer has been instrumental in our restoration work at Oakledge. She helped synthesize a plan that maximized the relationship between plants and birds, all while paying a careful eye toward the vital factor of involving people in a meaningful way,” said Dan Cahill, BPRW Land Steward.
During her tenure at Audubon Vermont, Gwen has found her approach to work shifting from a focus mainly on conservation and natural history content to a focus on expanding who Audubon serves. Gwen’s most recent initiative is coordinating a series of Pride Hikes with the Pride Center of Vermont and Outright Vermont. LGBTQA+ folks gather monthly to hike trails and create community throughout Vermont. December’s Pride Hike will explore the Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington, Vermont. The hike will meander through the beaver ponds, sugarbush, and woodlands of the Audubon Center, while creating a safe space for the participants. “When you are out on a trail the conversations are so meaningful, because of trust that’s built. These are not your average nature hikes, they are so much more,” Gwen said.
Since March of 2017, Gwen and fellow Audubon Teacher Naturalist, Debbie Archer, have also been visiting the King Street Center in Burlington on Thursdays after school to take a group of students outside in an enrichment program called Audubon Adventures.
“We take the kids out every time and think with them about how wildlife survives right where they live,” says Gwen. “Sometimes we take a bus to another location like Oakledge Park, but even something as simple as a wooly bear caterpillar on the sidewalk raises lots of questions. Watching it move— curling up and stretching out–is surprising to see. When they get curious and excited, we follow their lead.”
Gwen pauses and adds, “We are also working with them on feeling empowered. We want them to know that they can make things better.”
Gwendolyn Causer has been teaching environmental education programs with Audubon Vermont since 2005. Audubon’s inquiry-based science programs encourage exploration, foster critical thinking, and inspire conservation action in local communities. Gwendolyn’s first love in nature is botany and she does most of her birding by ear. She is passionate about creating equitable access to nature for communities not traditionally included in the environmental movement.
Photos Courtesy of Gwen Causer