Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Holiday Open House At Soldiers Delight

Those of you who follow my blog know that I am huge fan of Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, a federally designated wildland and globally rare ecosystem just down the road from my historic farmhouse in northern Baltimore County, Maryland. I volunteer on the board of directors of Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc. (SDCI), the Friends group for the habitat, I serve as docent at their visitor center on Sundays during the spring and summer, and I conduct occasional nature programs there as a volunteer ranger for the Maryland Park Service all year round.

Joe and Susan dispense hot beverages
To share with others how very special is this unique geological phenomenon of shallow soil over volcanic rock, which is home to a number of globally rare grasses, flowers and butterflies, our Friends group hosts an annual open house every December during which the doors to the private aviary on our premises, home to rehabilitated raptors and other wildlife who have been injured by car strikes or neglected by misguided "pet" owners, are flung open for the public to view, up close and personal, the habits of these magnificent creatures.

Emily staffs the volunteer recruitment desk
During our Holiday Open House, I host a program in our auditorium at which participants can assemble all manner of ornaments, angels, faux animals and other small trinkets from bark, feathers, seeds, leaves and nuts at no less than eight different craft tables set up to enthrall adults and children alike. And while all that is going on, visitors can follow their noses into our exhibit hall, where scents of chocolate, ginger, apples and cinnamon waft from a hot beverage and bake sale organized and lovingly overseen by biologist Paula Becker of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Program, who coordinates volunteers in our ecosystem restoration efforts.

Dwight collects a small fee
 for the crafts program
This year the Holiday Open House was held on Sunday, December 2, but preparations began well before that. In September I harvested hundreds of acorns from five giant oak trees in my yard. I snipped pine needles from conifers that line two sides of my property and collected all sorts of interesting twigs and leaves from the grounds around my house. In the days leading up to the event I gathered festive paper goods and serving utensils, cleaned my hot trays and large glass beverage dispensers, and met with other crafters in the Parks Department who bestowed upon me their collections of glue guns and oyster shells and milkweed pods.

Marnie and her daughter, Abby,
decorate an "edible" birdhouse during
the crafts program
On Thursday evening, while Paula and her volunteers were baking their little hearts out, I simmered hearty burgundy with cardamom pods, peppercorns, oranges and brandy to make fragrant mulled wine, and heated gallons of apple juice with cinnamon and clove-pierced Gravensteins for spiced cider. I spent most of Saturday staging the event at the Soldiers Delight Visitor Center, arranging more than 20 six- and eight-foot tables for the bake sale, a beverage bar and my craft program, then adorning tabletops with holiday cloths, warming trays and cups for beverages, treat boxes and cellophane bags for baked goods, and all manner of ingredients from nature for my craft program, along with tiny balsawood birdhouses and an assortment of toothpicks, paint, glitter, pipe cleaners and wooden beads.

A young crafter gives his "reindeer"
a glittery red nose
It was a big day, Sunday. I rose early to make a gallon and a half of piping hot chocolate, the last beverage in a trio of tempting elixirs we would be selling by the glass to wash down cookies and fudge that patrons hopefully would not be able to resist tasting as they looked around our visitor center. As volunteers arrived to take their assigned positions at the beverage bar, a volunteer recruiting station, the cash boxes and my craft tables, I slipped a CD of holiday music into a boom box and glanced about the building at our handiwork. We were ready.

Ben shows off his ornamnt,
a tiny holiday vignette created inside
an ordinary plastic laundry scoop
The day went well. We had a steady stream of visitors and my craft tables saw quite a bit of action. The aviary entranced with views of our animals perching, preening and posing for eager photogs, while sales of home-baked goodies and hot beverages were brisk in our exhibit hall. In mid-afternoon the talented and personable naturalists for Patapsco Valley State Park, under whose oversight our habitat falls, invited patrons to the aviary to observe the animals during their daily feeding. One raptor, a red-shouldered hawk, enthralled onlookers by catching her meal in mid-air as it was tossed to her. Others were slightly less animated, but all were fascinating.

Visitors look on as naturalist Andy Vlangellotto feeds a Peregrine
falcon while naturalist Katie Soranno describes the bird's injuries
In all, the day garnered a respectable sum to further our ongoing conservation efforts at Soldiers Delight.  We sent home with dozens of people some tempting baked goodies, a crafty ornament or two, and memories of wildlife up close and personal that may someday turn a youngster into a lifelong nature advocate. But, mostly, we generated a bundle of goodwill for our cause: to enlighten the public about the plight of over thirty species of endangered flora and fauna which call Soldiers Delight home, and to share with people the wonder of our natural world. I am honored to work with such a dedicated group of people who made our annual fundraiser a success.  Our open house is a big, exhausting effort. But at the end of the day I had a smile on my face about a mission well-accomplished.

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