There's something wild happening on Hogback Mountain ...

Natural History Museum a treasure trove of the great outdoors

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MARLBORO — The top of Hogback Mountain is known for its majestic view of three states. But atop the same summit, hiding in plain sight, stands a hidden gem for nature enthusiasts of all ages.

Adjacent to the more visible gift shop at the mountain overlook is a small white building with a sign that reads, "Southern Vermont Natural History Museum." By outward appearances, it doesn't seem to offer much. But step inside and you'll see one of the largest collections of taxidermied native birds and mammals in the Northeast, plus a few live animals, spread out over 6,000 square feet on three levels that tier down the mountainside.

The museum is the dream come true for Deerfield Valley resident Ed Metcalfe, who purchased the historic Luman Ranger Nelson Natural History Collection with its more than 250 species, and established the museum in 1996. A few years later, he started taking in live animals like reptiles and birds of prey that could no longer survive in the wild due to injury or familiarity with humans.

About 10 years ago, a native Vermonter with a background in environmental science walked into the museum to check out the collection.

"When I first walked in the door, I just wanted to play with the birds," jokes Mike Clough, who is now the assistant director of the museum. He serves as an ambassador traveling all over New England to share his wealth of knowledge about native species, encouraging young and old alike to spend more time exploring the outdoors.

The museum's education programs use live animals, outdoor exploration, artifacts, audio visual components and hands-on activities to bring science and the nature of Vermont to life. For schools, Clough incorporates Next Generation Science Standards into all of his programming.

On a recent afternoon, Clough paid a visit to The Gathering Place, a senior daycare facility in Dover. As with all of his appearances, the presentation is both informative and entertaining as he combines facts with humor.

"Antlers are for impressing the girls," he says as he holds up a large moose antler spanning about 3 feet. He explains how bigger antlers indicate a male with strength and survival skills. Then he holds up a much smaller antler. "When the girls see this guy, they're like, 'get out of here, kid."

Next come the live animals, starting with a gray tree frog, which in the winter time will burrow underneath a pile of leaves in the woods and freeze solid until the spring thaw.

"Sugar and protein in the body prevent ice crystals from forming," Clough explains. "It's a pretty cool trick."

Audience members voice their approval with "oh, my God" and "beautiful" as he brings out the red-tailed hawk. Then a line of poop squirts out behind the hawk, generating laughter from the group.

Clough gets exclamations of "wow" as he explains how the hawk can spot a mouse at least a half-mile away, and then laughter as he adds, "She can see where the mice have been peeing."

Of course, just about everybody likes birds. But what about snakes?

"We are hard-wired to be afraid of snakes," Clough says as he pulls out a native eastern rat snake. "Most of the snakes we come across are in stories or movies. Ever notice they always make the snake the bad guy?"

But from his experience at the museum, it's the bunny rabbits that draw the most blood. And while venomous snakes are the most feared, he gives his audience some perspective. "In the United States, about 200 people a year are killed by vending machines, compared to two people a year killed by snakes. ... That road out there is more dangerous than any venomous snake on the planet," he says, pointing to Route 100.

Fortunately, he continues, more people are starting to appreciate the value of snakes in the wild. Years ago, farmers would hire people to kill predatory animals such as large birds and snakes in order to protect their chickens, but a 1930s study determined that farmers who issued those bounties actually lost more money to crop damage thanks to the resulting explosion in the rodent population.

"It's a shame that we so often make snakes the bad guy," Clough says. "For the most part, they do us a favor by eating rodents. She's a great mouse trap."

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Metcalfe, the museum's soft-spoken director, credits Clough with helping the museum expand its contract programs for schools, libraries, senior centers and even corporate gatherings. This past year the museum reached a record 22,000 people in direct programs.

"The programming has really grown a lot in the last four or five years," says Metcalfe. "Mike does a phenomenal job with what he does with these programs. I think he should be on TV."

Another valuable outreach effort is the annual Vermont Wildlife Festival, this year scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, at Mount Snow in Dover. Representatives of Vermont's diverse outdoor community will be on hand, from sportsman's clubs and anglers to outdoor adventure and education organizations and birdwatchers. At the center of it all will be family-friendly activities and live animal encounters, including a live snapping turtle, birds of prey, giant snakes and more.

"The original idea was to get diverse groups that are interested in outdoors all in one spot," Clough explains. "We use good programs like live animals as a hook for everyone else."

Originally held across Route 9 from the museum, the festival, now in its ninth year, moved to Mount Snow three years ago. It's offered free of charge thanks to the museum and the support of the town of Dover, Mount Snow and the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"It's not a fundraiser. We want everybody to come," Clough says, adding that the festival has grown substantially over the years. "We expect at least 1,000 people."

Thanks to the programing and the festival, admission to the museum has also grown.

"The majority of people are coming here, specifically to the museum, as opposed to just stopping by for the gift shop," Clough says.

In fact, Metcalfe and Clough say the museum has grown so much that its current location presents some significant challenges: The grade of the land on top of Hogback Mountain and the adjacent gift shop make the museum seem smaller and give it less visibility. There's no classroom or auditorium space and no opportunity for physical expansion, and parking is inadequate.

Enter part two of Metcalfe's dream: to relocate the museum to a more expansive space, one that would put it on par with the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich. That museum features more than 150 interactive permanent and featured exhibits indoors and 100 acres of outdoor space with trails, a garden and numerous hands-on activities.

"We have a lot of dreams — a museum approximately three or four times the square footage as we have here, with an indoor and outdoor nature-themed playground," Metcalfe says. "In the winter around here, it's difficult for parents to find things for kids to do."

Clough and Metcalfe tick off a list of benefits an expanded museum would offer the region: A connecting hub for local outdoor recreation and science education; a year-round, all-weather resource for locals and tourists (even during the slow time of the year); a community resource to support local school science curriculum and a venue for private and community events. In terms of economic development, the museum would provide quality jobs, plus all of the work required to build the facility, they say.

The challenge, of course, is funding. Metcalfe and Clough have been adept at raising sums of $10,000 to $50,000 in grant money, but something on this scale would require millions.

The first step toward that goal was an administrative study. It concluded that the museum needs to expand its board of directors, from five to as many as 12 members, to include more people with the ability, knowledge and wherewithal to expand the nonprofit by developing a strategic plan and raising more money.

"I think the direction the museum is going is exciting," says Clough. "It's exciting to be part of something that's really growing. It has such great potential to be a resource for the region."

Melanie Winters is news editor of the Brattleboro Reformer.

 


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