MILFORD — While the coronavirus pandemic may have closed indoor programs at Connecticut Audubon Society’s Coastal Center at Milford Point, the center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, now offers virtual programs.

“When our indoor programs closed, we quickly pivoted our staff to provide virtual programming to the schools that normally come to our center,” said Shari Greenblatt, Connecticut Audubon Society’s southwest regional director.

The center, which reached approximately 5,000 students and visitors this year, offers educational programs to schools throughout New Haven County. Many of its students are from undeserved communities. It also offers community programs for all ages, and Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs. It’s funded by the U.S. government and private and corporate contributions.

During the 60-minute virtual school programs, students explore weather and bird ecology. They conduct hands-on investigations and experiments, record their observations and draw conclusions.

The center has just begun sending a tool kit to students in its virtual programs. The backpacks contain rain gauges, a ruler, rocks, a water bottle, data sheets and rain charts. They were designed as a way to limit excess screen time.

“Each student gets a drawstring backpack with tools inside they can use as they follow along with the program, that a Connecticut Audubon staff teacher is teaching,” Greenblatt said. “This is new for us. It’s our way of becoming useful and relevant during these times. “We think there is a lot of screen fatigue with these kids. A lot of the kids who are learning at home don’t have those tools.”

Outdoor activities

Many existing outdoor programs at the center have continued throughout the pandemic, since its grounds have remained open. Outdoor activities include a guided canoe trip that takes participants onto a marsh.

“Milford Point is located on a barrier beach and it’s next to the Charles Wheeler Salt Marsh and Wildlife Management Area, at the mouth of the Housatonic River,” Greenblatt said.

The public can learn about the center’s pollinator garden, observe Long Island Sound with binoculars, and bird-watch in pre-dawn hours. Additionally, the center has on-site programs for home learners, such as making a map after walking on a trail.

“We wanted to offer families a place to take their kids that doesn’t involve being on the screen all day,” Greenblatt said.

The center also promotes the importance of birds and their habitats and the need to protect them. The center recently installed a water fountain feature, which has attracted many birders and rare birds.

“It’s a birder’s paradise at Milford Point,” she said.“People come from all over to watch them.”

Watchers have identified more than 315 species of birds at Milford Point, Greenblatt said. The lockdown drew a record number of people to the center’s sanctuaries, she said. The center’s guided bird walks routinely sold out over the summer, and demand has not diminished.

“When the state parks were closed, we worked hard to keep our centers open because we found that people really wanted to find peace in nature,” she said.

History

The idea for the Coastal Center in Milford began in 1990 when the Connecticut Audubon Society entered into an agreement with the state of Connecticut and the New Haven Bird Club to open a research and education facility. The facility is adjacent to the 840-acre Charles Wheeler Salt Marsh and Wildlife Management Area, and located on the site of the former 1868 vintage Smith Ford Motel.

“It was beyond repair and we tore it down and we built the center in its footprint, and it was opened to the public in 1995,” Greenblatt said.

Designated an Audubon Important Birding Area in 2002, the the center received the Best Recreational Award for 2020 from the Milford Chamber of Commerce.

Greenblatt calls the center “a little gem in Milford.”

She said its programs are intended to promote awareness and preservation of the Long Island Sound ecosystem.

“For 25 years, the Audubon at the coastal center in Milford has educated students and adults, and our goal is to instill a sense of appreciation for nature and build an understanding for a need to preserve it,” Greenblatt said.

For more information on programs, or to donate to the center’s new fund-raising campaign, visit ctaudubon.org.

sfox@milfordmirror.com