ITHACA, N.Y. – Cayuga Nature Center hosted its annual Maple Fest on Sunday, March 17, and drew more than 500 visitors for pancakes, animal encounters, outdoor play and a maple sugaring tour.
The festival was a chance for curious visitors to learn about the process of making maple syrup — from tree sap all the way to their breakfast. Inside and out at the Nature Center’s wooded grounds, kids had a chance to learn about the flora and fauna who call Tompkins County home.
Daisy the fox delighted in her outdoor enclosure, while her avian friends were freed from their cages and introduced to onlookers by nature educators.
Savannah Wilson, who manages animal education at the Nature Center, said she hoped folks who met the local birds would walk away with a new fondness for them and commitment to habitat conservation.
“Seeing him up close, he’s actually quite a handsome bird,” she said of Ichabod the turkey vulture, a member of a species not usually known for its good looks.
Ichabod, for his part, just seemed excited to be out and about. “He’s sunning himself, it’s enrichment activity and exciting for him,” Wilson said of his Maple Fest appearance. The 5-year-old bird displayed his plumage for paparazzi like a seasoned entertainer.
Inside, families dug into short stacks topped off with berries and local maple syrup, as well as bread pudding made with apples from Cornell Orchards. Luna Street Food catered the breakfast from their food truck and folks braved occasional snow showers to line up for a plate.
Live music and live animals filled the Nature Center’s main building, and kids hopped between the dance floor, reptile room and bug displays. Fish swam by at toddler eye-level in the center’s new aquarium displays, which feature glimpses of Cayuga Lake’s past and present.
But the event’s namesake took center stage during a demonstration of maple syrup production. Last year New York state produced more than 800,000 gallons of the sticky sweet liquid. While Tompkins County produces very little maple syrup, Brian Chabot, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell and an expert on sugar maples, said syrup can be made anywhere in the state and will have a unique flavor depending on where it comes from.
Sunday, Chabot led a tour of the Nature Center’s very own sap taps and sugar shack, giving visitors a look at how maple syrup is produced right in their backyard.
Maple syrup comes from sugar maple tree sap, he explained. During the cold months, sap becomes pressurized in the trees’ trunks. Sticking a tap into the trunk releases the pressure, causing sap to flow into a bucket or tubing system.
Using the old-fashioned bucket system to collect sap, Chabot estimated a person working alone could manage about 200 trees. Cayuga Nature Center only collects enough sap for educational purposes, but commercial syrup enterprises typically use plastic tubing to extract sap more efficiently.
“It’s still a slow process,” Chabot said of modern sap extraction, “but you get more out of the tree.”
After peering into sap buckets, the tour moved into the sugar shack, where sap is boiled to reduce its water content and create maple syrup. Straight out of the tree, sap tends to have a sugar concentration of about two to three percent, Chabot said. Syrup has a sugar concentration of about 70 percent. It therefore takes a whole lot of sap to make syrup: about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Boiling doesn’t just increase the concentration of sugar, though. According to Chabot, it also brings out maple syrup’s distinctive flavors. Chabot passed around a flavor wheel produced by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada showing tasting notes from firewood to flowers. Chabot said complex flavors develop during heating and through natural fermentation when sap is exposed to bacteria in the environment.
Beyond all the educational programming, there was plenty of time for kids to roam and play on the Nature Center’s large property. Despite the cold, mud pies were assembled near the outdoor dining pavilion, butterflies were imitated in the butterfly garden, and TreeTops was a hive of activity while adults watched from ground level.
The maple season in New York will end when leaves start to open on sugar maple trees, but the Nature Center will have plenty of opportunities for learning and playing after spring arrives.