Big Renovations Underway

New cabinets and concrete countertops in our kitchen.

Through the off-season, we’ve been busy with all sorts of improvement projects around the site, from kitchen renovations and washroom upgrades to plumbing and electrical improvements. We’re also significantly expanding the deck around our Visitor’s Centre, reorganizing all our gardens (and adding some new ones) and much, much more!

As difficult as COVID has been for us (since we rely on tourist visits and hosting large events), we’ve been really fortunate in finding grants and other supports that are allowing us to make some much-needed improvements on the site.

A new wrap-around deck for our Visitor’s Centre makes the perfect place to enjoy lunch in our garden

We’re now in the process of installing new site furniture (benches, garbage barrels) as well as updated informational signage. In fact, the Grist Mill Foundation volunteer group will soon be offering up dedication plaques on our new benches as a special fundraiser for their work. Make sure you subscribe to our newsletter to be among the first to hear about this unique opportunity to commemorate a loved one or special event on our spectacular grounds.

New slab benches provide the perfect places to stop and contemplate the beauty around you.

We’re particularly excited about the upgrades behind the scenes, like all the improvements to our kitchen including new cabinets, concrete countertops, electrical upgrades as well as a new commercial range and oven that will give us even more capacity for our Pantry Share program, for catering special events here and elsewhere and for our popular lunch service.

Serious upgrades to our kitchen equipment!

We’re also excited about our ongoing garden upgrades, which are intended to bring back some of the incredible heritage seed research and preservation done by the amazing Sharon Rempel back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It’s truly amazing how many rare heritage varieties of food and ornamental plants she was able to collect, display and share. Although bringing back her work is a long-term project, this is the season that visitors will see the largest changes to our gardens as we massively reconfigure them in exciting ways!

With all this big work happening on site right now, we hope you can make plans to come visit us this summer, we’ve got some really big things to show you!

Project: The Birdbox

It may not look like much, but that little black box is running a fully-powered computer dedicated to listening to and analyzing birdsong on our site. Using microphones, data on the six thousand most common bird species around the world, and some amazing software, it can listen and analyze what it hears in real time.

This project started a little over a year ago when we first discovered an amazing iPhone app called BirdNET, a project out of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Chemnitz Institute of Technology. Using your phone’s microphone, you can record and submit bird calls to their system for near-instant analysis. On a walk or in your backyard, often you hear birds before you can see them and we loved being able to pull out our phones and record anytime we heard an interesting bird song.

Hour-by-hour breakdown of the species the box has identified this morning.

We couldn’t help but wonder how we could offer that feature as a service to those visiting our beautiful heritage site; because of our unique combination of tended gardens and old creekside cottonwoods, plus being on a major migratory pathway, we get an awful lot of interesting bird visitors. After a little research, we discovered that there were several efforts underway to take the key features of BirdNET and have them run on a kind of small hobby computer called a Raspberry Pi. This special software has been written by a small group of enthusiastic volunteers and is still in active development, constantly adding new features and improving reliability.

The process of setting up our bird box was a little technical, but we’re excited that we’ve now been collecting data for a week and hope to soon upgrade the microphone as well as put the whole thing in a solar-powered, weatherproof case. Eventually, we hope to give our visitors access to the recordings and statistics through our website as well as have some sort of automatically-updating signage so that site visitors know which bird species to watch out for as they tour the site.

A spectogram showing the sort of data the box uses to identify birds by their sounds. This image features a particularly chatty robin.

This is the second of a series of citizen-science projects we’re undertaking on site (the first was installing our own weather monitoring) and we hope to add more as we’re able–we’d love to be able to monitor the conditions of the creek running through the site (oxygen levels, water level, temperature, cloudiness, etc) for example. There is also people working on developing systems that can do the same real-time identification as our bird box, but for ultrasonic bat calls and insect buzzing. If you have ideas on other project that might suit our unique space, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Some of the many birds we’ve seen on-site in the past. We wonder what else we might hear…