NICHOLE JIANG – STAFF WRITER
In a time where many lives are mostly digital, Chautauqua’s Bird, Tree & Garden Club is diving headfirst into the world of apps, smartphones and QR codes. BTG has developed an app where users can now learn about the various different birds, trees and gardens that Chautauqua has to offer. BTG still offers tours around the grounds in-season that Chautauquans can attend. However, if you’re unable to attend a tour due to health concerns or time constraints, you can take the tour on your own time using the app.
“In March of 2020, when all of our programming was on hold, we made the decision to look at our mission statement, which references BTG caring for the Institution gardens,” said Angela James, president of BTG. “And so we focused our efforts in two ways: Number one, since there was a staff shortage due to the pandemic, we weeded all the Institution gardens last summer. And the second thing we did was partner with the Chautauqua County Master Gardeners of Cornell Cooperative Extension, and we conducted a plant census. We did an inventory of every garden tree, shrubs, perennials, vines, grasses and ground cover. With all that data and with this renewed commitment, we decided to take all that information, and not knowing if next year we were able to have tours or if people were going to be on grounds, we decided to develop an app.”
BTG also had the inspiration to create the app after hearing the remaining interest and concern for nature at Chautauqua during the pandemic.
“We had quite a few people contacting the BTG during 2020 asking, ‘Oh, how do the gardens work?’ or, ‘We miss being on the grounds,’ ” James said. “So we researched technology partners, and found a partner with a platform that we thought could support showcasing the birds, trees and gardens and the lake at Chautauqua.”
The whole process took about a year, and BTG has created over 30 specific tours covering a wide geography at the grounds. Throughout this process, BTG did face challenges, but the work paid off — now anyone can go to explorechq.oncell.com from any desktop or mobile device for a bevy of self-guided tours, or simply take a photo of the QR code found on tree markers around the grounds.
“We have a lake tour, which consists of both science and nature stops, as well as Chautauqua culture. We could write the information all about Palestine Park and Miller Bell Tower, but when writing about harmful algal bloom, or characteristics of the lake or some other elements, that’s when the BTG invited all of our nature partners with their expertise to contribute to that,” James said. “A bunch of our nature partners contributed, like the Audubon Community and the Chautauqua Watershed (Conservancy). Our other challenge was one of funding. Since the House and Garden Tour was suspended in 2020 and 2021, which is one of our larger sources of funding, we used grant funding to support the expenses associated with the app.”
The result of this yearlong process is an app that allows visitors around the grounds to learn about their surroundings from the palms of their hands.
“You can take 23 garden tours, learning about the physical description of a garden, its plant collection summary, photos, a plant list and that garden’s history. So if you want to learn about the Zen garden … you can learn all about the elements of Asian-influenced Zen gardening, and then you can see that right in front of you. There’s a wide variety of garden styles and types, just like there’s a variety of architecture at Chautauqua. Our gardens, like the Rain Garden, Monarch Garden or English Cottage Garden, have history,” James said. “So there’s photos that describe those differences, and what plants are there and what seating is there. So it really gives a much more in depth look at the variety and the diversity of our gardens.”
Another aspect of the app is the inclusion of about 100 common birds that can be found on the grounds.
“We’ve categorized them by the time of year that they visit the geography, places on the grounds where they gather to assemble and nest and raise their young, and where they eat,” James said. “And so we’ve created three separate bird tours. They’ve been really well-received.”
Lastly, the app offers insight into numerous different tree species on the grounds as well.
“The tree canopy at Chautauqua is so diverse,” James said. “The quality of our trees, their size and where they’re located is really incredible. And we’ve taken that to the next level and provided geographic tours of anywhere from a grouping of 10 to 52 trees on the perimeter loop. And the tree marker is like a beacon, so you just put your phone over the QR code and you are immediately taken to that stop, or that page at the app, and you can see a series of photos.”
The app and the tours are both completely free to all patrons. This is due in part to BTG’s dedicated mission of education, specifically nature education. They want the experience of nature in the community to be accessible to all community members.
“The beauty of interacting with a knowledgeable guide is a fantastic educational experience. But if you’re here on the weekend, if you’re on off-season or if you missed that tour because you were taking a class, now the app has a summary,” James said. “And it still presents that same depth of information, but at your own pace. If someone is concerned about social distancing or they want to follow the app from home, there’s also a web-based version of the app.”
Many people have a love-hate relationship when it comes to technology. The user interface on the BTG app was a collaborative effort, in part to try to cater to Chautauquans’ wants.
“We offered our BTG Life Members the first chance to take tours on the app, and we received a lot of positive feedback. It’s very intuitive and easy to navigate. One thing that the pandemic taught us is how technology can actually be helpful, and I think we all surprised ourselves with how much we’ve been able to learn,” James said. “And we think the app provides good direction and motivation, and it’s also a great way to get a workout in.”
The app will be periodically updated with new content and features, as well.
“We’ve already got our list of enhancements, so this is not just one-and-done. We’ll be doing audio recording and adding some video,” James said.
With the addition of this app, BTG hopes that people can go visit places on the grounds that they wouldn’t normally think to go to.
“We hope that people realize how many more layers there are to Mother Nature than perhaps what they’ve seen before. And we think this is a great way to educate the public about the diversity of Western New York’s ecosystem,” James said. “We’re grateful to showcase all of our nature partners who’ve put the content together. We think it’s a good public service that we’ve provided this app for free; even a dollar would be too much of a barrier.”
Out of the numerous beautiful gardens and locations on the grounds, from the Bishop’s Garden for a quiet experience, to the Monarch and rain gardens, when asked where her favorite spot to go was, James had some difficulty deciding.
“But the Arboretum is one of my favorite places to visit on the grounds because it has history and it’s got nature. It’s so well put together, in terms of a diverse tree canopy and native plants,” James said. “We think the app proves that we’re not your great-great-grandmother’s BTG, if you know what I mean.”