Finding fairies: Aullwood Audubon Center now has ‘Faerie Houses’ to see along trail

Early every Thursday morning, you’ll find Jacqueline Gazda on a guided nature walk at Aullwood Audubon Center. The South Park resident is there rain or shine, through every season of the year.

It was on one of those strolls that Jill Gordon, another regular participant, asked if Gazda might be interested in getting involved with “The Faerie Houses of Aullwood.”

From early June through Labor Day, Aullwood visitors are invited to search for whimsical fairie houses that have been carefully hidden along a looped trail. Though the theme may change every year, the summer walk always incorporates six tiny houses inhabited by the fairies. According to the folks at Aullwood, the Old English spelling for fairy is used because it sounds magical. It’s an easy trail, takes about a half hour to complete and can be managed by even the shortest little legs.

Gazda thought it sounded like fun. “I’ve always been artistic, I dabble in drawing, painting, pastels,” she said. “On one of the birding walks, she’d shown Gordon a carving she’d done of a blue-gray gnatcatcher.

As a result of that casual exchange, Gazda became the newest member of the “Designing Divas,” the group of dedicated volunteers who have been constructing the fanciful little homes for the past eight years.

“It was my first time ever building a fairie house and it was a real learning experience,” she said. “There are so many things to think about. You have to stick to a theme and everything has to be weatherproof.”

Choosing the theme

This year’s theme is birds.

“We decided that the fairies noticed other beautiful flying creatures and wanted to learn more about them,” said Judi Hill, who has worked on the project since its inception eight years ago.

This year’s story also incorporates the four seasons and two of the most famous annual birding events — the “Audubon Christmas Bird Count,” an annual census performed by volunteer birdwatchers and administered by the National Audubon Society, and “The Biggest Week in American Birding,” a 10-day festival held in May at McGee Marsh in northwest Ohio, the “Warbler Capital of the World.”

Hill, who lives in Beavercreek and has been volunteering at Aullwood for decades, first worked at the front desk and then in the gift shop. Eventually she began making craft items for the store. When Aullwood’s former executive director Alexis Faust asked if she’d be interested in creating faerie houses along the woodsy trail, Hill recruited her sister and a friend to help with the project.

“In that first year we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Kathy Anderson, another original member of the group. “We used tree stumps as the basis for the houses. Since that time other materials have been used — from recycled materials to gourds.”

Anderson said she continues to enjoy working on the houses because each year is so entirely different from the year before. “Every year is a new theme with new and fresh ideas, and it is a great creative outlet.”

One year, the women came up with famous houses from fairy tales and visitors had to guess whether the house belonged to Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs.

This summer, Aullwood guests will have fun finding the tiny books that have been hidden in each of the tableaus. In addition to installing the tiny houses and accessories, the women bring plants and flowers to create a colorful landscape surrounding each home.

“Our hope this time is when children and adults see the houses this year they will take home a little more knowledge about the birds, seasons, and birding events.”

Anderson said the biggest challenge is deciding on an approach.

“It usually takes me several weeks to come up with a solid plan on what direction I want to go, and how I plan on doing it,” she said. “The most fun is when I get far enough along that I can actually see everything come together. It isn’t always how I originally envisioned it, because sometime along the way, I will find that something isn’t quite working, or I will come up with new ideas that I want to add. This is the time that I find really exciting.”

This is the third year that Jill Gordon, who invited Gazda to join the group, has worked on the project. She’d taken her own daughter and granddaughter on the fairie trail and volunteered to help Hill last year. As a birder, she was especially motivated by this year’s theme, and determined to create two houses of her own.

“Judi Hill and I were both OSU master gardeners together at one time so I followed her direction and learned from her,” Gordon said. “I used products recommended by Judi and Kathy who have been building for years. They were also very helpful in recommending techniques to make the scenes waterproof and sturdy.”

All of the divas begin with extensive research on the theme of the year.

“We learn everything we can about our subjects and often scour the internet and YouTube for ideas,” Anderson said. “Then we decide how to actually make the house. From start to finish, the process takes several months.”

Hill says they try not to use store bought materials for the houses and prefer to make them from items they have in their garages, attics and basements.

“Before we throw something away at home, we think, ‘What part of a fairy house could this be?’”

A plastic spoon handle became a picket fence, a bathtub spa tray and a chain leftover from hanging a chandelier became a castle drawbridge, wine bottle corks morphed into a roof, and rope found new life as a thatched roof.

The Designing Divas say they couldn’t possibly do their special work without the help of their husbands.

“We’ve decided that we have the best husbands in the world because they were all drawn into the project,” said Hill. “They end up doing a lot of the work — hauling topsoil, sawing wood, pulling poison ivy, taking photographs and cheering us on!”

How it works

Stop in at the nature center at 1000 Aullwood Road and pick up a “fairie form,” then hit the trail in search of this year’s specially constructed faerie houses on the paved Cardinal Trail. Match each house with the magical season or special event, then bring your completed form back to the front desk and win a prize. Last year more 4,000 Faerie prizes went to guests.

On the back of the form, you can also learn what you can do for the birds. Before or after you start your walk, be sure and look in the gift shop for the miniature fairie library that’s on display year after year. In it, you’ll see a mother fairie reading tales to her children.

Laurie Cothran, Aullwood’s senior manager of development and finance of Aullwood says the faerie houses have attracted many thousands of new and returning visitors who not only enjoy the delights of discovering six new faerie houses, but also enjoy visiting “The Troll that Hatched an Egg by Thomas Dambo,” meeting turtles, snakes, watching birds or meeting farm animals.

“I believe Aullwood truly makes a difference in children’s lives by exposing them to the wonders of nature and teaching them about the world around them,” Hill said. “It’s a magical place.”

How to go

What: The Faerie Houses of Aullwood Exhibit

Where: Aullwood Audubon Nature Center, 1000 Aullwood Road, Dayton

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, through Labor Day

Admission: Free for children 3 and younger, $8 for children 4 to 12, $12 for adults ages 13 to 64; $10 for seniors 65 and over, active-duty military and veterans with ID. Free to members of Friends of Aullwood, National Audubon Society and ANCA.

More:; 937-890-7360

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