Wildlife Driven Design

Our native butterfly sage or bloodberry is buzzing with bees and swirling with butterflies. Four mockingbirds take turns feeding on the red berries and two brown thrashers sift through the leaf litter for insects; all within view from our patio.

Flowers and fruit are important for wildlife, yet insects and spiders are the main diet of young, growing birds and most adult birds. Many species of native insects eat the leaves, buds and seeds of our native plants while few have gotten past the chemical defenses of introduced exotics.

There are thousands of caterpillars and other insects and spiders hiding in most large native trees. During the nesting season it is important to have these trees to supply the insect food for our next generation of birds. Insects contain twice the protein of beef.

Exotic plants are sold as pest free. They arrived here from various countries without the insects that feed on them. If one of these foreign insects is accidentally imported, like the ficus white fly, it becomes a serious pest because it has arrived without any of its natural predators. These insects are often not fed upon by our birds either. Without seed eating insects, the thousands of seeds that many exotics produce have a good chance of spreading to other yards and natural areas when birds eat their berries and carry them off.

With more caterpillars, grasshoppers stinkbugs, and other insects eating your native plants you would think that they would be ripped to shreds and become ugly. Yet, it is rare to notice up to ten percent damage to the leaves of a plant. Fear not, the damage is usually much less. The imported weevils from Asia are what you are noticing scalloping the edges of your plant leaves, both native and exotic.

When planting for wildlife, consider plants that actually get a few “pests.” Oaks, maples, pines, Florida elm, sweetgum, gumbo limbo, wild tamarind and redbay are just a few trees that are loaded with insects and attract many birds seeking food for their young.

Song bird populations are declining at the rate of one percent a year and have already plummeted fifty percent since the 1960’s. This is because our lawns have replaced their natural habitat. Good news is that the damage is reversible. We have over 40 million acres of lawn in the United States, or eight New Jerseys, that can be returned to forest or other natural habitats.

Most of our natural areas are small islands. It is possible to connect these preserves to one another by planting the same species of plants in our yards as are found in the local preserves. Now birds and other wildlife can move about and spread their genes to new populations, eliminating the problems caused by inbreeding.

Visit a local natural area and make a note of what grows there and decide which species you like. Buy some of these trees and plant them in your yard. Then later blend in native shrubs and wildflowers. When you notice the birds using your yard, you will become hooked and never look back to the lawn you left behind.

Bridge The Gap Between Natural Areas With Wildlife Corridors

Imagine being a small bird with large (compared to you) falcons, and hawks trying to eat you. No wonder little birds look around nervously all the time and fly for cover at the slightest sound. Wildlife corridors provide cover and a protected link between feeding sites and water. These corridors are from narrow to extensive areas of dense cover. A mixture of native trees and shrubs works well by providing berries, nuts and seeds for food and thorns for protection.

Long stretches of man made clearings and bird feeders placed in the middle of the yard are giving our raptors an unfair advantage. Always place a birdbath or feeder near dense cover, and keep your cat indoors. If you notice songbirds traveling along a canal or roadway, try planting a long line of shrubs several feet wide so the birds can hide and feed there.

If you are lucky enough to live next to a nature preserve, you may want to talk to your neighbors about planting a connection from the preserve to all of your yards. Why separate yourselves from all of these cool birds and butterflies? Planned communities can do a lot with this idea. Plant cypress, red maple, pondapple and other wetland trees, shrubs and native flowers and grasses around your lakes. Plant a variety of upland species and butterfly attracting plants in the public areas. There will be less grass to mow and the kids will love to see the birds and butterflies.

A fence planted with the native corky passion vine will attract many zebra longwing and gulf fritillary butterflies. Redbay, wild lime and Chapman’s cassia will provide food for the caterpillars of the palamedes, giant swallowtail and several kinds of sulfur butterflies. Plant the wild lime away from people, it has nasty thorns. Birds love to nest in it though.

The local newspaper often has warnings about the large amounts of water, gasoline, fertilizer and chemicals that we use on our lawns and articles lamenting the loss of our wildlife to development. Why not plant wildlife corridors through your yard and help solve several problems at once.

What Bird Is That?

Our winter resident birds can be frustrating to identify. If you learn a few of the more distinct ones, you can make your neighbors think that you are a bird expert. The following descriptions are for the mature males. Immatures and females are more difficult.

I’ll start with the three mimics. The dark gray catbird repeats its phrases of other bird’s songs only once and has a “rahhr” call similar to a cats meow. These are here from October to May. The light gray mockingbird repeats its phrases three or more times. It is a full time resident. The largest is the brown thrasher. This is often found on the ground flipping leaves while looking for insects and worms. The brown thrasher repeats its phrases only once and is a rare, full time resident. You will need native trees and shrubs to provide the dead leaves that worms grow in for the thrasher to eat.

The fall migration starts in September with the” speee” call of the tiny, gray colored, blue-gray gnatcatcher. It is heard high in the branches of trees. You will see several flitting from branch to branch and ocassionaly one will come down to check you out. An oak tree is a good place to look. As a bonus, they are found with warblers and other small birds during migration. Most warblers are only five inches long. A few, like the black-throated blue warbler, stay the winter. This is a beautiful bird that catches your attention with its black face, white belly and blue wings and back.

Look for the yellow spot at the base of the tail and you have identified the yellow-rumped warbler. It likes the berries of wax myrtles. The bird creeping over branches like a nuthatch is the yellow-throated warbler. It has a bright yellow throat and chest, black cheeks and a gray back. The black mask across the face, both above and below the eye, and an olive back and yellow belly make the common yellowthroat easy to distinguish. Another creeping warbler is the black-and-white warbler. Beautiful clean lines of black and white set this bird apart. All four are common during the winter months.

Small flocks of birds lighting in the grass with tails that bob constantly are the palm warblers. It is dull brown overall with a little yellow under the tail and a brown cap on its head. Remember the constant tail bobbing. These are also seen in trees and is very common. Just say palm warbler and you will be right most of the time.

Of course this is just a start. Once you learn some of the common birds you will have something to compare other birds to and be more likely to notice the rarer and more interesting ones.

Cover and food for these birds is provided by many native plants. Plants in fruit during the migration season include oaks, wild coffee, beauty berry, dahoon holly, marlberry, snowberry, Spanish stopper, hackberry, firebush, lignum vitae, and bahama strongbark. Many wildflowers including red salvia, native plumbago, dune sunflower, horsemint and bluecurles provide seeds for small birds. Insects that are eaten by birds also eat the seeds.

Stop and enjoy the seasonal changes in our beautiful South Florida fall; the weather is delicious and the rest of the country is shivering.

Water Restrictions? Bring Em On!

I am actually looking forward to a quiet, brown summer.  I will sorely miss the baaroooommmmm, zzzzzzzzzzzz, aarrrooooooooooo sounds of green lawn madness. Don’t forget the maddening tick-tick-tick-tick-tick of the sprinklers.  All of this fanatical effort to produce a green, weed free lawn has resulted in over 40 million acres of lost wildlife habitat, severed toes and fingers, air and noise pollution, chemicals in our ground water and little time to actually relax in our yards without having to mow or being driven indoors by our neighbor’s noisy lawnmower.

I recently visited a friend on Sewall’s Point in Martin County who had preserved the natural coastal hammock vegetation on his property and had zero lawn. Quiet, birds, clean air and interesting plants were everywhere with lots of shade.  Even the back deck was built around tall black ironwood trees.  As I drove away toward a newer, totally cleared and sodded portion of the island I was assaulted by the din of power machines. The streets were lined with a gauntlet of trucks, trailers, cars etc. and there was no shade.  It’s too bad that the original paradise trees, oak, hickory, pine and other native trees were replaced with sod.  But why not do the reverse?

Start with trees placed to shade the south and west side of the house and create a forested effect elsewhere. Then fill the corners of the yard, view of the neighbor’s clothes line, and roadside with shrubs.  These plants will shade out the grass and weeds while providing dead leaves as free mulch.  There is very little maintenance and now you can plant small,more labor intensive, areas with wildflowers for your butterfly garden. 

What will happen to all of the people working in our yards?  There will always be some quiet snipping, a little weeding and of course someone to clean out the birdhouses at the end of the nesting season.  I suggest the book “American Green” by Ted Steinberg.  He covers the history of the lawn and after you finish the book you will view yours with a less loving eye. Also, read Bringing Nature Home by Douglass Tallamy.

Don’t forget to supply your birds with a small tube that drips or has a mist attachment hung over the birdbath.  Connect this to a timer set for one hour each day and you will help your little friends get through a drought.

Don’t Drive Off The Road While Watching Birds.

In September, 2007 the first bald eagle flew 70 feet above us. Small groups of warblers and painted buntings were slipping through the trees and brush. September 22 I watched with excitement as the first hummingbird flew like a warning shot over my head. I would have missed it if not for the ridiculous computer game-like chattering that preceded his appearance.

Two coopers hawks stopped by as if to say “we’re back, got any doves for us to eat?” A bold, red-tailed hawk harassed the wood ducks in the pond next door; how exciting it would have been to see him catch one.

Fall is the time of year to walk around your yard with head up and eyes and ears tuned in to the slightest movement or sound. Start your identification skills with the common blue-gray gnatcatcher. This small bird of 4.5inches has a cute sweee sound and will hang around you if you make a pish, pish. pish sound. The orchard oriole is greenish-yellow with gray wings containing two white bars. At seven inches long it is two inches larger than the similar warblers. You may see one slowly eating the fruit of your strangler fig. The mature male is black on top and has a red underside.

The first cold snap in October is when you must go outside early in the morning and watch as dozens of migrating birds pass through our yards. Drive about a half hour west of John Pennekamp Park to Curry Hammock State Park in the middle Keys. Climb the observation tower and hang out with one of the college students researching raptors and you will learn to identify many kinds of hawks, eagles, peregrine falcons and other birds. You will become a raptor expert by the end of the day and your kids will remember this time with you forever.

Try not to hyperventilate and drive off of the road as you begin to notice the raptors around you. I nearly did this one year as a peregrine falcon flew next to me while I drove west, just east of congress ave. on Lantana rd. Of the dozen cars in my group, no one noticed this majestic bird flying right next to all of us. He then veered off to the left toward a strip mall and shot behind the buildings at full speed. You could tell where he was by the panicked pigeons exploding upward from behind the buildings. Pigeon bowling pins.

How often do you see flocks of starlings zigzaging through the sky? Look a little closer and you may notice a merlin, sharpshin or coopers hawk trying to separate and then pick one off. Watch that red tailed hawk and he may suddenly dive almost straight down from 500 feet. Pull over and see if you can witness a kill. My wife, noticed a bald eagle one year as it flew over a supermarket parking lot while stealing a fish from an osprey. Again, no one else noticed.

One of the most exciting moments I have had watching birds was in a restaurant in West Palm Beach that was six stories up. I glanced out the picture window at some vultures gliding by when one of them looked up at a peregrine falcon and dove straight down with the falcon just behind. The peregrine must have been having fun because nobody eats a vulture. No one at the table noticed and they acted like I was crazy when I pointed and said “look at that peregrine falcon.”

You may embarrass yourself occasionally, but it is worth it to be tuned in to surrounding wildlife. Stopped at a light? just look around and you may witness a coopers hawk pick off a dove or a Kestrel chasing sparrows or starlings.

Come For A Walk In My Yard

Let’s step out at 8:00 on a cool March morning and stop at the native strangler fig. 50 cedar wax wings have been feeding on its fruit for the last month. The tree has conveniently dropped its leaves to make the half inch fruit more visible. A hummingbird picks insects off the fruit while blue jays, warblers, the blue-headed vireo, and pileated and downy woodpeckers stuff themselves.

Standing under a leafless strangler fig with the acid smell of decaying leaves, a cool breeze and dim morning light can transform you to a northern deciduous forest for a moment. The native mulberry is just leafing out and is worth a stop. Although there are no fruit yet, several birds pass through the branches including a cardinal, hummingbird, blue gray gnatcatcher, pine warbler, and catbird. A downy woodpecker squeaks as it hops through the branches. Maybe these birds are feeding on insects pollinating the flowers.

We planted native multiflora passion vine and hairy tournefortia next to a live oak. They have grown 30 feet up into the tree creating a blanket over the branches. Zebra longwing and Julia butterflies lay their eggs on the passion vine and nectar on the tournefortia flowers. It seems like the dozens of butterflies will carry the tree off on sunny days when they are most active. Birds love the white berries which hang from the tournefortia most of the summer.

The three feeders for painted buntings are always occupied. One outside our patio has three males and a female in it. There is a cardinal on the bird bath and a squirrel on the ground. The drip and mister over the bird bath is set for my lunchtime so that I can eat while watching the locals bathe from just ten feet away. Tall, uncut fire bush provide berries and cover while my Jack Russell terrier “Susie “keeps the cats far away. No grass, just a path with naturally provided leaves as a ground cover.

The spring migration should be starting soon so get out your binoculars and identification books. This will be a good time to learn new birds until mid May when the winter residents and migrants leave for the summer.

A Walk Around The Yard

Many different species of birds are migrating through our yards in November.  A walk around the front acre of our 2.5- acre property from 8:30am to 9:00am revealed many birds and butterflies.

The painted bunting feeder had one male in it and was later joined by several females.  A house wren was squawking from inside of the firebush while a hummingbird fed outside on its tubular flowers.  A cicada buzzed while being chased by a blue jay and the chips of various wood warblers could be heard up in the oaks. Further along… two catbirds and another hummingbird scolded me for interrupting their breakfasts.

While checking out the scores of insects on the flowering pineland privet, an annoyed house wren, dining on these insects, gave me his two cents worth. Now, and in the evening, is a good time to watch for coopers, red shouldered and red tailed hawks patrolling for prey.  I have noticed that even the unwelcome green Cuban knight anole is becoming prey for some of these hawks.  Here is a non-native lizard that eats other lizards, frogs and little birds only to be eaten by larger birds; fair is fair.

Butterflies included: the monarch, zebra longwing, julia, queen, ruddy daggerwing, soldier, cassius blue, several orange sulpher species, and gulf fritillary.  Standing in one spot, I could count 18 butterflies of various species, and it got better as the temperature warmed up.

Plants producing fruit or nuts included: beautyberry, wild coffee, marlberry, coontie, oaks, Spanish stopper, rouge plant, white stopper, and strangler fig.  A birdbath with a drip tube attached and a mister is just what these birds need now that the rains have stopped.  In fact, water is becoming the most important item in the yard.

What a great way to start a relaxing Sunday.  Take a walk with your family and enjoy the beauty within your own back yard.  The more grass you replace with natives, the more interesting your walks will become.