By Edie Parnum
When you drive up to Barb Elliot’s half-acre property, your first impression is of a typical suburban landscape. You see a neat lawn, attractive foundation plantings, and a single Flowering Dogwood tree. To neighbors or visitors, there is nothing surprising here. However, when you go around to the backyard, you can readily see that people who love nature live here. With a quick glance around you notice bird feeders, a bat house, a birdhouse, an in-ground pond, and numerous native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Looking more closely you can make out a brush pile in a corner of the yard. A sign on the fence indicates that the National Wildlife Federation has certified the yard as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Nevertheless, it is evidently not just for wildlife, because a central grassy area and picnic table create the impression that this is a pleasant place for people as well.
According to Barb, she started to transform her yard into a mini wildlife refuge in 1995 after reading Ken Druse’s article, “The New American Garden” in the USAir Magazine. In her words she learned that “lawns and typical suburban monoculture plantings are worthless to most wildlife, and individual gardeners can create a natural habitat garden to make the land more hospitable to wild creatures, plus enhance the environment.” Barb added, “These ideas revolutionized the way I garden, and I became passionate about creating a haven for wildlife.”
One of the first projects Barb undertook was installing a small in-ground pond. This water feature has a section that is 4 x 6 feet across and 1½ feet deep, a small “creek” that consists of two very shallow pools about 2 x 2 feet each, and a foot-high waterfall. A pump keeps the water recirculating through the waterfall and the various sections of the pond. Within a few days after the pond was completed, a pair of Baltimore Orioles with their three fledglings came to take a bath, presumably attracted by the sound of the water. Subsequently, many others such as Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, Cooper’s Hawk, and several kinds of warblers have come to the yard just for the opportunity to drink and/or bathe in the water. Although the property isn’t close to any natural source of water, the pond has somehow attracted a Green Frog and American Toads. To lure a mate the toad has called with a high, sweet tremolo on spring evenings, and subsequently Barb has seen toad eggs and tadpoles in the water. Dragonflies and other insects visit the pond, too, along with a variety of mammals like chipmunks, squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons, and even a fox.
Barb loves bats and is proud of her bat house, which she made according to the specifications of Bat Conservation International. She mounted it on a pole in a location that gets more than six hours of direct sun. Within the first year she had her first roosting bats. On summer evenings she loves to watch the night sky for the aerial antics of the bats, which can eat up to 1000 insects an hour. As a bat devotee, she participates in the North American Bat House Research Project.
On one side of her deck, Barb has installed a lattice screen that is about 25-feet long and six-feet tall. Covered with Virgin’s Bower and Trumpet Honeysuckle vines, it attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and other insect pollinators. Just a few feet away Barb has a swim spa from which she has the opportunity to watch all this activity closely. On warm afternoons or evenings she can float on her back and observe nighthawks, chimney swifts, and bats fly by overhead.
Inside her house Barb has two excellent places to view the outdoor activity. Over her kitchen sink she has a view through the window to a small flowerbed that is closely planted with Purple Coneflower, Dense Blazingstar, New England Aster, Butterfly Weed, and a goldenrod species plus a hummingbird feeder. While doing kitchen chores she can watch butterflies, hummingbirds, goldfinches, and other birds helping themselves to nectar and seeds. She has even seen the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird defending its territory by performing its pendulum arc flight. Probably her favorite viewing area is the family room that functions as a sunroom. Since this space has windows on three sides, she can see the nearby pond and birdfeeders and, indeed, most of the backyard. It is here that she, together with her family and friends, can relax and easily watch and enjoy nature throughout the seasons of the year.
Even though her yard already has the essentials for wildlife (i.e. food, water, cover, and places to raise young) she admits that her habitat is still a work in progress. In assessing her yard’s environment, she believes that birds and other creatures would benefit greatly from less lawn and more cover and places to raise young. She plans to fill in more local native understory trees, shrubs, and perennials in certain areas especially around the perimeter. Some of the turf grass will be converted to a pocket meadow with native warm season grasses and perennials. Together with the plants that are already present, her selections will provide an even greater diversity of species offering fruit, nuts, seeds, buds, and nectar throughout the year. She also wants to expand her pond and add another bat house. In a corner of the yard, she plans to create another viewing area with a bench.
Despite a busy schedule, by gradually making additions to her wildlife habitat over the past eight years, Barb has been highly successful in attracting many creatures to her yard. In addition to the birds already mentioned, she has seen Brown Thrasher, Swainson’s Thrush, Wood Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Evening Grosbeak, and eight species of warblers—a total of 64 species. Her 19 butterflies include Painted Lady, Red-spotted Purple, Mourning Cloak, Red Admiral, Horace’s Duskywing, and Gray Hairstreak plus the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. She hopes that other homeowners will be inspired by her success and will want to create healthy habitats in their own backyards.