My yard, your yard. It’s the quiet, familiar place we visit to think or commune with our natural world and the outdoor spaces we have carefully created, at nature’s slow pace, planting trees, shrubs, and bulbs, with a hope of what they may become. But we also build stone walls to try to deny time’s inexorable march. We won’t always live here, but someone will. Will they wonder about the planter and designer of this yard and notice the careful plan? Will they maintain the bird houses and stock the feeders? Will they appreciate the birds? I hope so.
The birder has the added joy of creating an avian refuge, and witnessing the seasonal changes in birds occupying the various micro-climates throughout the yard. Some birds will make it their permanent or seasonal home, and some will just pass through, but all add to the our satisfaction.
Twenty some years ago I stumbled upon an Eastern Shore farm on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay being subdivided into residential lots. Zoning regulations required that the majority of the farm be maintained as an inland, undeveloped field and forest, but the waterfront portion was available for 6 homesites. Our choice was a flat, treeless field, with a collapsing and eroding waterline, but a property with great potential. There was the shallow cove on the north side and wide open views of the islands to the west. A one acre fresh water pond was dug on the adjacent lot by the developer to act as a silt catcher from the field’s runoff, but the pond was easily visible from our projected home site. We took the leap and bought it.
It was several years before we could begin construction of the home but the plantings were begun immediately. Twenty-five generous-sized loblollies were used to define the lane and several hundred saplings of native black cherry, russian olive, red cedar and loblollies were planted along the east boundary with hopes of someday becoming a protecting hedgerow for the birds. We elected to keep much of the grasslands as meadow, only creating a manicured lawn near the house and sowed wildflowers with some success. Year by year native trees (red maple, silver maple, sycamore, green ash, willow oak, and more loblollies) were added, and I let the wind-spread and bird-deposited seeds of the red cedar take root wherever they landed. Now, 25 years later as I bird in the yard, I marvel at the transformation and abundant birdlife. If you build it, they will come.
I started birding in the yard long before there was a house. A Killdeer, trying to build a nest on the gravel drive, and then faking injury as I approached, was one of my first entries into the yard list. Regrettably they are not as frequently seen today. Mute swans, nesting in the tidal marsh along the cove were also not happy to see me or my dog in those early days. One attacked me and my wife as we explored the shoreline by kayak, and another actually went after me on the John Deere tractor. We clearly changed the land and the wildlife had to adjust, but overall we were eco-friendly.
So, is back-yard birding the realm of the lazy birder or something more? It is definitely the latter. Its joy stems from witnessing the rhythm of bird-life, just outside the kitchen window, at the feeder, or off the back porch; from hearing the hooting Great Horned Owl, even when before the snow melts; hearing the Red-wing Blackbirds staking out their territory in early spring in the wetlands along the cove; greeting the returning Osprey or Eastern Kingbird, home from their long trek from Central or South America; or awakening to the ever-changing repertoire of the resident Northern Mockingbird perched outside the bedroom window. In the Chesapeake region the migrating waterfowl take center stage, entering and leaving stage left as reliably as if they could read your Audubon calendar.
Back yard birders learn the habits of the common birds well, instead of always traveling and searching for the rarity, but the unexpected still surprises us on occasion, even in the back yard. Like the attacking Sharp-shinned Hawk pouncing on the songbirds at the feeder, or the group of Bald Eagles feeding on carrion out by the dock. There’s the unexpected Pine Siskins or Purple Finches at the feeder as part of the latest irruption, sharing food with the common visitors. There’s the strange-billed solitary Surf Scoter in the cove or the distant Common Loon on the river. I’ve learned to be ready for these spectacles by keeping the old, passed-over binoculars on window sills throughout the house and a camera close by.
Back yard birding became formalized by the creation of “The Great Backyard Bird Count” in 1988 by the joint effort of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. During four days each February citizen/scientist throughout the world submit their observations and see their results become part of the data tracking species from New York to Mumbai. In 2015 147,000+ checklists were submitted counting 5090 individual species. Check out their great website and consider taking part next winter: http//gbbc.birdcount.org.
I’m not a hardcore lister but do keep a yard list; it currently totals 96 species. The first entry was a Red-breasted Merganser seen on the cove in 1996, and the last was a lone Snow Goose in the midst of a field of hundreds of Canada Geese last December. The prior entry was a Great Black-backed Gull on the dock last November.
We’re a mobile society; none of us remains in one home and one yard forever. Even deep roots can be dislodged and planted elsewhere. As I begin to consider down-sizing I know my biggest regret on moving day will be leaving the familiar, maturing yard and its birdlife behind. But the farewell will be softened by the anticipation of a new, albeit smaller yard, waiting for our creative touch, and a new list starting at zero.