Monday, March 8, 2010

DEC: Big Buck Hunting Harvest Down 21 Percent Locally

Hunters killed approximately 222,800 deer in the 2009 season, about the same number as were harvested statewide last season, according to an annual report by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). In the Northern Zone, antlerless take was down by almost 8 percent and the buck take dropped 21 percent from 2008, returning to levels seen in 2005 and 2006.

Deer take during the regular season seemed strongly affected by a warm November according to DEC officials, as both deer and hunter activity tend to slow down in warm weather and the lack of snow cover made for difficult hunting conditions during a time that typically accounts for the majority of deer harvest. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Honey Bees in Winter: Think You Got it Tough?

It was a bright, sunny, and cold day in early January. I was down in Wilton for a tracking workshop, and as we headed out across an open expanse, I discovered a dead honey bee lying on top of the newly fallen snow. Why had this bee been out in the middle of winter, and on a day that was so cold? I had no answers, and neither did anyone else, so I took a photo of the poor thing, set it back on the snow, and rushed to catch up with the disappearing class. I have since discovered some interesting things about bees in winter.

As we all know, the honey bee of gardening fame is not native to this country. Apparently it was the Egyptians, some 5000 years ago, who first started to keep bees in hives so they could have a steady source of honey for personal use. Over the ensuing years, bee keeping spread around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe and Asia. When explorers became settlers here in the west, honey bees soon followed.

Now, I am not a bee keeper. In fact, I grew up terrified of bees. But over the years I have studied bees from a naturalist’s point of view, and have discovered many fascinating things about these fairly docile insects. I’ve come to appreciate their social system and am often fascinated by their behaviors, to the point where I have even contemplated keeping a hive. I’ve since given up the idea of a bee hive in favor of encouraging native bees in my yard and gardens, but this makes honey bees no less interesting.

Which brings us back to the lone bee on the snow. It turns out that honey bees, whether in man-made or wild hives, will sometimes leave the hive on warm days in the dead of winter. The reason? They’ve “gotta’ go.”

Honey bees are very clean creatures. They will avoid soiling the hive at almost any cost. But when winter closes it fist on hives in northern climes, a bee can be faced with some important decisions. Fortunately, bees are able to “hold it” for quite some time. I’ve read accounts that claim bees can easily retain their fecal matter within their bodies for four to six weeks! When the first warm day comes along, out from the hive they zoom, dropping their loads as soon as possible. Bee people claim that the snow around the outside of a bee hive will be brownish-grey in color from all the released fecal matter.

But what happens if the weather doesn’t warm up? Suppose a cold snap has gripped the region, with weeks and weeks, or even months, of cold cold temperatures. What is a bee supposed to do? Some bees bite the bullet and head out any way, only to freeze to death after they leave the hive. Other bees opt to keep holding it.

As you might imagine, retaining one’s fecal matter for weeks on end is bound to cause problems. The bees start to swell, and they start to get sick. When they can hold it no longer, they end up letting loose in the hive, splattering fellow bees, honey, and comb with contaminated fecal matter. When this happens the whole hive is bound to sicken and will often perish. Perhaps it is best for the hive if these bees just go outside and freeze to death instead.

Bee keepers can tell when their bees are having a rough time of it when the snow at the base of the hives is black and yellow from contaminated feces, instead of the brown-grey that surrounds a healthy hive. The ground will also be littered with the swollen bodies of dead bees.

Looking back at the photograph of my dead bee, I can’t tell for sure if the abdomen is abnormally large or not. I am inclined to think that it is at least somewhat swollen if only because I have yet to discover any additional reason why a honey bee would be flying around on a cold winter’s day.

When I think of the horrible death experienced by a nearly exploding bee, it makes me grateful for simple things, like indoor plumbing. And it makes me appreciate even more the little things we all take for granted, like honey on our muffins and in our tea.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Birders Flock to View Rare Visitor From the Arctic

Over the past two weeks dozens if not hundreds of birders from New York and nearby states have traveled to Rouses Point to see an Ivory Gull, one of the rarest birds in the U.S. With its striking white plumage and blue-gray, orange-tipped bill, an adult Ivory Gull is also one of the most subtedly beautiful birds in the world.

Ivory Gulls spend most of their time feeding along the edges of the pack ice in the Arctic Ocean, where they search for food, only rarely venturing further south than coastal Laborador and Newfoundland. Feeding mostly on small fish, Ivory Gulls also search out and scavange the carcasses of seals killed by polar bears. The Rouses Point bird seems to have been enticed to remain for a couple of weeks by handouts from ice fishermen. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Viper’s Bugloss: An Adirondack Roadside Attraction

When summer is in full swing, it is to the meadows and fields that we must head to feast our eyes on the riotous colors of the season. Wildflowers fill the open spaces where sunlight reaches the ground. In many places within the Adirondack Park, however, the only open spaces are the shoulders of the roads. Fortunately, many plants colonize these precarious environs, their tastes turned to harsh soils and microclimates. Among summer’s roadside colonizers we find viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a plant that brings a bit of the sky to earth.

Viper’s bugloss (aka: blueweed, snake flower and blue devil) is one of the more attractive flowers gracing our barren roadsides. Growing upwards of a meter in height, its stem is topped with a spire dotted with many blue-pink blossoms, which open sequentially throughout the season. When the flowers first open, they are a bright rosy pink; as they age, they turn a beautiful sky blue. The long stamens, which protrude beyond the flower’s petals, remain a deep pink, giving the blossom an eye-catching “sky-blue-pink” coloration.

Most wildflowers we find blooming along our roadways are non-natives, plants that either came over with early colonists as food or medicine and later escaped from their gardens, or plants that snuck in on the shoes, clothing and other belongings of settlers from across the sea. Viper’s bugloss (pronounced BEW-gloss, by the way) falls into the former category. Back in the “old country,” which in this case is most of Europe and much of Asia, it was revered as a cure for many poisons and snake bites. The logic behind this attribution harkens back to the Doctrine of Signatures, a philosophy that declared that if a plant had a part that resembled a part of the human body, then it must be a cure for ailments of said part. With the plant in question, the seeds apparently look like snake heads, and therefore the leap of logic was that it could be used to treat snake bites.

I have a better theory. If one takes a close look at this plant, one sees that it is covered with many small hairs. These hairs are not soft and cuddly; instead, they are sharp and prickly. If grabbed with a bare hand, the plant can “bite” back, impaling its antagonist with its irritating hairs. It is possible this could feel like one has been bitten, and what would be lurking around plants in dry, barren places but venomous vipers! If one’s going to jump to conclusions, at least this one makes (some) sense.

Modern day practitioners of herbal medicines make an infusion from the leaves of viper’s bugloss to treat inflammation and melancholy, as well as to reduce fevers and relieve coughs. However, the plant is known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals that if consumed in enough quantity can cause liver failure. In fact, the ASPCA lists viper’s bugloss as a serious toxin for horses, which will eat it if nothing else is around (so much for the deterrent quality of the prickly hairs).

Nevertheless, the plant has some redeeming qualities. In Europe Echium is harvested as an oilseed crop (technically, it is E. platagineum, not E. vulgare, that is harvested for this oil, but let’s not quibble). Apparently the oil is full of omega fatty acids, specifically gamma linoliec acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SdA). These two fatty acids are essential to the human body, and yet the body does not produce them; they must be acquired from outside sources.

Bees and butterflies frequent the plants, seeking the nectar within each semi-tubular bloom. I’ve watched many a bee happily bumbling along from blossom to blossom, oblivious to my curious eyes. Not only does the plant appeal to bees, but a quick scan online turned up a couple sources that sell viper’s bugloss honey, claiming it is tasty with a chewy consistency.

A member of the borage family, viper’s bugloss shares many of the same qualities of borage, including the light blue flowers, and the rapidity in which it spreads (the plants readily reseed themselves). The flowers of both are also edible: it is not uncommon for them to be crystallized and tossed in salads.

For the hobbyist who likes to try her hand at natural dying, the root is known for producing a red dye for fabrics.

Still, we must remember that this plant is not native, and thanks to its reseeding capabilities, it can spread with relative ease. As such, viper’s bugloss is considered a noxious weed in many states and eradication programs are in place to eliminate the plant where it has taken hold. I’ve checked various invasive plant lists for New York, and viper’s bugloss is not listed on any of them. So, enjoy the plant when you see it along the roadside. Take some photographs, dig up a root or two and tie-dye a t-shirt, toss some flowers in your salad, but don’t plant it in your gardens at home. Leave it along the roadside, where it can wave at passersby with its cheerful blossoms.

For some truly stunning photographs of this roadside plant, visit: http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artfeb04/bjbugloss.html


Monday, March 1, 2010

2009 Bear Hunting Harvest Largest in NY History

Bear harvest numbers in 2009 were the second-highest ever recorded in New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced today. Last fall’s harvest was only exceeded by 2003’s record total.

Statewide, hunters took 1,487 black bears in 2009 – a 15 percent increase from the 1,295 taken in 2008. The 2009 increase is principally due to a strong surge in bear harvest in the Adirondack region, where the 814 bears taken in 2009 was a 40 percent increase over 2008. In 2003, 1,864 bears were harvested statewide. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Adirondack Winter: Musings on Snow

By the time you read this post, you may be getting sick of snow. We shouldn’t really complain too much, though, for up until this week, we have had very little snowfall in 2010. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I had to shovel my driveway before this week. February has been downright dry and snowless, so the windfall of white stuff this week has brought should be a welcome sight, even if we don’t appreciate it until summer, when hot dry days take their toll on available surface and ground water. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adirondack Amphibians: The American Toad

Every fall when I lead groups of students through the woods on a biodiversity investigation, we always have to be careful not to step on toads. It’s a challenge, for once we are off the trails, the forest floor is one big closet, full of hiding places that small animals, like toads, can use, and which we, with our clumsy feet and our eyes towering four to six feet above the ground, never see. More than once we have stumbled upon wee tiny toads and great giant monster toads. Size not withstanding, they are all one species: the American toad (Bufo americanus).

Throughout history, toads have gotten a bad rap. For some reason, reptiles and amphibians in general have been relegated to the realm of “evil” animals. European sensibilities, especially during the Middle Ages, are largely responsible for this. Fortunately, some cultures, primarily Asian, took a more enlightened view of frogs and toads. Still, what we need to remember is that concepts like “good” and “evil” are strictly human. Animals are neither good nor evil, for that implies intent. No, animals are just animals, going about their daily lives doing what they must in order to survive.

That said, the toad has some pretty nifty ways of taking care of itself. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot get warts from a toad. Sure, they are covered with warts, but these aren’t the same as the warts people get. Human warts are caused by a virus. The “warts” on a toad are actually poison and mucus glands, the former containing a milky substance that is chock full of chemicals that can irritate the mucus membranes of other animals. This is a great defensive mechanism. The two biggest poison glands are on the back of the toad right behind its head, the exact location where a predator (say a coyote) might chomp down in an attempt to grab a potential food item. The predator’s teeth puncture these glands and the animal gets a mouthful of poison. The poison will likely make the animal sick, and could potentially kill it. Hopefully the toad lives to see another day.

Here’s another defensive mechanism of the toad: bloat. Let’s say you are a toad and you are hunkered down in your daytime den – a nice cool, damp hole in the ground. A nosy predator comes along and grabs hold of your head and tries to pull you out of your home. What do you do? You gulp down a lot of air and swell up – hopefully increasing your girth enough that the predator cannot pull you out. Or maybe a snake caught you unaware from behind. There you are, your backside partway down the snake’s gullet, so you puff up, hopefully making yourself too big to swallow. This is a great strategy…unless the snake is a hognose, which has teeth in the back of its mouth that are just perfect for puncturing inflated toads, in which case there’s not much you can do.

Toads are pretty ubiquitous – you can find them just about anywhere: in the woods, in your back yard, along a stream. They aren’t too fussy about habitat as long as there is a semi-permanent body of water in which they can lay eggs, and some dense patches of vegetation for shelter and hunting. This is one reason why toads readily adapt to living in our gardens. All they need is a shady toad abode (could be an overturned pot) and they will happily patrol your garden for pesky pests like slugs.

When spring arrives, the air soon fills with toad song. The sound is often mistaken for an insect by those who are not nature savvy. It’s a trilling sort of sound, which can last sometimes 30 seconds or more. I read that you can imitate this sound if you whistle and hum at the same time. I tried it last night and I think it is safe to say I won’t be calling in any toads any time soon. Anyway, when you hear the toads trilling, it is time to stake out your neighborhood pond and see if you can see any action. Males, recognized by their smaller size and dark throats, will group together, trilling their hearts out, waiting for a receptive female to come along. When she does, the males all jockey for position, the hopefuls trying to latch on to her back and become fathers.

The female lays her eggs in double strings of sticky gel. These strands are often loosely wound around submerged aquatic vegetation. They won’t be there long, for most will hatch within a week. This is an uncertain time for toads, for life in a pond is rife with danger. The pond could dry up. Raccoons and herons are constantly looking for meals. Cannibalism lurks around every corner. What is a tadpole to do?

Fortunately, toadlets have a couple fallback positions. First, they, like their parents, have chemicals in their skin that make them less appetizing to predators. And second, they can recognize their siblings. This is pretty amazing when you consider just how many siblings they might have. A single female toad produces on average 4,000 to 12,000 eggs. Even if only a quarter of the eggs hatch, that is several hundred siblings. Knowing your siblings can save your neck, because if you hang out with your family, your back is guarded and you only have to watch out for cannibals coming at you from one side.

With all the dangers a toad faces, it’s not surprising to learn that most live only a year or two. Some robust toads might make it to ten years, and one toad lived a long life of 36 years in captivity. Even with poison glands providing protection, it’s a rough world out there. And since toads provide a great service to us by consuming pestiferous insects and slugs, I figure it’s the very least we can do to watch our steps when stomping through the woods.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Adirondack Brook Trout: Our Vanishing Heritage

Nobody knows how many varieties of brook trout once lived in the Adirondacks. Probably dozens. Trout colonized the Adirondacks after the last ice age, when melting glaciers created watery pathways into the highlands. After water levels receded, trout populations were isolated from each other, and so they evolved separately, developing slightly different traits.

Sadly, only seven strains of heritage trout remain in the Adirondacks. The rest were done in by habitat destruction (often from logging), overfishing, acid rain, and/or shortsighted stocking policies.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking steps to protect only three of the seven heritage strains—by breeding and releasing fingerlings. The other four populations are so small that the department won’t risk removing fish from the wild for breeding. One DEC scientist says three of these populations are on the verge of extinction.

Think of it: a trout that has been around these parts for thousands of years—and is found nowhere else in the world—may soon be gone forever.

Perhaps you’re betting this won’t happen in your lifetime. Wrong. It already has. The Stink Lake strain in the West Canada Lake Wilderness apparently vanished just a few years ago, thanks to acid rain. And the Tamarack Pond strain in the Five Ponds Wilderness was lost in the 1990s. That pond became so acidified the trout couldn’t spawn. Because of the lack of competition, however, the adult trout grew fat. After word got out about the big brookies, anglers fished out the pond before DEC could act.

And then there’s the yahoo who released bass into Little Tupper Lake after the state bought it in 1998, thereby jeopardizing the heritage trout it had harbored for centuries. Fortunately, Little Tupper trout breed elsewhere, and so the population is not at risk, at least not now.

All of the above comes from an article by George Earl in the latest issue of the Adirondack Explorer, titled “Tragedy of the Trout.” Click here to read the full story.

Photo by George Earl: Angler with a Little Tupper trout.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Wild Center’s Winter Wild Days: Wind Power, Animal Tracking

The Wild Center’s Winter Wildays continues on Saturday, February 27th, 2010. With activities from now until the end of March there is a schedule guaranteed to keep everyone in the family entertained, enlightened and warm during these long winter months.

On Saturday February 27th, at 1:00 pm, join Ken Visser, as he provides an introduction to small wind turbine technology and takes a closer look at the fundamentals of wind, current technology and ongoing research in ‘Windpower in the Adirondacks’.

The aerodynamic design of a wind turbine is a complex process involving the balance of numerous parameters, but the fundamental objective of a wind turbine design is to maximize energy produced while minimizing the capital and operating costs. How to balance these objectives and produce a viable design has led to many “marketing ploys” that the consumer needs to be aware of.

Three areas of interest will be presented: 1) fundamentals of wind energy including power and energy in the wind, factors affecting turbine performance and behavior, and various turbine concepts, 2) current technologies for the consumer, such as what is available and what to look out for and be aware of; costs; and expectations, and 3) wind research at Clarkson University on new concepts for the future.

On Sunday, February 28th, Family Art and Nature day begins at 1pm. Bring the entire family and explore this week’s theme, ‘Become a Track Detective’. Come prepared to go outside and use your detective skills to track down some of our critter friends. Once you’ve learned the ropes we’ll head inside to create our own track stamps and then create your own track story. Snowshoes provided.

As always, there are hikes on free snowshoes, animal encounters, movies and food. Winter Wildays are free for members or with paid admission.

For additional information on The Wild Center, visit www.wildcenter.org or call (518) 359-7800.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ruffed Grouse – Wild Chicken of the Adirondacks

This winter has been a good one for grouse. At least in the tracking sense it has been a good one for grouse. Almost every day I have found fresh grouse tracks in the woods, along the roads, down driveways. I’ve even flushed a couple of the birds, their thunderous take-offs turning a few more hairs white, but mostly it’s their tracks I’ve seen.

The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is one of two grouse species that call the Adirondacks home. The second is the spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), which is an uncommon boreal species found in only a very few pockets within the Park. Therefore, I will stick to the ruffed grouse in this piece since that is the one most readers are likely to encounter. » Continue Reading.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Phil Brown: My Big Cat Sighting

I saw it on Route 28 just west of McKeever. It was definitely feline. You could tell by the way it crouched next to the guardrail, looking like it wanted to spring across the road. And it was big.

“A cougar!” I shouted.

By the time my passenger looked, the cat had retreated to the other side of the guardrail and was ambling away from the road.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says wild cougars (also known as mountain lions, panthers, and pumas) have not lived in the Adirondacks since the nineteenth century. The agency concedes that cougars are spotted on occasion, but it insists that they are released pets. Last week, DEC denounced as a hoax a rumor that a cougar had been struck and killed by a vehicle in Black Brook. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nut Trees: Hazelnuts in the Adirondacks

Several years ago, I received three little hazelnut trees from the Arbor Day Foundation. I don’t recall actually ordering them, but there they were in the mail one day. I planted them and waited to see the results. A couple years later, three more hazelnuts showed up in my mailbox. Those, too, went into the ground. Over the years they’ve moved about the yard (not under their own steam), finally coming to rest along the southwestern boundary. Every summer and fall I look at the four remaining shrubs and ask “where are the nuts?” No answer has been forthcoming.

So recently I went on-line to see if I could find out any further information about hazelnuts. Where are they native? What do the flowers look like? How do they pollinate and produce nuts? The Arbor Day Foundation was a good source of info, and it should be, considering it has been in the hazelnut business for several years, trying to produce a hybrid hazelnut that will thrive throughout the United States, whereas the native species were historically only found in the northeastern US and southeastern Canada, and into the prairies. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mating Birds: Love Adirondack Style

Well, I don’t know if we can call it “love”. Maybe a more scientific term is called for. How about “potential mate selection”? No, it just doesn’t quite have that Valentine’s Day ring to it. However we say it though, mate selection has begun in the wild woodlands of the Adirondacks.

One day last week, as I skied through the wonderful trails of the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center.

I stopped to watch the acrobatic high-jinks of some black-capped chickadees. Off in the distance came a loud, monotone drumming on a tree down the hill. As I heard it I knew that spring was not too far away.

What I heard was the drumming “call notes” of a male hairy woodpecker calling for a mate. He will rapidly drum with his bill on a branch, preferably hollow since he wants that sound to carry a great distance through the winter woods. By the way, he’ll also drum on your metal gutters, down spout, or nearby telephone pole! Hard to imagine a bird going through such self abuse while winter still holds firm in the North Country.

But as they say, the early bird catches the worm; in this case he attracts a female, courts her, and then sometime around March or early April they begin nesting, and about 30 days later they’ll have a growing family in that hollowed-out nest hole.

I’ll bet you have observed this courting of hairy and downy woodpeckers on your walks though the late winter woods. You’ll first hear the loud “chink” call notes of the male and then you’ll see the two birds chase one another around the trunk of the tree. Often she’ll fly away, but hot on her tail is the male. He’s not letting this one go. So chances are if you see two woodpeckers playing a game of tag this month or next, it’s a courting pair.

Are other birds gearing up for the mating season now? You bet your sweet-smelling-red-roses they are! Peregrine falcons will soon be returning to the Adirondacks from their wintering grounds along the coastal US, Mexico, or Central America, in search of a good cliff-dwelling-casa. We often get falcons back on North Country nesting territories in late February or early March.

Hear any owls hooting in the woods? That’s most likely a male defending his chosen territory and also trying to attract a female. Being year-round residents, barred, great horned, and saw-whet owls will begin nesting in early March. I recall seeing a great horned owl on a nest with almost a foot of snow balanced along the rim of the nest on St Patrick’s Day. And in mid April I’ve observed large great horned owl chicks sitting on a nest.

Bald Eagles will soon be courting, and what a treat that is to watch. Look for two adult bald eagles flying high above in unison, like two joined figure skaters in the air. If you’re really lucky you’ll get to see them performing a talon-locking maneuver that defies death. They will begin cleaning out the nest and re-attaching branches to spruce the place up. It’s not unusual for a pair to be sitting on eggs in a raging, late winter snowstorm.

Just like the eagles, falcons, and owls, a male red-tailed hawk will begin his pre- spring courting in the skies above our neighborhoods. Listen for the high-pitched screech he gives in flight as he searches for a mate.

In February and March there’s a whole text book list of things that are going on in the bird world, and I’ll soon be writing about them. Hormones are coursing through bodies; ovaries are growing; testes are enlarging (oops, sorry, thought this was the adult version-too graphic?). Anyways, all this is happening in our winter visiting birds and also in the birds that will soon be winging their way northward from tropical climates to find love in our Adirondack woods.

Photo: Male hairy woodpecker by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reports of Dead Mountain Lion are a Hoax

We received a unusual media announcement from NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) spokesperson David Winchell yesterday pointing out that a heavily circulated photograph of a dead mountain lion in the back of a pick-up (left) is in fact a hoax. The e-mails typically claim local forest rangers have seized the animal in order to bolster arguments that there are no breeding populations of mountain lions (also known as panthers, pumas, catamounts, or cougars). The most recent message (and this has circulated a number of times on internet message boards) claims the cougar was recently hit by a vehicle near Black Brook in Clinton County. The message also claims that New York Forest Rangers responded to the incident.

“This photo and messages first appeared in Western New York in December 2009 claiming that the mountain lion had been killed in Erie County,” Winchell told the Almanack. “Since then, the false reports have moved across the State claiming the dead mountain lion was found in various locales and now has arrived in Northern New York.” » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Adirondack Naturalist’s Backyard

Over the years, I’ve slowly been converting my backyard into a little oasis for wildlife. This may seem like a rather odd thing to do in the middle of the Adirondack Park, where wilderness areas surround us on all sides. After all, it’s not like the wildlife is hurting for natural foods in our area. My goal, however, has been to change my yard from a barren wasteland (a carpet of perfectly weed-free grass) into a diverse habitat composed of native vegetation.

First I added some free-form gardens, floating in the middle of the yard. Admittedly, these gardens are not hosting many native plants, but I do try to avoid those species that are aggressive invaders. The primary goal of these gardens was to provide some color and relief to an otherwise blah yard, but I also wanted to provide nectaring areas for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and winter seed sources for chickadees and finches. One of our native plants fills this bill very well: bee balm.

Then I started to remove the invasives that dotted the property, like honeysuckle. All around the yard I have replaced these aliens with a variety of native shrubs: nannyberry, native hawthorn, pin cherries, sumac, dogwood. These plants, after they out-grow their twiggy sapling stage, will create a hedge full of shelter and food for birds and insects. I’m hoping their growth is rapid, for the yard looks empty without the honeysuckle border, and I’ve lost some significant shade.

And then there are the birdfeeders. Some naturalists prefer to go the route of providing strictly native food sources and forego artificial food stations. This is very noble and I salute it. However, in my yard it will be a while before the native vegetation starts producing. The crabapples were a hit for a while, but now they are slowly rotting away on the tree. And besides, I like watching birds as they visit my feeders, so I join the millions of other Americans who put out food for our feathered friends.

It is so easy to get sucked into the latest and greatest at the birdfeeding store: feeder pole “systems” that you can build upwards and outwards to accommodate a glorious variety of feeders; bird baths (regular for summer, heated for winter); squirrel deterrents (baffles of all shapes and sizes; feeders that fling squirrels into the air or bounce them up and down at the end of a bungee); misters (for those birds that prefer a shower over a bath); suet; peanuts; mealworms; mixed seed; gourmet seed…the list goes on and on.

But my favorite part of the wildlife-friendly backyard, however, are the homemade bits, like the feeder pictured at the top. This was a gift I received this winter, and it is one of the coolest things. The woman who made it apparently was looking for something to do with her juice bottle caps. She cut a triangle from a piece of scrap wood, nailed the caps to it, on both sides, added a few small dowels for perches and a larger dowel at the bottom for a “trunk,” painted the whole thing and put a string at the top. Voila! A nifty homemade feeder! With a little ingenuity, not do we have a cool suet-type feeder, but we’ve also managed to keep some stuff out of the landfill; you can’t get much more wildlife-friendly than that.

About the only thing my yard is missing is a water source, a pond or stream that would attract frogs, dragonflies, and assorted other water-loving creatures. The ideal aqueous feature would have a shallow bit where birds could bathe without worrying about drowning, and a deep area where tadpoles could shelter in the winter. It would have cattails, duckweed, pickerel weed, native floating heart. It wouldn’t have to be large, but it should circulate, getting a constant source of oxygen and keeping the mosquitoes to a minimum. A little waterfall would be nice.

Of course, when you strive to attract wildlife, you must accept it when wildlife avails itself of your offerings, and this includes deer. I must confess that deer are not ranked high on my list of backyard desirables. I have a five-foot fence surrounding my yard, which is there to keep the dog in, but it also serves to keep the deer out, most of the time. It won’t do much if a deer is determined, though. Or a bear. The downside of this fence, however, is that I don’t get foxes, coyotes, or snowshoe hares. Weasels can get through, but they usually don’t visit.

Wildlife friendly yards don’t have to be a drain on the wallet. The biggest key is to stick to native vegetation. Remove invasives and non-natives. Provide diversity in species and structure. Have food, shelter and water readily available. Most of your investment is likely to be in sweat and elbow grease. In the end you will have a little piece of paradise that you and your wild friends can all enjoy.