Habitat Heroes wanted to grow native

Habitat Hero banner

“Be a Habitat Hero” – find out more about the program at http://www.HabHero.com.

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Habitat Heroes’ wanted to grow native plants.”

By Barb Gorges

Sometimes, wildlife issues seem to be out of the hands of ordinary people, people like those of us who are not wildlife biologists, land managers or politicians. Often, it seems futile to write a letter or email stating my opinion.

Connie Holsinger has devised a way for us to do something for wildlife right in our own backyards–literally.

Connie is the founder of the Habitat Hero program which shows people in the Rocky Mountain area how to turn all or part of their yards, no matter what size, even a container or an apartment balcony, into wildlife habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and, may I add, even bats, and other wildlife.

A popular term for this is “wildscaping.” Add to that the term “waterwise” and Connie immediately grabs the attention of everyone who pays an increasing amount for watering their lawns as well as those who recently read the articles in the paper about Laramie County’s finite water supply.

Connie is a native of Maine, in a zone that enjoys 50 inches of precipitation each year, compared to Cheyenne’s 10-15 inches. When she moved to Massachusetts, she discovered birds, as well as the fact she can plant what would attract them to her yard. She volunteered with Massachusetts Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on habitat improvements.

Next, at her home on Sanibel Island, Florida, she discovered if she ripped out all the invasive vegetation and planted natives, her once quiet yard was suddenly full of birds.

Relocating to the Front Range of Colorado in 1998, she learned what semi-arid means, especially when a major drought was just getting started. And she also learned that some native plants like the semi-arid life–after she killed her plantings of native penstemons two years in a row because she was rotting their roots with too much water.

It’s no surprise that a smart woman like Connie then put “waterwise” with “wildscaping,” a natural fit here in the arid West.

Also, the decline in the numbers of bees and butterflies documented in recent years makes even more important the idea of converting conventional urban/suburban landscapes into nectar and pollen havens, in addition to providing seeds and berries and cover for birds. Not to mention that native plants can take less work and water (read money) than a lawn.

With funding from the Terra Foundation, her private foundation that supports projects restoring the Colorado River Basin, Connie launched the “Be a Habitat Hero” campaign in 2013.

Anyone who would like to pursue the designation of “Habitat Hero” can apply through the website, www.HabHero.org, in September to see if their yard measures up. Last fall, 28 people, including Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan, earned the designation.

While most of Cheyenne’s home owners and renters have mastered the basics of lawn care and keeping shrubs and trees alive, and many have a flair for flowers and vegetables, wildscaping requires a little change in horticultural practices, and a little change in mindset.

Explaining exactly how to transform all or part of a conventional yard or commercial landscape into a wildscape will be the topic of a Habitat Hero workshop scheduled March 28 at Laramie County Community College, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The $15 registration fee covers lunch, handouts and a tote bag for each participant full of donated items.

The three speakers will be Susan Tweit, plant biologist and author of “Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide;” Jane Dorn, co-author of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area” (a digital version will be given to each participant); and Clint Basset, Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities water conservation specialist.

The major sponsors are Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Audubon Rockies (which now administers the Habitat Hero program), Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and the Laramie County Conservation District.

One of the fun parts of the day will be the panel discussion, when the three speakers take a look at selected yards submitted by participants in advance and make recommendations on how to transform them into wildlife destinations.

Registration is available online at www.BrownPaperTickets.org, key words “Habitat Hero Cheyenne.” Registration will also be available at the door, provided there are seats left. The workshop is limited to 100 participants.

“Plant it and they will come,” Connie has said often.

This approach to landscaping benefits wildlife, but Connie said it speaks to her soul too when she sees the birds, bees and butterflies.

Her biggest aha moment came when she realized, “I can create a habitat in my yard, and take it beyond looking pretty”–making a difference in the world–in her own backyard.

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Gardener reports from backyard: Bird life, death and allegiance

Eurasian Collared-Dove

An Eurasian Collared-Dove pair will nest as many as three times in one year in our Wyoming backyard. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 22, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Gardener reports from backyard: Bird life, death and allegiance.”

2014 Update: The more time spent outdoors, the more observations can be made.

By Barb Gorges

What I know about the birds in our backyard I’ve mostly learned from watching from the window.

It’s different being out there with them. This spring and summer, I’ve spent more time than usual out in the yard, working on my new vegetable garden,

We’ve always had robins, but now I’ve learned they recognize a person digging is not only non-threatening, she can be a source of earthworms. The male of our local pair waited just a few feet behind me, not even flinching when I turned to look at him.

A couple weeks later, our robins brought their speckle-breasted youngsters to show them how to wash up in the birdbath, how to find earthworms and how to pick the ripening Nanking cherries from our hedge.

This year we have a huge cherry crop, but it seems that only the local robin family is picking. It would be nice to think they are defending their territory and our cherries from other hungry wildlife. Whatever the reason, we are harvesting plenty since a flock hasn’t come in to eat them all in one day.

I’ve been trying to listen to “what the robin knows” since reading the book by that title. That means when I heard a robin squawking without ceasing very early one morning, I went out to investigate, finding a long-haired black cat–a potential nest robber–waiting under the bushes.

In return for food, water and cat eviction, our robins are not only defending the cherries, they perch on the garden fence posts, adding fertilizer and planting cherry pits.

We saw blue jays often in May and by early June, I observed one fly into the vegetable garden with something white in its bill. It hopped up to one of the tomato plants and carefully inserted the white object under the leaf mulch. It was a fecal sac, collected from one of its nestlings, removed to keep the nest clean, and buried so predators wouldn’t track down the nest. But it was also tomato fertilizer.

But I don’t think the blue jays were successful.

One evening while working outside, Mark and I heard a plaintive blue jay call high overhead in one of the big green ash trees. And then, several times, we could see a blue jay attack something in a clump of leaves, creating a ruckus.

After the third attack, four crows left the clump one at a time. I’m pretty sure the blue jay got the raw end of the deal, losing its nestlings. I try not to have favorites in the bird world–perhaps the crows were teaching their offspring how to feed themselves.

And then there was the incessant twittering one weekend. It’s a familiar background sound, but I finally connected it to downy woodpeckers.

Hour after hour as we worked out in the yard, I could hear this calling between three or four downies. It must have been the young fledging. A month before, we’d often seen a pair picking over the bark of our tree limbs for bugs, the male announcing his presence by hammering on some metallic part of the utility pole.

We sent the house finches and Eurasian collared-doves packing when we took down the sunflower seed feeder at the end of May. The doves had already produced one brood. You can tell the youngsters even though they are the same size as their parents—their black neck markings are a bit indistinct and they gaze around at the world wide-eyed.

But the thistle feeder is still up and we can count at least two pairs of goldfinches visiting multiple times a day. They nest later than other songbirds, waiting until the source of food for their nestlings, seed, especially wild thistle seed, is available.

Did you know that goldfinches are the only songbirds that feed mashed seed to their nestlings? Other seed eaters switch to insects—more protein for building bones. How do goldfinches manage without that source of protein?

On June 30 I saw my first hummingbird of the year in our neighborhood—two weeks early. It was time to do the hummers a favor and hang their feeder—our tubular-type red garden flowers weren’t blooming yet.

And the flickers came and worked on the ant invasion on the front lawn.

Isn’t it nice when we and the birds can help each other? It’s what it’s like to be part of a healthy ecosystem.