Becoming a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens) on Dogwood

Reconsidering the NWF

My yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.  Their banner, currently in the upper right corner here, has been proudly displayed.  Thanks to information from Kelly Brenner (@MetroFieldGuide, Google+) and Carol Sevilla Brown (@CB4wildlife, Google+) , I have learned that the NWF has apparently entered into a partnership with Scotts Miracle-Gro®.  This is the familiar garden fertilizer and pesticide company and a division of the Big-Ag chemical company ICL.  A firestorm has erupted over this news.  To those of us seeking to create natural, sustainable habitats in our yards, the very idea of this partnership is bewildering, to say the least.

While this gets sorted out, those of us in Washington State have an alternative.  The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program.  I am applying to the WDFW for certification and this post has been created to accompany the application.  It follows the format on page 2 of the form.  Perhaps others may find the information here useful and inspiring.  It is very easy to qualify backyards, large and small, church yards, schools, parks and even apartment balconies.  Anyone who enjoys watching wildlife will find these minimal efforts rewarding.

I am also a member of Washington Shore Stewards for waterfront and stream-side property owners.  Through this program, we seek to maintain healthier waters and shores for birds, fish, wildlife and humans alike.

In apparent contrast to the National Wildlife Federation, both the WDFW and Shore Stewards include "reducing or eliminating pesticide/chemical fertilizer use" as a criterion for certification.

The Neighborhood

The South Fidalgo Island neighborhood is semi-rural and mostly wooded.  My yard sits on the shoreline of Skagit Bay.  As you can see from the power pole in the right photo, portions of the hillside are subject to landslides and movement.  This necessitates making as little disturbance to the land as possible.  The soil is very poor glacial till made of sand, gravel, large rocks and clay.  Located at the edge of the Olympic Rain Shadow, we get only 20-22 inches (50-56 cm) of rainfall annually.  Summer drought tolerance is an important consideration for gardening here.

The Property

The property was mostly wooded with mature Douglas Fir and Grand Fir.  I elected to leave as many of the big trees as possible.  This provided the opportunity to create unique understory gardens simulating a forest edge habitat.  The decision has made gardening more difficult than I expected.  Nevertheless, the local wildlife has found this style comfortable and welcoming.  I have enjoyed every minute of my 25 years here observing my wild guests.

See The Habitat and About Us pages here for additional information about the site.

1.  Plant List

Indigenous Plants (Fidalgo Island Crossings Blog)

Complete Garden Plant List (.pdf)

The big fir trees are resource hogs, quickly gobbling up water and nutrients.  Add bad soil and low rainfall and it was apparent that delicate cultivated plants would not survive here.  Native plants and their cultivated counterparts were the only practical solution.  A survey of native plants adapted to a locale is an ideal way to begin any garden project when low impact is the goal.

Left Photo:  In my experience, the native Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum) does not adapt well to gardens and is rarely available.  On the other hand, their counterparts available from nurseries do well here and love growing in the understory beneath the firs.  Once established, they are surprisingly drought-tolerant.  Companion plants include natives Oregon Oxalis, Western Sword Fern, Oceanspray, Evergreen Huckleberry, Vine Maple and Red Flowering Currant.  When native plants come up on their own, I usually just let them grow on the spot.

Right Photo:  I am fortunate to have several Pacific Madronas that came up voluntarily on the property.  They really seem to like growing in the pit run used to build up the driveway.  A symbiotic mycorrhyzal fungus in the roots provides for the tree's nutrition and renders the tree almost impossible to transplant.  To facilitate surface water management, I have elected to use crushed rock for driveway and parking area, rather than impermeable concrete or asphalt.

2.  Food

Food for wildlife is provided both by plants in the garden and bird feeders.  With a shoreline location, add the intertidal zone as a source of food.  Eel grass beds and Rockweed provide food sources for Herons, Gulls and Northwestern Crows.  One of the pleasures of summer is listening to the sounds of mussels dropped onto beach rocks.  The Gulls use this method to crack them open.

Left Photo:  The native Bitter Cherry is indigenous to the property.  Another name is Bird Cherry because of its attractiveness to avians.  The fruits are also enjoyed by mammals.  In the winter, Grosbeaks will crack open the pits to extract the seeds.  Butterflies are attracted to the flowers and deer will browse on the twigs.

Right Photo:  Feeders in the front and back yards attract different species.  The front yard is meadow-like while the backyard is forest edge.  A pair of rare Western Tanagers were caught by the Birdcam enjoying some suet during their spring migration northward.

3.  Water

A koi pond with circulating waterfall provides a source of water.  The Great Blue Herons don't allow me to keep fish, but the Pacific Chorus Frogs come in early spring for their courtship concerts.  Birds love to bathe in the waterfall year-around and arrive in groups by species at different times of day.  This is where I always catch the Varied Thrushes visiting the yard.  American Robins come by the dozen creating quite a spectacle.  In June, I enjoy searching the plants to spot the baby frogs.  A simple birdbath serves the need in the front yard.

4.  Cover

A thicket of Nootka Rose and Salal grows along the bank to the beach.  Both plants provide cover, protection and food for birds, mammals and insects.  Spotted Towhees and Sparrows (White-crowned, Fox and Song) build their nests here.  In winter, rose hips provide food, and in summer, the flowers attract insects such as this Sweat Bee.  Nootka Rose is a host for several insect species that in turn, provide food for birds.  With vicious thorns and a tendency to spread, wild rose can be difficult to manage.  In the right setting, however, it can be a valuable addition to the wildlife garden.

During windstorms, the fir trees will give up some of their limbs in order to protect the tree.  My neighbor and I share a hidden strip between the yards to collect this windfall.  Such debris piles, simple to create, are favorite den, escape and concealment sites for wildlife such as Townsend's Chipmunks.  They also help trap water and nutrients.  Microorganisms including fungi thrive here adding to the biodiversity of the site.  Some amphibians will use such a structure for hibernating.

5.  Places to Raise Young

Bird houses and bat houses make charming additions to any garden.  My bat house has been up for two seasons now, but seems to be rejected by the local Myotis lucifugus population.  This probably means I need to find another location.  They are not easy to site properly and bats are fussy.  They need to get as much direct sun as possible, be at least 10 feet/3 m off the ground and located away from lights at night.   Also, put them where droppings won't make a mess.

We have already seen thickets and tall trees which are favorite nesting sites for birds.  The koi pond is where Pacific Chorus Frogs come to lay their eggs.  I have a resident population of California Quail which nest in the thickets.  I consider the Eel Grass beds just offshore, visible at low tide, part of my garden.  These are productive nurseries for all manner of sea life, especially crustaceans and fish.  Great Blue Herons graze here every day.  Driftwood collections on the upper beach provide protected spots for Sandpipers to build their nests.

6.  Resource Conservation

This is the most diverse, and perhaps the most important section of the application.  Elements range from "Keeping cats indoors" to "Xeriscaping" to "Filtering storm water."  This is the section with "Reducing or eliminating pesticide/chemical fertilizer use" as one of the criteria to select.  Outdoor cats are not a problem here, uh, because we have Coyotes.  Another criterion is "Removing invasive exotic plants:"

Left Photo:  English Ivy (Hedera helix, H. hibernica) has become an invasive problem in the Pacific Northwest.  It can look beautiful, but will run rampant over native vegetation and choke it out.  In my yard, it likes to grow up the trunks of the firs.  The roots will penetrate the bark allowing pests and diseases to enter the tree.  I have found that cutting the vines close to the ground will kill the ivy.  I don't pull the vines off the trunks, however, as this does significant damage to the bark.  European Starlings enjoy the fruit and spread the seeds expanding the territories of both invasive pests.

Right Photo:  Another invasive plant that wages war in my yard is Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus discolor).  It was unfortunately introduced by Luther Burbank.  The vines can grow two feet a day and become thick and woody with killer thorns.  It also runs rampant over any plant or tree it encounters.  I have canes that have grown up and over Douglas Fir limbs thirty feet above the ground.  Birds do love the berries and they spread the seeds everywhere.  The ubiquitous seedlings cling tenaciously to the ground making them difficult to weed.  If a vine touches the ground, a new plant will spring up.  Roots produce nodes that also sprout into new plants.  Constant cutting of the canes close to the ground and digging up the nodes are the only ways to control them.

Left Photo:  Mulching and composting are important elements in the low impact wildlife garden.

Right Photo:  Our native Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) is one of my favorite landscape plants.  If you have a small empty corner, plant a Vine Maple.  Add a large stone and a couple of Western Sword Ferns and you have created a small piece of the Pacific Northwest.

For a larger vignette, start with a mossy, rotting log.  Around it, add some Vine Maples, a Red Flowering Current, Oregon Grape, Salal and Sword Ferns. Make a hole in the log to plant a Salal.  With velvet green leaves in spring and summer, brilliant red or orange in the fall, and graceful wine red twigs in the winter, this small scale tree is beautiful in every season.

7.  Wildlife:

Two of the big Douglas Firs in my yard have hunting perches at the top.  These are in regular use by the local Bald Eagles.  I was visited this past summer by a litter of five young Raccoons who had not yet learned they were supposed to be nocturnal.  Pileated Woodpeckers nest across the road and regularly visit the suet feeder I installed specifically for them.  This pair appears to be father and son.  I have never seen a female Pileated in the yard.  I don't know why.

South Fidalgo Island Bird List (.pdf)

South Fidalgo Critter List:
  • Columbian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianis)
  • Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
  • Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus nuttalli)
  • Coyote (Canis latrans)
  • Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus)
  • Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii)
  • Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
  • Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina)
  • Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus)
  • Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
  • Pacific Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla)
  • Pacific Mole (Scapanus orarius)
  • Puget Sound Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis pickeringii)
  • River Otter (Lontra canadensis)
  • Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
  • Townsend's Chipmunk (Tamias townsendii)

Of course a list does not reflect some of the interesting experiences I have had here:  a family of otters playing "King of the Mountain" on a piece of floating driftwood; a Garter Snake eating a Black Slug (who knew they did that?); the pair of coyotes trying to take down a deer on the beach; the Cooper's Hawk preying on a California Quail or finding a Humpback Salmon on the front lawn.  This had to be the lost prize of squabbling eagles.  Where else would Dungeness Crab legs turn up in the garden or Bald Eagles engage in courtship outside the kitchen window?  There is never a dull moment in the wildlife garden.

When I bought the property, a trail led from the road down to the beach.  This turned out to be a deer trail.  After 25 years, the deer continue to follow the exact same route to the beach to get a little salt.

"The Twins," Columbian Black-tailed Deer on the Deer Trail