By Dr. Marianne Walch
In March 2020, the Center’s office was closed due to the pandemic, and telework and Zoom meetings became the work life of our staff. I particularly missed my office window’s daily view of the Indian River Inlet and Delaware Seashore State Park beaches. Then I realized I had a different way to enjoy a great view from my very own backyard.
So I installed a total of eleven bird feeders close to my home office window. Those feeders, and the many species visiting them, helped keep me (and my two cats) engaged and entertained during the 14 long months of working alone from home.
I’m a lifelong birder and have always had multiple feeders. But this past year was the first chance I’ve had to closely observe the feeder stations and their visitors all day, every day. It became a daily gift, and I quickly realized that incredible things were happening in my backyard all along. I had just been missing them while enjoying my more coastal views at the office.
Since spring 2020, I’ve watched waves of seasonal migrants pass through my yard, taken pleasure in the 2020 ‘irruption’ visits of more typically northern birds such as Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks, and delighted in watching families of recently fledged Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, and Carolina Chickadees being fed from the feeders by their parents. A pair of Mallard ducks regularly visited to gobble up corn I had put out for the squirrels. Titmice and Blue Jays clamoured greedily for peanuts. A variety of colorful migrating warblers stopped by for suet. And Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds, and even a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (!) consumed multiple bags of oranges. A Red-Shouldered Hawk showed up from time to time, more interested in the squirrels than in the birds.
I kept records of the birds I saw from my window and shared my observations with the Project Feederwatch citizen science program managed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. I counted 48 different species visiting the feeders, bird baths, and backyard vegetation that can be seen from my home office window.
I live on a ⅓-acre lot in an older, wooded suburban neighborhood near Millsboro. I chose the property because of the trees. Sadly, many of the forested areas that surrounded my community when I moved here have since disappeared–along with birds that depended on them such as Chuck-wills-widows and Wood Thrushes. That makes my little patch of woods and native plant gardens all the more precious, both for me and for the wildlife. I’m proud that it’s been recognized as a Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat for about 17 years.
My yard intentionally has a natural, relatively unmanicured look, which I find peaceful and beautiful. The plants provide food and habitat for wildlife. The trees in my yard include a good mix of oaks, hickories, holly, sweet gum, sassafras, dogwood, red maple, sycamore, pines, and eastern red cedar that were here when I arrived. I’ve worked to preserve these, along with the native shrubs and wildflowers that grew naturally, including highbush blueberries, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, devil’s walking stick, spotted wintergreen, and pink lady’s slippers. I’ve planted new native shrubs such as oak leaf hydrangea, pinxter azaleas, sweet pepperbush, and American beautyberry. And I’ve added many native ferns, vines, and flowers to attract pollinators. One of my favorites is the native red honeysuckle, which is a hummingbird magnet!
It doesn’t take much to turn your yard into a great wildlife habitat: if you plant it, they will come! Over the years, I’ve seen or heard in own my backyard: at least 77 species of birds, 8 species of frogs and toads, 6 species of reptiles, 9 species of wild mammals (including flying squirrels!), and countless varieties of butterflies and moths, bees, and other insects.
Making even small changes to your property to provide food and habitat for wildlife is rewarding, educational, and good for our Bays and their watershed. To learn more about how you can garden for the Bays and the species that depend on them, check out our tips and resources at inlandbays.org/gardening.