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Back Door Birding

image by brgfx on Freepix

Our homes are a convenient and cozy portal to birdwatching. Each view however is a little different which offers us an exclusive perspective on our local bird scene. Some of us live in big rural spreads with a variety of birds. Others are urban dwellers who may live in a high rise surrounded by an abundance of House Sparrows or pigeons, but may also have an exciting bird neighbour such as a Peregrine Falcon or a birds-eye-view of an Osprey nest. For many, home is a stand alone suburban house or condo. Even within suburbia, neighbourhoods come in a variety of configurations, densities and age dissected into yards of differing sizes and vegetation. With or without a yard, everybody has a back door, balcony or windows to keep an eye on bird activity outside.

Side Note: An Ottawa birder actually tallied 163 species from his 23rd floor apartment. Granted the birds didn’t all come to his balcony, but he was well equipped with a telescope, good binoculars and trained ears for birdsong. An overlook of the river was perfect for watching flights up and down the waterway. To top it off, he had friends who kept him updated on birds below via walkie talkie! This was his pandemic project. “Lockdown” turned out to be a good time for many of us to either discover the joys of home birdwatching or spend more time ogling the outdoors.

I have lived in two London neighbourhoods and found they were quite unique in terms of birdwatching. Each one represented a different habitat. Generally, different habitats attract different birds but some species are more generalists in their selection and others are more selective, out of necessity.

The key elements of a habitat are:

● Adequate space in a suitable arrangement

● Access to sufficient food and water

● Cover or shelter from weather and predators

● Enough territory for mating and nesting

We don’t always know all the specific requirements for each bird species and birds are proving that they can adapt to some degree.

Our first residence was located on the far fringes of London, on the western boundary in an area of new subdivisions. The backdoor view was nothing more than a lawn crossed by a chain link fence. I figured it was basically a bird desert. From successful experience in a previous location, however, we promptly started replacing lawn with serious plantings to enhance the quality of our yard “habitat”. Landscapers put in a juniper hedgerow for privacy, I added native plants to several new garden beds and dug up the evestrough drainspout runoff area to transition it into a rain garden.

Within a short couple of years, the food offerings in our little yard blossomed considerably. Native shrubs such as serviceberry and red-osier dogwood provided fruit and a pretty selection of native flowering ground plants proved to be a magnet for butterflies and an influx of insects I’d never seen before. I photographed and uploaded them to iNaturalist to learn their identities. Several frogs took up residence in the rain garden. A no-so-common Lincoln’s Sparrow found refuge under the row of sheltering junipers for several days. Baltimore Orioles and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds added new life to the yard. With more to offer now in terms of habitat elements, back door bird life started to look more interesting.

The year following our move-in, I noticed with some excitement that the unassuming field just beyond the fence was home to nesting meadowlarks. In March, I also heard the “peent” sounds of an American Woodcock only 100m up the fence line. Not such a bird desert after all. The big sky of fringe suburbia also provided a backdrop for many migrating

birds and I had great views of Tundra Swans, Broad-winged Hawks and Common Nighthawks. Even picked out a

Snow Goose flying by with a flock of Canadas.

Just as things started to take off, so did a new development behind our house. Heavy equipment moved in and dismantled the old barn and the meadowlark’s grassy habitat and replaced it with roads, utilities and eventually very large houses. In the initial stages, large piles of bulldozed soil were left inactive, so a dense covering of weedy plants quickly colonized the surface. When winter arrived, these weed mounds became an unexpected but temporary food bounty for sparrows and Common Redpolls. From the back door, I could see a flock of about 100 redpolls making the rounds and they persisted until spring.

Turkey Vultures were a common sight across the field and in the air. Pre-construction, they used the roof of the old barn as site for their “speed-dating”. I was concerned about their success the following year, but no worries as it turned out. I spied a pair of vultures using the stump of the lost tree next to the barn as their mating location and the year after that, with a new house in place, the new roof also proved to be a suitable replacement for mating. Such amazing site fidelity considering their habitat loss! A key part of their surroundings for completing their life cycle‒ a hollow nest tree‒ was still intact in the nearby ESA, thank goodness.

For the meadowlark and woodcock, the destruction of their field was too drastic a change and they were forced out to a steadily dwindling supply of fields in SW Ontario. We decided to leave the area by choice. We found a new home closer to city life but a complete change in vegetation. The mature woodlot surrounding the condo house made me feel like we were actually living in The Forest City.

The back deck overlooked an acre of 70+ year old Black Walnut trees skirted by an dense understory of shrubs. There were no trails and no maintenance by human hands, so woody debris and fallen leaves collected on the forest floor. A Wood Thrush and Fox Sparrows found this undisturbed, “messy” insect-rich environment attractive and added their beautiful song to the neighbourhood for a week during spring migration. Heavily grooved tree bark allowed plenty of hiding spots for insects and were eagerly explored by White and Red-breasted Nuthatches plus the Brown Creeper. Wild Grape and Virginia Creeper vines hugged the trees offering a gorgoeus pallette of colour each fall plus a bounty of fruits for birds. Thrushes, including the less common Gray-cheeked plus Yellow-bellied Sapsucker were some of the special visitors to a backyard habitat rich in food sources and shelter.

A single staghorn sumac just off the deck turned out to be an immensely valuable native plant. It was like the gift that kept on all seasons, both for birds and me as a bird photographer. In late winter, when food sources are limited for returning migrants, the fuzzy berries serve as an important contribution to survival. Fluffy, white flowers in June hosted an assortment of pollinators and in late summer, senescent bright orange leaves hid more tiny bugs harvested by warblers. American Redstart and Blackburnian Warblers appeared only metres away.

Nearby natural water sources were in short supply, however several neighbours filled the gap with large sturdy bird baths or flowing water features. Sometimes it takes a “village” of both vegetation and water in the neighbourhood to attract a biodiverse bird community. It can be difficult for one yard with limited space to be the main source of all key habitat elements. An interesting story unfolded in my yard which highlighted this concept.

Small finches called Pine Siskins were daily visitors to my niger feeder last winter. The larger group started to dwindle to 2-3 in February, but I could now hear their persistent singing. This suggested that the birds might be interested in nesting. Looking out the back door in mid-March, I was excited to see a pair of siskins pulling threads off vine bark for nest material, even stronger confirmation of breeding evidence and now I waited with baited breath to see if any young would appear over the next few weeks. Siskins do not nest frequently in London and they need mature spruce or pines to go with a steady quality food source. The bordering neighbourhoods just so happened to have several rows of 30-40 metre high conifers. On May 1, my back door viewing paid off and I watched a parent feeding a fluttery youngster on a branch near the feeder. Fist pump! And a nice data contribution to the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas.

Getting neighbours on board with yard habitat enhancement is a great way to create local green corridors in the neighbourhood. These, in turn, help connect with larger protected areas such as ESA’s or Thames River lands. It’s a way to counteract so much forest habitat fragmentation created by encroachment of human housing. A complexity of vegetation, preferably native plants, supports greater bio-diversity and a multi-layered forest structure offers more foods and shelter. (Its harder to remediate damages to grassland fragmentation which is why its so important to keep them intact.)

In an effort to make your own space more bird friendly, ask yourself if there is something you can do to enhance your yard habitat, kind of like a gardening or landscaping report card. From a bird perspective, so many yards in suburbia appear to be sterile and geared towards ornamental rather than environmental. This may be why many yards attract robins, mourning doves or goldfinches, but little else. Can you plant a tree? Can you leave fallen leaves in garden beds? Can you replace some lawn with native shrubs? Can you keep cats indoors or contained and protect windows from bird collisions? With a few changes in gardening/landscaping, your yard may become more of a wildlife oasis and you may be rewarded with more birdwatching opportunities.

Re-Forest London is hosting a native plant sale this spring. To register:

Photos: Lincoln's Sparrow, yard enhancement with native plants, flock of Common Redpolls, face of habitat loss in London grassland - juvenile Eastern Meadowlark, thrush eating Virginia Creeper berries, Pine Siskins gathering nest material, Cape May warbler

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