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Oakland Habitat and Home, Bexar, TX

Featured Site Created By Phoeniculus: Kyp

Conviction to provide habitat for wildlife can result in vibrant, diverse yards. These homeowners in Texas recognize that landscape changes take time, dedication, and trial and error approaches. The rewards are worth the effort. Bats nesting on your property, Painted Buntings stopping by to forage, and a growing number of migratory birds using the habitat for layover landings are just a few rewards experienced on this Texas property. Read on to learn more about their native habitat projects.

What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?

pots in flower garden

Photo © KYP
Our family bought the two acre property in 1986, back when large swathes of native woodlands dominated the area. We built the house in a natural clearing and left the woods intact for the wildlife to use. Over the years, the rapid development of San Antonio from a small town to a city of over a million people engulfed our neighborhood; and, species such as roadrunners and coyotes disappeared from the 260 hectares of remaining woodland and savanna, but our neighborhood is composed of robust and like-minded residents (each with two acres) adamantly defending the remainder of this ecosystem from development and further species loss. On our site, we have focused on improving habitat and resources for three principal groups: pollinators, migrating birds, and the regulars.

backwoods

Photo © KYP
Since our neighborhood is essentially an island, it is difficult to cater to wildlife such as snakes and amphibians which cannot easily move into or out of the area (although herps are around, I am not certain how genetically sustainable their populations are). Insects, on the other hand, require far less space and can move among habitat patches more effectively to varying degrees. Bees, butterflies, and hoverflies are especially mobile and play vital roles in the environment, making them ideal focal points. Since our site already had a healthy cover of leaf litter, rock piles, woody debris, and tree hollows for bee hives, the simplest and most effective action was to leave these features in place. While many wildflowers and other native nectar plants persisted, however, invasive rescuegrass (Bromus catharticus) had conquered much of what should have been Blackland Prairie and Southern Plains communities and has such reduced the number of nectar plants. The first action we took was to create a pollinator garden, which we began doing in mid-2016 by continually adding native nectar and host plants to our garden while allowing the majority of the non-native plants to phase out over time. Secondly, we wish to create more nesting habitats for invertebrates by building bee hotels, clearing ground, and starting a compost pile. The third and most daunting task will be to eliminate the rescuegrass and restore native vegetation, a process we have only just begun.

Other than insects, our site also provides habitat for resident wildlife such as bats and birds. Of the former, we have found three or four species living in our neighbourhood. Two bat houses are mounted on a strategically positioned pole to serve as emergency shelters for displaced bats and as a bachelor pad for male Mexican free-tails (Tadarida brasiliensis).

bird feeders

Photo © KYP

As for birds, we wish to create a healthy habitat for residential birds, be they permanent or seasonal migrants of our woods. We diligently provide and maintain a variety of birdfeeders, seeds and other food items. Shallow birdbaths in the woods by our house where there is plentiful plant cover for shelter when the boogie men are on the prowl (our nickname for the resident Accipiters, such as Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned hawks). We clean the feeders and baths regularly while providing seeds and seasonal items (such as suet, mealworms, and hummingbird nectar) best suited to native species. More importantly, our site has a diversity of habitats which provide shelter to a wide range of bird species and an abundance of natural berries, nuts, and arthropods for them to eat. Not only does this setup provide local wildlife with a home, but can serve as a valuable stopover site and stepping stone for species moving through the area.

What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")

Identifying the response of wildlife to our improvements is difficult on the basis that we do not have a good baseline understanding of the animal and plant communities before we started the improvements. After we began work to ameliorate our site, I began discovering large numbers of new plant and animal species (including 15 species of birds and many Lepidopterans) that I had never seen around our house before. But trying to determine which of them stuck around as a result of our improvements and which had been around the whole time is tricky since this project was my first big exploration of local biodiversity. Some species of birds might have been attracted to our site due to additions we made, such as the Lesser Goldfinches (Spinus psaltria) which were attracted to the sunflowers in our garden and thistle feeders in the yards; others, such as the White-eyed Vireos (Vireo griseus), have probably been here longer than we have. The greatest moment for me as a result of a long and arduous project, however, was when bats emerged from our bat box for the first time! That bat house took us days to complete and install, and months more before it was occupied by a group of Mexican free-tails, but the reward was indescribably sweet.

bat house

Photo © KYP

The process of discovering new and unexpected species in our site has been the greatest experience of all, whether it be the unexpected abundance of Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) in the avian woods or the first winter we saw warblers sticking around. Over time, we have discovered more and more species on our site, some being rare visitors while others which had been hiding in plain sight the whole time. If I had to pick one species as being particularly impactful, it would most likely be from last summer during an early morning bird count on the back porch, looking out into the backyard and the avian woods behind it, when a rainbow bird flew from the thickets and landed on top of a bush. The Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) sung a few verses in declaration of his territory and then flew back into the woods. Although not the rarest bird to visit our home nor the first time we had seen Painted Buntings in Bexar County, this individual’s presence at our site was exhilarating… but also worrisome.

woodlands

Photo © KYP

Painted buntings feed on a mixture of invertebrates and the seeds from various plants during the summer. Our area is rich with invertebrates and dense vegetation for them to hide in but appears to be missing one crucial element: bristlegrass (Setaria). These grasses may represent a significant percentage of a painted bunting’s diet in Texas (according to Stephens & Wrede in Attracting Birds in the Texas Hill Country: A Guide to Land Stewardship) but unfortunately, they have long since been pushed out by invasive grasses and only grows in a few small areas around our neighborhood.

Is it possible that there is more bristlegrass hidden away on a neighbour’s property, or that this bunting was able to thrive on alternative food sources? Yes, that is certainly possible, but it is also possible that our site is a sink population habitat for them: a place where they can scrape by but are unable to thrive. I may not know the answer to this question, but there are ways in which I can make a positive change. By rekindling our efforts to remove rescuegrass and restore native grassland, we can provide a habitat that will more beneficial for painted buntings and for the entire ecosystem.

letting the grass grow

Photo © KYP

This is a goal everyone can work towards regardless of residence. Even if you only have a small yard, little pocket prairies in the corner can be immensely helpful for wildlife. Even if you do not have a yard at all, potted plants on balconies or windowsills can still provide great nectar sources. And if even that is not feasible, then there are always ways to support the restoration of healthy ecosystems from afar such as by encouraging the creation of public pollinator gardens. Seeing the painted bunting singing vibrantly that morning has motivated me to redouble my efforts!

Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?

Our site’s mild winters and subtropical location nestled within the confluence of four ecoregions means that our area has an exciting array of plant species. But this location is also a curse due to the high summer temperatures and long periods without rainfall. The dry periods are followed by torrential downpours and flooding, which puts serious pressure on plants. This is compounded by a ravenous overpopulation of deer which inhibit succession of young plants who are challenged by only three centimetres of topsoil over bedrock. Most plants we wish to add to the gardens must be placed in planters and strategically placed so that they have the right microclimate to survive, though many still do not make it. We also try to plant species in the yard but this requires considerable effort to break through the rocky soil and diligent watering afterwards until the plants are established. For projects such as putting up the bat pole, jackhammers were necessary to create a deep enough hole.

the feather patch

Photo © KYP

Meanwhile, the deer can cause problems within the woods and in the front yard, although we have excluded them from our bird feeding area and the backyard area. Interestingly enough, areas where the deer are excluded contain certain species of plants not found outside these exclosures such as American holly (Ilex opaca), although there may be other variables involved as well.

An even greater struggle comes from the terrible threes: Japanese privet (Ligustrum japonicum), chinaberry (Melia azedarach), and rescuegrass (B. catharticus). The privet spreads like bamboo and does not seem to mind if you cut it down, it will simply regenerate its lost biomass seemingly overnight. When it reaches full maturity, it can be a sizable beast that must be removed with caution. Chinaberry is less aggressive but is nevertheless a rapidly growing invader that gets to be quite huge and can be, likewise, dangerous to fell. These large trees may require professionals to clear. Meanwhile, we have cut down many of the smaller ones and applied Roundup to their stumps to discourage regrowth when possible, but we are hesitant to do this when they are in close proximity to desirable natives as they so often are. We also pull out saplings before they can emerge, but this is more of a treatment than a cure.

thicket

Photo © KYP

Rescuegrass, despite its name, is anything other than a welcome sight as it dominates any sunny spot of soil it can and it is especially aggressive during the cooler seasons when the wildflowers are trying to grow. Its conquest is not absolute, as many native forbs and wildflowers have been successful competing with the grass in certain localities around the site, but there is a worrisome paucity of native grass species. Like all invasive grasses, they have interlocking roots that make it tough to physically remove them with anything short of a tiller, which we do not possess. We are hesitant to use herbicides due to our large arthropod community and the possibility of contaminating pollinators and arroyos (seasonal streams). To address this problem, we recently experimented with using solarization to kill them by covering a small patch with sealed plastic for six weeks, pulling them out, and planting native Blackland Prairie seeds in the now vacant ground. If this trial is successful, we will proceed to solarizing larger areas of land when possible.

We see you have used the Planning Tool to set some goals for your site. How has this tool informed or inspired your efforts and actions?

flower garden

Photo © KYP
The planning tool has inspired us to pursue a number of more complex goals. Although our site is home to a diverse number of pollinators, there is much we can still do to provide them with a better home. Reclaiming more land from the rescuegrass and restoring larger mixes of native flowering plants with staggered blooming periods will greatly help to provide them with a more reliable food supply while leaving bare patches of ground, building bee hotels, and planting host plants can provide more shelter. This may also increase the supply of bugs for the birds, bats, and other critters to eat. We also have an old stone chimney that we have not used in years. It is currently blocked off with a metal mesh but I hope to remove that barrier and possibly attract chimney swifts to move in.

cactus corridor

Photo © KYP
Ultimately, our goals are to shift our focus away from short-term methods such as potted plants, bat houses, and bird feeders (all of which we will still maintain) and towards developing resources that will help wildlife for decades to come. Actions like providing bird seed are wonderful and worthwhile methods to help animals get through lean times, but they only last for as long as we are around to provide such resources. Meanwhile, adding new native species and restoring functionality to the site can continue to help wildlife for long after we are gone. This is the direction we would like to head towards.

The planning tool has inspired us to expand our efforts and to reach out to the wider community for advice. In the future, we would like to ask entities such as The Green Space Alliance and the Natural Resources Conservation Service for advice on how to effectively proceed. Meanwhile, the “community” goals have inspired us to not only consider our small two-acre plot of land but the wider landscape. With any luck, we’ll be able to reach out and share this marvellous tool with others in our area and expand the connectivity among sites. These are long-term and ambitious goals, but ones I hope to achieve one day.