Ugh! Freezing rain! Guess I'll stay home today to observe my own nature preserve. For real. My back yard is only about 40 feet by 12 and located in the busy heart of Saratoga Springs, but it's officially certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat. Check out the NWF website for particulars, but basically here's what you need to qualify: food, water, nesting sites, no pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and a focus on native species when landscaping and gardening.
I found out about this program last spring. Perfect timing, for I had just retired and had time to pay attention to my "garden" -- a weed patch, really, since for the past dozen years I had preferred paddling and woodswalking to any kind of work at home, inside or out. Wild nature, after all, is so beautiful, and I didn't have to lift a finger to make it that way. But now I had time for both.
First, I cut back a euonymus vine to the chain link fence, leaving just enough of this evergreen alien plant to provide winter cover. During the summer a native Virginia creeper swamps this vine and climbs the surrounding black locusts, where we installed houses for wrens and bluebirds. Existing plants included lilacs, shadblow, crabapple, arbor vitae, white pine, box elder, blue violets, lily of the valley, rugosa roses, hostas, and pale sunflower -- plus masses of tall white asters and other lovely weeds in a side section of our lawn where I never mow.
I found several sources of plants native to the northeast and added flowering dogwood, highbush cranberry, Oswego tea, mountain laurel, Jacob's Ladder, sweet pepperbush, red chokeberry, trumpet honeysuckle, crested iris, wild geranium, great lobelia, New England aster, star false solomon's seal, and something else I can't for the life of me remember (a spring surprise awaits, I hope). I salvaged some giant purple hyssop from a parking lot about to be mowed, and helped myself to seeds from spent plants in the Yaddo shade garden: black cohosh and celandine poppy. All these plants should provide lots of food for bugs, caterpillars, birds, and butterflies, plus cover and sustenance for rabbits, mice, possums, and squirrels. I wonder what will come up again next summer.
Now, the wildlife mostly rely on our feeders. Today, my husband and I collected three discarded Christmas trees from the curb on our street and propped them against the box elder where we hang seed feeders and suet cakes. We gather these balsams each year to provide shelter for the birds. We also have a heated birdbath, so we have lots of visitors all winter long -- the usual suspects : squirrels en masse, juncos, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, mourning doves, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, and now and then a sharp-shinned hawk, who arrives to feast on English sparrows. This beautiful little hawk doesn't appear to pounce on its prey from the air. I watched it one day as it sidled into the balsam thicket, disappearing among the boughs. A shudder in the limbs occurred, and the hawk hopped out with his small brown lunch, which he sat on the ground and ate. The birds stayed away the rest of the day.
One day a much bigger hawk surprised our roiling mob of squirrels, who plastered themselves against tree limbs, immobile as burls, while the hawk (not a red-tailed, but about that size) alit in the box elder and bided its time in the branches. For what seemed a long, long time. Then one of the squirrels, very brave, must have assessed that the hawk couldn't maneuver for a kill among the network of branches, and broke his cover, scurrying right out on the limb where the hawk was perched, barking his little head off and switching his tail in fury. Startled, the hawk took stock, lifted its wings, and soared off into the sky.