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Backyard Sanctuaries

Wildlife-friendly landscaping attracts birds, butterflies and tourists to private homes in South Texas.

By Karen Hastings

Allen Williams calls his backyard “The Sanctuary.”

A lovely tumble of tall oaks and flowering vines, punctuated by old palm tree stumps and bubbling rock fountains, his 2.5-acre property is a peaceful respite from the big-box building supply stores and strip malls just out of sight in this urban corner of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

South Texas wildlife abounds here: A diminutive eastern screech-owl peers from one of many holes in a section of dead palm. Plain chachalacas convene along low mesquite branches, eastern cottontails appear along winding trails, and in the shallow depression of a huge boulder, a lesser goldfinch bathes and splashes. Near a red-orange banner of Mexican love vine, a long-billed thrasher trills.

A spiritual man as well as a birder, Williams admits he prayed for one of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s uncommon birds to visit his backyard refuge. Affirmation arrived in 2002 and hung around for more than two years: a rare blue mockingbird that quickly added his property to the Valley’s map of must-see birding locations.

William’s Sanctuary is one of several outstanding backyard nature destinations open to visitors in the lower four counties of Texas. These tiny pockets of native green may not be in the same league with the area’s sprawling refuges and state parks, but they still manage to garner huge attention for their proven ability to attract rare South Texas birds and butterflies. And if you know the way, they’re a great place to spot many of the 500-plus birds and 300-plus butterflies found here.

In Mission, Jan and David Dauphin are accustomed to finding strangers with binoculars and digital cameras pacing through their tiny backyard. In the middle of a retirement community that favors low-maintenance white gravel over greenery, the Dauphin’s 50-by-100-foot lot is a riot of betony mistflower and wild olive, complete with a babbling creek, bog and miniature waterfall.

And on South Padre Island, where spring northers rain jewel-colored buntings and warblers on any patch of green, retired Los Angeles policewoman Barbara Kennett has turned her snug bungalow into a private viewing blind, surrounded by water features, blooming plants and bird feeding stations. Nature photographers and birders from around the world come to watch and photograph from her windows, and the results have made it to the pages of magazines like National Geographic.

Williams, Kennett and the Dauphins join thousands of others in the state who choose to landscape their property - however small - for the benefit of wildlife. Around 3,500 of them are certified under Texas Wildscapes, an outreach program of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“I did get a request one time to certify a flower pot, and I refused. Seriously,” says Mark Klym, coordinator of Texas Wildscapes. “But otherwise, and especially for birds, any small patch that we can put together is doing some good. An apartment patio, if it’s appropriately done, can be a good wildscape for butterflies and small birds.”

Klym says such remnants of green can actually be critical, especially during migration periods. “These birds are flying long distances and often without seeing anything that remotely looks like habitat. In that little patch, they can sit down and rest and fuel up for the next leg of their trip. For us, it would be like walking across the desert and all of a sudden seeing an oasis.”

Barbara Kennett

Barbara Kennett, who walked a beat in Los Angeles before retiring to South Padre Island in 1973, remembers the day she literally sold her backyard to plant her own bird paradise.

“It all started one morning: I looked out the window and on the lawn back there, I saw what turned out to be a painted bunting.” The multicolored songbird was joined by a dickcissel and “one absolutely gorgeous American redstart flitting across the lawn like a butterfly.”

At the time, Kennett had no idea what any of them were, so she went to town and bought her first birding guide. It didn’t take long before she was hooked, and signing on as a guide at the first birding festival in Harlingen 14 years ago. There, she recalls, a speaker eloquently lamented the vanishing wooded lots of South Padre.

On the way home, Kennett stopped at a nursery. In partial exchange for seven small mesquite, brazil and other native trees, the nurseryman removed her manicured lawn in squares and hauled it away. Replanting with native trees and bushes, and adding a small pond and feeders, produced immediate results.

“My friends started saying, ‘If you hear about a strange bird on the island, it’ll be at Barbara’s.’”

Tom Vezo, a successful nature photographer from Arizona, first encountered Kennett during spring migration, about 10 years ago. “I always kid her about how we met,” says Vezo. “It was drizzling and there was a huge fallout - birds all over the place. She stopped me on the street and said, ‘Would you like to photograph out of the rain?’”

Thus began a successful collaboration that produced magazine and calendar photos taken from just about every window and doorway of Kennett’s modest home. “It’s a very famous place to go see birds because she’s one of the few people on the island who has everything the birds could want,” Vezo says. “The right vegetation, different types of bird food and feeders, and water to drink and bathe in.”

Other nature photographers and birders soon followed, papering the walls of Kennett’s bungalow with photographs - indigo buntings, orchard orioles, and one of a rose-breasted grosbeak that made the cover of Birder’s World in April 1999. Nowadays, 14-seater tour vans park outside her little house during the busy migration periods, and she has been known to serve coffee and cookies to the binocular crowd. Even former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn watched birds from Kennett’s couch on a South Texas birding trip a few years ago.

Kennett shakes her tousled grey curls when asked if she charges a visitor fee, as some do, to help buy bird seed and plants. Although she locks her gates to keep in her dachshunds, Alska and Prio, she considers the birders who sometimes show up unannounced at her door to be her guests.

“There is something about people who care about wildlife. They care about life, you might say,” says Kennett, who tends her little refuge because the birds need her. “Anyone who has ever observed a wave of birds coming in from the Gulf will want to give everything they have to make a place for them. I feel something has to be done and I try to do it.”

117 E. Ling St., South Padre Island, TX 78597
Call before visiting: (956) 761-6256

The Dauphins

Neighbors didn’t know what to make of Jan and David Dauphin when the couple moved in 2003 to their Mission neighborhood, an unassuming subdivision where landscaping rocks, plastic flowers and liberal doses of weed-killer are the norm.

Jan, a retired electric company customer service representative, and David, a retired oil company chemist, immediately set about clearing the rocks and planting an untidy profusion of flowering plants.

“Our neighbors thought we were absolutely nuts. They couldn’t believe anybody would spend money to plant ‘weeds,’” David recalls with a chuckle. Explaining about “host plants” and butterfly caterpillars didn’t help. “I heard one of our neighbors say: ‘Can you believe those people are spending money to buy plants so the worms can eat them?’”

What the neighbors didn’t know is that the Dauphins chose Mission specifically for its butterflies.

“We were fortunate enough to move any place we wanted to in Texas. We picked the Valley because the Valley has the most butterflies of anyplace and gets the rare birds from Mexico,” says David. “Every city in the Valley has some form of nature center where you can see butterflies. It was like that when we got here and it’s only gotten better.”

On the Dauphin’s unfenced lot, there’s guamuchil for the red-bordered pixie, and guava for the guava skipper. Queens like their Gregg’s mistflower, while crescents prefer the heliotrope. A fragrant mash of beer, bananas, brown sugar and dried yeast on a small birdbath attracts Mexican bluewings and red admirals. In the back, a small deck overlooks the miniature waterfall and pond, flanked by lantana.

In all, the Dauphin’s wildscape includes 71 native and five non-native flowering species. Some 138 species of butterflies have been found there, more than some state lists.

In November 2003, the Dauphins documented a pale sicklewing, only the third of this species ever seen in the United States. Soon after came a xami hairstreak, which occurs only rarely outside of next-door Cameron County. In October 2004, while the Dauphins were leading a field trip elsewhere, butterfliers in town for a convention spotted a starred skipper in their yard, a third U.S. record.

“When we came back to the hotel and they told us, we thought they were joking. ‘No! We saw a starred skipper in your yard not 10 minutes ago.’” The Dauphins rushed home in time to see a van of happy tourists leaving. A field trip leader shared his digital snapshot of the now vanished critter. “Everybody got to see it,” says David. “Except us.”

Then, in November of 2004, while David was cleaning out the backyard pond, Jan spotted a “different” butterfly flitting amongst the nearby lantana. She grabbed binoculars, and the couple eventually confirmed the first U.S. record for the creamy melwhite.

Close behind all these rarities came the butterfly tourists. Tour vans regularly disgorge visitors during wildlife festivals, and the couple posts take-away copies of their yard list by the front porch to keep visitors from knocking on the door. The Dauphins recently launched their own Web site, <www.thedauphins.net>, including a list of their favorite butterfly-friendly vines and bushes.

“More and more people are getting into these native plants, and the butterflies and birds are taking advantage,” David says. “So many people have shared with us. It’s important and fun to pass it on.”

410 Taurus St., Mission, TX 78572
Call before visiting: (956) 424-1354; ddauphin@flash.net

Allen Williams

Two years after a blue mockingbird first put Allen and Kellie Williams’ property on Valley birding maps, the Sanctuary scored another coup. Visitors from the Hill Country reported a black-headed nightingale-thrusha first for the United States.

This rare and melodious bird hung around for six months in 2004, putting on a nightly show and drawing hundreds of visitors from all over the United States. Birders would fly into nearby McAllen and rush to Williams’ property, with only a few minutes to find the star attraction before their return flight. They were rarely disappointed.

“Six or seven nights a week, he would come out and bathe,” Williams says of this dusky-colored bird with a distinctive orange eye-ring. “It was just like clockwork, usually within two or three minutes of the previous night’s bathing episode.”

Before and since, visits by the occasional rose-throated becard and crimson-collared grosbeak have added more luster to the Sanctuary’s list of 178 bird species. Nearly 100 birders showed up over two days in March 2003 to see the Valley’s first slate-throated redstart.

“This is when it hit home to me what kind of network there is and how interconnected birders are,” says Williams, who is now a wildscape designer. “Within 15 to 20 minutes of the first sighting of that redstart, I was getting calls from California. People were flying in from Oregon and driving in from Florida.”

Early photos of Williams’ property show 13 live oaks, a line of ebony trees, a grassy lawn, and not much more. Today, the property boasts a multi-level cover of native vegetation, crisscrossed by walking trails and studded with benches for resting and watching.

“What works here is having the layered effect. You’ve got ground cover and mid-canopy and then upper canopy,” says Williams. “It provides the birds with cover while they’re foraging up and down through those zones.”

At the entrance to the Sanctuary, a dusty guest book shares a table with an old kayak, several birdhouses and a sign suggesting a $10 donation. A path marked by deadfall branches and tree stump sections takes visitors along the west side of the Williams’ house, past a corner where a large boulder, drilled for 1/4-inch copper pipe, drips water into a shallow depression lined with smooth stones. Mexican love vine, milkweed and other nectar plants beloved by butterflies and hummingbirds gather around.

“There are always more food sources than available water,” Williams says. “I tell everyone: ‘If you provide water in shallow features, the birds will come.’”

Another thing Williams likes is deadfall. A fallen ash has been left for cavity-loving birds and foraging woodpeckers. Another 20-foot section of old palm rises like a totem pole, providing nesting space for red-crowned parrots.

“I really enjoy using deadfall,” says Williams. “It’s a perch and as it starts to decay, the birds will come to eat the bugs. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, especially when it comes to fallen palm trees and trees with cavities in them.”

Like other landowners who create backyard habitats, Williams says he gets personal satisfaction from creating a space for wildlife, and then sharing his creation with others. “I’ve got a responsibility to keep doing what I’m doing,” he says, explaining that visitor donations go toward new plants and water features, while also showing the self-supporting possibilities of ecotourism.

“I can’t tell you how many people have gone through my backyard and told me there is a spiritual presence here. It is calming to people and brings them back,” Williams says. “And the birding is wonderful, too.”

750 W. Sam Houston, Pharr, TX 78577
Call before visiting: (956) 460-9864; wildscapes@sbcglobal.net

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