Bird Sanctuaries

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with birds. This is not to say that I am a birdwatcher as that term is normally used. I don’t go out into the forests and glades armed with binoculars and a field guide. I might be able to identify a handful of bird calls, but only the most obvious ones that most people recognize. I know the names of a dozen or so species, perhaps more if I give it some serious thought. The point is, I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert on feathered creatures. I simply enjoy watching them. More specifically, I like seeing them up close but from the comfort of my house, mostly from indoors. For over forty-five years I have been creating environments around the various places I have lived that would be safe and attractive for wildlife, a topic of one of my previous posts. More than any other creature, birds have remained the primary focus of my energy in this endeavor.

Cardinal and Chickadee on a frozen feeder
Cardinal and Chickadee on a frozen feeder

My father was an electrician by trade, but he was also quite a talented carpenter. I don’t recall if I asked him to build me a bird feeder or if he just decided I might like one, but he constructed a masterpiece just outside my bedroom window using two-inch metal pipe that formed a cross-like structure with braces at the top, to which he attached a corrugated metal roof about 2×3 feet in size. At the cross bar, about a foot or so below the roof, he attached two square wooden trays with small rims to hold bird seed. He completed the structure with a sheet-metal baffle cone attached to the pipe just below the wooden trays. It would be more accurate to say that my father had built a bird restaurant, which was typical of his approach to all backyard projects. He once erected a woodshed just behind our house that was better constructed than many of the houses in our town and could store enough firewood for a dozen Minnesota winters. We lived in middle Georgia.

Unfortunately, when Dad secured the feeder in the ground with concrete, the baffle wasn’t high enough to stop squirrels from taking a running leap up the pole, bouncing off the metal, and grabbing the edge of the wooden trays to then gorge themselves on seed. To thwart the rodents’ gluttonous invasions, my father once coated the pole with axle grease. Not to be deterred, the furry critters repeatedly and with astounding diligence would jump on the slick pole, slide to the ground, and repeat the routine until their white bellies were quite black and saturated with grease, thus cleaning the pole to the extent that they could once again raid the seed trays. We eventually gave up and just resigned ourselves to buy enough seed to satisfy the squirrels and feed the birds. Later, I started putting seed on the brick ledge below my window that only the birds could reach, allowing me to be only inches away from them as they pecked away at millet and sunflower seeds.

When I permanently moved away from home, I dug up the homemade feeder and carried it with me to at least two of my homes. Finally, the wooden trays began to rot due to my neglect, and I disposed of the feeder. It also took up too much space in my small yards. Moving forward, I elected to buy more traditional feeders at the big box stores and at boutique bird shops. I have mounted them on deck railings, attached them to tree trunks, and hung them from poles. I have watched them be ravaged by squirrels and raccoons. I have seen one completely destroyed by what must have been a black bear, sightings of which were frequent at our home in north Georgia. I was thrilled when stores began to stock their shelves with safflower seeds, which squirrels tend to dislike and leave alone. Our current backyard in southwest Missouri has only small trees, providing little protection for squirrels but plenty of shelter for the birds. The twin feeders we have are equipped with a well-designed baffle high enough off the ground to prevent the pesky varmints from reaching the bird’s dinner. Victory at last. Let them eat acorns like God intended.

Finches feasting
Finches feasting

In addition to feeders, I have added water features to our gardens. Birds need fresh water for drinking and bathing. They are also attracted to running or moving water, probably because it facilitates bathing and usually indicates freshness. Currently, we only have a store-bought metal bird bath; however, at previous homes I built two garden ponds, each equipped with a cascading waterfall. Songbirds would often splash around in and drink from the small pools formed by the cascade. Even when we lived on a lake, we had one of these ponds in the yard, and ducks became regular visitors. They liked paddling around in the water.

Ducks at our pond
Ducks at our pond

There are certain elements of nature that, for lack of a better expression, are good for my soul. Most of these are grand in scale, such as beaches, high mountains, waterfalls, noisy rivers, public gardens, or sprawling vistas of the desert southwest. I have witnessed all of these many times, and they never disappoint me. But, I also get hours of pleasure by simply sitting in a chair on the deck or peering through the window and watching Cardinals, Chickadees, Bluebirds, Yellow Finches, Grosbeaks, Woodpeckers, and many other birds (yes, even sparrows) as they chirp, flit around, perch, and fill their bellies with seed and suet. They are like flowers that fly. It gives me great joy to help care for them.

Sparrow nesting on the porch
Sparrow nesting on the porch

Building Ponds and Waterfalls

Since starting this blog over a year ago, I have written several posts about waterfalls my family has visited in recent years.  I am attracted to water.  Some of my best memories from childhood through the present involve vacations at the beach, tubing down rivers, kayaking on ponds and lakes, and swimming in pools.  There are very few sounds that are more calming to me than waves crashing against the shore.  I love the music that water makes as it moves in nature — creeks, rivers, cascades, and falls.  I like how water divides land, how it reflects the sky and sparkles like diamonds with bright sunlight.  It is cliche to say that water is the source of life, and yet it is an indisputable fact that life on this planet would be impossible without water.

My appreciation for the gifts of water led me to begin contemplating about ten years ago how I could incorporate water into my garden.  I had seen ponds at homes and in public places, but I had never thought about creating one for myself.  Then I got divorced.  When such an emotional life-changing event occurs, some people turn to abusing alcohol, taking drugs, or other reckless behavior.  But, I have two sons who were both teenagers when my marriage ended.  They needed me to be sober, responsible, and engaged in their lives as much as possible within the limits imposed by the breakup.  Besides, addiction is not a problem for me, nor is it how I combat stress, anger, sadness, or any of the other strong feelings that accompany the dissolution of a marriage.  I needed a distraction, something that could occupy my mind and muscles while getting me out of the house.  So I started digging a hole in the backyard.

First pond 2006
First pond 2006

It took me several days just to dig the hole, and almost that long to get the sides level.  I read books.  I watched videos.  I drew pictures and diagrams.  I had a fairly steep embankment running down the side of my house (I ended up keeping our house) that extended into the fenced back yard and somewhat leveled out beside the posts of the back deck.  I envisioned a cascading waterfall built into the bank, where I had planted an assortment of shrubs several years earlier.  I consulted with a local landscape supply store about liners, flex hose, pumps, skimmers, and rocks.  The rocks I purchased were generally no larger than a honey dew melon, and I didn’t have a lot of money left after buying the mechanical supplies.  My property was bordered in the back by woods and a small creek.  Fortunately, my younger son was quite enthusiastic about the project as it developed, and was more than willing to help me drag rocks from the creek bed and up the hill to the pond site.  We moved a LOT of rocks, some of which were quite large.  My back will never be the same.  It took several weeks to finish, but the end product was really beautiful.  I even bought a few fish to complete the package.  Furthermore, the process of building the pond gave me the distraction I desperately needed and an opportunity to spend some quality time with my young teenager when he really needed my attention.

Second pond 2008
Second pond 2008

When my second wife and I got married, I moved in with her to a house located on a Georgia Power Company lake.  Even before we got married and I moved away from my house, I was already missing my pond.  Of course, there were several million gallons of water within a stone’s throw of our back door, and we had huge, clear windows looking out on the large cove where we lived.  I could fish in our back yard, climb onto a jet ski right off our dock, and go swimming without leaving home.  We were planning to get married on the patio looking out over the lake, and I was determined the sound of running water was going to be the music for our ceremony.  I went to work a couple of months before the wedding.  This time, I didn’t have a steep slope to work with, so I created a small “hill” for a waterfall using the dirt I removed for the pond.  The setting didn’t look as natural as the first pond, but I was able to landscape and plant sufficiently around the perimeter to make this second pond attractive.

Now we have left the lake house behind, along with our former jobs, and have moved to live and work in the north Georgia mountains.  I’m not sure my body could have taken the punishment of building a third pond.  It is quite grueling, especially digging the hole and then hauling and positioning the rocks.  But my wife and I both love water.  We seek it when we go on hikes.  We soak it up when we make our annual trips to the coast.  We spend many hours during the warmer months on nearby lakes cruising around in our kayaks.  We needed water at our new home, but there were no streams in sight of our property.  So we splurged.  We hired someone to build a pond and a waterfall for us at our new home.  It took the better part of a summer, but our contractor is an artist.  He took great care preparing the location behind our house, even though we were certain there wasn’t enough room for the size project we had in mind.  He made it fit, and he made it magnificent.  Once again, we are mesmerized by the sound of a cascading waterfall for at least seven months out of the year.  True, this third pond doesn’t look quite as authentic or natural as the smaller ones I created, but it has most certainly exceeded all our expectations.

Third pond 2014
Third pond 2014

Pool