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Door to Nature

How pleasant it has been creating and maintaining a wildlife oasis in our front yard over the past 27 years. What began as a small spot containing a few year-around bird feeders has gradually grown to an area roughly 25’x 40’containing many annual and perennial flowers during the growing season, and nine different bird feeders and a bird bath which are stocked with food and water all year. Hiding places for the birds, good cover, are very important to the success of an oasis.

Our oasis consists of a 12-foot hedge of Eastern White Cedar trees along the west end of the feeding area. Thousands of photos of the day-to-day plant and animal activity have been taken, and dozens of nature stories have been written highlighting the fascinating activities. Many are contained in my latest book, Tales of the Wild, A Year With Nature.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird at the Tithonia blossom.

When I was working at the Ridges Sanctuary one winter I wrote to our friend, Lorrie Otto, famous natural landscaper from the Milwaukee area, asking if she would agree to do an evening program about her specialty for us in August at the Baileys Harbor Town Hall. Her answer was that it would take the combined strength of a team of draft horses to pull her away from her natural yard during that season teeming with flowers, birds and butterflies. Fortunately she did agree to do a program because she was a firm believer in the work we were doing to encourage people to favor wild animals and plants along with good stewardship. The more our own little oasis grows on us the more reluctant we too are to want to miss a single day of the thrilling sights and experiences.

Our winter bird-feeding is very similar to many of your programs, attracting the typical permanent and transient species. They include the Black-capped Chickadee, N. Cardinal, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, Junco, American Tree Sparrow, Blue Jay, several species of woodpeckers, Mourning Dove, and both nuthatches. Within several feet of the bird feeders lies a 4’ x 8’ raised bed in which we plant flowers for attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and various other insects. The dried seed heads of the 5-foot-tall Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower plants, protruding above the snow are now attracting the American Goldfinches who are very adept at extracting the nutritious seeds. What a great seven-month magnet this plant is for attracting small wildlife July through January!

The five-foot-tall Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia rotundiflora, ranks high on our list of favorite oasis plants. Its brilliant orange-red dahlia-like blossoms are highly attractive to the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, bumblebees, many species of butterflies and other valuable insects. Upon a suggestion from our plant-expert friends, Bruce McKeefry and Geoff Yeomans, we inter-mingle plants of the tall, somewhat gangly lavender-colored Verbenas with the tall Mexican Sunflowers. The stiffer Tithonias help hold up the Verbenas. Both are exceptionally strong butterfly “magnets” while the color combination is very attractive.

The raised bed also contains Monarch butterfly plants, especially the Mexican Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica (as-KLEE-pea-us cur-as-SAV-i-ca) and the perennial, tall and striking clump of Swamp Milkweed, A. incarnata (in-car-NAY-ta) which I bought from my friend and former student, Fred, at Jerry’s Flowers in Sister Bay. What’s so ideal about this combination of flowers in the raised bed is that initially the tall and showy Tithonias and Verbenas attract the Monarch butterflies and, lo and behold, within inches grow the host food plants on which the females will deposit their eggs and on which the Monarch larvae will feed. The combination couldn’t be more perfect.

American Goldfinches eating Tithonia seeds in late fall.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Monarch Butterfly expert who is involved with the program “Monarchs In the Classroom” at the University of Minnesota, refers to this type of flower bed as a “Way Station” for the Monarchs. It provides them with flower nectar for energy throughout the summer and even into fall during their migration to Mexico, and also as an important site for laying their eggs on some of the host plants, the milkweeds.

There is also a small compact variety of the Tithonia, called “Fiesta Del Sol” which grows to around two to three feet, flowers profusely all summer, is very resistant to deer, and is also attractive to butterflies. By the way, Tithonias generally do best in full or nearly full sunlight.

Providing water year-around for all creatures which make use of our wildlife oasis is of great importance. Several dozen nesting species of songbirds use the baths in summer. Mammals depending upon it at our place include Raccoons, Opossums, Field Mice, Meadow Voles, squirrels, the Chipmunk, Cottontails and foxes. Even a large Western Fox Snake has slithered into the bath on the ground in summer to drink and probably to cool itself.

Three species of owls, the Great-horned, Barred and Eastern Screech, have been attracted to the Cottontails, mice and voles which in turn have been lured to the seeds on the ground beneath our feeders.

Start planning now to create a 12-month wildlife oasis at your place. You’ll not be lonely when surrounded by your wild animal and plant friends. Look around you! Enjoy the day-to-day, round-the-clock pageant of nature at your doorstep!