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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nearby "I've never thought of that" places to see birds

 1.     Landfills are almost always full of all kinds of gulls (notice I didn’t say “seagull” because there is no such bird).

2.     Sewage treatment plants and settling ponds have lots of good food for birds, and you’ll get used to the smell in about ten minutes.
3.     Urban lakes, ponds and man-made reservoirs are excellent places for shorebirds and waterbirds. Remember, every lake in Texas (except Caddo) is man-made.
4.     Urban harbors and dock areas have lots of birds, especially if the water’s calm and there’s a minimum of boat activity.
5.     Vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites are usually full of birds, largely because of the lack of human activity, and the availability of nesting and roosting sites.
6.     Arboretums and parks are usually good sites, with mature trees, and many have benches and other resting places.
7.     Cemeteries are quiet and restful, often with large, mature trees. Birds love both!
8.     Roadside rest stops attract birds because of the avability of water, and (almost always) plants have been added to the sites.
9.     Utility line rights-of-way usually cut through heavily wooded, undisturbed land. The lines provide plenty of perches for birds.
10.   Edges of rural roads provide good habitat – mice congregate here, so many birds hunt here. You can also stay in your car as you birdwatch.

IT'S THE LAW !         The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and its amendments (which are federal law!) make it clear that it’s strictly forbidden to own, kill, injure or harass any native bird. Even ones that don't migrate! Generally, the law also unquestionably forbids messing with the nest of a protected bird in any way - even a little bit!  Cutting a tree down with a nest in it certainly qualifies as "illegal". If you see a possible violation, the Game Warden is the main enforcer, but any peace officer can start the ball rolling.
 The potential for harming a nest can happen any time of year, but NOW is the time of year when you're probably going to be okay. Anyway, before you take down a tree, dig a utility trench or ”clear” underbrush (where most birds nest) be absolutely, 100% sure there’s no bird nesting there. Occasionally I'll have trees cut down at my house. Before it comes down, however, I'll watch it carefully for a long while, making sure that no birds are nesting there.


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

natural, safe soil amendments

If you have children or pets who play outside, you certainly want everything you spray, shovel, till or spread on your yard to be totally safe. That’s why every landscape design I do, and many of the ones done by other professionals, are accompanied by the caution to avoid the use of artificial soil amendments. Materials found in nature are almost always safe and are often less expensive. Sometimes free! (note that not everything found in nature is good – for instance, arsenic is natural).  Some of the amendments are mixed into the soil, some go on top of the soil – so follow directions. Here’s a brief description of some:
No matter how disgusting your soil seems, leave it be and improve it naturally. (Of course, remove large rocks and such). You can even cultivate it, but never get rid of it.  The native soil is what our native trees and flowers are genetically accustomed to growing in. If the soil is made too “good” or is fertilized a lot, our native plants may not grow. Especially if you’re planting a tree, save the soil you dig up, and refill the hole with it, possibly mixing in a little organic matter such as dead leaves.

Dead leaves, shredded into smaller pieces, make a superb mulch or soil amendment. A once-over with a lawn mower, shredding the leaves and blowing them right back on the grass, works quite well. It's obviously inexpensive and time-saving too.

These work fantastically, and do not contain any filler material of questionable origin. Organic fertilizers don’t have abnormally-high levels of nitrogen or harmful salts, which probably will cause you to water your lawn more often in the future. Everything that’s in it is needed for healthy plant growth, and will not harm children, pets or birds.


Horticultural corn meal naturally stimulates beneficial soil microorganisms, to control fungal diseases that might otherwise attack your plants. It also helps make nutrients more available to plants, acting as a mild fertilizer. Some people use it to control algae in ponds and other water features.


Not to be confused with the above (on penalty of a brown garden), corn gluten meal is what’s called a pre-emergent; stopping seeds from germinating. For unwanted growth, it’s best applied about March 1 and again on June 1. Avoid spreading it where “good” seeds are planted (it won’t kill growing plants at all).


Earthworms eat organic matter in the soil and excrete “castings”. Do I really need to say any more?  All good, nutritious soils have this naturally. It’s an excellent,  odorless fertilizer – good for adding to potting soil too. It’s sold under several brand names.


This is easily the best form of organic matter. (It’s the product of a natural decomposition process, where it takes decades.) The result is the kind of soil we should have. Compost can be made quickly at home or is sold at lots of places. It is full of microscopic beneficial organisms, loaded with nutrients, and it recycles things like old leaves, dead shrubs and grass clippings that could otherwise wind up in landfills.


Good soil is alive - containing microorganisms and fungi that help plants grow. Molasses feeds and stimulates these organisms, essentially acting as a natural fertilizer. Technically, it adds carbon to the soil. It is available in the wet or dry, granular form, or you can just get blackstrap molasses at the grocery store.


This sand helps plants grow when mixed into your native soil, unlike concrete sand or the kind of sand you buy for a sandbox.  Primarily it helps keep moisture in the soil, so you have to water the yard less. It also makes nutrients, found naturally in all soils, more available to your plants – so you need to fertilize less. There are several kinds available, and several brand names. Often called “lava sand”, it’s especially good at keeping your soil moist and your water bill low.


Mined from ancient seabeds, it’s packed with organic matter and trace minerals. It also contains a high percentage of iron and is non-toxic – so is an excellent iron supplement for your plants.


This is a naturally-occurring mineral that has been used in agriculture for years. There is no man-made chemical process involved. Ironite does many things;  it’s a mild fertilizer, stimulating root growth and fighting the natural deficiency of iron common in area soils. It also helps plants take up the nutrients found naturally in even the most unpromising dirt.


Derived from the Neem tree (which grows in India and Burma), neem oil is biodegradable and is a botanical insecticide.  It’s not really an amendment, but an insect-controlling spray. Neem oil is primarily used to control grasshoppers by disrupting their growth cycle. Neem oil can also control spidermites, aphids and whiteflies, as well as controlling most kinds of fungus. Sprayed on plants, it makes them unappetizing to many insects (ordinary soap and water will do this too).


This is an underused material (sold under several brand names, such as Norit) especially for those who have used all sorts of chemicals in your yard, but now want to go straight. Basically it holds certain elements, releasing them to your plants with perfectly natural efficiency – or not releasing the harmful or unnecessary ones at all. It has proven detoxifying properties as well as an ability to deodorize.

Every one of these soil amendments is effective and they’re sold under a variety of brand names by responsible garden centers and feed stores. What’s more they won’t damage the birds and butterflies that visit your yard.



Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Red-tailed Hawk is making itself useful

Red-tailed Hawk
The common Red-tailed Hawk feeds mainly on rodents (including squirrels). With its two-foot body and four-foot wingspan, it isn’t agile enough to be a serious threat to many birds (especially in heavily treed areas), although it may get lucky and catch a few.  

It's probably the most common hawk in North America. They have clear regional differences, however. Most of them do not have what call a red tail;  it's tail is rust-colored, tan, chocolate-brown or, especially in younger ones, sort of a dirty white. (They are sometimes called “chicken hawks”but there actually is no such thing). Wherever they live, however, they are relentless hunters of mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels etc.)

Frozen birds.    If a small bird at your feeder suddenly sees a predator, like a hawk, he’ll normally fly to the safety of a nearby shrub. If safe cover isn’t close by, however, he’ll “freeze” motionless for a minute or two. He's hoping that the predator won't see him, since the predator's attention focuses on motion.
Clearly, the small bird would prefer the safety of vegetative cover. “Freezing” is far less effective, but it’s still better than being attacked and eaten by a hawk.


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.