Over the years, Kathy and I have often dreamed of escaping today’s fast-paced, hectic world and moving to an island of our own—an island of trees, flowers, and abundant wildlife, where we could experience the joys of nature without leaving the confines of our own property. Realizing that buying an island wasn’t a realistic option, we decided to do the next best thing and create one on our three-acre patch of oak woodland in the foothills of Northern California.
Everyone knows you can’t have wildlife without adequate habitat: food, water, cover, and space. With over 200 mature blue oaks and gray pines growing on the island, we already had a good start. Hawks and owls roost and sometimes nest in the branches, while deer, gray squirrels, and wild turkeys feed on the bounty of acorns and pine nuts these beneficial trees provide. All of the wildlife that honor us with their presence take advantage of the numerous birdbaths and water containers we’ve provided. These invaluable water sources are absolutely essential during Northern California’s long, hot summers.
Our first step in attracting hummingbirds, goldfinches, butterflies, and native bumblebees was ridding our yard of water-guzzling domestic fescue and replacing it with rock gardens of wildlife-friendly plants. Annuals like California poppy, Rudbeckia, Zinnias, and sunflowers offer beauty and sustenance every spring and early summer. Perennials like Verbena, Lantana, Salvia, Penstemon, and Epilobium provide nectar and cover for much of the year.
Kathy and I never tire of watching Anna’s, rufous, and black-chinned hummingbirds dart in and out of the garden. Once or twice each year, we’re visited by diminutive calliopes. We’ve found that as long as we’re able to provide nectar-producing flowers and attract tiny flying insects to the garden, hummingbird feeders aren’t necessary.
During the winter months we fill our seed feeders with nutritious black sunflower seeds that we buy from the local feed store. Sunflower plants, from ten-foot-high mammoths to much smaller ornamentals, serve the same purpose during the summer months, encouraging regular visits from woodpeckers, goldfinches, nuthatches, titmice, and grosbeaks. We never artificially feed deer or other mammals, although the deer do a good job of gleaning what’s left of our tomato garden in the fall. As long as they leave a few for us, Kathy and I are happy to share.
Migratory cavity-nesting birds like bluebirds, nuthatches, tree swallows, and flycatchers generally arrive in early spring to claim the various nest boxes I’ve installed in strategic locations around the island. White-crowned sparrows, juncos, goldfinches, robins, and towhees linger for a few months, taking advantage of the healthy menu of seeds, insects, grubs, and other food items, before moving north to cooler environs. (A list of bird species that have graced us with their presence during our thirty-two years on the island is available by clicking this link).
Doves, quail, towhees, and other ground-feeding birds live in constant danger of being snatched up by Cooper’s hawks or ambushed by the neighbor’s cat. I’ve provided cover in the form of thorny Lady Banks rose brambles throughout the yard and brush piles along the perimeter. Fast-growing Lady Banks roses not only provide protection from predators, they also adorn the yard with magnificent displays of yellow and white flowers every spring.
Kathy and I like to say that we’re an equal-opportunity island. All reptiles and amphibians are welcome. Fence lizards, alligator lizards, sharp-tailed snakes, and an occasional gopher or king snake provide us with unending enjoyment during the warmer months. Pacific tree frogs and western toads help to rid the garden of pests.
Speaking of pests, we’ve found that natural pest control works remarkably well if you give it a chance. Our resident red-shouldered hawks keep us free of ground squirrels, and owls do a fairly good job of controlling gophers. Since we don’t have a lawn anymore, we don’t worry about moles. Bluebirds, flycatchers, and swallows consume flying insects by day, and bats take over when the sun goes down. Voracious western toads, which patrol the undergrowth at night, can eat as many as 10,000 insects in one summer season.
You don’t have to live on three acres of oak woodland in Northern California to experience the joys of nature. Kathy and I recently visited relatives in LA’s drought-stricken San Fernando Valley and spent several hours strolling through residential neighborhoods. Largely due to water restrictions, many front yards had been converted from traditional lawns and landscaper shrubs to gardens of drought-tolerant native plants, nectar-laden flowers, and wildlife-friendly perennials. Close behind were butterflies, hummingbirds, and, in some cases, native bumblebees.
Want to create an island of your own? The National Wildlife Federation’s Garden-for-Wildlife program, the Audubon Society, or your local native plant society can give you some great ideas. The possibilities are endless.