Gardening tips from birdwatchers who attract hummingbirds
How a Texas couple transformed a yard filled with burr grasses into a showplace for attracting hummingbirds
Published: June 25, 2004
|Does one small bird have the power to change two lives? For Curt and Anna Reemsnyder, the answer is a resounding yes. About 25 years ago, Curt bought a hummingbird feeder for their weekend cottage, located north of Corpus Christi, Texas. Soon they noticed a hummingbird, but not the Ruby-throated variety that their bird book predicted. A phone call from the Reemsnyders enticed Jesse Grantham, a co-founder of Rockport-Fulton's famous Hummer/Bird Celebration, to visit and identify the mystery guest as a Buff-bellied Hummingbird.|
"At that time," Anna recalled, "it was an unusual sighting." Grantham asked permission to add their discovery to a hotline, and the Reemsnyders, who considered themselves "primarily plant people with relatively little expertise in birds," began meeting hummingbird admirers from near and far. "It was a dependable, gorgeous bird," Anna continued. "It came every 20 minutes, winter and summer, for three and a half years. It was almost like having a child to care for, because we had to come up from our home in Corpus Christi to change the bottle twice a week."
Grantham also introduced Curt and Anna to the huge numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that funnel south along the Texas Gulf Coast each September. "It seems unlikely now," Anna mused, considering how well known the Hummer/Bird Celebration has become since its launch in 1988. "We had lived in the area more than 20 years, but with no plants or feeders we knew nothing about a migration," she confessed. "When we adopted our first Buff-belly, Jesse suggested we add certain nectar plants to the yard so we didn't need to worry so much about the feeder. It was a revelation." Curt developed a deep interest in the plants, as well as in the masses of hummingbirds, warblers, orioles, and butterflies the plants attracted. Since 1988, the Reemsnyders have opened their yard to Celebration visitors annually.
"Curt has a boyish curiosity about wildlife and was anxious to expand his gardening efforts," Anna explained. "Most especially, he wanted a pond," which the cottage parcel could not provide. With elbowroom and open water in mind, he and Anna purchased 55 acres nearby and moved from the cottage to their present home site in 1994.
|A plan for hummingbirds|
The Reemsnyders sited nectar flowers, hummingbird feeders (red circles), and seed feeders (gold rectangles) near the house. Patches of Texas wildflowers and grassy savannahs dotted with sunflowers for seed-eating birds radiate outward from the barn.
|The property is a designated Texas Wildscape and a showplace for attracting backyard wildlife, but it was far from that in the beginning. Although three ponds graced the expansive acreage, as a former oil exploration site, it posed major challenges to Curt's goal of developing a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Two miles of old pipeline littered the ground, oil contaminated a disposal pit, and a rusting brine conduit leaked into the main pond. Gas-gathering lines and cleared easements crisscrossed otherwise pristine woodlands. Most discouraging to the Reemsnyders were the 13 acres of cleared ground around the house, which were devoid of all but mature oaks. With no understory, invasive burr grass flourished there. When the couple arrived, sand burrs were so rampant that Anna and Curt, formerly a radiologist, taped old X rays onto their jeans like armor to ease the pain of working outside.|
"Our blast-furnace summers taught us, after much trial and error, that in order to bring back the understory species, we needed to begin in the shade," Curt explained. Sandy soils of the peninsula where they live originated as an ancient barrier island. Without shade, seedlings and transplants baked in the quick-draining soil. To enhance water retention, Curt and Anna incorporate hundreds of bags of leaf mulch annually. As leaf-amended soil improves, plantings survive at a much higher rate.
"We used to be leaf-thieves," Anna admitted. The couple cruised residential neighborhoods seeking freshly raked treasure set out for the trash. Now friends deliver bagged leaves. One danger of accepting all donations is stow-away exotic seeds such as castor bean, but Curt and Anna weed vigilantly.
"Many people prefer the park-like appearance of lawn grass, foundation plantings, and mature trees," Anna observed, "but the typical American yard with exotic grass and exotic trees offers little for wildlife." The Reemsnyders' goal has been a balancing act - restoring a healthy forest ecosystem to the outskirts of their property, while maintaining a small lawn sprinkled with nectar- and seed-bearing flowers to lure hummingbirds and songbirds within easy viewing distance of their house.
"Petroleum exploration scars are hard to heal," Curt said, but the waste pit has been cleaned with oil-eating bacteria, and tropical downpours have restored life-giving water to the briny pond. Sparkling waters now host Belted Kingfishers, Great Egrets, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, American Coots, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mallards, and Pied-billed Grebes, plus a healthy assortment of turtles, snakes, fish, and the occasional alligator. Deer, raccoons, opossums, fox squirrels, javelinas, coyotes, and foxes prowl the woods and the reintroduced grassy savannahs that are filling the once burr-infested wasteland between their house and the forest at the outskirts of the property.
Live and laurel oaks are major components of local forests. Native understory consists of a dense growth of small trees and shrubs dominated by yaupon, a slender evergreen holly that produces abundant, winter-ripening berries. Other sub-canopy natives that bear seasonal fruit include southern dewberry, saw greenbrier, American beautyberry, Turk's cap, and red bay. Among the fruit-eating understory residents are Black-crested Titmice, Northern Cardinals, and Northern Mockingbirds. During the spring and fall, branches are aflutter with Cedar Waxwings, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Black-and-white Warblers, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. "We raided our woods to transplant small plants," Anna said, "and we purchased larger specimens from nursery stock." Fearing oak leaf wilt, a disease that's decimating oaks in Texas Hill Country, Curt and Anna added several pine species as shade insurance. Bird-wise friends also suggested that they plant Texas sugarberry, golden-fruited Ehretia anacua, and brasil, or bluewood, which bears bird-attracting fruits throughout the year.
By enhancing the understory and allowing wooded thickets to mature, Curt has attained about 90 percent of his goal of steadily reducing the wildlife-inhospitable 13 acres that once surrounded the house. Radiating outward from core woodlands, he annually applies a rapidly degrading glyphosate weed killer to a two-foot-wide strip. Curt's technique creates a temporary band of dead vegetation that is gradually colonized by native herbs, shrubs, and trees. The result, over the past decade, has been to expand native habitat that provides essential food, shelter, and nesting cover from ground level to the oak canopy. The Reemsnyders have dug two more ponds and situated shallow pools and birdbaths so that each major island offers water for wild visitors. A manicured lawn of St. Augustine grass accents spreading oaks in the front and side yards and provides clear vistas of bird-feeding areas from house windows and patio.
Surrounding the exterior of the house and creating colorful transitions between the lawn and the tree islands are sun-drenched swaths of flowering butterfly and hummingbird plants. Where turf meets flowers, Curt placed slender wooden or bamboo perches for dragonflies. The "mosquito hawks" vigilantly patrol grassy openings, reducing abundant mosquito populations.
At their previous cottage, the Reemsnyders learned that hummingbirds love the tubular red blossoms of scarlet bush and fountain-shaped Mexican firecracker bush. Their present spacious yard allows room for experimentation with more species and color schemes. Many hummingbird plants radiate warm yellow, orange, and red hues that harmonize with the Reemsnyders' earth-toned brick home. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, hummingbirds sip at wildflowers, native coral honeysuckle vines, feathery-leafed pride-of-Barbados, and Cape honeysuckle, a shrub from South Africa. Autumn migrants flock to bright red blossoms of Turk's cap and to long-blooming Texas sage, a perennial in subtropical climates.
When the Reemsnyders purchased the property, Anna was appalled at a huge blob of concrete that had been dumped alongside the driveway, apparently left over from construction. The addition of a water dripper and thoughtfully designed plantings have turned the lumpy leftover into one of the most attractive and wildlife-friendly spots in the yard. Ground-doves and Inca and Mourning Doves amble to the shady watering hole to drink and bathe, keeping watch for the resident Red-shouldered Hawk. Roadrunners dart from cover to grab lizards and sometimes leap for hummingbirds at nearby feeders.
A short distance from the house, in beds edging the long driveway and detached garage, carrot-colored blossoms of butterfly weed provide a pleasing contrast to the purple hues of wild petunia. Above them, the delicate lilac blossoms of sky flower arch gracefully near a trumpet creeper. The couple prefers orange-flowered 'Madame Galen' over the more invasive native trumpet creeper. These plants, along with wildflower patches edging lower portions of the driveway, perform dual duty as hummingbird and butterfly attractors.
Late autumn's mild temperatures favor wildflower growth. Anna's well-tended planting edging one side of the far end of the driveway features a seasonal progression of hues derived from broadcasting a Texas-Oklahoma seed mix. Reestablishing the natives has proven challenging. When initial Texas bluebonnet and Indian paintbrush seedlings withered, Anna planted a few "mother plants" from nurseries. They struggled at first, then seeded and spread. She resolutely weeds and thins to maintain wildflower variety. Otherwise, ubiquitous Indian blanket, aggressive goldenthread, or the dreaded burr grasses would dominate.
Beyond well-tended beds of perennials, naturalized drifts of fall-blooming goldenrod, gayfeather, and sand palafox flow into grassy savannahs, which in turn, transition into woodlands at the far reaches of the property. Years of smothering weeds with mulch and treating the toughest with herbicides have paved the way for native grasses now thriving between islands of oak forest. The Reemsnyders maintain big bluestem, little bluestem, and Indiangrass in the savannahs by semi-annual mowing.
Although vegetation on the subtropical Texas coast looks lush, the climate is actually harsh and challenging to gardeners. Air near the Gulf of Mexico drips with humidity, yet rain from the coastal thunderheads is "deluge or miss." The Reemsnyders' yard has endured 120 days without precipitation; five of the past 11 years brought droughts. Rainfall for Rockport averages 32 inches annually, but 20 inches may descend in a hurricane and 10 inches can arrive with a winter storm.
Curt and Anna rely on plants adapted to unpredictable weather. In this semi-arid climate, plants revive from the summer torpor called aestivation when watered deeply. One year, due to unusual rains, their redbud tree bloomed and went dormant seven times. Though stressed, it survived. Anna abandoned "regular" sunflowers because they mildewed, but native silverleaf and javelin sunflowers flourish beyond the manicured beds. Their small seeds are perfect for American Goldfinches, Indigo Buntings, and Chipping Sparrows.
Gophers, which escape extreme conditions by living underground, gnaw on moisture-laden roots. Curt was puzzled to see an esperanza wilt and wither in several days. When he investigated, the whole shrub lifted from the soil, with a stub where roots should be. A similar fate befell a Texas sugarberry tree. Now he protects the roots of prized woody vegetation by planting them within buried cylinders of hardware cloth.
Anna sometimes longs for "four seasons and decent soil," but she and Curt feel richly rewarded by their garden-related pursuits, including completion of the Texas Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs. Curt helps organize local groups that preserve wildlife habitat. Anna presents talks about gardening and wildlife. Some of their most enjoyable moments, however, are spent walking to the ponds with their grandchildren or sitting under the spreading oaks with visitors from all over the world who have come to enjoy the yard and the birds it attracts.
Hummingbird-watching here is world-class. Each September, hundreds of Ruby-throats zip around the feeders like bees drawn to honey. Rarely, a Black-chinned or an errant Rufous visits in winter. Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, perhaps descendents of the bird that stole Curt and Anna's hearts decades ago, reside in the yard and zip to a feeder just inches from the deck. Emerald throat, bronze back, chestnut tail, jaunty red bill - Curt and Anna still take special notice whenever one arrives.
"Living here and watching the wildlife raises questions," Curt mused: Are the expanding ranges of Buff-bellied Hummingbirds evidence of global warming? Why are there old sapsucker drillings on the oaks, but no birds presently? Why were migrating flocks of Indigo and Painted Buntings common a decade ago, but now are seen in much reduced numbers?
Curt and Anna are modest about their birding skills, but they notice and ponder changes. Perhaps because they discovered birding through an interest in plants, they regard their yard as a functioning ecosystem. What started with one bird has made a huge impact on their lives and on the habitat that surrounds them. Wildlife, and human neighbors in the Rockport-Fulton community, benefit from the Reemsnyders' love of nature and their knowledge.
Connie Toops is a master gardener and a contributing editor to Birder's World magazine.
|Plants that make a Texas property a hotspot|
Here are the trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and wildflowers that Curt and Anna Reemsnyder combined in their southeastern Texas yard. Hardiness zone follows each item.
Trees and shrubs
American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) 7 (0°F)
Brasil, also known as bluewood (Condalia hookeri) 8 (10°F)
Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) 9 (20°F)
Dwarf wax-myrtle (Myrica pusilla) 7 (0°F)
Esperanza (Tecoma stans) 9 (20°F)
Anacua (Ehretia anacua) 9 (20°F)
Laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia) 8 (10°F)
Live oak (Quercus virginiana) 8 (10°F)
Mexican firecracker bush (Russelia equisetiformis) 10 (30°F)
Pride-of-Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) 10 (30°F)
Red bay (Persea borbonia) 8 (10°F)
Redbud (Cercis canadensis) 5 (-20°F)
Scarlet bush (Hamelia patens) 8 (10°F)
Texas sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) 6 (-10°F)
Turk's cap (Malvaviscus drummondii) 9 (20°F)
Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) 7 (0°F)
Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) 4 (-30°F)
Saw greenbrier (Similax bona-nox) 6 (-10°F)
Southern dewberry (Rubus trivialis) 7 (0°F)
Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) 5 (-20°F)
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) 3 (-40°F)
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) 4 (-30°F)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) 4 (-30°F)
Butterfly milkweed (A. curassavica) 8 (20°F)
Gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) 3 (-40°F)
Goldenrod (Solidago altissima) 4 (-30°F)
Goldenthread (Thelesperma flavodiscum) 8 (10°F)
Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulcherima) 5 (-20°F)
Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivsa) 7 (0°F)
Javelin sunflower (Helianthus praecox runyonii) 9 (20°F)
Sand palofox (Palafoxia hookerana) 9 (20°F)
Silverleaf sunflower (Helianthus praecox argophyllus) 9 (20°F)
Sky flower (Duranta repens) 9 (20°F)
Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) 7 (0°F)
Texas sage (Salvia coccinea) 7 (0°F)
Wild petunia (Ruellia nudiflora, R. dyschoriste linearis) 9 (20°F)
The U.S. National Arboretum publishes a colorful map of plant hardiness zones.