The special ingredients that made a one-time cattle pen attract more birds than any other yard in North America
By Matt Mendenhall | Published: 4/2/2015
Successful yard listing — keeping track of the bird species that you see in or from your yard — requires two things: awareness of what birds are present or passing through, and the know-how to create habitats that will attract a wide variety of visitors.
More than 10,000 birders keep track of yard lists on the checklist website eBird, and the National Wildlife Federation has registered more than 175,000 Certified Wildlife Habitats across America. Clearly, lots of people have the awareness and know-how to maintain yard lists.
A few property owners, however, have a special ingredient that has helped their lists grow fast: location. Living in a place where many birds come and go has clear benefits. Homeowners in Marin County, California, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Pensacola, Florida, have lists exceeding 280 species, says field-guide consultant and tour leader Paul Lehman. He should know. From 1994 to 2006, he amassed 316 species, an unofficial North American yard-list record, while living in another place well known for its birds — Cape May, New Jersey.
The mark stood until 2014, when a Gray Kingbird and later a Fish Crow were spotted in a yard on Galveston Island, Texas, a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico. The sightings raised Jim Stevenson’s list to 318 species. You may have heard of him, or his father: A lifelong birder, Stevenson is an author, a birding guide, and the founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society. (Dad was Henry M. Stevenson, an ornithologist at Florida State University, a research fellow at the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, and the co-author of The Birdlife of Florida.)
Like a wildlife refuge
Stevenson’s home is on what he calls “the edge of a failed subdivision” on the western side of the island. Today it’s like living in a wildlife refuge, he says, but it wasn’t always so birdy.
Once it was a cattle pasture, part of which was bulldozed in the 1950s to create a 14-foot-high butte where cows could be driven in case of hurricanes. The cattle pen later became a research plot for ornithology students.
Stevenson mist-netted birds there in the 1980s, while he was writing his Master’s thesis on migration in the Gulf states. He bought the two-acre property in 1995 and has kept a yard list since March 1996.
When he moved in, the yard had lots of non-native chinaberry trees and, on the south side, cherry laurels, which produce fruit that attracts birds. “Over the years, I have replaced many chinaberries with fruiting trees,” he says. “The cherry laurels have spread north and now surround the yard with their dense foliage. I have also planted bird-attracting trees such as mulberries, Hercules club, peaches, a wonderful plum tree, and several oaks that really bring in the birds.”
Additional factors that make Stevenson’s yard a magnet for birds:
• Location: Galveston Island lies on the spring or fall path for almost all eastern migrants, and it attracts a fair number of western stragglers. Birds that make the long flight across the Gulf find refuge in Stevenson’s yard.
• The neighborhood: Few other homes are nearby. Cattle pastures to the east attract wintering Sandhill Cranes, migrating sandpipers, and nesting Northern Harriers. To the west, a large artificial lagoon brings rails, ducks, and surprises like Yellow-headed Blackbird.
• Elevation: The butte sits above sea level, so its trees and other plants are higher than the salty Gulf air and beyond the reach of foliage- and fruit-damaging salt spray.
• The view: An observation deck towers above the house, enabling Stevenson to see waterbirds and raptors migrating along the Gulf coast.
• Fresh water: Stevenson has run a long black hose from the house along a tree limb and over rocks to a flat wooden box. When the weather is warm, birds come in for a drink. The drip is visible from inside through a set of windows.
“Nothing comes through my yard without me seeing it,” he says.
Stevenson’s yard has attracted several species that are out of range on the Upper Texas Coast, including Bell’s and Cassin’s Vireos, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and the Gray Kingbird he found in 2014. He has also documented the near-annual occurrence of Western Wood-Pewee, proving to the Texas Bird Records Committee that the species can be found east of the Great Plains.
Another rarity? Bird feeders. Stevenson occasionally puts out hummingbird feeders, and he’ll use a seed feeder in winter if goldfinches or other seedeaters are around, but most of the time, birds find only natural food in the yard.
Small’s photos appear in “ID Tips” in every issue of BirdWatching, and Murphy is a frequent contributor to the magazine. “The excitement of never knowing what may show up on any given day keeps bringing us back for more,” Small says.
The yard is also a destination during the annual Galveston FeatherFest and Nature PhotoFest; this year, the festival takes place April 9-12.
If you visit, you might notice that Stevenson has named his yard Heartbreak Hammock, a bit of a downer for a place so rich in birdlife. He says the story behind the moniker is this:
“Back in the 1980s, I brought my high-school zoology students out from Florida to study birds, and we erected mist nets for banding. When we went to lunch, a woman came on the property, and thinking we were somehow injuring the birds, she tore down the nets, destroying them. The kids were heartbroken, and the name stuck.”
Matt Mendenhall is the managing editor of BirdWatching magazine. This article was published in our April 2015 issue. Subscribe.