I f you're a gardener, you're probably a wildlife watcher because wherever there are plants, there are insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and who knows what else.
Even with my house pets roaming the landscape, wild creatures will come and scope out the area to decide if they want to stay or just visit a while. A few weeks ago, I wondered if a family of morning doves were going to set up housekeeping in a large fuschia basket hanging off the roof of the patio. The first morning, the male bird would sit on the edge of the basket or hop along the roof overhead. The next morning, he came back with his mate and they spent several minutes scoping out the location, hopping inside the center of the basket and back out again.
''If they decide to build a nest there, how will I water the plant?'' my husband said.
But before he had to decide if he needed to poke holes in the sides of of the planter to pipe in water without disturbing a potential nest, the birds thought otherwise and decided to locate elsewhere.
Early last spring, a pair of robins built a nest about waist level between the branches of an old grapevine. It was early enough that the grape leaves hadn't yet filled out the arbor and the nest, as well as the four baby birds inside, were completely exposed. After a particular nasty storm, I tiptoed out to the nest to check on the babies. They were huddled tightly together, but their parents' nest-building technique allowed for proper drainage and they were fine.
This season, a pair of robins and a pair of house sparrows created an apartment complex on the beams of our large rose arbor. The robins' nest was on the top beam and the sparrows' was directly below. We wondered how they managed to get along as neighbors, but they seemed not to mind each others' company.
Watching wildlife in a garden is probably one of the most relaxing pastimes I can imagine. Whether it's the antics of the local birdlife, the frogs who splash around in the fish pond or the hummingbirds that mistake a lawn ornament for a flower, there is a lot to be said for attracting wild critters to the yard.
We have several species of birds that visit, not including the large blue heron that threatened the fish one summer, yet we don't have to spend hundreds of dollars each year buying bird seed. Plants, shrubs and trees are adequate food sources, not to mention habitat conducive.
Probably the most important item needed in a garden to attract wildlife is water. Our garden pond has a medium-size waterfall with flat rocks on the sides of that are close to the surface of the water. We often see little birds bathing themselves in puddles on the wet rocks and even standing on the falls' stone shelves while the water flows over their feet.
The surface of the pond is more than 60 percent covered with water lilies that not only hide the fish from predators, but also shade the water and help keep algae from growing. But if you don't have a pond, a birdbath will be sufficient to attract many species. Just make sure the water and the birdbath are kept clean. If you worry about your or your neighbors' cats, you can suspend the bird bath with chains from a tree branch. Nearby trees and shrubs offer hiding places for birds and other wildlife.
Plants with brightly-colored tubular flowers or flowers that are highly scented will attract hummingbirds. Some of these include fuschia, crocosmia, hollyhock and other flowers from the mallow family, beebalm, foxglove, trumpet vine, butterfly bush and butterfly weed.
Underplantings of shrubs that produce berries are good for birds, such as winterberry, serviceberry, spicebush and hollies. Birds also like a lot of seeds and planting catmint, groundcover sedums, zinnia, Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium), and goldenrod will bring flocks of birds into the garden.
It's perfectly fine to enjoy watching the birds at your feeders, but keep in mind that birds don't live on seeds alone. Usually in spring, when birds are feeding their young, they forage for insects, as well. It is not true that if you feed the birds and then stop, they will starve. Birds do not depend on your feeders for their entire diets and get their food from many different sources.
But if you do use feeders, be sure to keep them clean to avoid spreading fungal and other diseases that can cause respiratory problems for our feathered friends.