Our Little Neck of the Woods

by Margy Terpstra

In 1996, we were close to becoming empty nesters that had run out of projects, and had that itch to find a home with a bigger lot and more trees. We began searching. As soon as we walked through this house and onto the deck, I turned to Dan and whispered, “The BIRDS!” We just knew the wooded area behind us would be a natural little migrant trap, and we bought the house.

We’re situated on a corner lot in northwest Kirkwood, 2/3 of an acre in size. Our lot sits at the bottom of the hill, the neighbor behind us being a bit lower. The wooded area is fairly dense behind the lowest four houses, and it is difficult to see our neighbor’s house when the trees have fully leafed out. We have a mixture of mostly deciduous trees, shrubs and vines‑ white, black, shingle and pin oaks, ash, hickory, sugar and red maples, black cherry, a single bald cypress, and a few small American elms, blackhaw viburnum, Virginia creeper, gray dogwoods, mayapple, and poison ivy. The bald cypress does well because the lowest area is very wet in spring, a vernal wetland. Invasive honeysuckle pervaded the woods, and has required persistent efforts at eradication. Many natives have reappeared and we’ve planted more.

As all birders know, providing food, shelter and water will bring birds into your yard and into your view. Probably fifteen years ago, I found one of the original birdbath misters, and have always run that in warm weather. Many species have used it, including the ruby‑throated hummingbirds and black‑throated green warblers. And, we keep a small recirculating fountain going on the deck for chickadees and titmice among others, that prefer the higher perch our deck affords. Now we wanted to provide water in a more natural setting, surrounded by native plants that would attract warblers and other migrants, and bring them down from the treetops into better view. It was time to design a bubbler for the birds.

The bubbler at Tower Grove Park was the original inspiration, but we knew that idea would need modification for our site. Then, we read Randy Koretev’s article back in the February 1999 issue of Nature Notes, on Building a Bubbler. We decided to try a combination of both ideas. Now, it was just a matter of finding the right rock. And, there it was. It was April of 2000‑ the foundation was being dug for our breakfast room addition, and the perfect rock was unearthed. It was smooth enough, large enough, and had a very nice groove in it that ran off to one side, just right for a waterfall effect. It was October when we began the installation.

During the remodeling, Dan ran an extra electrical line run out to the approximate area where we would be putting the pond in, for the pump and heater. We moved the rock to the desired position by the caveman method, with 2×4’s and rocks. Then, Dan mounted a post and box for the wiring. We purchased a 100 gallon preformed pond by MacCourt, the “Madeira”. Dan worked like a Trojan, digging the hole and getting it all leveled up in a bed of sand. We then rented a large drill with a 1/2″ masonry bit that was 16″ long to drill through the rock. We purchased a recirculating pump and a mechanical/biological filtration setup, and filled the pond. The water runs into the pump, then out through the tubing where we put in a “T”. This allows half the water to pump up through the rock and bubble up, and then trickle down the ‘waterfall groove’. The other half recirculates in the pond. We let it sit about a week, and then added some feeder goldfish. We also bought a floating heater to use through the winter to keep the surface from icing over. Then, we watched the fun begin!

Diagram of the Terpstra's bubbler that has attracted so many diverse birds
On October 25, 2000, the bubbler was finally running. I set the stage early in the morning, hosing off the rocks, and sprinkling the blackhaw viburnum leaves. It seems to add to the invitation to come, drink and bathe! In the first few days, there were 6‑8 American goldfinches there at a time, ruby‑crowned kinglets, house finches, white‑throated sparrows, American robins, cedar waxwings, and the list just kept growing. In the winter, with light snow, a yellow‑bellied sapsucker, Northern flicker, white and red‑breasted nuthatches came and drank.

In spring, hermit and Swainson’s thrushes gave way to the warblers, 32 species to date: yellow‑rumped, Tennessee, Nashville, black and white, palm, black‑throated green, blackpoll, prothonotary, Canada, Kentucky, hooded, mourning, Connecticut, and so on. I soon discovered how beautiful a Tennessee warbler could be when you are looking down at him! There were birds that just came and looked at the bubbler, like the black‑billed cuckoo, while eating tent caterpillars in the cherry tree. But…they came down where we could get a better look at them! They obviously heard the water moving, and were checking it out. More warblers, like the chestnut‑sided, bay‑breasted, American redstarts, magnolias, blackburnian, and Wilson’s warblers often will come in flurries of birds for 45 minutes or more. We’ve had rare and endangered warblers, black‑throated blue and cerulean, that made brief appearances, too.

Once one bird gets the idea and gets brave, more come and watch, and then take their turn, claiming “My bubbler”. Did I mention the red‑eyed, white‑eyed, blue‑headed warbling and Philadelphia vireos? We’ve seen yellow‑bellied flycatchers, Eastern wood peewees and Eastern phoebes swoop over the bubbler and again over the pond to get a drink, splash bathe and catch insects. Larger birds like Cooper’s hawks and barred owls also come to drink and bathe. The Baltimore orioles and rose‑breasted grosbeaks, ruby‑throated hummingbirds, scarlet and summer tanagers have come and what a thrill it is to see all of these birds, attracted by the gurgling of the water.

In January, 2003 we had a surprise visitor. We’d had a few inches of snow, and then the temperatures plummeted. It was just 2 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of 15‑25 degrees below zero. The heater was in the pond, keeping the water warm enough to circulate and it was probably the only running water for miles. I looked out and saw a life bird for me B a varied thrush! Documentation for the bird was accepted for the eleventh record in the state.

The wetland area is also attractive to birds with its still water in spring. Northern and Louisiana waterthrushes, American robins, veery, wood, Swainson’s and gray‑cheeked thrushes find a lot of food in wetter years. One spring, a special moment came when I heard a wren making quite a racket at the base of the Bald Cypress, below the pond and bubbler. I quickly realized this was not a wren I’d heard here before, it was a marsh wren! Fortunately, six other people got to see him during his two‑day stay.

We continue in our efforts to restore the woodland and wetland areas by removing the honeysuckle and installing native plants beneficial to wildlife. Our property was officially certified as a National Wildlife Federation Wildlife Habitat in January 2008, because we provide the four basic habitat elements for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover and places to raise young.

Yes, our little neck of the woods is a pretty special place. We keep track of the fauna that discover our refuge with 145 species of birds on our Yard list, and 108 on the Bubbler list. I have come to realize that the birds are watching me, too. They seem to sense that I’d never harm them, and somehow understand that we want to provide a sanctuary for them, as well as ourselves. Simply, as poet Wendell Berry wrote, we are humbled by “the peace of wild things.”  (Additional pictures: www.mobirds.org/ArticlePage.aspx?id=12)

Editor’s note:  Several of us had the opportunity to visit Margy and Dan Terpstra’s amazing backyard at the September meeting.