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GARDENING FOR LIFE: Creating a backyard refuge for plants, insects, birds and photographers

GARDENING FOR LIFE: Creating a backyard refuge for plants, insects, birds and photographers

By Dr. Cheryl Tarr. Photos by Dr. Cheryl Tarr.

“There are those who can live without wild things, and those who cannot. I am of those who cannot.” Aldo Leopold’s words have always rung true for me, and not only in the wild places where I hike and camp, but also in my backyard. It is here that I have the most intimate and deep connection with the natural world – and here that I frequently sit quietly with my camera, waiting for the next wild thing to enter my field of view.

I am fortunate to have a small suburban lot that includes several large oak trees and other hardwoods. By reading books by Dr. Doug Tallamy (an author and entomologist at the University of Delaware) I have learned that oaks and other native species are critical for insects including pollinators (mostly bees and wasps) and the Lepidopterans (moths and butterflies). Some Lepidopterans are pollinators but more importantly they are an essential part of the food chain — songbird nestlings require lepidopteran larvae (caterpillars) as food and so most songbird species cannot survive for long without this food source. Dr. Tallamy’s group documented this as part of a citizen science project that examined photographs of parent birds returning to their nests with insects in their bills. They estimated that chickadees require 6,000 – 9,000 larvae to raise one clutch of young! From this I derive a simple formula to inform my property management: more native plants = more insects = more birds = more to photograph!

My penchant for planting and photographing native plants turned out to be a great blessing in the early months of the COVID pandemic, when I spent many mornings on the ground with my camera, face buried in the ‘weeds’ and wildflowers of my backyard. My yard is part of Homegrown National Park, a growing biodiversity reserve made up of urban and suburban yards across America that have some or all of the property landscaped with native plants ( I have created my piece of this reserve by visiting local native plant nurseries and plant sales, as well as allowing native species to grow wherever they spring up in my yard. I have been leaving the leaves for over a decade now and the soil — which already contained a native seedbank — is now conducive to the growth of the native species.

I follow Georgia Native Plant Society on Facebook, which is a great resource to learn about native plants and also to find out when and where all of the native plant sales will be held in the spring and fall. I am creating a diverse and layered landscape by including native species of vines, shrubs and small trees to form an understory. Many shrubs and vines are host plants for particular species (many insects species have specialized relationships with ‘host’ plants upon which adult insects lay their eggs and larvae can feed). For example, spicebush is the host for the spicebush swallowtail, and pipevine hosts the pipevine swallowtail. I just planted a spicebush this year and am hoping for spicebush swallowtails next year!


Of course I don’t spray poison – seeing leaves that have been munched on by insects tells me I am part of a functioning ecosystem. This is good! Now where is that insect so I can photograph it?! In addition to flowers and insects I also photograph skinks and anole lizards on my property, and I enjoy watching and photographing the birds that are attracted to the habitat my yard provides.

While planting non-native flowers for butterflies can certainly entice them to your yard, only their host plants provide habitat on which they can rear their young and perpetuate the species. I enjoy seeing butterflies flit through my yard, and yet I am even more thrilled to find a Gulf fritillary caterpillar snacking on the yellow passionflower that grows in an untamed corner of my yard. I know that by hosting the native plants and therefore the insects, I provide a crucial food source for songbirds, which have faced dramatic declines in recent years. I believe being a conservationist is part and parcel of being a nature photographer. As a founding member of the GNPA Conservation Committee, I enjoy giving back by providing my photographs to various conservation organizations. It is also fulfilling to provide in my backyard a toehold for the wild things of this world, many of which are just barely hanging on. The famed biologist Edward O. Wilson once called insects, “The little things that run the world,” and the importance of these little things to our own survival cannot be overstated. By creating this reserve, I have also created a photographic playground that is available to me all day, every day. I hope you will create a refuge, too — and please share the photographs when you do!

Doug Tallamy’s books (including my favorite, “Nature’s Best Hope”) can be found here

Please join us on Tuesday, March 8, 2022 when the Roswell chapter Zoom meeting will feature a three-speaker panel on the topic of creating your own photography refuge.

Dr. Cheryl Tarr is a retired biologist whose nature photography spans the gamut from expansive black and white landscapes, to creative fine art photography using intentional camera movement (ICM) and Lensbaby lenses, to macro photography of native plants and insects. Cheryl has been a member of the GNPA for five years and actively serves on the Conservation Committee.

Project Feeder Watch! Birdwatching to Benefit Conservation…

Project Feeder Watch! Birdwatching to Benefit Conservation…

Project FeederWatch is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada—and if you have birds in your yard, you have what you need to participate!

Project FeederWatch is conducted by people of all skill levels and backgrounds—individuals, children, families, nature centers, and bird clubs. More than 20,000 participants across the United States and Canada survey the birds that visit backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locations, and it’s not too late to join the 2021-22 FeederWatch Season, which began in mid-November and continues into April, 2022.

FeederWatch data provides insight into bird population biology that cannot be detected through other methods. Throughout the winter, participants count the number of individual birds in each observed species, collecting data that helps detect and explain gradual changes in the wintering ranges of many species.

FeederWatcher counting schedules are COMPLETELY flexible. Count your birds for as long as you like on days of your choosing. Enter your counts online. It’s that simple.

Your contribution to a data-set of bird distribution and abundance will enable scientists to piece together more accurate population maps.

Data collected by FeederWatchers helps scientists understand:

  • long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance
  • the timing and extent of winter irruptions
  • expansions or contractions in the winter ranges of feeder birds
  • foods and environmental factors that attract birds
  • how disease is spread among birds that visit feeders

And if you photograph your feathered visitors (and what’s not fun about that?!), there is also a PHOTO CONTEST.

Go to and click on the cardinal for more information. The photo entry deadline is January 24, 2022.

To learn more about the Project FeederWatch and sign up to count and submit data, visit

Let’s use our backyard birdwatching to benefit the birds that we enjoy watching!

PHOTO CREDIT: Jenny Burdette Photography