Pat’s Wildways: Backyard Birding

By Pat Foster-Turley
February 24, 2023

Like most of my friends, I try to attract birds to my backyard and keep some key concepts in mind. Birds are most likely to visit if you provide them with supplemental food (i.e. bird feeders); a source of water (preferably a fountain or something with moving water); habitat to hide, roost and nest in (trees, shrubs, nest boxes, etc.); native plants to forage from (seeds, insects, fruit, etc.) and hopefully a pesticide-free environment. Here on Amelia Island, my own bird feeders, bird baths and yard don’t attract much more than common cardinals, titmice, chickadees, and doves, but these still provide me with some bird-watching pleasure.

But wow, a whole world of people out there take backyard birding to another dimension. On a recent visit to Gainesville, I learned from my birding friend Karen Brown about the Alachua Audubon Society’s Annual Backyard Birding event and I was all in. So, one Saturday morning I donned my wristband showing I had paid the minimal entrance fee, I took a map showing a handful of homes open for viewing, and off I went.

Jonathan Varol built a “catio” for his five cats so they can safely watch birds outside.

The homes I visited all showcased the basic concepts of food, water, habitat, native plants, etc. but each had its own special wrinkle on this theme. At one home, homeowner Jonathan Varol was eager to show us the beautiful water feature he had built, complete with a waterfall and pond with live native plants, surrounded by well-stocked bird feeders and tall trees in the background with a hawk nest. But, actually, I was more interested in Jonathan’s “catio” that he had built to enable his five cats to access the outdoors through a raised bridge/tunnel leading to a large caged enclosure where the cats could harmlessly watch the birds that Jonathan attracted.

At the home of Anne Casella, I joined a dozen or more birders to watch the birds flitting to and from her many feeders. Here the take-home message was planting many bird-friendly native plants to supplement the habitat provided by the woods surrounding her home. And, like many of the people participating in this event, Anne was happy to share her own special recipes for bird-attracting foods that she prepares herself. Their mixtures bring in lots of interesting birds like Baltimore orioles, tanagers, warblers, indigo buntings and other birds not often seen on Amelia Island.

Lots of birds enjoyed the many feeders hanging from this tree.

When it comes to bird food, however, Winnie Lante was the master chef. She and her partner live in southeast Alachua County, surrounded by woods and open pastures of cattle. And not only do they make their own recipe for bird food, Winnie has a “mealworm farm” and happily showed me her system which takes up a room in their home. She allows the biggest and best of her mealworms to turn into adult beetles, keeps these on a bran substrate where they lay eggs, then scoops out the pupa and puts them in another container of bran, until they reach the mealworm state. She constantly rotates these bins and their contents so she always has fresh live mealworms. Mealworms are a favorite treat for many birds and lizards, but bluebirds are one of her main targets. She calls the roads around her 10-acre farm the “Bluebird Trail” and she and her neighbors have put up 48 bluebird nesting boxes to make them happy.

Winnie Lante is a “selective mealworm breeder” as she likes to say.

Many of us have bird baths, but those who add features like fountains and waterfalls that keep water moving are even better. Erik Herrera, another homeowner, has taken this concept to a whole new dimension. Beginning in 2013, Erik has been creating and expanding his “Perch Cove,” a tower that includes recirculating rainwater through various filters and into fountains for birds to perch and drink, surrounded by bird feeders and living plants. All well and good, you say. But wait, this system – the fountains, the plants – is maybe 8 feet above the ground on a tower. A roof over the tower protects the birds from aerial predators, and large baffles protect the birds from below. All of these features combined provide a safe haven for bird visitors that often linger there for many minutes, or even two and a half hours like one catbird did. But Erik is not done yet. While I visited he was in a serious discussion with a water engineer on the tour who recommended ultraviolet light as the next step in the recycled water purification project. You can watch a live cam of Erik’s feeder at

Erik Herrera shows off his “Perch Cove” tower, a recycled rainwater bird feeding area.

Although I found out about this too late, next year I am marking my calendar for the National Audubon Society’s Backyard Bird Count ( which happens around this time of year. I may not be as into it as these Gainesville backyard birders, but I can still be part of the action.

And you can too.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.  [email protected]

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Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 year ago

Thanks for sharing this, Pat! While we don’t have to get as elaborate as the places you visited, we all can help bring birds into our yards. And everybody, please keep your cats indoors! Outdoor cats kill about 1 billion birds a year in the United States. It is just not cool or neighborly to let your cat room around outside, even with a bell on it, which usually doesn’t work very well. We don’t let our dogs roam around outside freely, and we should not let our cats do it, either. Thanks.

Carol (@guest_67392)
1 year ago

Enjoyable article. Thanks for sharing.