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Md. encourages residents to create wildlife habitats

Sunday - 6/10/2012, 6:00am  ET

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Walkersville resident Jim Gallion searches for butterfly eggs recently on a plant in his backyard garden. (Graham Cullen/Frederick News-Post)

Kathy Benson's yard has more than plants, birds and butterflies.

Like nearly 200 others in Frederick County, the Myersville woman has taken it to a new level and created a certified backyard wildlife habitat.

This year, she even spotted nests of praying mantises in her azaleas.

"I just feel like I sometimes come home to a little piece of heaven," Benson said while walking through her 10-acre property last week.

Benson has planted more than 500 trees throughout the years, added ponds for frogs and fish, and even has a cactus plant.

She's seen birds, butterflies, frogs, ducks, deer, owls, wild turkeys and a coyote or two.

"You just never know what you're going to see when you come out," she said. "We just sit out here in the evening and listen to the animals."

'See the benefits'

Maryland natural resources officials and the National Wildlife Federation are pushing for more residents to slow the loss of wildlife habitats.

Following just four simple guidelines is enough to qualify. Residents must look to provide food, water, cover and a place for wildlife to raise their young, David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, said.

The backyard program has been in existence nearly 40 years, with more than 150,000 certified around the country.

The latest tally from the wildlife federation shows there are 4,111 such backyard sanctuaries certified in the state, with 190 of them in Frederick County.

"With all the development going on, the wildlife are pushed into ever-declining wildlife areas," Mizejewski said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

Gardeners just need to look carefully at what they have on their property and make sure they are creating a landscape that is appropriate for the region.

"It's about giving people a place where they can make a difference and see results," Mizejewski said. "A lot of times people feel disconnected. This is a way where people can do something on a small scale, but they can see the benefit in their life."

A $20 application fee is used to keep the program running, Mizejewski said.

A basic design is all that's needed, he said.

"Nature can literally be right outside your door," Mizejewski said. "You don't have to travel to Yellowstone or Africa to experience it."

Kerry Wixted, an education and outreach specialist with The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the state is trying to rekindle interest in its Wild Acres program.

A couple of years ago, the state would provide placards for residents to display. Now, the state focuses on offering online resources to help residents get things started.

"A lot of habitat in Maryland has been fragmented," Wixted said. "It's about enhancing backyards to make them more wildlife friendly."

'Rethink your landscape'

Jim Gallion and his wife Teresa have been perfecting their backyard habitat in Walkersville for 15 years.

"It's comforting to know we are able to provide at least something for the displaced birds and butterflies to eat," he said.

They have a quarter-acre lot that now only has about 30 percent of the grass it once had.

The rest is flowers, plants and trees.

"If the only thing that moves in your yard is a lawnmower, then you need to rethink your landscape," said Jim Gallion, a former wildlife federation educator who now works as a landscape consultant.

"A lot of people will be out on their mower and zip, zip, zip, then go back into the air conditioning. I like spending time outside."

A couple of weekends in the spring and a weekend in the winter is really all it takes to create the landscape, he said.

"I don't spend a lot of time mowing," he said.

Those who are serious about creating backyard habitats don't need to go to the extreme, Gallion said. All that's needed are some native plants -- they can even be in pots -- and some water and food sources. The whole habitat can be completed in a 10-foot-by-10-foot space or even on a patio, he said. Make sure to invest in some books, he suggested, so that you can identify the different species of birds and insects.

"It makes it fun," he said.

'Everything in harmony'

The key is to keep things natural, the experts said.

Gallion said he doesn't use pesticides and only uses an "occasional splash" of fertilizer for his tomato plants.

"Everything is in harmony," he said. "We like to come home to something that reminds us of being in a tranquil place. What more could you want?"

Shirley Ford said she's been serious about her backyard habitat in Sabillasville for about 10 years.

An avid birder, Ford said she enjoys watching and listening. Even in winter, when the outside looks bleak, she can still enjoy a bird feeding in her yard, she said.

"It's my therapy," Ford said. "All the things that are going on in my life, they go away for awhile."

Benson said she's taken thousands of pictures throughout the years to keep track of it all.

"Who was here first?" she asked when talking about why she keeps a natural habitat on her property. "I don't think people realize. People need to get back to nature and respect it."