Birder's Guide

MAY 2014

Birder's Guide is the American Birding Association's newest publication. Each issue focuses on a key subject, providing tips from experienced birders on a wide variety of topics like Travel, Listing & Taxonomy, Gear, and Conservation & Community.

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Page 21 of 51

20 Birder's Guide to Conservation & Community | May 2014 Conservation Milestones Sanctuary," as Williams calls it, is an excellent example of small-scale habitat restoration with big results. By cultivating native plants instead of lawn, Williams has cre- ated a green oasis amid the metropolitan sprawl of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Now, Williams has even bigger plans—to change the entire land- scape of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District. For the past year, Williams has been employed by the district to oversee an ambitious six-year landscaping overhaul that will bring native trees and shrubs to school grounds, starting with new schools and elementary schools, and gradually trans- forming all 43 schools into magnets for birds and butterfies. The project follows Certifed Wildlife Habitat ® guidelines set up by the National Wildlife Federa- tion to create outdoor classrooms where students can learn about wildlife species and ecosystems. "We're starting with new schools be- cause we can begin with a proper land- scape, and then we're going back to the older schools—beginning with elemen- tary schools because we feel it's real im- portant that we reach the younger ones frst," Williams says. Construction recently began on a new school that will retain a fve-acre rect- angular section of land as a nature park of original habitat. Landscapers plan to carve trails through the 30-year-old for- est of mature anaqua trees, mature mes- quite, and granjero (spiny hackberry). "There's no reason we shouldn't be treating our school grounds a bit dif- ferently than we have in the past," Wil- liams says. "And we hope to entice other school districts in the valley to do the same thing. And then spread it through Texas. And throughout the U.S." The project involves more than land- scaping. New classroom curricula will also teach students about local species and ecosystems. "There's a big push to get kids outdoors more frequently and have feld trips, but that's just one day out of the year," Wil- liams says. "When kids get to witness how birds and butterfies subsist off native habitat on their own cam- pus, then there is a better chance that kids will ap- preciate nature, and have more of a conservation mindset." Williams, whose busi- ness is called Williams Wildscapes , is happy to share designs and advice on restoring backyard and school habitats. F. P. "Tony" Bennett: Xeriscape and Art –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––– The multitalented F. P. "Tony" Bennett, of Harlingen, Texas, is known for his lush paintings of Neotropical birds, his long connection with the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, and his exper- tise as a birder and bird tour leader—but it is his yard that he consid- ers his showcase. In the early 1990s, Bennett's xeriscaped yard was featured in lo- cal newspapers, gener- ating interest not only because of its natural beauty, but also be- cause it blatantly violat- ed the city codes. Ben- nett fought City Hall for the right to keep his wild landscaping, and he succeeded. After that, nature enthusiasts began visiting Bennett's yard, curious about the new trend in landscaping that did not require watering. Today, xeriscaping has become widespread practice. "In lieu of having a studio in the cloud forests somewhere in Latin America, I have settled for my own tiny nature par- adise here deep in south Texas that has given me great joy over the past couple decades," Bennett says. The yard has been planted with near- ly a hundred (at one time, before the drought) species of south Texas native plants, including endangered species, and draws nearly 170 species of birds. "Numbers don't convey the joy of four species of thrush or nine species of warbler in the yard, or both Indigo and Painting buntings at once, or the lovely night call of a Chuck-will's-widow in a small piece of reconstructed habitat in an urban/suburban location," Bennett says. "This is not even mentioning the wonderful variety of species that have nested in the yard, including Great Kis- kadee and Plain Chachalaca. In fact, there is a Hooded Warbler outside my window right now!" At about the time Bennett's yard was getting press attention, the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce and local bird- ing enthusiasts started thinking about organizing a birding festival. And so it happened that, in 1993, when the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival was launched, Bennett— who, thanks to his yard, had become a local ce- lebrity—was named the festival's featured artist. His frst festival promo- tional poster, which fea- tured Harlingen's offcial bird, Great Kiskadee, launched a tradition of connecting art with festi- val activities. Bennett re- turned as featured artist for the festival's 10th and 20th anniversaries. Although he began his career as a feld guide illustrator, Bennett has gradually developed a style of painting that portrays birds with richly detailed back- grounds of plant life—conveying the interconnectedness of birds and the en- vironment that anybody can see right in his own front (and back) yard. Expanding on the landscape ideas that made his own yard famous, Allen Williams is spreading native habitats across the 43 schools in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Inde- pendent School District—including Reed-Mock Elementary, shown here, where kids help plant a butterfy garden. Photo © Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District In F. P. "Tony" Bennett's front and back yards, nearly 170 species of birds are attracted to a plethora of native plants, including this Drummond's Turk's Cap—the small red fower of which is preferred by Buff-bellied Humming- birds. Photo © F. P. "Tony" Bennett 2-Conservation Milestones.indd 20 5/22/14 7:34 PM

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