Keeping wildlife on course

Three great horned owl chicks peer down from the branches of a nearby oak. A spotted sandpiper totters along the shore of the new wetland. Fifteen species of warblers flit through during spring migration. These are not the birdies you normally expect on a golf course. It's the habitat that makes the difference.

Blue Hills Country Club (Kansas City, Mo.) has been a member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System (see “Audubon International,” page Golf 8) program since 1992. Certification requires several steps, including environmental planning, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, water quality management, and outreach and education. Another is wildlife habitat management. All these steps are important, but habitat management is a favorite with both the staff and the members of our club. Not only does wildlife habitat add unique aesthetic elements to the course, it brings in wildlife, which everyone enjoys.

An easy first step

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A golf course is a great place to encourage wildlife. Wildlife requires habitat that provides nesting sites, shelter, food and water and these are easy to supply on a course. One of the first — and easiest — steps you can take in habitat management is adding nest boxes for songbirds (see “Birds need houses, too,” page Golf 8). Bluebirds and purple martins are two of most popular species. At Blue Hills, we now have 28 bluebird nest boxes on the course, and we've fledged more than 120 bluebirds during the past 5 years. We also have several houses for purple martins as well as boxes for woodpeckers, wrens, robins and kestrels.

Burning issues

As you plan for habitat, it's important to identify out-of-play areas that you could set aside as sanctuary to provide food and shelter for wildlife. At Blue Hills, we defined several acres of such land and, as it turns out, we actually have saved considerable maintenance; these areas previously required bi-weekly mowing and irrigation.

However, you can't simply take an area out of the mowing rotation for several years and expect a perfect result. In our case, cessation of mowing resulted in a proliferation of seedling trees, brush and undesirable weeds such as ragweed. Attempts to establish various wildflower mixes by seed were ineffective; it was necessary to reseed every year to get any color at all. Further, the mixes we used contained non-native wildflowers, which did not provide a good food source for the animals present.

We consulted with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and they recommended we burn the areas in the spring. Burning decreases competition from non-native cool-season grasses and weeds, and encourages dormant native species. This takes substantial planning and preparation.

Because we are located within the city limits of Kansas City, we need a permit to conduct a burn. We start by completing a prescribed burning plan that details the areas we want to burn, what precautions we would take to control the fire, preferred wind speed and direction, and what our goals are. We have sent several of our crew members to prescribed-burn training offered by the MDC.

All this information is submitted to the Air Quality Board to get our permit. They require we burn before the first of April to avoid the high-ozone season. We notify all the neighboring homeowners of the upcoming burn as well as the local fire department on the day of the burn.

Before burning, we clear brush away from trees in the burn area out to their drip-lines. Then we flood these areas with water. We aren't too concerned about the fire burning outside the wildlife areas because these fescue grass areas are already greened up and mowed to 2 inches. If the fire starts to leave the designated area, we control it with a portable water tank or hand blowers. We also have an irrigation system at our disposal to stop the fire, but it has never been necessary to use it. We use propane torches to start the fire lines.

If we are unable to find the right window of opportunity to burn, we instead mow these areas at 4 to 6 inches and then rake up the debris. This mowing needs to be done after mid-July to allow bird species to finish nesting. Other than burning, the only maintenance we do in these areas is the occasional hand pruning of weedy saplings.

Theme gardens

In addition to our wildlife areas, we have added native plants in other areas to attract wildlife and act as demonstration beds for our members. This is an important part of a habitat program because it helps get the message out about what you're accomplishing on your course. Different types of plantings can take on different themes corresponding to their role in attracting and supporting wildlife.

One area is specifically planted for butterflies and located adjacent to the entry to our pro shop. Like other wildlife, butterflies require food, shelter and water. We use nectar-bearing plants to attract feeding butterflies and also host food plants for the larvae of butterflies. Nectar plants include purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Brazilian verbena and Liatris. Host plants include bronze fennel where you can always find a few black swallowtail caterpillars munching away.

The building provides shelter from winds and the east-facing windows warm early in the morning and encourage earlier flight by the butterflies. A shallow pool of water lets these “flying flowers” get a quick drink and the minerals that they need for mating. Flower boxes located on the adjacent sidewalk are filled with annual flowers such as ‘Star Orange’ zinnias, lantana and verbena and attract many butterflies.

Plants that attract hummingbirds are another excellent theme around which to create a planting. We located such a planting where members will view it as they return from their golf rounds. Hummingbirds are attracted to red funnel-shaped flowers so we have included here trumpet honeysuckle, red salvia, ‘Purple Wave’ petunia, columbines and daylilies. We've thrown in a few pink zinnias and butterfly bush for color and to attract butterflies also. The bed is equipped with a shallow birdbath and, of course, a hummingbird feeder. Nearby trees provide perching sites for the visiting hummingbirds. An arbor has been added to support the honeysuckle and is frequently used by members as a backdrop for wedding photos.

We have also added wildlife-friendly and native plants throughout the course in various beds located near tees and around the clubhouse. We chose native plants because they are adapted to our area and thus require little maintenance and watering. Also, they are part of the ecosystem that the local wildlife evolved with, so we believe they are a better habitat choice.

Wetland habitat

Our latest project has been the rehabilitation of a creek that crosses the course and the addition of a wetland where the creek enters our property. Water-quality testing indicated that the water that entered the course contained high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. The creek was badly eroded, causing the bridge supports to wash out, and we had a problem controlling algae.

To remedy these problems, we completely dug out the creek and used large limestone boulders to retain steep slopes. We formed a wetland at the beginning of the creek and planted it with plants that are native to our area to provide food and shelter for wildlife.

The wetland plants help remove nitrogen and phosphorus and clarify the water. In addition, a series of waterfalls along the course of the stream add oxygen to further clarify and cleanse the water. Our goal was for the water to be cleaner when it left our property than when it first entered. Our water-quality testing now indicates that nitrogen, phosphorus and oxygen are at levels recommended for quality streams.

Birdies everywhere

The wildlife appears to appreciate our efforts. At the wetland area, species have been sighted such as the spotted sandpiper and blue-winged teal that weren't present previously. Now we have nesting birds such as green herons, purple martins and even a family of mallards using this area. And it's more than just birds. We also have an increase in frogs and reptiles such as Blanchard's cricket frogs, yellow-bellied water snakes and a three-toed box turtle.

After burning the wildlife areas for 5 years we are starting to see positive results. Prairie grasses and native forbs have returned without our seeding them in. Many bird species and other animals such as deer, fox and coyote are commonly seen in these areas.

Our wildlife numbers are up all over the course. The number of bird species sighted is now at 127, up from 52 species just 5 years ago. During the summer months, 57 species of butterflies use our butterfly garden and wildlife areas. The number of species of all animals sighted, including birds, butterflies, mammals, amphibians, fish and reptiles, is at 224, up 143 percent since 1996. These include 10 endangered or threatened species such as the bald eagle, the regal fritillary and the northern harrier.

Members and staff alike participate in reporting the sighting of new species, and we post each new sighting at bulletin boards located in the dressing rooms in the clubhouse. We take pride in these numbers and the wildlife habitat improvements we have implemented. The increase in species is direct evidence that our efforts are paying off in the way we intended.

Monica D. Higgins, CGM, is horticulturist for Blue Hills Country Club, (Kansas City, Mo.).

AUDUBON INTERNATIONAL

Audubon International (Selkirk, N.Y.) operates the Cooperative Sanctuary program for golf courses (and other facilities, too). They can provide extensive information regarding habitat development, as well as tell you more about how to participate in their certification program. Contact them at (518) 767-9051 or go to their website at www.audubonintl.org.

BIRDS NEED HOUSES, TOO

Many styles of bird houses are available, even for the same species.

We have used the traditional aluminum houses for purple martins, and we are now trying the new plastic gourd-type houses. Research has shown that the gourd-type nests yield larger egg clutches and have fewer problems with predation by other species. Plus, they are definitely easier to clean and monitor; we have mounted them on rigging we can raise and lower on a flagpole.

We have tried several different styles of bluebird houses, but we like the Peterson style best. It is a triangular-shaped box with a front-opening panel for easy cleaning and monitoring. The sloping, overhanging roof decreases the chance of predators attacking or killing the baby birds, and we have had fewer problems with invading sparrows with this style than with others we've tried. Plans for the Peterson style are available on-line at numerous web sites. http://www.holoweb.com/cannon/buildingbh.htm is one example, or use a search engine with “Peterson bird house” or similar words for the search terms.

Another option — one that can improve your course's standing in the local community — is to engage the help of local birding or naturalist organizations. They are usually delighted to contribute expertise and even donated labor. They also can help compile lists of species observed on your course.

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