By John Bloomfield
Not every birder chases rarities far and wide, but nearly every birder with a yard is a back yard birder. And few have back yards like Arman Moreno. What makes a birder? For Arman, it’s a passion for bringing nature home.
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Arman Moreno is one of Austin’s most prolific birders. His Travis County life list stands at 364 and counting, with a lot of counting still to be done. What you might not know is that he has seen more than 140 species from his home in Northwest Austin. That includes flyovers, but still, that’s a lot of birds.
When Arman and his wife bought their home in 2018, they knew they wanted to create an outdoor space that was both beautiful and nature friendly. Arman began reading. He talked with friends in the birding community. And slowly he put together a plan.
It has been a labor of love.
“Lots of people are planting native as a way to reduce water usage and in doing so are creating bird-friendly, native habitat. But getting started can be daunting.” Arman says. “How do you start? What are the right kinds of plants for my yard? And where in the yard should I be planting them?”
Austin is fortunate to have many great resources to help people get started with native plants. There’s the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. The Austin Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas. Many local nurseries also have experts in native plants.
“Travis Audubon also has a great network of people who can give you good advice,” Arman notes, “and if you are lucky, starter plants. Several close friends and fellow birders gave me tons of small natives when I started. A native plant exchange program would be a great way to spread natives while motivating others to convert portions of their yard into wildlife-friendly habitat.”
Arman describes how he and his wife got started.
“We spent the first few months figuring out the lay of the land,” he explains. “Where does the sunlight hit, what are the shady areas, what plants work best in each of these environments – we didn’t want to just plant things and rely on trial and error, so we really did our homework.”
He adds: “One of the plants I really enjoy when I go out in nature is evergreen sumac, and I wanted it for the yard. It’s really hard to find, but we were fortunate that a local nursery specializing in natives had some, and they’re doing okay.” Other features include woody perennials and shrubs, including fragrant sumac, spicebush, Texas mountain laurel, milkweed and sea oats. He uses no pesticides and only organic fertilizers.
“One of the things we created was a native hedge along the fence line that would encourage songbirds and sparrows to feel safe and come into the yard,” he says. “Birds need to have a corridor to travel along as they move through different yards. We also made a mini pocket prairie with native grasses and wildflowers. It takes time and patience, but after three years it’s looking a lot better and attracting many pollinators and seed eaters.”
Arman has also incorporated water into his backyard design. “People may think feeders are the most important thing to attracting birds to their yards” he says, “but water is just as important, if not more so. If you’re incorporating a water feature, try to put it near a large tree surrounded by shrubs and some smaller plants. That gives birds some layers to help them feel protected as they drop to the ground.”
Arman grew up in Austin, went to Texas State University and now works as a project manager for Apple. “That wasn’t the intent when I started out,” he says. “Earlier in life I really wanted to work for the park service. So, the interest in nature was always there.”
He started birding about 15 years ago, and over time has become increasingly drawn to the correlation between birds and the habitats they need.
Arman’s back yard is compact, maybe just a tenth of an acre, but he says the size of the yard doesn’t really matter. “Any action you can take will have an impact, “ he says, “whether it’s reducing your footprint, not having to mow and water all the time or just feeling better that you’re doing something for the environment.”
Arman is passionate about habitat loss, especially in booming areas like central Texas. He also believes you can reclaim habitat one yard at a time. It’s a philosophy espoused by University of Delaware Professor Douglas Tallamay, who advocates in books like Bringing Nature Home for creating home gardens that bridge the gaps between parks and preserves in providing habitat for native species.
Tallamay writes: “If we humans are capable of turning hundreds of millions of acres of rainforest into depleted grasslands, and extirpating millions of buffalo from the plains, and billions of passenger pigeons from the skies and cod from the North Atlantic, we are also capable of returning natives to our gardens.”
A popular misconception about nature-friendly back yards is that they are messy and overgrown. Arman says that doesn’t need to be the case.
“I think there’s a way for you to strike a balance between the formal and informal look,” he says, “like having certain areas that look more natural, interspersed with more formal features. We’ve tried to strike that balance in our yard, figuring out what looks nice but is also beneficial to wildlife.”
Some of the more interesting birds to visit his yard are Bullock’s Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager and more than 20 warbler species, including MacGillivray’s. They have also seen dozens of different butterflies and dragonflies.
“In all of this effort,” he says, “you can see you are having an impact, not only for your own enjoyment but for the real satisfaction of knowing that you’re making a difference. These critters are in our yard because we’re making space for them to forage and to live.”
Arman recommends the following resources for those interested in creating nature-friendly yards:
Native Texas Plants, Landscaping region by Region by Sally Wasowski, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2nd edition (September 2003)
Attracting Birds, Butterflies and other Backyard Wildlife by David Mizejewski, Design Originals, 1st edition (January 2004)
Attracting Songbirds to Your Backyard by Sally Roth, Rodale Books; 1st edition (May 2012)
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: Native Plants of North America:Comprehensive online native plant database