Summer House


(This 857th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 26, 2007.)


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Matt and Lora Hayden


At their invitation I recently visited Matt and Lora Hayden at their country home south of Colden. I appreciated the opportunity the trip gave me to get away from the oppressive heat of my neighborhood. As I drove south into the higher elevation and along tree-lined roads, I was able to turn my car's air conditioner off and open its windows; the temperature must have dropped a dozen degrees.


The Haydens live, as Lora described it, as simply as possible. Twenty-five years ago they resurrected an abandoned trailer on their three acres and over the years have turned that trailer and yard into a haven of quiet, solitude and wonderful wildlife.


A brief shower developed just as I arrived so we sat inside where the only difference from my own suburban home was that the rooms were on a smaller scale. This made for a kind of intimacy that I found very satisfying.


But then the rain stopped and we went outside to sit on their porch. And here is where the advantage of this home kicked in. The Haydens really do live in the forest with big trees on all sides and only a small clearing opened for their bird feeders.


Originally, they told me, their property was clear pasture. The previous owners had spent hours mowing and as a result had little to observe. Now the forest has encroached on a much smaller meadow and their yard teems with wildlife.


Matt shared his lists of mammals and birds with me. Most of his mammals we have in Amherst: skunk, raccoon, chipmunk, deer, red squirrel and rabbit. But he also has woodchuck, bats, fox, coyote, opossum, weasel and mink.


His bird list we also share in part. He has many of our usual suburban birds, but he also has rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, wood pewees, red-eyed vireos, hermit thrushes and veerys, pileated woodpeckers, red-breasted nuthatches, indigo buntings, wild turkeys, grouse and woodcocks. And they find seven warbler species in their yard regularly: blue-winged, hooded, magnolia, yellow-rumped and black-throated green warblers, as well as yellow-throats and ovenbirds. A boy scout could record just about enough species to get bird study merit badge without moving from this porch.


Why all this wildlife? Of course the Haydens have feeders but they also have water dripping over rocks where the birds can drink and bathe. Matt claims that the birds much prefer this to drinking the re-circulated water that we don't like either. And they largely leave habitat alone. They, like I, consider expansive lawns ugly monocultures. Matt calls them green deserts. Instead, they have extensive berry patches and fruit trees, as well as grapes and nectar plants. They also leave dead trees where birds continue to find insects while woodpeckers and chickadees drill holes for homes.


The Haydens spend winter months in Titusville, Florida, where their home is near the Kennedy Space Center. There they are active members of Space Coast Audubon and lead field trips on the sanctuary adjoining their property. In Florida, Lora went on to explain, they have accomplished similar results with only a tenth of an acre.  By replacing their lawn with native plants, they have gained an impressive list of visiting birds.  And they have gained something else as well -- privacy.


The Haydens are fortunate to have their summer home surrounded by additional forest. They have slyly encouraged this by giving new neighbors bird books and indicating to them the advantages of leaving the forest undisturbed. It was clear as I drove along their road that they have been successful. Other homes were larger but remained in this bucolic setting.


And their empty house here while they are in Florida? Their major problem is mice, Matt said. A big help has been Ssssylvia, the four foot rat snake that has taken up residence under their home. Matt and Lora are both biologists and explain that it is imperative not to poison rodents, as that poison will make its way up the food chain, killing the owls, foxes and weasels that feed on the carrion. Instead they use sonic pest repellants with fairly good results. And of course there¹s always Ssssylvia on patrol!