A Personal Arboretum


(This 1165th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 21, 2013.)


Mike at one of his Engelmann Spruces


I knew Michael Barabasz from an earlier contact. He sent me an email claiming he had seen a golden eagle soaring over his Wyoming County property. I was hesitant to accept his observation as golden eagles are rare east of the Rocky Mountains. But Mike sent a photo and his bird was indeed just what he had claimed: the white patches in its wings clearly identified it as a juvenile golden eagle.


So when he wrote recently to invite me to visit him to see what he had accomplished on his 32-acre property, I was prepared to take his invitation seriously. "I think you will be impressed," he told me. I could certainly spare an early summer morning, so we set a date and I drove down into that heavily wooded and hilly country.


It was a good thing Barabasz had given me careful directions because I could easily have missed the driveway into his property. It passed through a grove of tall spruce trees. Only beyond these trees did I come on his home located in perhaps a half-acre of open lawn.


There I soon realized that this was far from a wasted trip. I found Mike's story unique and intriguing.


"You know I'm interested in big birds," he told me. "I mean eagles, vultures, hawks and ospreys. So I decided to buy this property and establish it to attract birds." I was perplexed by this because I couldn't think of ways of attracting such birds. Perhaps he was going to tell me that he set out dead animals for them. That was not to be the case.


Although his announced interest was and remains in those biggies, Mike was clearly serving smaller birds. He had located his house with its picture window in the back so that he could look out over his property. And there on his seed feeder handsome goldfinches and purple finches, chickadees and nuthatches alternated while irritable hummingbirds muscled for places at his syrup feeder.


He went on, "I decided to plant trees that would attract birds. Yes, I know that they wouldn't attract those large birds directly, but they would at least go part way." I didn't quite see the logic in that but I was willing to hear him out.


"I began by referring to books like DeGraff and Witman's 'Trees, Shrubs and Vines for Attracting Birds', and buying trees from local nurseries. Over time I got more and more interested in varieties and soon I found that I had to find out-of-town sources. For example, one major nursery I use is in Oregon and it costs as much to ship a tree as its original price."


And so Mike's interest expanded to and began to focus on silvaculture. I asked him how many trees he had planted: "About a thousand," he replied and I finally realized that I was visiting an arboretum.


From where we stood behind his house we could look up a gentle slope beyond his lawn to higher grass, but everywhere were trees, most carefully spaced to give them plenty of room to grow. And grow they had. Some of the evergreens were twenty to thirty feet tall. His T-shaped property was bounded by good-sized spruces.


Mike retained some of the original trees on the property, but many of his ashes were suffering from ash yellows, a microbial disease transmitted by leaf-hoppers and other insects. He knows that he will probably eventually lose other ashes to emerald ash beetles, but he has not yet detected them.


Walking up the hill I was introduced to his fifty varieties of crabapple, his fifteen oak species and his twenty-four different spruces, his lane of river birch and too many other trees for me to process. Many of them are from foreign countries.


And indeed, their fruit is serving wildlife. In winter waxwings, crossbills and grouse are among his visitors. So too are foxes (he shared his photo of a beautiful gray fox), rabbits, deer, mink, weasels and an overwintering red-tailed hawk. No bears yet, he told me, but he does see an occasional eagle and osprey. And as if to suggest that he was accomplishing his purpose on that day as well, a turkey vulture sailed over our heads.-- Gerry Rising