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By Ty Cryan, Davidson College intern

“Look – over there!” I said to my dad, pointing to a Great Horned Owl in the neighbor’s yard. The owl had just swooped from a tree in pursuit of a mouse scurrying from bush to bush. I pondered this great display of nature in our suburban neighborhood, then it hit me: this yard was full of native bushes, shrubs, and flowers. In our backyard, grass dominates, and owls are mostly absent. It was time for a change. How could we make our backyard a habitat for wildlife?

Here's what I learned…

According to the National Wildlife Federation, there are five essential elements for a hospitable and sustainable backyard habitat:


Food includes a range of items, from traditional seeds and berries to nectar, leaves, or even sap! While a bird feeder is a great addition, planting native bushes, shrubs, trees, and flowers holistically improves your backyard environment and provides food to wild animals.


You can provide water for your backyard critters by installing a bird bath, rain garden, or by converting a portion of your yard into a backyard marsh! For more options, check the NWF Garden Certification checklist.


Just like you, animals require shelter from extreme weather and temperatures. Many animals also need a place to hide away from predators. Provide shelter through rock piles, bird houses, or native plants. Hang up that rake! Leaf litter and brush provide shelter for a plethora of animals from chipmunks to earthworms.


Conserve soil and water by using mulch and rain barrels. Remove invasive species and plant native species so you won’t have to use inorganic fertilizer and pesticides.


All organisms require a safe place to grow up, and large trees, wetland areas, or … you guessed it -- native plants provide ideal natural habitat for these small creatures. You can also help by building bird houses, bat houses, or an owl nesting box! See how here.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, native plants are the secret weapon when building your backyard habitat! Planting natives provides food, cover, and places to raise young for the animals that are supposed to be there!. Not to mention it’s sustainable, too. When planted in the right location, natives require less resources than other plants as they thrive in the soil, moisture, and weather natural to our region. To locate the native plants best for your yard, look here.

Not convinced? Converting your yard into a backyard habitat offers a range of benefits for yourself and the environment, especially within the context of a rapidly urbanizing Mecklenburg County. Compared to a grass lawn, a ‘wild’ yard pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere, requires less water and fertilizer, reduces runoff pollution, and increases biodiversity, all positives for the environment. A backyard habitat also saves you time and money on upkeep, is aesthetically pleasing, and attracts entertaining and beautiful creatures to your doorstep.

It’s a process that can be done in one vigorous weekend or over the course of several years, but one thing is certain, the rewards of brilliant butterflies, scurrying chipmunks, and maybe even a resident owl will be well worth the effort!

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Summarized from The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s All About Birds instructions for how to adjust your binoculars.

You’ll certainly enjoy birdwatching more if you can see the birds clearly through your binoculars. To make sure you’re getting a big, bright, crisp picture through yours, you will want to make sure they are adjusted correctly.

Start by making the neck strap as short as it can be. You should still be able to use the binoculars comfortably and put them over your head easily. The longer the strap is, the more the binoculars will bounce, and the greater the chance you may bonk them against something.

Then, adjust the eyecups. Extend the eyecups if you don’t wear eyeglasses. Because eyeglasses hold binoculars away from the eyes and let in peripheral light anyway, retract the eyecups if you do wear glasses.

Next, set the barrels of the binoculars to match the distance between your eyes. Looking through them, adjust the barrels until you have a good image for both eyes. If the width isn’t right, your image will black out.

Use the diopter adjustment to focus both eyes. Our eyes are seldom precisely matched, so to accommodate the difference, binoculars have a diopter adjustment near the optical lens on one side or the other, or as part of the center focus knob. Diopter adjustments are normally numbered from +2 to –2. Here’s how to adjust the diopter so you can minimize eyestrain:

  1. Find the diopter adjustment and set it to zero.

  2. Find something a good distance away that has clean lines. A sign or something else with letters or numbers is often a good choice.

  3. Cover the objective lens (the large front lens) on the side controlled by the diopter adjustment, and then focus on the object using the center focus knob. Try to keep both eyes open as you do this.

  4. Uncover the lens with the diopter adjustment and cover the objective lens on the other side. Focus again, this time using the diopter adjustment, not the center focus.

  5. Repeat a couple of times to ensure that you have the best view. Your object should be crisply focused through both eyes.

  6. Notice the number setting on the diopter adjustment. Sometimes during normal use, the adjustment knob may move, so every now and then, check to make sure it’s set where it should be for your eyes.

Once you have the diopter adjustment correct you can control the focus for both eyepieces simultaneously using the center focus knob.

If you still can't figure it out, just ask one of the staff members at Quest and they will be happy to help you adjust your binoculars. If you don't have binoculars, you can borrow some at the front desk for your hike at Latta Nature Preserve.

If you would like a beginner course on identifying the birds you see through your binoculars, check out this free offering on Cornell’s All About Birds website.

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Christine Lawson - Environmental Educator, Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation

Latta Nature Preserve is full of hidden surprises. Massive boulders lurk deep in the woods and long black snakes rustle quietly through the brush. As you wander down the Audubon Trail, you may spy tiny houses nestled in the shade of pine trees or tucked into hollow logs. As you bend down to inspect them, you might catch a flutter of wings out of the corner of your eye- was it a bird or perhaps something more magical? And just there, from behind the mossy stump, is something watching you?

A keen observer will note something very special about the fairy houses in our woods: they use absolutely no man-made materials! Each house is constructed using only materials found in nature around the preserve. There’s no need for nails, glue, or bricks; fallen leaves and scraps of old bark make up the walls of these fantastical abodes. A patch of moss acts as a lush carpet for fairy feet while pieces of pinecone shingle the tiny rooftops. Pebbles line a tiny path leading up to the front door and a shell found on the lakeshore makes a unique adornment.

If you would like to try creating your own fairy home, the rules are simple:

  1. use only natural materials,

  2. do not use any living things, and

  3. keep it tiny!

Fairies love nature and enjoy living in homes made from all natural materials, but they don’t like seeing living things like plants harmed in order to build a home. If you look around Faylinn Village, the fairy community found on the Audubon Trail, you’ll see different examples of magical homes using only what nature provides.

At the end of every February, there is an absolute explosion of creativity as builders from all over fly in to construct fairy homes in the Village during the annual Fairy House Festival! But you don’t have to wait until then to build your own fairy home; visit Latta anytime to explore the Village or build a tiny home in your own backyard. And be sure to keep your eyes open the next time you go for a walk in the woods- you never know what you’ll see!

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