An Island of Our Own

Annuals, like Zinnia, attract several species of butterflies to the island, including tiger swallowtails, monarchs,  pipevine swallowtails, buckeyes, painted ladies, and this gorgeous Gulf fritillary.
Photo Credit: Photo by Steven T. Callan

by Steven T. Callan

Over the years, Kathy and I have often dreamed of escaping today’s fast-paced, hectic world and moving to an island of our own—an island of trees, flowers, and abundant wildlife, where we could experience the joys of nature without leaving the confines of our own property. Realizing that buying an island wasn’t a realistic option, we decided to do the next best thing and create one on our three-acre patch of oak woodland in the foothills of Northern California.

Everyone knows you can’t have wildlife without adequate habitat: food, water, cover, and living space. With over 200 mature blue oaks and a dozen old-growth gray pines growing on the island, we already had a good start. Hawks, owls, and turkey vultures roost and sometimes nest in the branches, while deer, gray squirrels, woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and wood ducks feed on the bounty of acorns and pine nuts these beneficial trees provide. All of the wildlife that honor us with their presence take advantage of the numerous birdbaths and water containers we’ve provided. These invaluable water sources are absolutely essential during Northern California’s long, hot summers.

Our first step in attracting hummingbirds, goldfinches, titmice, nuthatches, butterflies, and native bumblebees was ridding our yard of water-guzzling domestic fescue and replacing it with rock gardens of wildlife-friendly plants. Annuals like California poppy, Rudbeckia, Zinnia, and sunflowers offer beauty and sustenance every spring and early summer. Perennials like pomegranate, Gaillardia, Verbena, Lantana, Teucrium, and red hot poker provide nectar and cover for much of the year.

Over the years, we’ve planted natives like toyon, California pipevine, Oregon grape, elderberry, coffeeberry, snowberry, Salvia, Penstemon, and Epilobium throughout the island. In addition to saving water, providing natural cover, and offering nourishment, they invite species of birds and insects that we might not find on the island otherwise. Elderberries attract phainopepla—a desert bird—as well as orioles and western tanagers. Toyon berries encourage rare visits from cedar waxwings. California pipevine is essential to the life cycle of pipevine swallowtail butterflies.

Kathy and I never tire of watching Anna’s, rufous, and black-chinned hummingbirds dart in and out of the garden. Once or twice each year, we’re visited by diminutive calliopes. We’ve found that as long as we’re able to provide nectar-producing flowers and attract tiny flying insects to the island, hummingbird feeders aren’t necessary.

During winter and early spring, we look forward to hosting white-crowned sparrows, juncos, robins, flickers, mockingbirds, and towhees. They take advantage of the healthy menu of seeds, insects, grubs, and other food items our island has to offer. We sometimes supplement their diet with  nutritious black sunflower seeds that we buy from the local feed store; sunflower plants, from ten-foot-high mammoths to much smaller ornamentals, serve the same purpose during the summer months, encouraging regular visits from woodpeckers, goldfinches, nuthatches, titmice, and grosbeaks.

Migratory cavity-nesting birds like bluebirds, nuthatches, violet-green swallows, and flycatchers generally arrive in early spring to claim the various nest boxes I’ve installed in strategic locations around the island. (A list of bird species that have graced us with their presence during our thirty-five years on the island is available by clicking this link.)

Quail, doves, towhees, and other ground-feeding birds live in constant danger of being snatched up by Cooper’s hawks or ambushed by the neighbor’s cat. I’ve provided cover in the form of thorny Lady Banks rose brambles throughout the yard and brush piles along the perimeter. Fast-growing Lady Banks rose plants have also become a reliable food source for deer that permanently live on or pass through the island. Once these plants reach maturity, deer can munch all they want without causing damage.

Kathy and I like to say that we’re an equal-opportunity island. All reptiles and amphibians are welcome. Fence lizards, alligator lizards, sharp-tailed snakes, gopher snakes, garter snakes, and an occasional king snake provide us with unending enjoyment during the warmer months. Pacific tree frogs and western toads help to rid the garden of pests.

Speaking of pests, we’ve found that natural pest control works remarkably well if you give it a chance. Red-shouldered hawks, great horned owls, and screech owls do a marvelous job of keeping  ground squirrels, mice, and gophers under control. Since we no longer have a lawn, we don’t worry about moles. 

Violet-green swallows nest on the island and forage throughout the day for mosquitoes to feed their young. Bats swoop up mosquitoes at night, while voracious western toads patrol the undergrowth for other harmful insects. One mature western toad can eat as many as 10,000 insects in a single summer season. 

You don’t have to live on three acres of oak woodland in Northern California to experience the joys of nature. Kathy and I recently visited relatives in LA’s San Fernando Valley and spent several hours strolling through residential neighborhoods. Largely due to water restrictions, many front yards had been converted from traditional lawns and shrubs to gardens of drought-tolerant native plants, nectar-laden flowers, and wildlife-friendly perennials. Close behind were butterflies, hummingbirds, and, in some cases, native bumblebees.

Want to create an island of your own? Your local native plant society can give you some great ideas. The possibilities are endless.  

This piece originally appeared in my September 23, 2016, “On Patrol” column in My Outdoor Buddy. It appears here in updated form.

Steven T. Callan is the award-winning author of The Game Warden’s Son, named “Best Outdoor Book of 2016” by the Outdoor Writers Association of California and published by Coffeetown Press of Seattle. His debut book, Badges, Bears, and Eagles—The True-Life Adventures of a California Fish and Game Warden, was a 2013 “Book of the Year” award finalist (ForeWord Reviews).His upcoming book, Henry Glance and the Case of the Missing Game Warden, a novel, will be released in 2020. Steve is the recipient of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 “Best Outdoor Magazine Column” awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of California. He can be found online at