We’ve been interested in learning how to create a DIY wildlife habitat in our back yard ever since 2011, when we first wrote about it. But it wasn’t until our self-imposed 6-month break from travel that we had the time to do the manual labor involved in transforming our suburban yard into a haven for nature and wildlife.
It all started in March with GGT writer Jonathan Engels’ Permaculture Garden Guide, which offered simple step-by-step instructions for us to follow. We tilled the soil by hand, added compost and mulch from the woods behind our yard, lined the beds with fallen pine logs, made worm towers, and used organic fertilizer to improve soil quality without harmful chemicals.
We covered more than half our yard with cardboard to kill weeds and grass, then covered it with pine straw. We surrounded the yard with flowering plants to attract bees and butterflies. We added a birdbath, and feeders for regular birds and hummingbirds. We pruned the overgrown fruit trees and created a massive pile in the back of our property, to provide shelter from predators.
We’ve still got a good bit of work left to do, but the results we’ve seen in just 6 short weeks are pretty amazing. Our first-ever garden is flourishing, with enough fruits, vegetables and herbs growing to feed our family for the second half of this year. We find ourselves working and eating outside more than ever, enjoying Atlanta’s wonderfully temperate Spring weather.
But the unexpected benefit of our work has been the increasingly frequent wildlife sightings we’ve seen in our back yard over the last few days. There have been hundreds of birds, including Hawks, Woodpeckers, and a Great Blue Egret flying overhead.
We discovered a Possum living in one corner of our yard and an adorable pair of Chipmunks living on the opposite side. We’ve seen Tree Frogs, Skinks, and this handsome Lizard, who sunned himself atop our wheelbarrow yesterday. And the grand total of our investment, including all the plants, fertilizer, pine straw, an electric chain saw, and a tree pruning tool, has been less than $400.
It’s been a lot of work, to be sure. But the cost and labor involved in creating a certified wildlife habitat has paid off in spades, making our back yard a much more enjoyable space for our family. And the fact that we can grow our own food while also providing a haven for these animals just makes the process all the more rewarding. –Bret Love
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There’s a powerful transformation that happens within the soul and spirit anytime we take the first step of a journey. And sometimes even the anticipation of adventure can be just as powerful as the adventure itself. Such was the case during our first visit to Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, more commonly known as Volcanoes National Park (not to be confused with the park on Hawaii’s Big Island).
Located in northwestern Rwanda and bordering Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes is home to 5 of the 8 volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains. It’s most famous as home to more than 50% of the world’s endangered Mountain Gorillas, thanks in large part to the groundbreaking research and conservation efforts of Dian Fossey.
The excitement was palpable from the moment we entered the visitor center parking lot. There are 80 tourists a day who gather at sunrise for a once-in-a-lifetime trek to see one of 10 habituated gorilla groups. There were over 100 guides, trackers and porters there to ensure things run smoothly, as well as a young group performing traditional Rwandan songs and dances in front of a spectacular volcano backdrop.
We weren’t there to see the gorillas that day. Instead, we joined a group of 8 other travelers for a gentle trek to see Rwanda’s endangered Golden Monkeys, an endangered species found only in the Virunga Mountains. Found in groups of up to 60, the Golden Monkeys are significantly less well-known than the gorillas, and have only been habituated to human presence over the past 15 years.
The hike was almost impossibly picturesque, with majestic mountains towering above us on all sides. We passed by glorious fields of Pyrethrum flowers, which are known as “nature’s insecticide” and constitutes one of Rwanda’s most important cash crops. Kids from neighboring villages walked beside us for part of our journey, waving “Hello” and then giggling uncontrollably as we responded in kind.
The hour we spent with the monkeys, watching them leap from tree to tree and gnaw on bamboo shoots contentedly, was wonderful. But the journey was perhaps even more memorable than our ultimate destination, surrounded by spectacular sights we’d dreamed of seeing for decades. In this case, to paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous quote, the great affair was to move. –Bret Love; photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
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There are few places we’ve ever traveled that had the immediate “WOW!!!” impact of Tanzania’s massive Ngorongoro Crater. Formed two to three million years ago when a volcano exploded and collapsed on itself, this is the largest intact, inactive and unfilled volcanic crater in the world.
But as breathtaking as the scenery is from afar, exploring the 2000-foot-deep, 100 square mile-wide crater reveals amazing details you won’t see from the observation deck. Ngorongoro provides a home to more than 25,000 large mammals. There are buffalo, hippos, zebras, wildebeests, a remarkably dense lion population and even rhinos and elephants during the wet season.
Based on fossil evidence found at the nearby Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey began their famous archaeological excavations in 1931, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area has been inhabited by various hominid species for approximately 3 million years. The Mbulu people arrived around 2,000 years ago and were joined by the Datooga in the 1700s, but the Maasai drove both tribes out of the region in the early 1800s and have lived here ever since.
Separated from Serengeti National Park in 1959, Ngorongoro (whose name in Maasai means “the gift of life”) became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s unique because it’s the only conservation area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while also allowing humans to live there, prohibiting cultivation of the land at all but subsistence levels.
The number of tourists allowed into the park each day is very limited, with your admission including just six hours inside the crater. But that’s plenty of time to explore its surprisingly diverse ecosystems, which include montane forest highlands, open grassland, Acacia-dotted woodlands, Lake Magadi (which attracts thousands of Lesser Flamingoes) and various springs and streams.
We spotted a remarkable array of wildlife during our afternoon in the crater, from Warthogs, Hyenas and Hippos to Grey-Crowned Cranes and a Lion pride crossing the open plains. But our favorite image came as our guide, Rama Mmasa, raced up the hill towards the park’s exit. The gates close promptly at 6PM, so leaving late requires a government official’s approval.
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Visiting Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park in mid-September, we weren’t expecting to see vast herds of animals (such as the one that protectively surrounded this Baby Zebra drinking from a watering hole).
After all, the 1,200-mile Great Migration from the Serengeti plains north to Kenya’s Maasai Mara– the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world– begins in early summer. By September the majority of the herds are long gone to the haven of their dry season refuge.
But our exceptional Tanzania Journeys guide, Rama Mmasa, knew of a remote watering hole where herds of zebras, wildebeest and impalas tended to gather. So, on our second morning in Serengeti National Park, he took us there on the off chance we might spot lions coming in for a kill.
The herds certainly seemed anxious about the possible presence of predators, as hundreds of animals nervously milled about, waiting for their turn to drink. It was fascinating to watch them cautiously creep down the bank, often getting spooked by another animal and running off. It was barely controlled chaos.
We watched for over an hour, keeping a watchful eye out for Lions, Leopards or Crocodiles. Finally, as the light rose over the treetops, six Zebras entered the water warily, with a tiny Baby Zebra in a protective spot in the middle.
They all lined up perfectly, dipping their heads down to drink and occasionally lifting them to look around. We snapped this shot at a brief, serendipitous moment when all but one of the Zebras were drinking in unison, as the mama kept her watchful eye on us. –Bret Love; photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
Our trip to Tanzania was sponsored in part by Adventure Life and Tanzania Journeys, with safari clothing provided by ExOfficio. But we will never compromise our integrity at the expense of our readers, and our opinions remain our own.
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Trekking to see the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda was one of those “bucket list” dreams we never imagined would come true. Even now, a month after we visited Volcanoes National Park, it feels strangely surreal, like something we saw in a movie long ago.
We’d been to the park the previous day to do a Golden Monkey trek, so there was lots of build-up and anticipation: waking up at the crack of dawn, arriving at the park to see hundreds of hikers, porters and guides milling about, watching a traditional troupe of Rwandan singers and dancers perform, and splitting off into groups to get instructions before heading into the forest.
We’ll have the full story about our mountain gorilla trek (including our insane guide, Françoise, who worked as a porter for Dian Fossey back in the ’80s) coming next month, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Fossey’s death.
But for now we wanted to share this handsome little fella– the very first gorilla we saw as we turned a corner in the thick underbrush and entered a clearing our trackers had made. He was sitting right at eye level in some shrubs, just a few feet away from his mama. She kept a watchful eye on the 3-month-old, but seemed completely unconcerned by our proximity.
But the baby? He was FASCINATED by our camera. He gradually moved closer to get a better look, those wide eyes full of curiosity and wonder. Several times he leaned forward and pounded his little chest, and I had to stifle my laughter in an effort to stay quiet.
After showing us who was boss, the baby gorilla sat back down and started eating the greenery that surrounded him. As he briefly looked up towards the sun, we snapped this photo, which proved to be my favorite by far of the hundreds we shot on that magical, memorable day in the mountains of Rwanda. –Bret Love
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