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'Backyard' Birding From a Balcony Garden

Benita Sanserino's condo balcony is a beautiful haven for birds and other 'winged things.'

January 10, 2002|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hummingbirds dart from flower to flower to sip nectar from fuchsias, snapdragons and foxgloves. Juncos, finches and grosbeaks visit the seed feeder suspended from an upper balcony. Butterflies cling to the gray stucco walls absorbing warmth and sunlight.

The balconies at Benita Sanserino's condominium are not like the balconies of so many condos--forlorn space that seems to say "stay inside." Her balconies are teeming with life, thoughtfully composed gardens that are havens for "winged things" and humans.

Sanserino has joined the legions of Americans who enthusiastically combine gardening with bird watching to become a backyard birder--even though she technically doesn't have a backyard.

Many homeowners combine the two interests by growing nectar-rich plants to entice birds into their gardens as well as providing seed and nectar feeders and a water source in their backyards--hence the term "backyard birders." But apartment and condominium dwellers with a plan scaled to the space available to them--and honoring any association restrictions--can create bird-friendly spaces with steps as simple as adding containers of flowering plants and a small birdbath.

And, even though "balcony birders" work with a small space, they can make use of the same principles that work in larger gardens--grouping together tall and short plants, combining foliage and color in interesting ways, making sure the plants are suitable for the amount of sunlight they will get, making sure the soil in which they are planted gives them the right nutrients.

Creating a pleasing environment for birds should be done in a way that doesn't create an unpleasing one for everyone else. Some condo associations discourage residents from putting out birdseed because it can attract undesirable critters--like rodents and crows. But nectar-producing flowers and hummingbird feeders don't have those drawbacks, and they still attract small birds. And a small closed-system water fountain can provide a birdbath without soaking the patio. Excess water can annoyingly rain down on your neighbor's space or, more critically, lead to wood damage that makes the balcony unsafe.

Karen Johnson, a staff member at Audubon House and Bookstore in Los Angeles and a director of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, says it's possible to enjoy birding even if you don't have a garden. "If people want to make an effort, all they have to do is put out two feeders--one for seed-eating birds and one for hummingbirds," she said. "Water that drips or makes a noise is a big attraction. There are so many small fountains available that will do the job."

In other words, to attract birds, spend some time thinking like a bird.

Sanserino and her husband, Gary, live in a condominium complex in Encinitas, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. Their three-level condo has several balconies and is well-placed for birding. It's at the end of the building, situated near a cluster of alder and eucalyptus trees, which provide perches and shelter to a variety of bird species.

The largest balcony, off the living room, is 7 feet, 6 inches deep and 16 feet wide and has ample space for dozens of plants, a wall fountain, patio table and chairs and seed and nectar feeders. The condo also has two small balconies off the master bedroom that are planted to attract butterflies. A small entryway patio, which has strong sun exposure, houses pots of succulents and cacti.

Benita Sanserino estimates that every day, about 50 birds peck seeds from her feeding stations, splash in the fountain on the living room terrace and fly among the potted plants she chose for their usefulness to birds and butterflies.

One of her favorite pastimes is to sit quietly on this balcony, cup of coffee nearby, and simply watch as the birds come to eat, drink and bathe.

"I can spend hours here," she said. "My contentment is to sit and watch the birds as they bathe and listen to them."

From the sofa in her living room, she can look through the glass doors and watch shy birds, like orioles and warblers, who prefer privacy as they splash in the cascading water in an ornate wall fountain--a birthday gift from her husband. He also built a special seed feeder from PVC pipe that is suspended above the living room balcony--attached to the balcony on the upper-level bedroom. The feeder is retractable for ease of cleaning and refilling.

Maintenance of feeders is an important part of birding, balcony or otherwise. Scott Todd, who with his wife, Ginny Szabo, owns Wild Bird Center in Encinitas, is an enthusiastic birder who has five feeding stations in the backyard of his home in Oceanside.

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