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Gardeners may see new visitors this winter thanks to Hurricane Irma and friends

This young barn owl was one of four chicks successfully placed with surrogate parents at Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota, one of Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue's partners. [Provided by Nancy Murrah]
Published Jan. 9, 2018

Before he retired, my husband's garden contributions consisted mostly of critiquing my work from the air-conditioned comfort of the kitchen window.

Now, he also manages the bird feeders, whose numbers have doubled under his reign. Today, we often get a spectacular avian show with our morning coffee and newspaper, thanks to Ben's dedication to Only The Best seed blends.

This time of year, we thrill at the sight of new-to-us species — migratory birds seeking a balmy Florida winter or passing through en route to points south. Traditionally, they include gray catbirds, cedar waxwing, robins and painted buntings, among others.

But 2017 proved anything but traditional. Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria blew strange new curves into migratory highways.

"All the hurricanes will play a part with what you see with migratory birds this winter," says Nancy Murrah, an insurance executive-turned-bird rescuer. Licensed to rehabilitate migratory birds and other wildlife, she serves as vice president of the nonprofit Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue and second vice president of the Tampa Audubon Society.

"Birds show up where they're not supposed to be. After Irma, we found a red-billed tropicbird in Brooksville," she says. Sadly, the large Caribbean seabird didn't survive.

There have been three happier sightings in Riverview of scarlet tanagers, songbird cousins to cardinals. The males have brilliant red bodies and black wings. "We never see them in Riverview," Nancy says. Unusual warbler species have also been spotted.

Gardeners who plant with an eye to attracting other wildlife may also be in for surprises. Some squirrels that lost their young during Irma are raising late second litters, or drays. Less than 24 hours after Irma made landfall in south Florida, Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue had 284 animals, including 217 baby squirrels, many so young they hadn't yet opened their eyes, as well as turtles and birds.

While we gardeners watch for new winter visitors, we can also do a lot to help our wild friends weather the season. Nancy offers these suggestions:

• Plant native plants that attract native bugs and the native birds and butterfly larva that eat them. The Audubon Society has a great website where you can plug in your ZIP code and get a list of local-for-you bird plants: audubon.org/plantsforbirds.

• Many of our migratory birds eat seeds. It's important to use only fresh seed in feeders, Nancy says. (My husband has a lot of success with blends that include nuts and fruits.) Note: Melody Kilborn of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warns bird feeders can attract predatory birds and facilitate disease transmission.

• Our winter months tend to be dry. Clean bird baths provide a water source — and a great show for you.

• Don't leave any trash — small plastics, weed cloth, etc. — in the yard. Birds may ingest it, feed it to their young or use it to make nests, all of which can hurt or kill them. "We found an anhinga with a My Little Pony stuck on his beak," Nancy says. Anywhere you see discarded fishing line, pick it up and carefully dispose of it.

• If you find a young bird or animal that appears to be orphaned, watch from a distance to see if parents are around. "Birds will learn to fly from the ground up," Nancy says, so a young bird flailing around on the ground may be just fine. "If there's no parental activity or the bird appears in distress, pick it up and call a licensed rehabber." (Visit tampaaudubon.org or call (407) 644-0190 for names and numbers.)

Want to do more? Join the Audubon Society and/or Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue. The latter specializes in birds of prey but its 26 volunteers help any wild creature, from otters to osprey. They're working now to create a Tampa Bay bird rehabilitation center so our recovering birds won't have to be transported to Maitland, Orlando or Apopka.

To learn more about the group, visit tampabayraptorrescue.org or find them on Facebook at Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue. See live video of recovering eagles in a rehab flight cage like the ones planned here at cwrc.net/cms2/wp/2017/02/13/winter-in-the-big-jeezley/.

Looking for a New Year's resolution you may actually keep? Vow to lend a hand to wildlife through your own garden and respected nonprofits like Raptor Rescue and the Audubon Society. Go wild!

Contact Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.

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