Nature enthusiasts rework backyards as amphibian havens

Ann Kastberg lived near a Portland swamp when she was young. “It
was the perfect place to catch tadpoles,” she said.

That typical youthful fascination with creatures that hop and
slither has stuck with Kastberg, 58. “There’s not much that can
make you happier than a frog can,” she said.

So Kastberg and her husband, Russ, have landscaped their
property near Castle Rock to attract frogs, salamanders, and even
the occasional snake. Other landscaping features they’ve planned
bring in birds and deer.

She recently gave a presentation on the topic to the Willapa
Hills Audubon Society and shared close-up tips during a tour of her

“When you landscape you want to be able to meet people’s needs
as well as the critters’ needs,” she said. Of the Kastbergs’ five
acres, four are maintained for wildlife, though even a much smaller
city lot can have features for animals, she said.

Formal, manicured gardens with non-native plants don’t look good
to wildlife, Kastberg said. “You’re pulling out the good stuff.
It’s much easier to leave natural plants than to bring them in.

“After you get used to native plants, the non-native ones start
to look less inviting.”

The Kastbergs have natural snowberry — which attracts birds –
huckleberry and currents. They have planted elderberry, nootka
rose, twinberry and Oregon grape and will put in some sedges and

“Red-legged frogs love sword ferns,” she said.

Despite their aversion to formal lawns, the Kastbergs left a
wide expanse of lawn between their trees and house. They’re both
retired from the Department of Natural Resources, and are well
aware of fire danger around rural homes.

If you want to see frogs and salamanders on your property,
overcome any urge to be a vegetation neatnik.

Amphibians need shelter that can be as basic as a brush pile,
either one that accumulates naturally or a human-created heap.

Brush piles provide amphibians with cool places to hide and a
place to hunt. “Amphibians are carnivores,” Kastberg said. “They
eat the bugs.”

“This is really nice for them,” she said, pointing to a brush
pile some people would consider an eyesore. “People don’t know what
they have because they’re down under the ground.”

Amphibians and reptiles need “nice little hidey-holes,” she
said. Snakes, like humans who live in the Northwest, like a place
to come outside and get some sun when it appears.

The Kastbergs have seen garter snakes on their property. Their
amphibian census is larger: They’ve seen Northwest salamanders and
ensantina, another kind of salamander, and have heard Pacific
chorus frogs. “We haven’t seen red-legged frogs but they’re pretty
elusive,” she said. “I would bet that we have Western red-backed
salamanders, but I haven’t seen one.”

To attract more amphibians, which lay their eggs in water, the
Kastbergs are in the process of building a frog-friendly, lined
pond on their property. Through red-legged frogs have been tracked
hopping as far as 5 kilometers to breed, they’re less likely to
become road pancakes if water is nearby. Reeds in the pond will
provide places for amphibians to attach their eggs.

“We’ll keep it shallow enough to be unattractive to bullfrogs,”
she said. Unlike native species of amphibian, the unwelcome,
non-native bullfrog needs water year-around.

The pond “will have a bubbly feature,” so that it doesn’t get
stagnant, she said. A tiny rivulet side channel in a rock will
attract butterflies and hummingbirds. “It must be very gentle,” she
said. “A waterfall won’t work for them.”

As Kastberg led visitors around her property, a couple of deer
loped by. The resident population of seven black-tails is fine with
her, and she’s even put in a water trough for them, though she has
had to put a mesh fence around her vegetable garden and a grove of
willows she’s growing.

When the Kastbergs’ property was logged years ago, a few mature
fir trees were left for habitat. Today, those living evergreens
attract eagles and flocks of robins. Snags offer homes for swallow,
owls, flickers and pileated woodpeckers. “The range of birds that
use these trees is incredible,” she said. “This morning, we had a
flock of about 50 band-tailed pigeons.”

The Kastbergs enhance the natural bird habitat with feeders.
They’ve placed a brush pile under the feeders, so deer can’t get to
the spilled seed.

It’s a balancing act between birds, deer, frogs — and the
people who like to watch them.

“You can have a nice natural environment for yourself and the
wildlife,” Kastberg said.

John and Margaret Green don’t have a big lot behind their house
on Longview’s Old West Side, but it’s big enough to attract a
variety birds. And the Greens plan to rework their pond to attract

“You don’t have to have a huge of amount of acreage to have
wildlife,” Margaret said.

The Greens have cut back on non-native vegetation and
substituted such native plants as maidenhair ferns, ginger,
snowberry and salal. “Robins and cedar waxwing love our holly
tree,” Margaret added.

They stack brush by the back fence. “Birds love that pile,” John

The Greens’ stock their back yard pond with colorful koi, which
would gladly dine on any small frogs that appeared.

“You could make this amphibian-friendly if you took the koi
out,” Margaret said. Hoping that frogs will appear, the Greens plan
to separate one part of their pond to keep out koi.

They’ll need to build covered areas with rocks and boards to
provide hiding place for frogs, because their house close to Lake
Sacajawea is in raccoon habitat.

Even if it’s not frog-friendly, the pond still attracts wild

“The warblers come in late April and May,” Margaret said. “They
love the sound of the gurgling water.”

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