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Nurturing Nature: Couple converts marshy land into an amazing animal sanctuary

By on July 25, 2017 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments

By Jaana Hatton

What do you do with a piece of wetland property that nobody wants because it’s too wet?

You buy it for little money and turn it into a sanctuary for living beings of many kinds.

A curious Douglas squirrel hides in Mary’s pot of pansies. Squirrels, birds of many a feather, deer are some of the creatures that visit during the seasons.

At least, that is what Mary and Tom Guthrie did with their two acres in Leavenworth.

“I saw the possibilities right away,” Mary remarked. “The pond was already there and it’s spring fed. We just started adding to the landscape.”

Mary and Tom both studied oceanography and are well equipped with knowledge about natural environments.

Their goal was to benefit the wildlife around them while enjoying the location themselves.

“The pond was the first landscaping project we tackled. However, we couldn’t just do what we wanted: there were permits involved.”

The Guthries obtained the approval of the Army Corp of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, and then set to work.

“Something unexpected happened when we started digging the pond deeper,” Mary explained with a smile. “The first day it filled up. When we got up the next morning, the water was gone.”

It turned out there were two holes on the bottom of the pond. Once those were filled with a cement-like substance the water has stayed in. Two drains lead out from the pond and the excess water feeds the surrounding land area. The water feature is now the home of hundreds of bright orange goldfish and a good number of bluegills, as well. Mary bought the bag of goldfish for a dollar years ago, and the fish multiplied — and multiplied.

“Birds come to the pond to eat. We see ducks, herons, sora rails and kingfishers,” Mary said.

There are many other kinds of birds that have made the property their home. Red-winged blackbirds flutter about in numbers too many to count. They like to make their nests in the four-feet tall wetland lupine that naturally grows throughout the lot. The birds dash across the pond to catch an insect or two and then visit the feeders attached to the terrace for an easier meal of seeds.

The Guthries also keep hummingbird feeders filled, and the little buzzers stay close by to get their share of the nectar.

“There is an anthill down there,” Mary said, pointing towards the edge of the meadow. “We let it grow for the sake of the birds.”

They also keep a pile of brush so the spotted towhee has a place to visit.

It’s not all about birds, though. Turtles like the environment at the Guthries and even lay eggs in the garden. There are snakes, too, but beneficial ones. It is too wet for rattlers.

“We have seen — and heard — coyotes close by. They have a den just on the other side of the property line. Deer also come by and once we spotted a bear. They all like the pond.”

The Guthries made careful decisions as to what kind of trees to plant. Initially, the lot was just grass and lupine. During the past 15 years, the trees they introduced have taken hold and thrived, probably thanks to their selections of native plants.

“I especially like the serviceberry, elderberry and the ornamental crab apple trees because they offer food to the birds,” Mary explained.

There is a large weeping willow giving shade to the pool and the grandchildren when they sit there and fish. Evergreens, scattered around the property, offer hiding and nesting places both for resident and visiting birds.

It is never really quiet at the Guthries. When the sun goes down and the songbirds hush, you may hear the coyotes howl or the snipe out and about.

“It makes this unique sound with its tail feathers that is called winnowing,” Mary said.

While I was sitting on the terrace with the Guthries, a little Douglas squirrel came hopping along. He nibbled on some seeds, inspected the pot of pansies and just looked at us for awhile.

“This guy makes a nest here,” Mary said. “The babies scurry about all over the outside of the cabin.”

Even though the land is wetland, it was hard work for the Guthries to get things to grow during the first year.

“The damp ground helped, of course,” Mary said, “but Tom and I had to water our newly planted trees for hours on end to keep them alive. We also had to put up a deer fence.”

After the initial push, the Guthries let nature take over. They do keep a vegetable garden and more formal looking front yard, but mostly the property is the result of natural evolution. And what an amazing environment it has become.

The Guthries property has been an official part of the Leavenworth Birdfest for the past 10 years as a hands-on learning site. The gates are open for visitors anytime, according to Mary. Besides bird watchers, they have entertained garden clubs, as well. The two-acre property has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a natural wildlife habitat.

Mary apologizes for the lack of grooming on the landscape, but that is actually the charm and the benefit in it all.

She has been more focused on Tom than gardening since 2005, when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgins lymphoma. The complications of the disease have gradually claimed both of Tom’s legs from the knees down as well as his right hand. He gets around the property along a mowed path on his motorized scooter, maybe pausing under the weeping willow to watch the goldfish or keeping company with the birds from the expansive terrace of the house.

The log house on Spring Pond seems like a good place to be.

Jaana Hatton is a freelance writer from Wenatchee and a lover of the outdoors and most creatures that dwell there.

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