Monthly Archives: June 2020

Don Torino's Life in the Meadowlands: Gardening Like Life Depends On It

For generations home gardeners have literally changed the ecosystems of our neighborhoods and unfortunately not for the better.  Where once native trees, shrubs and flowers stood now have been replaced by plants from other places around the world, creating a false habitat; one that looks lush and inviting but in reality is insidiously void of the needed life support for our birds and butterflies.

Years back this may not have been so important to the natural scheme of things. But as more and more land was sacrificed for commercial development and urban sprawl the habitat that was left became fragmented and invaded by the very same plants that we unwittingly introduced into our home gardens. These plants outcompete our native plants and are of no value to the wildlife that is depending on them. Simply speaking, when a migratory bird stops in your backyard looking for a meal and it is full of non-native plants they may have just as well landed in a yard of plastic artificial flowers; appealing to the eye but when examined closer is totally void of sustaining life as we know it.

Can the bird move on? Well maybe, if it still has the strength to move on and if there is somewhere else to actually go to before there is any food to be found. Imagine if you are a species of warbler traveling hundreds of miles through many hazardous nights and totally out of the ability to continue the arduous journey without some kind of sustenance, and you land in a yard chock full of plants that have no benefit to you. This could very well be the last stop on your journey.

How and why did we get away from our native plants and instead choose plants from foreign places? Some of it may have to do with folks collecting plants the way we do baseball cards, but I think somewhere along line we were convinced that insects were not allowed in our yards and that if we noticed even a pinhole in a leaf we had to bring home toxic chemicals to kill them and then to make sure we buy plants that the garden center told us did not even attract them. This notion of misunderstanding and fear has helped us lose 3 billion birds since 1970.

Our native plants get their flowers, seeds and berries at exactly the right time our wildlife needs them and with exactly the right nutritional value. But many times overlooked is the fact that the insects that are attracted to the plants are the most important part of the puzzle. They are the lifeblood of the ecosystem and the native plants themselves are the very foundation that holds that ecosystem together.

Whether it is your backyard Cardinal or Chickadee, they need insects to bring forth the next generation. A Black capped Chickadee may collect 400 caterpillars a day or more to feed its young. High protein, high fat insects are the perfect food for raising babies. Without them, nests swill fail and the next generation of birds will not and could not exist. If you have nesting birds in your yard watch them closely. From sun up to sun down the parent birds go back and forth carrying insects to their young.

If the plants are not there that attract those insects the young will not survive. This is not to say that if you plant natives that you will have insects swarming in your back yard. It’s quite the opposite. When the ecology of your backyard is restored all things will be in balance once again, everything keeping everything else in check. Why don’t you see lightning bugs any longer or incredible creatures like Luna moths? The answer is the way we garden, against nature rather than with it.

Our Butterflies have suffered as well from the introduction of non-native plants into the home landscape. Butterfly populations are very specific to the plants they need to survive. Milkweed for the Monarchs, Spicebush for the Spicebush swallowtail and violets for the Fritillaries. We cannot substitute non-natives and expect to see the butterflies like we did years ago.

We can longer pretend we care about birds if we continue to plant things like Bradford Pear trees, which attract 0 species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) as compared to an Oak tree that attracts over 400! We do not have the luxury of saying we care about butterflies if we are planting things like invasive daylilies and avoid wildflowers like Milkweed, Joe-pye weed and Goldenrods.

We now know we need to garden differently and treat our backyards, schoolyards, churches and businesses like they are habitats if we are to save the future of our wildlife. We are irresponsible if we continue to introduce toxins into our gardens while  advocating for a healthy environment for both wildlife and people. Sadly if we received notice that our elected officials were treating our parks the way we treat our backyards we would be out in the streets with protest signs demanding a halt to the environment’s mistreatment. When we realize that everything in the natural world  is connected and that our backyards are the strong link that now bring it together we will begin to live in a happier, more healthy life sustaining place not only for the Monarch butterfly and the Northern cardinal but for all the human species for generations to come. 

Changing the culture of how we gardened for generations may be the most difficult task of all, but if we fail to do that we will continue to witness a decline of bird and butterfly species that will be too late to halt. When we walk into our backyards from now on I hope we can begin to look at things in a new light. That we will understand that a hole in a leaf will mean that things are as they should be, that a garter snake slinking through the flower bed means you are doing something right and a house wren carrying a caterpillar back to the bird house you so kindly placed there for them means that the cycle of life is as it should and was always meant to be. Ecology begins at home and we need to garden like life depends on it. Because it absolutely does. 

 Questions about native plants? Feel free to ask me at

For more info: Audubon Plants for Birds

Bergen Audubon Certified Wildlife garden

Native Plant Society of NJ

Bergen Audubon DeKorte Park Walk This Sunday (July 5)!

Ruddy Duck. Courtesy Rich Brown

Join the Bergen County Audubon Society as they lead a free nature walk of DeKorte Park this coming Sunday (July 5) from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. They’ll be pointing out the birds, butterflies and wildlife that call this incredible Meadowlands  habitat home.

Meets in parking lot outside Environment Center. Social distancing and face masks required. Bring water and sunscreen. There is no access to restrooms. For more information contact or call 201-230-4983.

BCAS Donates Butterfly ID Sign at DeKorte/Return to DeKorte Walk Is This Sunday (June 28)!

Many thanks from the NJSEA to the Bergen County Audubon Society for its donation of this beautiful, informative Butterfly Identification sign. It’s located in DeKorte Park in the Kingsland Overlook.

The sign comes just in time for the BCAS’ guided walk at DeKorte this Sunday (June 28) from 10 a.m. to noon.

There will be several group leaders so that attendees can be split up and social distancing can be maintained. We’ll be looking for everything from Egrets to Orioles! Please bring a face covering. Note: There is no restroom access at DeKorte Park.

For more information email or call 201-230-4983.

BCAS Nature Walks Return to DeKorte Park Sunday, June 28!

We’re pleased to announce that Bergen County Audubon Society nature walks will resume at DeKorte Park! The next walk is Sunday, June 28, from 10 am to noon. The walk meets outside the Meadowlands Environment Center. They

There will be several group leaders so that attendees can be split up and social distancing can be maintained. We’ll be looking for everything from Egrets to Orioles! Please bring a face covering. Note: There is no restroom access at DeKorte Park.

For more information email or call 201-230-4983.

Snowy Egrets In Action At Mill Creek Marsh

Many thanks to Mickey Raine for these fabulous photos of those stars of Mill Creek Marsh: Snowy Egrets.

As Mickey writes, this series captures the Snowy Egrets at their very best, from posing beautifully while showing off the high colors of the breeding season with the exquisitely elegant plumage, to the masterful skills in lightning quick strikes to catch fish and the grooming session that serves to keep them in top form. Thanks much Mickey!

Don Torino's Life in the Meadowlands: "Is It Me or Are There More Birds This Year?”


 As I was getting into my truck a few weeks back a nice woman noticing the BCAS logo on my door waved her arms to flag me down. “This may be a stupid question,” she said hesitantly, “But is it me or are there more birds around this year?” I stopped and smiled and said, well its springtime and you are certainly hearing more birds at this time of year but in reality, yes, it is you!” She smiled and thanked me and turned around and said, “I knew that,” which was magic to my ears.

They say out of great tragedy comes  great wisdom and judging from all the emails, text messages, photos and being flagged down events I have been getting I think we are on our way to gaining great understanding when it comes to our connection to nature.

Throughout my life it has always been that in one way or another I have searched out nature at my times of hurt and vulnerability. At periods of loss, death and sadness nature has always been there for me, taking me under its wing, and letting me know things are as they should be. Nature is the healer,  the one constant in our lives that no matter what we do or where we are, it is there waiting for us, seemingly silent when no attention is paid but loud and enlightening  as it reminds us  to join and connect our lives once again to the natural world around us.

People more than ever now have been getting back to nature. It might be through feeding the birds, planting a butterfly garden or vegetable garden, hiking the local trails or yes, even getting out birding for the first time. In all of these instances our hearts and souls have brought us back to where we have always been just waiting for us to open our eyes and see. 

I have been receiving more questions on climate change, bird populations, cutting down of trees and best of all, could I please ID a bird for them, which when all is said and done may be the most important question of all as people for the first time discover the nature that is right outside their door.

Our most serious threat to the environment and to our own lives is not climate change, not pollution or habitat loss or for that matter any particular politician. The biggest threat is disconnecting from nature. How can we ever ask people to preserve habitats, clean up the water, protect endangered species and yes, halt climate change, if we don’t care about the nature that exists right in our own backyard? 

As we return to work and school and begin to emerge from this horrifying pandemic we need not to forget what we found important, where we looked for peace and solace, and where we rediscovered what is real and truly important and yes, something that is there for everyone to embrace and hold close to our hearts forever, nature.

It is my hope that we will continue to venture outside, wander the woods and fields, watch the butterflies in the backyard and yes, smell the flowers, as we begin to live our lives again. By all means please let your hearts be curious enough to ask the question, “I wonder what bird that is?”