If you love the natural world and its creatures, you need to know Michelle Reynolds. Among other things, she’s a regular explorer of Birmingham’s urban wildlife, often posting gorgeous photos of her surprising discoveries so the rest of us can armchair travel with her. Keep reading to find out what I learned during our Q+A.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Michelle Reynolds (MR): I am a fiber artist, a writer, habitat gardener, public speaker, and environmental educator. I am both a plant geek and a bird nerd. I like to tell stories about nature through photographs, my writing and with ecology-inspired fabric art.
How did you get into urban wildlife exploration?
MR: I grew up in Guntersville exploring the woods, wading in creeks, and volunteering in the state park. My parents encouraged the kids to stay outside, and they took us hiking every weekend, educating us the whole time we were out.
When I moved to Birmingham, the first thing I did was ask people where are the woods. I love the city, but I need nature. I describe how I grew up in this article I wrote about nature apps. I am still a nature-loving wild child.
Have your urban wildlife explorations ramped up due to coronavirus, or has this been an enduring passion?
MR: It is an enduring passion, but I find myself searching more now. It is like meditation. It eases the stress of things.
I also find happiness in creating habitat in my own yard. It doesn’t take much effort to provide habitat essentials for wildlife to thrive and for us to enjoy. When I’m outside, in my yard or anywhere else, I like finding a little patch of wild.
I want people to see they don’t have to go far to find nature, that they can create nature around them, in their own yard and in their communities, and I want them to experience nature and gain joy from nature as I do. Whether we are aware of it or not, nature gives us a sense of calm, and we can sure use that during this pandemic.
But even in the best of times, we need not miss out on being inspired by nature in the city.
People might be surprised at the variety of places you find wildlife…
What gave you the idea to look in these types of places + what are some other unexpected places to find cool creatures?
MR: I look for vignettes of nature everywhere I go, and some of the things I find are in surprising places. You have to know the habitat of a plant or creature, and then you just look for those specific qualities as you scan locations.
There is a family of loggerhead shrikes living off of Finley Boulevard next to the interstate, a neighborhood, a train yard, and there is industry all around. You wouldn’t think such a thing would occur, but there they are.
Loggerhead shrikes are grassland birds that impale their prey on thorns and other sharp objects to cache for eating later. They have adapted to using agricultural lands with barbed wire fences for impaling prey, and they’ll use dense trees and cedar rows for nesting.
Looking around in the place this nesting pair calls home, there is a small field of grasses for the birds to prey upon insects, lots of barbed wire fencing for the birds to impale their prey, Village Creek for water and small aquatic prey, and a row of dense trees perfect for hiding and nesting. A friend of mine told me about seeing the shrikes there, and now I visit every week to see how mom, dad, and two chicks are doing.
What are some of your favorite places to go?
MR: In the urban setting, cemeteries, overgrown lots, old parking lots with cracked pavement and the airport are places I like to cruise around with my binoculars and camera. It’s important not to trespass or linger, but sometimes it’s tempting.
Luckily, there are many great designated parks and places to go around here: pocket gardens, green spaces, urban trails, and preserves to visit within the city limits or within a short distance—Birmingham City Parks, Railroad Park, Ruffner Mountain, Red Mountain, Turkey Creek, the Red Rock Trail, Ecoscapes, Cahaba River, Oak Mountain State Park … the list goes on.
How do you know what to look for?
MR: I look for native grasses and wildflowers, quality habitat, and signs of multiple species, especially birds and butterflies. Everything is connected.
Birds eat seeds, berries, or insects, and the baby birds eat lots of caterpillars, worms, grubs, and insects.
What do insects eat? They eat from plants. Not just any kind of plants, but they prefer to eat from native plants, or nectar and pollen, seed or fruit from native plants.
Why native plants? Native plants and native insects have evolved over time to suit each other’s needs. It’s complicated yet really simple, and butterflies and moths are good symbols for understanding how it all works.
Some butterflies and moths are specialists and will only lay eggs on their certain host plants. If I see maypops (passionvine) growing on a roadside or fence, I look for gulf fritillary butterflies and caterpillars.
If I see blooming yuccas in a cemetery, I cannot pass them by without stopping to turn up a flower and check for yucca moths.
What do you wish people knew about some of the creatures you document or about their habitat?
MR: I would like people to understand the importance of habitat. We should all work together to try to bridge the gap between fragments of habitat. Nature in the city is important, and we should try not to cause harm to the fragments of habitat that are in our concrete jungle.
We take for granted the power of native plants and the eco-services they provide. Plants help mitigate flooding and erosion, they sequester carbon and give us oxygen, they help clean our water, and many other things.
We should encourage the use of native plants in commercial landscapes, and we should not be so quick to destroy the natural, weedy and wild spots along roadsides or transportation corridors. Urban refuges are getting harder to find. So it is really important for us to create our own refuges if we want to live alongside wildlife.
I need to see wildlife on a daily basis. I work to manage the habitat gardens at Ruffner, and I have created a wildlife garden in my yard by planting native plants. I have worked to provide all of the habitat essentials in my yard — water, food, shelter, and places to rear young. These are the things we all need to survive.
What are some of your favorite creatures?
I like them all — bugs, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. The only animals I don’t like are outdoor cats… because they are sneaky little killers of wildlife, and they are not part of the ecosystem.
I guess birds might be my favorite, and there are so many birds in the city using structures. Chimney swifts use chimneys for roosting and breeding. Cliff swallows build mud nests under overpasses. Barn swallows nest in rafters of industrial open-air buildings. These birds are fun to watch, and they eat insects on the wing all day. Natural pest control!
If someone were just getting started, what would you recommend to help them learn how to ID bugs, plants, birds + other creatures?
MR: My favorite book is Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home. He makes the case for gardening with native plants and explains everything in simple, down-to-earth terms.
I have a big collection of guidebooks, but I use online sources and apps just as much these days.
I love Facebook and Instagram for urban wildlife stories, and the sense of community from people and organizations makes me feel that we are all in this together.
I follow people like John Friel from the Natural History Museum in Tuscaloosa. He fosters a celebration of Alabama’s biodiversity in a most positive way.
And I am inspired by curious folks who are just getting started in their journey to learn birds. I love Carla White’s photographs of the wood ducks and yellow-crowned night herons at East Lake Park that she posts on Alabama Birding Trail’s Facebook page.
Expert birder Greg Harber photographs and tells stories about the wildlife at Railroad Park.
Other Facebook and Instagram accounts:
- Alabama Naturalists
- Butterflies of Alabama
- Alabama Audubon
- Turkey Creek
- Cahaba River Society
- Ruffner Mountain