Species in Your Backyard

Exactly how many species can be found in a typical suburban backyard?

Consider your yard, and have a guess how many species you might be able to find in it. Don’t count any cultivated or captive species. Obviously yards will range from courtyard to acreage, so your estimates will differ. Unless you are someone who regularly looks for life in their yard, your estimate could be out by a factor of 5 to 10. For a more detailed consideration, check out the post How Many Species?. Below you can find some tips of how to locate these often elusive species on your property.

The Size of Life
Obviously the larger an organism the greater area of land is required to sustain a population of that species. You’re unlikely to find a Kangaroo in your yard unless there is a large natural area nearby. While you will encounter a few Vertebrate species in your yard, predominantly Birds with a few Reptiles and Amphibians, the majority of species are going to be small Invertebrates. So be prepared to look closely.

How Much Life
This will all come down to Plants. The more you have in your yard (and surrounding area), the more species you will find. They draw in the herbivorous Invertebrates to chew the leaves, suck the sap, drink the nectar, and eat the fruit and seeds. These in turn attract the predatory Invertebrates and both will attract the insectivorous Vertebrates. The Plant litter feeds the ground and soil dwelling Invertebrates and encourages a diverse range of Fungi, whose fruiting bodies are consumed by various Invertebrates.

Time of Year
Not all species that can be found in your yard will be present at the same time. Many species of Insects have flight times in the warmer months. Some are only present in their adult forms for one month of the year. Some species are active at different times of the day and during the night. Some will only ever visit your yard if there is a food source available, i.e. flowering or fruiting Plants. To get a full count of species in your backyard, you’ll need to be on the lookout throughout the year.

Time of Day
Different creatures are active different times of the day. If you investigate your yard at the same time on each day, you’ll only see a subset of what is actually there. Try to look around your yard at various times of the day, and after sunset. Turn on some outdoor lighting in the evening and see what is attracted. Keep an eye on birdbaths and any flowering Plants as these will have visiting Birds throughout the day, with some perhaps only visiting once per day. Take a powerful flashlight out after dark and search for nocturnal creatures. Don’t forget the many nocturnal Invertebrates. Keep an eye out for the Grey-headed Flying-Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus). These head out from the colony in Adelaide each evening. Each year in April/May I find them feeding in a local Palm around 22km from the colony, often around 10pm.

Not only will inclement weather keep us inside, it will do the same for many creatures. Many Insects will be most active in the calmer and warmer parts of the day, however they can also be harder to photograph when most active. If the weather is poor, try again another time. The difference the weather can make can be dramatic.

Resident, Visitor or Fly-By
Species seen in your yard fall into a few categories. ‘Residents’ that have their homes in your yard and spend most of their time there, ‘Visitors’ with homes elsewhere that come to your yard for food and other resources, and ‘Fly-By’ species that are passing through the physical space of your yard, but are not specifically interested in it. The number of Resident species will be determined by the size of your property and the available resources on it. The number of Visitors is dependent on the resources present in your yard and the homes available in the area surrounding your property. Fly-Bys are mostly chance encounters, but are higher when local surroundings are more diverse.

Surrounding Landscape
Most of the species observed in our yards won’t be residents. They will be passing through, visiting and feeding. So the environment surrounding your property will have a large impact on the number of species you observe. If you have nearby natural areas and abundant food sources in your yard, you will get many visiting species. Newer suburbs with smaller backyards and less established vegetation will see less overall species.

Evidence of Organism
Sometimes you might be able to find evidence of a species. Consider recording Frogs and Birds if you can hear them but can’t locate them, or if they are too far away for your camera. You can also look for other signs, such as Bird feathers.

Finding Organisms – Observing
It is not difficult to find Rainbow Lorikeets in your yard. In fact it is hard to miss them. However keep an eye on established trees and shrubs, particularly if they are flowering, and you may spot some quieter species of Bird that have gone unnoticed. If the flowers are closer to the ground, keep an eye on them for visiting Insects. The longer you observe, the more species you’ll likely spot. If you have a birdbath, keep an eye on it throughout the day. Some Birds may visit briefly only once every day or so.

Smaller creatures including Invertebrates tend to be rather more elusive. Evolved to avoid predation, they also avoid being seen by us as well. To find them you’ll need to move slowly and look closely. Many Insects are at least partially camouflaged and are easily missed unless looking with intent. Some can see a surprising distance, will see us coming and hide on the underside of a leaf. Some species of Beetle will release their grip and drop to the ground if disturbed, often just as you get the camera in focus to take a shot. A quick method of finding Invertebrates in Plants is to place a sheet below a tree or shrub, shake the branches and record what falls out.

Finding Organisms – Searching
If you have rocks or logs in the yard, don’t forget to look under them. Have your camera ready as many species will try to hide when disturbed. Avoid lifting anything with your hands as Snakes/Spiders/Scorpions aren’t going to be happy having their homes disturbed. Return the rocks and logs to their original positions when finished.

If you have a pond, have you considered what might be living in it, aside from Mosquito wrigglers? Sweep a fine mesh net through the water or collect some pond water in a jar and see what aquatic Invertebrates you can find.

Many Invertebrates can be found in leaf litter and soil. Consider collecting leaf litter and sifting through it on a white sheet to see what falls out. Soil can be dug from the ground to a spade depth and dropped into a bucket of water, where the Invertebrates will float to the surface and can be collected.

Finding Organisms – Attracting
Offering food sources can draw out resident species and attract additional visitors to your yard. Suitable vegetation can ensure food is available year round. A birdbath or seed dish will attract a range of Birds, but will work best if established so its availability is known to local Birds. Add a few large stones to the birdbath to give flying Insects a surface to land on before taking a drink.

Different Invertebrate species can be attracted using various substances from our fridges and cupboards. Try placing a range of substances in jar lids or bottle caps at locations around your yard, ideally in sheltered locations out of the rain. It may take a few hours or few days to be found. Keep them away from the house to avoid attracting pests. Sticky substances can also be applied to tree trunks and branches. Ant species will find sugary foods (i.e. honey, jam, sugar water) and fatty foods (i.e. bacon pieces, cheese, peanut butter). Other substances that can attract various Beetles, Flies, Moths and Plant Bugs include terpenes, alcohol and methanol, fermented fruits and rotting meat.

Finding Organisms – Attracting: Moths
Turning on some outdoor lighting, and setting up a white sheet will attract some species. The greatest number of species will be attracted with a bright UV light source and a white sheet hung nearby. However any outdoor lighting will attract some species and the sheet can be placed on a flat surface. i.e. table below the lighting if there is no option to hang the sheet. Consider temporarily replacing an outdoor light with a UV Blacklight. This will increase the number of species attracted significantly. The light will not only attract Moths, but also some Beetles, winged Ants, Katydids, Lacewings and various other taxa. You may also get some visiting predators such as Mantises attracted by the abundant food. Many more species will be out if the evening is warm and calm.

The visitors can be photographed in place. Many Moth species can be IDed to species with a top down photo, but some may need profile and underside views. Don’t forget the many smaller species 5mm long or less. With the camera as close as possible the flash may only illuminate one side of the specimen, so consider using a torch to light up the opposing side. This additional light will help to increase the shutter speed to ensure your photo is clear.

Finding Organisms – Temporary Homes
Cardboard or metal sheets can be placed on the ground around your yard. Place some in cool and damp protected areas, some in exposed sunny areas. Various Invertebrate species will seek shelter under these and if lucky they will attract predators, in particular Lizard species. The sheets in cool damp areas may attract Frogs. The longer they are left in place, the more established the homes become.

Finding Organisms – Traps
There are many simple methods for trapping Invertebrates with varying degrees of success. A Pitfall Trap is a container or jar buried flush with the surface of the soil that Invertebrates crawl into but cannot get out. A simple Funnel Trap and Side-Door Trap can be made from empty soft drink bottles (See Traps section HERE for construction details).

Collecting & Photographing
Specimens can be photographed in situ, but this doesn’t always allow for photos sufficiently clear or from the necessary angles for identification purposes. Consider having available a container to temporarily detain any Invertebrates found. These specimens can then be photographed on a white sheet or similar in more controlled lighting. For the more active specimens, place the container in the fridge for a while to slow them down. They will recover quickly as they warm up and can then be released after suitable photos have been taken.

How many species?
Try each of the tips above to see how many species you can discover on your property. See a full list of the more than 640 species I have found on mine in my Backyard Species List.