Islander transforms waterfront yard into habitat for birds, critters
There’s more than just peace and quiet on Alice Anne O’Donell’s 10-acre home on Galveston’s West End. There are birds and bird houses, snakes, frogs, oysters and a wide variety of plants and trees. In fact, because of its location and inhabitants, O’Donell’s waterfront yard is considered a wildlife refuge, as well as a protected wetlands for birds and fish.
“My goal was to have a natural habitat,” said O’Donell, who purchased her vacant land in 1998 and started building her house in 2004. The Arkansas native moved to Galveston in 1964 as a resident doctor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where she specialized in pediatric medicine. When she retired in 2012, she devoted all of her spare time to her passions: nature, birding and maintaining her wildlife sanctuary in her yard, she said.
By 2008, she had succeeded in digging ponds and planting hundreds of trees resistant to salt water. On the advice of her neighbor, environmental lawyer and naturalist Bob Moore, she applied for both an agricultural and a wetlands designation on her property. With the help of friend Winnie Burkett of the Houston Audubon Society, they selected plants for the land that would make it wildlife friendly. It was “an open palette for what I wanted,” O’Donell said.
Then, in 2008, Hurricane Ike came along, badly damaging the property.
“I lost about 90 percent of the trees and plants,” she said. “It was just horrible.”
But with the help of her late brother, Michael, who was a landscaper in Houston, she was able to replenish much of the barren soil with young saplings and faster growing bushes. Today, the land looks much like it did pre-Ike, with a few additions.
“Each year at Christmas, I buy a live tree and plant it,” she said, pointing to a path of 10-foot-high non-native pines that had once been decorated for the holidays. And she designed her plantings in “islands” of trees — clumps of species that work well together and allow for pathways around the clusters.
After Ike, rather than haul all the dead oaks and debris to the city dump, she gathered all the stumps and trunks and created a “tree cemetery” and bird habitat, as well as a place for rabbits, snakes, frogs and other critters to live, she said.
“There are no real woods on Galveston Island, and this was a good place — especially for migrating birds to rest after their long trips from the Yucatán,” she said.
Although she hasn’t officially counted, she has documented at least 186 varieties of birds on her property. This year, she erected a special gourd birdhouse for purple martins, which will be arriving soon.
Her 1,900-square-foot house, with its wrap-around porch and spectacular views from every room, is on the water’s edge. She has had a bulkhead built, along with a long dock and a concrete sack wall along the shoreline to encourage mangrove growth and seaside grasses — such as black mangrove and spartina grass — to flourish in the salty marshes. Along the concrete wall, beds of healthy oysters have developed, but not for consumption. The oysters actually act as a filtering system for the bay.
“Originally, I didn’t intend for this to be a bird sanctuary,” she said. “Birding was hobby to me. But my passion now is the planting and maintenance of this habitat for birds, birders and educators.
“When I’m gone, it will remain as a wildlife refuge and cannot be developed,” she said, noting all of the housing around her. “I don’t know if this makes birds happy — they will go wherever there is food, water and a place to rest. But it sure will make the birders happy.”