It may be 40 grosbeaks in the snow, a large heron suddenly gobbling up six frogs, or bats lurking in the old smokehouse, but ultimately, it's the never-knowing.
"It's exciting. From day to day, you neverknow what you will see next," said Thomas Bile, 48, who regularly watches a handful of deer graze outside his picture window and a red hawk swoop grandly along his wooded driveway to catch a rodent or chipmunk.
Bile, a Westinghouse operations manager, is one of a growing number of county residents who have registered their homes as backyard wildlife habitats with the National Wildlife Federation.
The certification itself is little more than acknowledgment of the homeowners' efforts to preserve or create a desirable habitat. It offers no books or money to help in the goal. But many say they get satisfaction simply from being able to share that appreciation.
"If you create little habitats, animals and insects come out of nowhere," said Bile.
But keeping things wild is not as easy as it might sound. "It's a constant balancing act," he said.
When Bile built his home 15 years ago, he preserved as much as possible of the rich natural ecosystem onhis 3 acres off Triadelphia Road.
Ferns along his stream grow to 6 feet in a wet season. In the pine grove is a bed of needles 2 feet deep with imprints from the deer that have bedded there.
He considers the densely overgrown stream area a no-man's-land in the summer. Foxes, bats, possums, raccoons, snakes, toads, rabbits, turtles and arare woodpecker visit regularly.
Donna Childers of Dayton has been reclaiming her sunny, cleared acre with extensive planting that provides year-round food and shelter for wildlife, eliminating a need for feeders or birdhouses.
In addition to a stand of native mulberries and wild cherries, she has over 20 types of nut and berry plants, including hawthornes, pyracantha, hollies, contoneasters, mandina, crab apples and mahonia, many of which she found at Ten Oaks Nursery, where she works.
Her large fish pool, installed to provide a neededwater source, has attracted northern green frogs. A rock pile is home to mice and lizards. Her hedgerow shelters groundhogs, skunks, rabbits and numerous birds.
She mail-orders "good" insect larva because many of her neighbors use chemical lawn services.
"I am an advocate of walking lightly on the Earth," said Laura Szweda, whose property lies along a creek that feeds into Benson Branch Lake. "I capitalize on what is already here."
Although her front yard is typical ofthe neighborhood, the undisturbed back woods provide natural food sources, supplemented with a feeder, water, nesting materials and an occasional glob of peanut butter on the tree trunks.
These features have made her 1.2 acres a part of a deer trail that honeycombs the wooded neighborhood. This spring, ducks from the lake nested on either side of her front door. In Szweda's flower beds, native cardinal flowers, which once flourished near the lake, attract hummingbirds returning to the now-dwindling flower clumps.
A refuge among the growingdevelopments in the south county area off Route 29 is the largest habitat area, 17 wooded acres and 30 acres of cornfields.
"It's safehere," said Karen Luther, whose husband's service center is based attheir home.
Deer migrate daily from Scotts Cove across her driveway to the isolated woods. Four feeding areas supplement the native forage. As with many of the wildlife caretakers, Luther relies on binoculars and a library of reference books to identify and learn about the wide variety of wildlife.
Another large habitat is the 38 acres at the Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 7472 in Ellicott City. It began in the 1970s when Jack Grove, a Columbia retiree who died two years ago, volunteered to care for 7 acres of grounds.
A member of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland, he began erecting birdhouses and feeders for ducks and squirrels. At one time, the post had over 36 geese, 16 swans and 22 mallards in its large pond.
Recently, however, the birds have been scared off by three foxes and a 60-pound snappingturtle, according to Zeb McCoig. McCoig is a carpenter who volunteered to help maintain the grounds with Stuart Johnson, the VFW's grounds keeper. They have continued Grove's work -- and they hope to relocate the turtle.
Another of the 15 NWF-certified habitats is Lisbon's Little Creek Nature Trail, 4 acres of woods and reclaimed meadow that run behind the elementary school's playing field.
Perhaps one of the more ambitious backyard habitats is the 2-acre home of J. William and Florie Bimestefer, who live on the site of the original Dunloggin dairy farm. The property includes part of a stream and its flood plain.
Clustered around his home are more than 50 birdhouses, mostof them occupied. Behind his mailbox is an elaborate series of largerocks and small recirculating pools, surrounded by loblolly pines from North Carolina and many specimen plants.
Stands of bamboo are intermixed with white pines, redbuds, dogwoods and hicko