By Cindy Baldwin
WINDOM – Eleven years ago Bill and Gwen Gately just missed out on purchasing the wooded tract southwest of Windom to a higher bid from an Oklahoma oil speculator. There was no oil and four years later the property came up for sale again. The Gatelys made an offer and are now enjoying their rural woodland in the heart of Kansas, turning it into a haven for wildlife.
The Gatelys are the recipients of this year’s Pheasants for Ever Wildlife award for the work they have done on their property to develop wildlife habitat. They will be recognized at the McPherson County Conservation District annual meeting on Jan. 27 at the McPherson County 4-H Building in McPherson.
Natives of small-town Wisconsin, the Gatelys have always been drawn to rural living. The couple thought they might move back to Wisconsin after Bill’s retirement from Hospira, where he was plant manager. But when he retired in 2011 things had changed. Their three daughters had all married and established families in and around McPherson, so they began looking for rural property in the area. The nearly 80 acres nestled along US Highway 56 and Plum St with its acres of trees seemed the perfect spot
– and reminded them a bit of Wisconsin.
The property had been virtually untouched for years. Originally an open field, Bob Whelply, who headed the county NRCS, planted thousands of trees in the mid-1980s, working diligently to keep them alive. Fast forward to when the Gatelys purchased the farm and a project that they say will keep them busy and in firewood for as long as they wish. The Gatelys cleared an area to build their home and outbuildings and then began tackling the woods with the goal of developing a wildlife and recreation area.
“We love trees, love wildlife and being outdoors,” Gately said.
One of the first things they did was consult with a forester to help with assessing the property’s trees. Whelply planted the trees in arcs with three rows in each arc. Nearly 95 percent of them are honey locusts, along with two nice groups of burr oaks, pine trees, a few Siberian elms, lilac bushes and sand hill plum bushes. There are also a number of volunteer cedar trees. The Gatelys learned that the locusts in particular had been planted too close together – probably in anticipation of some of them not surviving. Bill has been thinning them out, along with removing volunteer and dead trees and has already noticed improved health of the remaining trees.
He has developed three miles of 8-foot-wide paths looping through the property. The paths have all been kept in native grass, which Gately keeps mowed. Grass bordering the paths is allowed to grow, providing cover and food and water sources for small gamebirds. Gately has found that leaving the paths in native grass helps control erosion, which had been a problem in areas of the property when they purchased it. The paths have a dual role as fire brakes and allow fire trucks to access the property if
The couple enjoy observing wildlife, fishing and hunting so sought advice on how to make the property upland game and wildlife friendly.
“We were advised to make sure we left protective cover for game birds when we were cleaning up the trees,” Gately said. “The quail love the cover.”
He has developed “islands” for cover throughout the property by leaving the thickets of bushes and has intentionally left areas of the property untouched. The densely growing clumps of bushes provide excellent protection from predators for small animals and gamebirds. One of the couple’s early projects was developing a small pond in one corner of the property.
“We were told that if we put in a pond, we’d have deer,” Gately said. “It is stocked with fish, and we have a healthy population of frogs and turtles that enjoy it.”
He also has planted deer clover and radishes near the pond. And as predicted, the deer population on the property has grown. The Gatelys have observed up to 16 deer at a time in their yard and game cams located around the property regularly capture deer.
The farm is also host to thriving turkey flocks, pheasants, owls, badgers, coyotes and bobcats. Gwen has taken over an area of the property for a wildflower garden, which attracts butterflies and bees. A patch of sunflowers – last year it was about one-third an acre — provides visual impact and a food source. The flowers attract songbirds and the couple said last year was visited by hundreds of American gold finches among other birds. A talented amateur photographer, Gwen has found the property to be a source of inspiration for her photography.
“We are just enjoying (the trees) and the wildlife,” Gwen said. “We have three families with young children, and they all just love playing in the woods. We love the trees; love wildlife and the views are beautiful. The sunrises and sunsets are wonderful.”
Gately agreed. “It’s almost like living in a park and everyday we are working to make it better.”