Managing your golf course ecosystem

A Canadian golf course discovered plenty of benefits for its golfers 
and its community by working 
with Mother Nature, not against her.


bald eagle
A bald eagle soars over Cordova Bay Golf Course in Victoria, British Columbia. Photos by Bob Reese

Editor’s note: The following story was originally published in the winter 2021 edition of GreenMaster, the official publication of the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association.

Cordova Bay Golf Course was built in 1990 and opened its doors on July 6, 1991. Thirty years later, having managed this property during this time, I marvel at how the golf course has evolved and the character it has developed. The ecosystem that has developed on this property is the very backbone to its identity and the natural beauty that Cordova Bay has established.

Five years after opening our doors, we began working on the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP) for golf courses. The six sections required for certification clearly outlined the blueprint we could follow to move our golf course toward a more environmentally responsible and natural habitat where golfers, flora and fauna could coexist in a natural setting.

These sections that provide the blueprint for developing and nurturing the ecosystem on your golf course are:

  • Environmental planning
  • Wildlife and habitat management
  • Chemical use reduction and safety
  • Water conservation
  • Water quality management
  • Outreach and education

Each section of the ACSP program helped guide us through the process toward success in environmental compliance, but even after Cordova Bay became certified, the evolution of the golf course continued to be influenced by our initial groundwork established in 2005. Once we understood and witnessed firsthand that creating and nurturing the different areas on the golf course would develop a thriving ecosystem, our focus turned toward programs that would further enhance and develop the ecosystem that was evolving on this young golf course, which was once farmland.

Golf courses contain a series of biomes that connect to form an ecosystem on the properties that we manage. These biomes are large sections of forest, ponds, streams, naturalized areas, gardens and intensely maintained turf areas that combine to form the ecosystem. Within each of these systems, a unique balance is established that we as golf course superintendents can either harm or nurture through our maintenance activities and programs.

An old friend, Walter Weiss, who was a farmer in Alberta, always told me that we had to be in tune with Mother Nature, and this saying never resonated more clearly to me over the years as I have observed the natural balance of our property spring to life in so many ways. The term “sanctuary” is truly what a golf course can become with a focus on collaborating with Mother Nature and not against her.

birdies of the bay chart
Cordova Bay GC produced a large aluminum “Birdies of the Bay” on the back wall of its driving range to promote birds that live there. Golfers are also given a free copy in a brochure to help them identify birds they might encounter during their rounds. Photo by Dean Piller

‘Birdies of the Bay’

I do not recall the official count during our environmental assessment of our wildlife on the golf course back in 2005, but we were able to identify close to 60 species of birds that called Cordova Bay their home for a portion of the year. I remember being surprised by that number, because I originally assumed the inventory count would be closer to 40 or 50 species. However, this number intrigued me, and as a result, our “Birdies of the Bay” case study for certification was focused on wildlife habitat enhancement with an emphasis on creating habitat to attract additional species to our property.

In retrospect, it is clear the implementation of this plan was instrumental in developing a thriving bird population that has created and influenced a thriving ecosystem and a thriving sanctuary that everyone who plays here cannot help but notice. The energy and smiles created by the birds’ activities throughout the golf course during the different seasons is something that most people will not experience during their daily lives living in the city, and that is what has made the creation of thriving bird populations on the golf course so rewarding.

Twenty-five years later, our “Birdies of the Bay” poster and brochure that we refer to as our “Birdie Scorecard” is given to our golfers so they can keep track of the birds they observe during their rounds. This scorecard has increased to 99 species, and I wait in anticipation for the species that becomes No. 100 on our list.

purple martin
A purple martin feeds its young. Photos by Bob Reese

Build it and they will come

Reflecting on the different facets of our “Birdies of the Bay” case study, I believe the most crucial decision we made back in 2005 was to eliminate the use of pond herbicides and insecticides on our property. At first, this decision created undesirable consequences, with a small amount of turf loss from grub activity and tree damage by heavy caterpillar populations. But before long, we began to observe large numbers of birds or predator insects who became our biggest ally in the control of undesirable insects. After five years, a balance between bird populations and their food sources was established, and no damage or turf loss has been experienced in two decades.

Second in order of importance in the promotion of increasing bird species populations was the implementation of habitat enhancement. The obvious programs were the addition of a variety of nest boxes throughout the property, creating habitat by allowing deadfall to stand and nurse logs to lay on the forest floor, and naturalizing turf areas to create meadows where possible. To attract additional species, such as osprey, bald eagles, cormorants, belted kingfisher and great blue heron, we began stocking two of our largest ponds with rainbow trout as a food source for these birds.

purple martin
An adult purple martin poses with a dragonfly, an insect that was key in establishing the birds at Cordova Bay GC. It took more than a decade for them to establish on the course. Course workers provided homes just for purple martins, but it wasn’t until the course had a thriving population of dragonflies — a favorite food of the purple martins — that the birds moved in.

Following these initiatives, the number of species we observed was steadily on the rise, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2019 — when we finally established a nesting pair of purple martins around our pond on the 18th hole after 11 years of trying — that we gained a true understanding of why new species were showing up on our golf course after so many years. Our resident bird expert, Bob Reese, photographed one of our adult martins feeding two of its young, and he commented that the dragonflies that were being fed to the young birds was a favorite food source for the martins and was likely the reason we were able to entice them to raise their young on the golf course.

During the summer of 2021, two pairs of nesting martins made Cordova Bay their home, and with four successful clutches of martins in the two years after that, we intend to add boxes for what we expect will be a growing martin colony. From our experience and Bob’s comments, I realized the importance of focusing on habitat enhancement to attract additional species of birds to our golf course without really understanding that the very habitat we were focusing on was one that was also providing a home for thriving populations of beneficial insects, many of which were an important food source for our growing bird populations.

hooded merganser
Hooded mergansers are commonly seen on the ponds around the golf course, often feeding on the American signal crawfish that were introduced in those ponds over a decade ago.

Beneficial bugs

Over the years, I have watched with interest as populations of what I now refer to as the beneficial insects have surged due to the careful organic management of our water bodies, vegetable gardens, flower gardens, meadows and forests.

Back in the early days of Audubon certification, we initiated a mason bee house program to encourage their reproduction. Mason bees are tremendous pollinators, with every female being a queen that lays her own eggs. Critical to pollination and food production, it only takes 350 mason bees to pollinate an entire acre of cherries.

Dragonflies, in all stages of their life cycle, are fierce predators of undesirable insects. In its larval stage, which can last up to two years, a dragonfly has a ferocious appetite for mosquito larvae, other insects and tadpoles.

When the dragonfly emerges as an adult, it can eat several hundred mosquitoes in a day, along with other insects, such as flies and wasps. This stealth predator of undesirable bugs is so efficient at hunting on the fly that it has earned the nickname “mosquito hawk.”

Ladybird beetles, affectionately known as ladybugs, are relentless predators of fruit flies, aphids, thrips and mites. In fact, a ladybug will eat over 5,000 aphids in its adult life stage. Developing and nurturing a thriving ladybird beetle population is as simple as introducing them to your gardens and allowing leaf litter to collect in the gardens in the fall and winter, as these insects often lay their eggs in these areas. Every year, we purchase 70,000 additional ladybugs through WestGrow Biological Solutions to introduce throughout our gardens on both golf courses at a reasonable cost of under $400 per year.

Flower beds and ornamental gardens are home to hundreds of species of insects. These insects are a major food source for so many species of birds, including hummingbirds, kinglets, cedar waxwing, finches and warblers who feed on the smallest of insects as their favorite food.

Twenty-five years ago, we had no idea how dramatic the positive impact would be from our decision to discontinue use of any aquatic herbicides and insecticides on our golf course. Since this decision, every biome within our golf course ecosystem has continued to develop and flourish in a balanced and homeostatic state. The comment from my old friend Walter Weiss when I was a young superintendent about being in tune with Mother Nature is evident throughout the golf course and a testament to his wisdom and mentorship early in my career.

An adult newt scurries across the course. They’re often seen in spring and fall on tees, greens and fairways. In the fall, they leave their aquatic habitat and move to the woodland forested areas, then return to the ponds in the spring. Photo by Dean Piller

Streams and ponds

An important contributor to the diversity of our ecosystem at Cordova Bay is the number of small streams and ponds that are scattered throughout the property. These water bodies are home to several species that have enhanced the biodiversity of the golf course.

Of particular interest are the Pacific tree frogs that are found throughout the golf course and whose symphony of ribbits can go on for two months during their mating season. This frog, also known as the chorus frog, is about the size of a penny. These frogs eat a variety of insects, including spiders, and their ability to climb with the sticky pads on their feet makes them an excellent addition to any vegetable or flower garden to help control unwanted insects.

Another species that has thrived in our herbicide-free water bodies is the roughskin newt. Newts lay single eggs attached to the stems of vegetation on pond edges. These eggs hatch in three to four weeks and then spend up to two years in the water prior to morphing into an adult in late summer. Beginning in late August or early September, the migration of these adult newts begins from the ponds throughout the golf course across our greens and fairways toward the forest, where they will spend their adult life of up to 12 years. Every spring, the migration of these adults brings them back from the forest to our ponds, where they breed to begin a new life cycle. Both adult and larval stages of newts are carnivores, feeding on a variety of organisms, including insects, slugs and worms.

Vancouver Island is home to four nonvenomous snakes often seen in our gardens and around our ponds.

Garter snakes and sharp-tail snakes will eat small fish, amphibians, tadpoles, insects, worms and slugs. On the golf course, especially in our gardens, these snakes are certainly welcome additions to our overall pest management programs.

Cordova Bay
A look at Cordova Bay GC’s No. 10 hole. Photo by Dean Piller

Organic management of water

Because water bodies are such a dominant part of the overall layout of Cordova Bay, these areas can really enhance the natural beauty of our golf course, or, during the long days of summer, they can be an eyesore with stagnant water covered in floating pond weeds and algae. The decision to discontinue the use of aquatic herbicides in these areas has proven to be much more challenging in maintaining these areas than the insecticide ban was on our turf and garden areas. Twenty-five years later, our pond-management programs have evolved to the point that we are realizing success in keeping them beautiful most of the calendar year. This has not been easy, but there are basic strategies that we have adopted that contribute to our success.

First on the list of protecting these water bodies was the naturalization of the water edges with buffer zones. This certainly provides the habitat for the insects and reptiles that thrive around water bodies, but had negligible effect on improving water clarity or reducing weeds and algae.

For years we have allocated significant resources for pond bacteria products to aid in the degradation of pond sludge on the bottom of the ponds and improve water clarity. These products have reduced sludge and improved water clarity, but every summer, despite the use of these products, we would experience a surge in duckweed and azolla that would completely cover the surface of our ponds by mid-summer.

Fortunately, through observation we were able to conclude that the sweeping of our ponds by divers retrieving golf balls was responsible for stirring up nutrients, seeds and spores tied up in this sludge, which in turn was triggering a massive bloom of these weeds. We recently adopted a policy that the diving of our ponds can only occur in early spring when light levels are low and water temperatures are too cool for seed germination. This has made a substantial difference in the health of our water bodies, and to further reduce the germination of weed seeds and spores, we use black pond dye beginning in March to limit germination of these weeds.

Using a combination of pond bacteria products and black pond dye and restricting diving in ponds to early spring has significantly improved the water clarity in our ponds and has reduced the explosion of floating and rooted pond weeds that would dominate our water features in the summer months.

An adult hummingbird feeds a chick. Because the course has flowering plants at least 10 months out of the year, hundreds of hummingbirds call the course home. This is the only photo in the article NOT taken on the course, though it was taken by the course’s resident “bird expert.” Photo by Bob Reese

Creating meadows

A mistake we made following the original certification as an Audubon sanctuary was our notion that these areas would become no-maintenance or low-maintenance areas. This is far from the truth and something that we needed to develop proper management programs for.

Naturalized areas, if left unmaintained, will soon be overtaken with pioneer species of plants. On Vancouver Island, these include alder, blackberry, poplar, horsetail, thistle and other dicot weeds. Before long, our meadows were being overgrown with these species, so it was necessary to develop and follow a maintenance regime to bring them back to their intended state of meadows containing grass species and native flowers.

A Ventrac mower was obtained to mow these areas more often, while careful spot-spraying of a herbicide with a backpack sprayer is reclaiming these areas that were becoming overrun with invasive weeds. We have sourced growers of native bulbs that we are now planting in these meadows, and mowing only occurs after the spring bloom is complete and the vegetation has receded. The creation of meadows throughout our golf course has enhanced the natural beauty of the property and has provided important habitat for many species of insects, amphibians, birds and wildlife.

Walk the talk

Superintendents and their staffs who have the responsibility of maintaining a golf course have the distinct privilege of creating pristine playing conditions for their members and guests. We also have a tremendous opportunity to nurture a piece of land within communities and develop an ecosystem that is teeming with activities that can only be found in a natural setting.

During this journey, be sure to welcome people in your community to take part in the management and monitoring of the ecosystem on your golf course. Every person — golfer and non-golfer alike — has been surprised and impressed by the complexity and harmony that a golf course ecosystem can display when we are working with Mother Nature and not against her.

Dean Piller is the GCSAA Class A golf course superintendent at Cordova Bay Golf Course in Victoria, British Columbia, and a 35-year member of the association. This article received the CGSA’s 2021 Gordon Witteveen Award, sponsored by The Toro Co., which is presented to the best superintendent- or assistant-superintendent-written article published in GreenMaster.