My pond and the cycle of life

Undergoing cardiology exams can bring up thoughts of mortality and a life lived; perhaps they also made me more attentive to the cycle of life in my yard, particularly in the vicinity of my backyard pond.

Several years ago, a local garden center went out of business and they had a 175-gallon black plastic pond for sale. It was a good deal, so I invested in it and then had to dig a large hole in the rocky Piedmont clay ground of my backyard (with a bit of help from a neighbor teen). At a certain point, the ground was so hard we couldn’t penetrate it with shovels so the pond now sits a bit above ground level; the rocks I piled up around it have offered a home to Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus).

 

I transferred some of my beautiful koi and goldfish from a smaller pond, only to have a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) come by to clean them all out.

On the recommendation of the garden center staff, I had positioned a heron statue by the pond – they said herons don’t like competition, so the intruder would keep flying when s/he saw the one by the pond. It didn’t take long for the bird to figure out the stationary bird was not real, however.

After the heron had eaten all the koi and goldfish, I still had some tiny baby fish. At first, I thought they were from my now deceased koi but apparently the intruder heron had had fish eggs on its feet from a nearby natural pond and left them behind. So for a time, I had unidentified native fish in the pond. They were extremely shy, however, and I only got a brief look at them when they surfaced early in the morning; as soon as I came near, they dove down under the water plants (no good photos).

Then some green frogs (Lithobates clamitus) moved in this past summer and ended up being extremely prolific reproducers. Before I realized it, there were at least 500 tadpoles in the pond!! They were eating the fish food and at the same time I noticed that I wasn’t seeing the fish at all anymore. Going online, I found out that tadpoles will eat fish – their sheer numbers had to have spelled doom for the fish.

 

 

I collected lots of the tadpoles, gave some to a friend for her water feature and released hundreds into the local creek (they are native animals after all). A few of the tadpoles grew into frogs and the pond became a residence for some very loud croakers.

 

  

The next chapter in the story came a couple days ago. I had seen a pair of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) visiting my yard recently. I thought they were after the chipmunks, numerous squirrels and songbirds populating the area. The other day, however, one hawk took up a position in the crepe myrtle tree next to the pond and just sat there calmly not bothering with any of those creatures. Numerous Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in the tree above her and many other species of birds were at the nearby feeders;  none of them were concerned at all with the hawk’s presence. The squirrels didn’t seem perturbed either.

She sat fairly still and I took some photos through my kitchen window. Then I ventured out into the backyard, sure she would take off as I left the porch steps. But Ms. Hawk just sat there, sometimes stretching a leg or engaging in a little grooming.

     

   

Occasionally, she looked up but often her gaze was fixed on the area around the pond.

She would stare intently down at the ground – I thought she might have spotted one of the pond chipmunks.

Then after a while, I noticed her shifting her stance – suddenly she plopped down into the pond with spread wings. It happened too fast for me to get out from behind dried plants to get a good photo, so I watched as she climbed out of the pond. Then it became apparent what she had been hunting – she had caught one of the green frogs.

  

It looked like she bit its head to kill it as soon as she got on dry land; the frog wasn’t moving.

Then she spent time ruffling and shaking out her feathers which had gotten a good soaking.

She spent a little time looking around and then abruptly took off with her prize, closely followed by another red-shouldered hawk who suddenly swooped in.

He chased her but she got away with her meal and he ended up sitting in a neighbor’s tree, somewhat disgruntled with his failed thievery attempt.

  

Ms. Hawk returned yesterday and spent quite a bit of time in a high tree surveying the yard and gazing down at the ground. Red-shouldered hawks sometimes eat birds, such as sparrows, doves and starlings (which are all numerous around my feeders) but more often they go after snakes, mice, toads, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as voles and chipmunks. They will also eat insects and earthworms. Since I’m leaving the leaf litter, there are undoubtedly more insects hiding there than in neighboring yards. I’m not sure what Ms. Hawk is seeking in my yard, but I hope she doesn’t get all the pond frogs. In any event, I’m sure new ones will find the water in the spring and in the meantime, I have a beautiful bird of prey to watch this winter.

Big Blue – my avian nemesis!

Over the past few years, I’ve become an avid birder, at least from the standpoint of photographing the different species I see and trying to get interesting shots of their behavior. And while I’ve grown to love the beauty in each type of bird, there is one particular individual that I would rather not see in my yard.

Great blue heron IMG_7612©Maria de Bruynres

What has caused this aversion, you might ask? It’s related to my pond and fondness for the fish that have populated it. At one time, I had a lovely group of goldfish, butterfly koi, shubunkins, comets and one medium-sized koi, whom I named Big Guy (or Girl, depending on my perception that day). The first predator to get some of them was a turtle, who I admired near the pond one day, not realizing that it would go into the pond and then not be able to get out.

painted turtle IMG_8914

Turtle unfortunately accounted for the disappearance of a few smaller fish, until I finally figured out that I needed to put in a larger log for it to climb out on. (This turtle would NOT let me catch it.)

But then my real nemesis appeared – Big Blue (a name given by my neighbor, Kevin), a great blue heron (Ardea Herodias). I had seen Big Blue at a large neighborhood pond and admired the grace of this large bird.

Great blue heron IMG_7482© Maria de BruynresGreat blue heron IMG_7465© Maria de Bruynres

Big Blue at the neighborhood pond

However, the first time Big Blue visited my yard – to my knowledge – I caught sight of him (or her) standing in my small pond with one of my biggest goldfish hanging from his beak. I ran out into the yard, uselessly yelling for him to drop the fish. He stared at me and didn’t move until I was about three feet away – impressing me with his large size. (He was only about 6 inches shorter than me!) Then he lifted off with his prize meal.

Great blue herons, the largest North American heron species, have a varied diet that includes small fish, as well as shrimp, crabs, rodents, other small mammals, frogs, salamanders, lizards, snakes, crayfish, dragonflies, grasshoppers, aquatic insects and even small birds. Their main hunting technique is to wade slowly in shallow water, sometimes diving headfirst into the water to quickly spear their prey with their sharp long bills.

Great blue heron IMG_9216© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron IMG_9158©Maria de Bruynres

Covering my pond with netting was not an option. I had used netting to protect some plants and then had to rescue a small bird and an anole that had gotten tangled up. The owner of the store where I bought my fish (sadly closed now after many decades of running their family business) recommended I buy a life-like statue of a heron to position by the pond. He had done this at his own pond and said it kept the herons away as they are solitary hunters and don’t want others in their territory. He said Big Blue would see the statue and fly on. So I installed the statue, changing its position from time to time.

This seemed to work for many months but the past weeks I was very busy and didn’t change the stationary bird’s place. Then I noticed that my family of three bullfrogs were gone and Big Guy had gone missing (all the fish would come to the surface when I gave them pellet meals and Big Guy was gone. A gorgeous red, black and white goldfish with wavy fins was also gone. Inexplicably, the statue was also facing a different direction!

Fishy IMG_8951© Maria de Bruynres

Goldfish IMG_8917© Maria de Bruynres

Apparently, Big Blue must have had a tussle with the imposter and discovered he was not real, leaving him free to take up fishing in my pond again. I realized this about 2 weeks ago, when I saw Big Blue at the pond’s edge. I ran out to chase him off and he flew up to a neighbor’s tree. Now the pond is partly covered with some metal fencing laid over one end; it has tiny holes so no animals can get caught in it. The fish can hide under that and the smaller birds can still perch on sticks to get a drink. As it’s getting colder, the fish are also going into hibernation so – hopefully – they will make it through the winter!

Heron statue IMG_2917©Maria de Bruynres

I have never seen Big Blue with a mate at the large neighborhood pond and sincerely hope that he will remain a bachelor. I admire his beauty but don’t want a family of herons using my pond as a restaurant!

IMG_0108©Maria de Bruynres

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