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.

Mammal merriment, misery and markings

Lately, many of my blogs have been about birds, mostly because they have been the easiest wildlife to photograph during the colder months. The mammals – and insects, reptiles and amphibians – have not been around much and likely have often visited when I’m not watching. I’m fairly certain that raccoons (Procyon lotor) and opossums (Didelphis virginiana) come to my yard after dark; perhaps the odd fox or coyote does as well. Nevertheless, after she stopped weaning her young and since summer ended, I haven’t seen Raquel raccoon all winter.

raccoon DK7A4351© Maria de Bruyn   raccoon DK7A4248© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern chipmunk I77A8790© Maria de Bruyn resThere a couple mammals, however, that I can count on to see every day because they have grown accustomed to having a food source at my house. Fallen bird seed (and seed and apples put out deliberately for ground feeders) does not get entirely gobbled up by the avian visitors, leaving pickings for the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

The squirrels keep a watch from the trees and underbrush and appear very quickly after the bird seed is replenished. My combined squirrel and raccoon baffles – and placing the feeder poles at least 10 feet away from any structures from which they launch themselves onto the poles – have proved successful in keeping them from the feeders. But they continue to look for vantage points from which they can attempt a jump to the feeders.

Eastern gray squirrel I77A5504© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern gray squirrel I77A5494© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_3643 mdb

 

Before I learned how to thwart them, they made off with plenty of seed and suet – one squirrel even carrying off the entire suet feeder when s/he couldn’t get it open. I saw it happening and chased that squirrel, but they were faster than me!

They will share space happily with birds but don’t always want to share with other squirrels or chipmunks.

 

 

Eastern gray squirrel I77A8350© Maria de Bruyn Eastern gray squirrel I77A0711© Maria de Bruyn res

The chipmunks don’t let that selfish attitude deter them; they just keep a sharp eye out for when a squirrel might turn on them. They wolf down seed after seed, giving themselves a very fat-cheeked countenance!

Eastern chipmunk I77A3326© Maria de Bruyn  Eastern chipmunk I77A3335© Maria de Bruyn

The past few days, the squirrels have continued their chasing, but now it is not always in rivalry or play. Instead, their romantic side is showing and the merriment goes on for a good length of time. They appear to have designated a particular tree stump/snag in my back yard as their trysting spot.

Eastern gray squirrel I77A1104© Maria de Bruyn res              Eastern gray squirrel I77A0980© Maria de Bruyn

white-tailed deer I77A0963© Maria de Bruyn resThe white-tailed deer carry on their mating elsewhere but I know it’s happening as the males are evidence. Usually, one small family group comes to my home – mom, her one-year-old daughter and one-year-old son (a button buck, so-called for his tiny little antler nubs). They were occasionally accompanied by a couple second-year bucks with little antlers – I suspect mama’s sons from the previous year.

white-tailed deer I77A1367© Maria de Bruyn res    white-tailed deer I77A2025© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1366© Maria de Bruyn res

 

One of them lost one of his antlers early, but whether this was the result of a fight or accident is unknown to me. It seems that mama has allowed an orphaned button buck to join their group occasionally, too.

A couple weeks ago, two of the older males came down from the woods in search of does and food in the cold weather. This pair was traveling together but that didn’t stop some rivalry where first-access to the available food was concerned.

 

white-tailed deer I77A1061© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer I77A1005© Maria de Bruyn res

 

white-tailed deer I77A1127© Maria de Bruyn res  white-tailed deer I77A1150© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1893© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Then one day about a week ago when we had some very icy weather, I was surprised by a new and unfamiliar family group for a day. I didn’t mind them eating some seed and the resident family wasn’t around to chase them away. But then I felt immensely sad as I saw that one of them had been injured. Her tongue was lolling out but it was only when she came into the yard that I saw she must have been in an accident.

 

I felt miserable for her, seeing her face had been smashed in but after watching for a while, I realized the accident must have happened some time ago as she had no open wounds.

white-tailed deer I77A1917© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer I77A1869© Maria de Bruyn

It must have been terribly painful though. I decided to call her Camelia as her profile reminded me of a camel.

white-tailed deer I77A1932© Maria de Bruyn res   white-tailed deer I77A1906© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1887© Maria de Bruyn res

I put out some soft bread for her because I don’t know how easily she can eat. She does seem well-fed, however, so perhaps her disability is not hampering her nutritional intake. I haven’t seen her or her family again and don’t know if they will ever return, but it reminded me of how many deer are hurt and killed in accidents. I continue to think it would be worthwhile for research to continue on reducing deer populations through contraceptive use.

 

Beaver DK7A4173©Maria de Bruyn resOutside my yard, I’ve been seeing many signs of beavers (Castor canadensis) in the parks and reserves I visit. Their teeth are strong and I recently learned why their teeth are reddish brown – the enamel contains iron!

 

They have left tree stumps, half-gnawed trees and detached trees that they have apparently not yet been able to drag over to their dams and dens.

beaver tree I77A2950© Maria de Bruyn res  beaver I77A0313© Maria de Bruyn res

beaver I77A0125© Maria de Bruyn res  beaver I77A0098© Maria de Bruyn res

One downed tree in particular looked to me like they had been working on a bird sculpture!

beaver I77A0090© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Eastern chipmunk I77A6221© Maria de Bruyn resI’m guessing that some of the other animals will be coming out in the daytime soon around my home – at the very least, the frogs and rabbits, whom I have seen only very occasionally. Spring is coming and while I enjoy seasonal variety, I will welcome it with open arms!