Sigrid Sanders
The Beaver Pond

One hot, humid day in June, late in the afternoon, I stepped into a painting of a pond. Or so it seemed at first. The scene was absolutely still. Nothing appeared to move, except for the imperceptible gathering and drifting of murky orange cumulous clouds in a hazy white-blue sky, and a blurry swarm of dragonflies over the surface of the water, and the ripple of reflections. Several quiet minutes passed before my senses began to adjust and the life of the wetland closed around me, absorbing me like a splinter in its flank.

I sat at the foot of a large dead pine on the southeastern side of the pond, my back against its rough trunk. A few gnats and flies hummed around my face, damp with sweat. Slabs and chunks of bark had fallen from the pine and accumulated in a thick pile on the muddy ground around it. In front of me, the pond formed a rough, irregular circle, covering about five acres in shallow dark brown water. About halfway across it, directly ahead of me, rose a dome-shaped pile of branches, the beavers' lodge. A scattering of large dead trees surrounded the pond. Some stood dark, with twisted bare limbs, while others were pale and straight, like broken columns, stripped of bark and almost white. Small dead trees poked up through the water here and there, skinny and brittle looking, along with decaying stumps and chaotic piles of branches and debris, giving the whole scene a disordered and ravaged appearance. It was in no way a scenic or pretty place.

But if death and decay shaped the landscape, the jagged skeleton supported a supple, fertile field of water and green vegetation. Along the edges of the pond and in scattered bunches out in the water, sharp, shiny green grasses and sedges grew in crowded clumps. Buttonbush shrubs bearing clusters of cream-colored blossoms billowed on the far side of the pond, and behind them rose the indistinct, blue-green mass of a hardwood forest of oaks, hickories, tulip poplars and maples. A tangle of other green shrubs, vines and aquatic plants draped the woody, water-logged bones, and around the edges and at my feet, exposed brown mud glistened, littered with broken twigs, stems, leaves, insect parts, and other debris, and the tracks of several small animals.

Not a breath of wind stirred the trees or the shrubs or the grasses. Little bug-made circles, expanding, dotted the surface of the murky water. I waited, watched dragonflies, and listened. A common yellowthroat's sudden, brightly rolling song burst up from somewhere low in the tangled vegetation, wichity-wichity-wichity! Then the high, thin whistle of a broad-winged hawk. The rusty conk-a-reee of a red-winged blackbird. Now and then, a plop or a splash in the water. A few frogs started up a clacking chorus, like castanets, that rose and fell. Two bullfrogs bellowed back and forth, and fell silent again.

Gradually, as my eyes adjusted, more pieces of the landscape began to emerge. Four turtles on a log, arranged from smallest to largest, stretched up yellow-striped necks toward the warmth of the sun. A black dragonfly with yellow stripes hovered in front of me, dipping her tail into the shallow water repeatedly, laying eggs. A blue-gray dragonfly hunted from a perch on a small dead tree, flying away and returning, again and again. A connected pair of bluish skimmers tumbled past, whirring and rattling like paper. There were dragonflies of several different colors and sizes, skimmers and darners, white and black, gray, green, blue, striped, spotted and plain. There was a turquoise darner with a long slender shape and four yellow wing spots; a lavender-blue darner, with four white wing spots; and a glorious big carmine and gold-colored skimmer that hunted from a perch on a low limb where its wings caught the sunlight in a way that made them look like fire spun into glass. It, too, flew away and returned, again and again, to the same perch, and for a while I sat and watched only it, entranced by its unexpected, transparent beauty.

Another movement caught the corner of my eye - a green heron. It had been there all along, directly in front of me, no more than fifty feet away, stalking among the debris. A small, well-camouflaged heron, it looked drenched in earth colors, with a russet-brown neck stretched out and up, a ribbon of white down the throat, its back a changeable dark blue-green, and a long, sharp glossy brown bill pointed up toward the sky. As I watched, the neck pulled back and hunched back down, the head leveled and turned a round amber eye toward me. The heron moved cautiously but not overly so, lifting comically large, wet orange feet to grasp a dead branch among a tangle of others, making its way deliberately over and through the debris. It stopped and stood very still, bill pointing down, so that I thought it was about to spear something in the water, but instead - it suddenly stabbed upward and caught a passing dragonfly. Snapped it up.

While I was watching the heron, I saw a flash of silvery wings behind it and heard a loud rattle. A belted kingfisher had swooped down to settle with its metallic blue-gray back toward me on one end of a long, thin dead tree that had fallen so that most of it lay just a few inches over the water - then I saw another kingfisher facing the same direction, already sitting on the other end of the same fallen tree. About six or eight feet apart, they looked like quirky bookends, their crests erect, and their beaks held open, as if panting. I could see their wide white collars, but not the rusty-rouge band that crosses the breast of a female, so I didn't know for sure if they were a pair. As I was watching them, an Eastern kingbird fluttered up nearby, dipped all the way into the water and then perched on a branch to shake it off, spreading its dark, white-banded tail. With its black head, charcoal back and almost-white breast it looked like a black-and-white drawing, sharp and distinctly rendered, against a background of hazy, complicated color. Meanwhile, the heron was still on the move, stealthily lifting and placing its big orange feet, pausing, still. Snap! Another dragonfly.

Directly across the pond from me, on the far side, stood a tall, bone-white dead tree. A little more than a month earlier, on a drizzly afternoon in late April, I had watched a pair of red-headed woodpeckers working on a nest hole in this tree. The flashy, brilliant color of a red-headed woodpecker is immediately eye-catching with its bold pattern of contrasting red, black and white - the head entirely hooded in crimson, the back and wings jet black, the breast pure white, and large square white patches on the backs of the wings that flash when they fly like handkerchiefs or flags. That's what had caught my eye that day - the fluttering white of their wings.

Red-headed woodpeckers, once a common sight in much of eastern North America, are now listed on the National Audubon Society's WatchList as a species of concern because their numbers have declined alarmingly in the past several decades. The North American Breeding Bird Survey has shown a 50 percent reduction in the population of red-headed woodpeckers since 1966. Although the reasons for this decline are not entirely clear, loss of habitat seems to be most likely. One kind of habitat in which they are still often found is beaver ponds like this one, which provide many of their habitat needs - a mixture of open areas and forest, plenty of standing dead trees in which they can roost and nest, and an abundance of flying insects.

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