Sigrid Sanders
The Beaver Pond
Page 3 of 3

Like the frogs and toads, much of the wildlife attracted by the beaver pond was seldom seen. The beavers themselves came out in deep twilight, and several times we waited and watched as the first one or two materialized in the water, a dark brown shadow leaving a straight ripple of a wake behind it. The rest of the time, the evidence of their presence was not hard to find in the tooth-marks on discarded branches, small tree stumps and trees. One of their favorite foods seemed to be privet, which was fine with us, though they also regularly killed small trees, and once girdled a large and fine white oak that we weren't happy to lose. The creek that formed the boundary of our property ran into the pond but was not dammed, and three or four times over the course of a couple of years we broke down their attempts to block it with branches.

The problems, though, were a small price to pay for the rich diversity of wildlife attracted by the pond and wetland area they created. Red-shouldered hawks and broad-winged hawks both visited the pond almost daily through the late spring and summer, and it was also a favored habitat for barred owl, common yellowthroat, hooded warbler, prothonotary warbler, northern parula, Kentucky warbler, gray catbird, red-winged blackbird, Eastern phoebe, pileated woodpecker, mallards, wood ducks and great blue herons. One winter, four hooded mergansers spent several weeks on the pond, the stark black and white markings of the crested males and the softer, looser tawny-brown crests of the females gracing the gray surroundings.

In late winter, we saw brilliantly painted male wood ducks, and twice in the spring, I saw a female wood duck with downy brown chicks. The first time, in late April, there were seven little brown and white balls of fluff following closely behind the mother, swimming through grasses around the edge of the pond. The second time, two weeks later, I could only find five small, light brown ducklings, dark brown on the heads and a stripe down the back of the neck, with one white spot on either wing. Already they weren't sticking so close to the mother. They followed each other around, feeding on insects on the surface of the water and darting around like water bugs themselves. They swam and walked up and over branches, stretching out their necks to snap at bugs.

One cool, clear morning in early April, I had watched a great blue heron sunbathing. When I first saw it, it was perched on a branch of a dead tree out in the water, looking awkward, scrawny, half hunched, with legs spread. It lifted one leg and scratched behind its head, then began to preen under its wings. It was an immature heron, with a brown-streaked breast, and dark on the top of its head. After a few minutes, it straightened its posture and opened its wings in a valentine shape to the sun, showing a white chin, brown-streaked belly, bluish inner wings, a whitish streak on the head, and a big thick beak like a wicked dagger. It sat this way for at least 20 minutes, moving only to look around or slightly shift its position as the sun rose higher. Four Canada geese came floating by, started squawking and flew to the other side of the pond, but the heron was unperturbed. A pair of mallards that had been lurking somewhere out of my sight also flew up noisily and away, but the heron just watched them. I think it was probably the same juvenile heron that I saw later that month, sitting in a small, skinny tree in the middle of the pond, about 20 feet up from the surface of the water. It broke off a branch of the tree, held it uncertainly, and moved it from place to place for a few minutes, before finally depositing it in a crook in the tree. Over the period of a couple of weeks, a few other sticks accumulated there, but it never amounted to a real nest. I could find no accounts in the literature of immature great blue herons practicing nest-building, but it seemed like that might be what was going on. There also were two mature great blue herons that stayed around the pond and probably nested somewhere near, maybe around one of the other ponds downstream.

Now, in early June, the sun briefly screened by a drifting cloud in the hazy summer sky, I could see the forlorn pile of sticks in the little tree standing between me and the beavers' lodge. They were splotched with white - I couldn't tell if it was feathers or excrement or something else - but there was no heron in sight and no sign of any activity around it. Overhead and a little to my right, however, a tiny, neat blue-gray gnatcatchers' nest was tucked into the fork of a twisted dead lichen-covered branch about 30 feet up. It looked empty now and was quiet, but earlier in the spring, for several days, I could count on seeing the spike of the gnatcatcher's tail as she sat on the nest, and hearing the wheezy conversation of her mate. While we'd been busy and gone, I missed them feeding their young, if the nest was successful. I could only wonder if the young had hatched and fledged, or if something else had happened, and I didn't hear their sharp spee-spees! on this afternoon.

A yellow-billed cuckoo suddenly called from directly above me, startling me with its hollow, rachety cawp-cawp-cawp. I looked up, but the sun was in my eye. It called again. At this point, some kind of large beetle flew down the front of my shirt and I had to stand up and half undress to get it out. When I returned to my binoculars, I expected the scene to have grown still and distant again, but instead, I immediately saw the white flutter of two red-headed woodpeckers near their nest hole on the other side of the pond, and to my amazement, as I watched, after flying to one place and then another for one or two minutes, one of the woodpeckers sat on a broken branch just over the hole and the other fluttered very briefly on top of it - they appeared to be mating. Abruptly, both flew away and disappeared into the woods. It happened so fast that I sat with my mouth open, halfway not believing what I had seen, hoping they would come back. Wishing for an instant replay maybe. But they did not return.

Since more than a month had passed since I watched them working on the nest hole, I think it's possible that their first nest had not been successful, and this might have been a second mating - though that's only speculation. Red-headed woodpeckers are known to be persistent about nesting, and if the first one fails, they will try again. They also often raise more than one brood in a season, especially in the South.

My fragmentary observations - of the red-headed woodpeckers, great blue herons, green herons, frogs, dragonflies and other animals that lived around the pond - don't make a very neat story with a satisfying beginning, middle and end for any one of them. They were like most of my observations during the two years we lived in this woodland - glimpses, pieces of a very complex puzzle. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I did not know. But even as broken pieces, giving only fragmentary glimpses of the whole, they give some idea of the diverse community of wildlife that flourished around this one hidden little pond, which in turn may be some indication of the communities around other beaver ponds and wetlands tucked into second-growth woodlands all around this part of the South. In discussions over the fate of places like these, the tendency often is to focus on their value to us, because they help prevent flooding, protect water quality, process nutrients or provide recreational opportunities like fishing. These points are worth considering, and maybe they're the only arguments that work right now. But I hope some day we'll gain the wisdom to respect the simple right of living communities other than our own to exist, and to put some reasonable restrictions on our own desires and power, instead of shrugging off the wholesale and thoughtless destruction of natural communities in the name of unstoppable progress or property rights. When a woodland area or a beaver pond like this is destroyed, what's lost is not an abstraction to the plants and animals that live there. For a red-headed woodpecker or a green heron, what's lost is a place to live, to nest, to find food, and to fit into a network of other living organisms that all together makes the life of each possible. What's lost is a living community.

For us, from another selfish point of view, what's lost is a piece of the puzzle of life on earth and - more immediately - we've lost an opportunity to observe and appreciate a wild community here in our own back yards. As long as we have places like this - woods, creeks, fields and beaver ponds - we don't have to travel far away or go somewhere special to see the wonders of nature. But it's often hard to appreciate the beauty and value of something here at home. It's easier to care about protecting and preserving places somewhere far away, and easier to say that people who live in those places should protect their wildlife than to open our eyes and take the trouble to do what's necessary to protect our own.

I turned my attention to the green heron again, but this time it was gone. At least I couldn't find it. The third kingfisher, too, had disappeared, flown quietly when I wasn't looking. A phoebe sat on a low branch overhanging the water, switched its tail and sang, dry and swishy. A cardinal whistled in dripping red pearls of song. A gray catbird mewed. The sun dropped low, and lower, shining in my eyes and making it hard for me to look out toward the pond. I checked my watch and was surprised to see how late it was, and was also surprised to find myself scratching at bites I hadn't known were there.

Just after the sun went down, a great blue heron flew in with a deep, hoarse aaaawnk, and perched high in a tall dead pine on the edge of the pond, followed by two more herons that perched nearby. I could only see one of them well, and it was silhouetted, snake-necked, sitting silent and crooked, like a part of the tree. As the light began to fade, I stood. It seemed as if the pond had returned to stillness, though I knew this was only a pause before the action of the night. I followed the trail back into the woods, heading home. A Louisiana waterthrush sang near the creek. An Acadian flycatcher called a sharp wheeet-sit! Just as I reached the point where the trail crossed the creek, I heard a loud crack and turned around in time to see a very large, high limb break off and fall a long way down to the ground, crashing through other branches on its way, and landing with a ground-shaking thud across the trail where I had passed seconds earlier. I walked back to look at it, stretched across the trail, wrapped thickly in a vine of fresh green poison ivy leaves still trembling from the fall and impact. Sobering.

That night - in the deep dark of the next morning really, somewhere around three o'clock when the roar of the frogs had faded - I heard the calls of two barred owls. Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-owww? You-owww-owww? The voices sounded richly loud and wild and close. They carried through the darkness, possessing it, filling it, like the voice of a diva on a stage. I waited, fully awake, covered in a soft rumpled sheet, a damp, warm, earthy breeze drifting in through the open window of our bedroom. But they didn't call again. I scratched at the bites on my arms and neck, and after a while fell back asleep imagining what it was like at the pond in the deepest hours of darkness, with the katydids singing from the leafy shadows of the hardwood trees in the woods, the bone-thin ghosts of dead and leafless trees hovering all around, a beaver, maybe, swimming in a straight, clean starlit line, and an owl dropping down on huge silent wings to glide over the water.

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