Thrilled by some backyard neighbors

Wild Ways

Bucko and I live in a normal house in a small development on Amelia Island. From the front of the house you can easily see our neighbors, all living in houses very similar to ours. Nothing unusual about this cozy setup. We are happy here.

But we are also happy with our backyard neighbors, those that few can see but us. Our house is one of only a handful that back up to the development’s retention pond, and most windows in our house have a pond view. Because of our vantage point, I think of the pond’s residents as our neighbors, too.

Some of the creatures in the pond are full-time residents. The pond turtles often bask in the sun on the opposite bank, and in the spring some females crawl across our yard to the only sandy spot anywhere around to lay their eggs. Other times we see their heads poking up from the pond’s surface, or the ripples they cause when they swim around. Anytime we look at the pond we are sure to see turtles.

And that’s just the beginning. For many months now we have enjoyed the presence of three large Florida birds: a great blue heron, a great (white) egret and an anhinga.  Each of these birds has a routine we have gotten to know. The great blue heron and the great egret patrol the perimeter of the pond, alternating strides along the bank with extended periods of frozen waiting, allowing a fish to swim by close enough to nab. On various occasions we have seen both birds with fish in their beaks, sometimes a frog and very occasionally a snake. Mostly, though, they can be counted on to be standing still at the pond’s edge, seemingly oblivious to our nearby presence.

The anhinga is also a fisherman, but its hunting is done beyond our prying eyes. Anhingas catch their fish from underwater. We sometimes see “our” anhinga swimming in the pond with only its skinny neck and head exposed above the surface, looking snake-like, a reason for its common name “snake bird.” When its head and neck disappear from view, the anhinga is swimming underwater chasing fish through submerged vegetation. Once it finishes fishing, the anhinga retreats to its favorite tree branch, where it can spread its wings in the sun to dry off. Just about anytime I look at the pond, the anhinga, blue heron and great egret are all there.

Then there are the occasional visitors to the pond, our temporary neighbors, some that we enjoy more than others. Our favorite seasonal visitors come now, in winter. Most years we have either a single pied-billed grebe or a few hooded mergansers that stay around for a few of the coldest months before heading north to breed elsewhere. This year, so far, we have only had a single merganser, a male, but he only stayed a few days. We keep hoping for more.

Our favorite visitors are, of course, the otters. Their visits are unpredictable and often interspersed with weeks of absence. We always know when they have visited by the piles of scented scat they leave in the woods at the pond edge to mark their territory. Every few months, our attention is caught by “big ripples” on the pond, and we know to look for the otters then. They don’t stay long, but any visit by the otters makes my day.

The backyard neighbors we don’t like very much, though, are the geese. As the geese population increases on the island and nearby, they are always seeking new ponds to set up shop in. Well, we don’t want to encourage this in our pond. We’ve seen this scenario all too often. First a couple of geese move in, then lay eggs, the youngsters hatch and fledge, and all too soon there are dozens of geese leaving mounds of waste in neighboring yards and contaminating the water as well. So when the advance guard of geese shows up, we definitely do not feed them. On the contrary, we try to make as much disturbance as possible to discourage them from settling, and so far this has worked. 

After 15 years in this house, watching the pond, we have gotten to learn the daily and seasonal cycles of these neighbors. But still there is excitement when we look at the pond. We still never know when something new will turn up next!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. 

 

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