Mono Lake, California, is described in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, as follows:

Mono Lake (/ˈmoʊnoʊ/ MOH-noh) is a large, shallow, saline soda lake in Mono County, California, formed at least 760,000 years ago as a terminal lake in a basin that has no outlet to the ocean. The lack of an outlet causes high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake. These salts also make the lake water alkaline.

I visited this natural wonder years ago when its water level was at an all-time low, due to excessive water diversion by the City of Los Angeles. (A legal challenge later provided some remedy.)

The rocks in the photo are not in Mono Lake, of course, but right here in Hardy Pond, just south of Smith Point. The white bands appeared for the first time this winter, stirring my memories of the evaporative deposits at Mono Lake. I took the photo on January 9, 2012, during the brief and only appearance this past winter of ice on the pond.

I’ve looked out upon this scene every day for twelve years, but had never seen those vivid white bands before this winter. Through my window, I can still see them now, three months later in March. They may, in fact, have grown wider. They’re visible when the rocks are dry and sun is on them.

We’ve heard several explanations of the recent sunfish die-off, except the 800-pound gorilla in the room: poor flushing of the pond due to the silting of its outlet channel. This narrow, quarter-mile channel discharges to Chester Brook, and ultimately to the Charles River. Is the pond behaving like Mono Lake, building up natural mineral deposits, or toxins, or decaying organic matter (that depletes oxygen in the water), because it has no effective outlet? A testing program could provide answers.

Fish kills due to natural oxygen depletion (anoxia), though common other times of year, are almost unheard of in the spring, according to MassWildlife. Natural oxygen depletion is a seasonal effect, they say, occurring either in winter during prolonged ice cover, or in summer when water temperatures become elevated — but almost never in the spring. There was ice on Hardy Pond for no more than a few days this past winter, so isn’t it reasonable to look for other causes?

The outlet channel remains silted up two years after the great floods of March 2010. This should be a matter of overriding concern. Both water quality and flood control are dependent on a free-flowing channel. This quarter-mile stretch urgently needs to be cleaned out, as an outside engineering study (pdf) recommended late in 2010, and as an earlier study called for in 2002. As of this writing, more than a year after the recent report, little or nothing has been done.

Update, July 2012: As I reported above, I saw the white bands as late as March of this year, but they vanished after the ensuing spring rains.

See related posts: High Water*, High Water II*, High Water III, and Dead Fish*. See also special page: The Great Flood*. Click image to enlarge it, and browser’s back arrow to close.

 

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Every now and then, we witness a territorial fight between male swans, with the resident male, or “cob,” defending his turf, or nesting area, against an interloper. Sometimes they fight to a standoff, work out an uneasy truce, and co-exist on the pond. Other times — and this is clearly one of them — the vanquished cob and his mate, the “pen,” decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and move on.

A pair of young Mute Swans took up residence on the pond early this winter, no doubt because it met two prerequisites: a lack of ice, and the absence of other swans. Their small size and slender necks (top photo, below) suggest this pen and cob were no more than two and three years old, respectively, and newly mated.

Sometime in mid February, however, the day of reckoning came. The real residents returned after several months’ absence – their usual winter excursion to some unfrozen body of water nearby, possibly a river or an estuary. Older, bigger and more experienced, they evicted the young’uns after a fierce fight.

It’s always hard to be sure of anything about swans, but sometimes a small insight can finally shed light on a big mystery. Hours after the fight, the older swans came by in what I took to be their victory lap (bottom photo).
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Older Swans Later in the Day
February 18, 2012

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They were completely at ease — serene, is a better word — showing none of the curiosity and excitability I associate with swans new to the pond. Suddenly all became clear: they had been here before; this was home, and they were the defenders.

Sure enough, looking at the fight sequence again, I realized it was the bigger, older swans on the attack, defending their nesting area. Initially, I had trouble telling which was the defending cob, and which the interloper, because both had their neck feathers up — a sign of aggression. The younger pen gave me the clue: her slender neck was plain to see, and she was being chased by the older pen, sporting a thicker neck.

I find swan fights horrific. I watched this one for about six minutes, before the action moved out of sight behind a neighbor’s hedge. Those six minutes seemed like an hour. I was so agitated by the violence in front of me, that I forgot to check my camera settings. As a result, all the shots came out too dark. Fortunately, I was able to lighten them digitally, in the photo editor, but they came out grainy, reminding me of old black-and-white photos that I “pushed” too hard in the darkroom. Perhaps this graininess serves a purpose, albeit unintended, that of heightening the sense of foreboding conveyed by the photos.

The slide show contains twenty-three shots. Some readers may find it overly long and repetitive, but I feel its very length conveys the intensity of the fight, as well as the determination and endurance of the combatants. I shot the sequence from my window in the early morning of February 18, 2012.

At the end, the victor forced his opponent into submission by holding him under water. Rarely do injuries or fatalities result from these fights, as fierce as they may be (although there was a reported killing here of one cob by another in 2006, the killer being known as unusually vicious).
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Younger Swans, Days Earlier
February 2012

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Less than an hour after the fight, far across the pond, to my great relief, I saw both combatants preening themselves, a sign that all was well.

A few minutes later, using binoculars, I watched a remarkable scene unfold on the opposite shore. The younger cob had climbed up to join the two older ones on land for a symbolic “surrender.” With neck sleeked, wings flat on his back, and bill pointing down, he was offering the classic signs of swan submission. The photo — the last one in the sequence — is fuzzy because of the great distance, almost a quarter mile, but it is dramatic nonetheless.

Occasionally, more than one “interloper” pair has appeared on the pond at the same time. In such cases, there are usually no fights, just frantic chases on the water and in the air, before the resident pair finally reassert control.

Every few years, during migration season, a vast gathering of unmated swans will take place on the pond. I’ve seen as many as fifty on the pond at once. Some writers refer to these as “winter flocks,” but the swans come and leave a few at a time, so they are flocks unlike any we are used to. I believe their purpose is to give young swans a chance to find mates. During these multi-day events, there are no fights, because there are no territories, and there are no territories because there are no nesting pairs — yet.

Click either of the separate photos to view it full screen, and click the back arrow to return. Or click any thumbnail to open the slide show. Enjoy! (If that’s the right word.)
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Related: Fighting Swans II*, Serene Swans*

 


Yesterday, the men cutting our grass called my attention to several dead fish in the shallow water near our shore. They pulled two out for me. I could see three others lying nearby on the bottom. They were small fish, Bluegills, a type of sunfish. This may be nothing more than a case of suffocation from oxygen depletion in the stagnant, shallow areas of the pond. After all, there’s been little rain, and the pond has not has not seen much water replacement.

It’s also a reminder that Chester Brook, the discharge channel for Hardy Pond, is still silted up two years after the great floods of March 2010. Proper flushing of the pond depends on a free-flowing outlet. This quarter-mile stretch badly needs to be cleaned out, as an outside engineering study recommended in late 2010. As of this writing, more than a year after the report, little or nothing has been done.

Update, July 2012:  Opinions have varied as to the size of the fish kill. At the time, someone at Windsor Village, a rental community on the eastern shore of the pond, reported it to MassWildlife as a “small” fish kill. As stated above, I saw only a few dead fish in the water here on the western shore. Others have put the numbers much higher. Recently, Marc Rudnick, writing for the Hardy Pond Association reported that, “Thousands of sunfish are dead in the pond…”

Perhaps the best clue, one that supports Marc’s description, is the complete disappearance of cormorants and gulls from the pond this summer, two species that depend on the small fish. The gulls perennially have been a large and noisy presence. In recent years, the Double-crested Cormorants have ranged in number from several individuals to an occasional flock of six.

More information on fish kills, and their seasonal nature, can be found at MassWildlife.

See related posts: High Water*, High Water II*, High Water III, and Mono Lake*. See also the permanent page: The Great Flood. Click image to enlarge it, and browser’s back arrow to close. Comments are welcome.

 


I’ve come to recognize the lumbered, slightly jerky flight of the Bald Eagle flying low among the trees. Even with the light failing, I spotted it through the window, without difficulty, coming from the direction of the marshy area at at the north end of the pond.

As soon as it cleared the tangle of trees, it stopped high above the house, as usual. I imagine it pauses here to catch its breath, and plan the next leg of its trip. I stealthily opened the front door, so I’d have room to aim the camera upwards. Light conditions allowed only this one, murky photo.

After five minutes, the great bird flew off in a southwesterly direction. I tried to capture it in flight, but the tree trunk blocked my shot.

This photo was was taken at 5:46 pm, on March 4, 2012.

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This was not one of those memorable winter dawns we’ve seen so often lately — those lavish, ethereal displays far to the southeast. Rather, it was a band of low clouds playing hide-and-seek with the sun, as it rose above the ridge along the eastern shore of the pond. The event occurred on February 25, 2012.

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There’s no denying it, gulls are intelligent and resourceful, as I pointed out in an earlier post. A Great Black-backed Gull is the villain of this piece. Spotting a chance to steal a fish, it does so with blinding speed and cunning. Its victim is a diving Common Merganser, which had just brought up its catch. The biggest of all gulls, the Great Black-backed is also the bully of its clan. You can identify it easily in flight by the large white triangle at the wing tips. (The Lesser Black-backed, by contrast, is almost half the size, with a small white spot at the wing tips.)

A friend has suggested that I should record these wild life sequences as videos. Honestly, I’m not interested. I feel there’s more action, drama, and beauty to be had in a good still image than in any video. What’s more, most of my sequences would make rather short videos. This one would last less than two minutes. The time stamp under each image shows, second-by-second, how quickly the action proceeded. That’s true even though I left out a few frames that I felt were repetitive.

The excitement shown here among the gulls seems to take place almost exclusively in shallow water near shore. Why, I’m not sure, but I have two theories. First, in shallow water, the diving mergansers may bring their prey, the little Bluegills, to the surface (where the the gulls can snatch them), while in deeper water, they may find it easier to swallow the small fish while still submerged.

Second — and I think this is more likely — they drive the small fish into shallow water to make them easier to catch. That helps their competitors, the gulls, too. Like all birds that hunt from the air, gulls have incredibly keen vision. I’ve often seen one spot a small fish from quite high up, plunge-dive and grab it. The turbidity of the water being what it is, however, they may not be able to see fish more than several inches below the surface. In the shallows, that problem does not exist. Of course, this is all merely conjecture.

These images were shot on February 8, 2012, at a shutter speed of 1/3200 second. That blazingly fast speed was necessary to freeze the motion of the gulls, a testament to how fast they were moving. Despite all the tumult, the little mergansers appeared unruffled at the end, and bearing no grudge. Perhaps we humans could learn a thing or two from them.

See related post: Gulls’ Lament*.

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