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The fire gods were busy! No fewer than twenty exquisite dawn skies graced the pond this past fall and winter, a new cold-weather record. In the previous year, I counted just twelve between November and March, and that, itself, was a record.

These fantastic displays fall into two categories. A few depend on low, local clouds lit from above well after the sun has risen. These “local” dawns are shown in Photos 6., 7., 12., 13. and 15.  (Two are hybrids – Photos 1. and 2. – lit through breaks in the local overcast by a still-hidden sun.)

Most, however, are produced by high, distant clouds lit from below by a sun either still hidden from view or just peeping into view. Theses “distant” dawns are the richly colored, limitlessly varied, finely detailed displays that so often take our breath away.

Ordinarily, I’d have published these photos a few at a time, but I’m playing catch-up after a long absence from blogging. So, I present them all here — with apologies — in one big bite.

The photos are arranged by date. You’ll notice that the sunrise moves from left to right as you go through the gallery chronologically, that is, from easterly in September to southeasterly in late December, reaching its southerly limit and its lowest point in the sky at Photo 14. Snowy (taken one day before the winter solstice). Then it reverses course and heads back, reaching its northern limit in June.

This seasonal swing, we’re told, is due to a “wobble” in the earth’s axis during its year-long orbit of the sun. (See a full year of wobbling compressed to 40 seconds in this short animation.)

Cursor over the images for their descriptions. The show-stoppers for me were 8. Electric and 12. Silvery. I’m sure you’ll have favorites of your own.

Many are astonishingly beautiful when viewed full screen, especially in low light. Click on any image, above, to open the slide show. Then click on the link below the lower right corner of an image to view it full screen (in a separate tab). You may have to scroll down a bit to see the link. Enjoy!
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I offer sincere apologies to my readers for my absence these many months. I’m deeply touched by those who called or wrote to ask if I were all right. What happened?

I became involved in several other projects that demanded all my creative energies. I’m a perfectionist; I like doing things well. That usually means doing them one at a time.

In recent decades, some psychologists have debunked the popular concept of multi-tasking. They’ve found that, in fact, most people can’t do several simultaneous tasks well — even those who like to think of themselves as multi-taskers. The brain is just not equipped for it. So, I make no apologies on that score.

I continued taking pictures, however — a pleasurable break from routine work. I now have a hopper full of interesting photos waiting for a little editing and write-up. I hope to post them all in the months ahead.

Why the rainbow? I was looking for an excuse to publish it, and this post needed a picture. There’s no rationale beyond that. It was taken on October 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm.

Click the image to view it full screen, and click the back arrow to return. Cursor over the image to see its description. Enjoy!
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I looked out one day and there it was, a yellow water lily. I had never seen one before and ran to look it up. I learned they are native to Europe, northwest Africa, western Asia, and North America. The common name is “Yellow Pond Lily.” Locally, it’s also called “Spatterdock.”

No doubt it came to our pond in the belly of a waterbird, or stuck to the hull of a boat. I wonder if it’s really new to the pond, as I suspect, or has it been around for a while. Does anyone know?

It’s hard to be sure from the photo, but I think this may be the Eurasian species, Nuphar lutea, rather than the eastern, North American native, Nuphar advena (“Spatterdock”). Apparently, the various Nuphar species have become globalized, along with us humans.

In my reading, I was impressed by the large number and variety of creatures — crawling, walking, flying, swimming — for whom this widely admired plant provides food or shelter. Although it is not considered invasive, it can form a thick mat that is hard to eradicate, due to roots, or rhizomes, that it sends deep into the muddy pond floor.

For further details, visit the page, Yellow Pond Lily. It is chock full of information in highly readable form. (Scroll down to view the creature chart.) The plant featured at the top of the page is identified on the photo as the Eurasian Nuphar luteum or lutea, when almost certainly it is the native species, Nuphar advena, as the text correctly states. This discrepancy is probably due to recent changes, by botanists, in how these species are classified.

The second photo, above, purports to show a slimy, grassy plant that appeared late last summer. Anglers passing near shore complained to me about it, saying it had been getting tangled in their lines. One added that he’d been fishing here for years, and had never seen anything like it. Hopefully, it’ll be gone after the herbicide treatment next spring.

What do the yellow lily and the grassy plant have in common? That is, why do they share this post? There are several reasons, probably trivial. Both plants are new to me, and may be new to the pond, both can become nuisances if left unchecked, and both were photographed on the same day, September 13, 2013.

Click an image to view it full screen, and click the back arrow to return. Cursor ever each for its description. If you click the top image a second time, you’ll see what looks like a freshwater snail on one of the lily pads.
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Related: Water Lily II, and Water Lily*.

 

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In late spring and early summer, cottontails can be seen all over the neighborhood. As soon as the young are old enough to fend for themselves, the families depart. Where they go, and why, I’m not sure, but I assume it has something to do with the young finding mates and territories of their own.

As we all know, the rabbit’s main defense against predators is flight, but its flight response is sometimes at odds with an innate sense of curiosity. This comely creature was clearly curious. It performed a little jig for me just outside my window, its legs wanting to flee, but its eyes fixed on me and holding it in place. The sun’s late, golden rays lit up it’s fine fur like a Kleig light on stage a performer. The date was July 24, 2013. All four images were captured within one minute, at 5:51 pm.

The following from Wikipedia describes hares and cottontails:

Hares do not bear their young below ground in a burrow as do other leporids, but rather in a shallow depression or flattened nest of grass called a form. Young hares are adapted to the lack of physical protection, relative to that afforded by a burrow, by being born fully furred and with eyes open. They are hence able to fend for themselves soon after birth; they are precocial. By contrast, the related rabbits and cottontail rabbits are altricial, having young that are born blind and hairless.

All rabbits (except the cottontail rabbits) live underground in burrows or warrens, while hares (and cottontail rabbits) live in simple nests above the ground, and usually do not live in groups. Hares are generally larger than rabbits, with longer ears, and have black markings on their fur. Hares have not been domesticated, while rabbits are kept as pets.

“Pests!” is an expletive often heard from gardeners when surveying rabbit damage. It’s a bad rap. I urge them to reread Robert Frost’s beloved poem, Mending Wall, in which he reminds us that, “Good fences make good neighbours.” A little wire fencing is cheap, easy to install, and will go a long way to keep the peace with these engaging and friendly neighbors.

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Related: Cottontail.

 

Ecosystem. In my recent post, The Last Heron,* I linked the departure of many pond birds to the mass die-off of small, Bluegill sunfish in March 2012. A reader questioned this linkage, and even the disappearance of the birds themselves. What follows is not only a rebuttal, but also an opportunity for me to take a fresh look at these issues, and explore further their significance.

I readily acknowledge there may be other explanations for the missing birds — but missing they are, at least as I judge from my window. I’d been used to looking out and seeing a pond teeming with bird life, including two or three Great Blue Herons standing vigil on the rocks off Smith Point, gracefully taking flight when their patience runs out; a small flock of Double-crested Cormorants with infinite patience occupying the archipelago of rocks in mid-pond (top photo); and scores of gulls of various species sunning themselves on the water or soaring on the currents above, their plaintive cries reminding us of their presence.

More rarely have I seen a few Green Herons on those same rocks off Smith Point. More rarely, still, have I spotted the reclusive, Black-crowned Night Heron (photo left), with its fine white plume, at dusk in the same shallow, rocky water.
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Now these many, varied birds are all but gone. A sole, black cormorant daily stands vigil on the rocks in mid-pond, along with a few gulls. A large Great Blue Heron shows up off Smith Point at odd times, when the boats are gone. The waterfowl are all still here, of course, none fish-eaters: the innumerable Canada Geese, a dozen or so resident Mallard Ducks, and a tenaciously territorial pair of brilliant, white Mute Swans.

Many days, I look out on a vast, vacant waterscape. It reminds me of a book I read many years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. When it first dawned on me that the birds had gone, the obvious questions sprung to mind. What do these different species have in common — the gulls, the cormorants and the various herons? Of course, they all depend more or less on small fish (see below). When did they begin to leave? Not surprisingly, soon after the small Bluegill sunfish died off by the thousands in March 2012.

The simultaneous departure of so many, varied birds, shortly after that traumatic event, could hardly be coincidental. It’s possible, of course, that whatever killed the fish scared off the birds as well, and thus remains a mystery. More likely, this is just another case, so often observed in nature, of wildlife populations adjusting to the food supply. When the acorns are scarce in a given year, the squirrels will be fewer too. There’s no mystery there!

Well…there was a mystery of sorts: many of the departing birds returned several weeks later, staying a few more months – some for almost a year – before leaving for good. What brought them back, and what prompted their second and final departure? Perhaps they had discovered a few surviving Bluegills, and remained until the prized prey were all but depleted.

On the question of what these birds eat, there’s a wealth of documentary evidence. Here’s the Great Blue’s diet as described by Wikipedia (bold added):

The primary food for Great Blue Heron is small fish, though it is also known to opportunistically feed on a wide range of shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, rodents and other small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and small birds.

Indeed, I would occasionally see a Great Blue catch a small fish off Smith Point (photo above), then climb onto dry land (in case it drops the fish), reposition it in its bill, and swallow it whole. I don’t know if the Great Blues forage in the adjacent marsh, but I have to wonder what opportunities it can offer them now that it’s choked with Purple Loosestrife. Limited, I suspect.

Double-crested Cormorants enjoy a similar diet, described by Wikipedia as follows (emphasis added):

Food [for cormorants] can be found in the sea, freshwater lakes, and rivers. Like all cormorants, the double-crested dives to find its prey. It mainly eats fish, but will sometimes also eat amphibians and crustaceans. Fish are caught by diving under water. Smaller fish may be eaten while the bird is still beneath the surface but bigger prey is often brought to the surface before it is eaten.

I’ve never seen a cormorant bring a fish to the surface, so I have to assume that here, at least, they take smaller fish like Bluegill, or juvenile Largemouth Bass, which they can swallow while still under water. Nothing I’ve read suggests that they forage in swamps and marshes. To the contrary, all sources state categorically that they hunt fish by diving under water.

Gulls take a wide range of prey, I readily acknowledge, but above all, they prize small fish. I say this from direct observation. Only last year, visiting mergansers drove some Bluegills into shallow water before diving to bring them up one by one. Among the ever-alert gulls, it set off a feeding frenzy, marked by plunge-diving, snatching, and jostling, as these photos record. To watch the gulls agressively taking Bluegills is fully to understand what keeps these resouceful birds on the pond.

In March 2012, when the Bluegills died off, I was preoccupied with health issues. Four months later, I roused myself and called the Mass. Dept. of Ecological Protection (DEP) and the Dept. of Fish and Game (DFG). Among the people I talked to were two field workers who both made the same case — emphatically — that “natural” hypoxia never occurs in spring, but only in winter during prolonged ice cover, and in summer when water temperatures rise. If fish die in spring, whether by hypoxia or some other cause, it’s not a natural event, but one in which humans have played a role. One of them added that never in 30 years of field work has he seen a “natural” die-off in spring.

So there’s reason to believe that we humans were implicated, somehow, in the Bluegill die-off. Again, we may never know the exact “how,” but we certainly can air our suspicions. In my previous post on the subject, I pointed to the silted discharge channel as a possible culprit. I suggested that it may slow the natural flushing of the pond’s water, in turn hastening the build-up of either 1) toxins, or 2) decaying organic matter that depletes oxygen. Either scenario could explain the die-off. Both are related to human activity — or in this case a lack of it, a failure to clean the outlet channel. Think of a bathtub with a partially clogged drain: it never quite empties, so new water is added on top of the old, and the bathwater is never quite clean.

I don’t believe the pond is facing an existential crisis, at least, not yet. The Bluegills will come back, eventually, and so will the birds. Several recent events offer encouragement. Late last summer, schools of juvenile Bluegills were spotted (by an angler) in the shallows just north of Smith Point. Most days, a second cormorant now joins the vigil on the rocks in mid-pond. And the gulls are slowly recovering their numbers, at least at this end of the pond.

The birds’ departure reminds us — if reminding is needed — that everything in nature is connected, that we can never be too zealous in protecting the pond’s fragile ecosystem, or a day may come when the heron we see is the last we’ll see on the pond. Sadly, the Black-crowned Night Heron shown above — shy and reclusive under the best of circumstances — may be the last of its kind, at least here off Smith Point. Since the opening of a new, concrete boat ramp, small boats have preempted the warm spring and summer evenings, a time when the little night heron usually made its appearance.

Update, December 2013. I’ve stopped and restarted writing this post several times over the last four months, as other demands have intervened. The gull numbers have grown steadily, with several dozen congregating on the water most days before the pond froze over. Hooded and Common Mergansers have both passed through, along with migrating Ruddy Ducks and Buffleheads. None appeared in as large numbers as in years past. All were busy diving — whether for fish or something smaller, I couldn’t tell — with the gulls hovering restlessly overhead in the hope of scraps.

Flooding. If there’s one environmental issue that’s not complicated, it’s flooding. We know what causes it, and what steps are needed to prevent, or at least mitigate, this ever-present danger. We also know its occurrence is more likely and less predictable in this new era of climate change.

The silted channel stirs memories of the two great floods of March 2010, when a blocked culvert caused the pond to overflow its banks (photo left). Widespread property damage was just avoided – miraculously. Another time, and we may not be so lucky. Is that a risk we want to take, possibly to see pond families lose their homes, when it’s well within our power to prevent such a wrenching disaster?

The discharge channel, already burdened by years of neglect, was further silted by those two floods. Cleaning it out has been recommended by two flood-control studies (pdf) eight years apart. Water quality concerns aside, that should be reason enough to proceed with urgency. Sadly, the issue is an orphan. If residents and elected officials would pull together, the channel could be restored. But other issues and agendas seemingly take precedence. No one wants to spend precious political capital on a project so easily ignored. It is out of sight and out of mind.

Update, March 2014. The tragic mudslide in Washington state, so much in the news lately, should serve as a cautionary tale. Having been warned for years by scientists that the hill was unstable, and despite smaller, premonitory mudslides, an amnesic public continued to build homes there, while public officials pledged to protect their safety looked the other way.

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Related: The Last Heron*, Testing the Water*, Great Blue Fishing, Purple Loosestrife, Mono Lake*, Dead Fish*, Snatching Gulls*, The Great Flood.

 

As many readers will know, daylilies owe their name to their short life span. Opening in the coolness of early morning, they wither, exhausted, that same night. Miraculously, they are replaced the very next morning by fresh, new blooms on the same “scape,” or stem.

These bulbs were planted years ago in a pachysandra border, where they have thrived ever since, the trumpet-shaped blossoms returning faithfully and in greater numbers every spring.

No flowers seem to vary in color more, as light conditions change, than these deep red lilies. They can appear magenta as they do here, shot under a bright overcast sky, or take on a rustier hue (less blue) in sunnier conditions. This apparent variability frustrated me when I first began to photograph them years ago, before I fully understood the effects of ambient light.

Click on the photo twice to see an astonishing degree of detail, courtesy of my small, new and truly revolutionary camera.

July 21, 2013 was a banner day for this blog. The photos for three posts were taken on that day — for this and the two preceding – and all were of flowers.

Click the image to view it full screen, click again for finer detail, and click the back arrow to return. Enjoy!
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Related: Daylilies.