Tag Archives: birds

Our Pond and Wet Meadow

Our little house on the northern prairie is in a place with a high water table. We live in the aspen parkland zone near the 51st parallel. Aspen parkland is a narrow strip of transition between boreal forest and the three prairie zones, tall grass, mixed grass and short grass. Because it is a transition zone it, we have many plants from both boreal forest and prairie. In our specific area, we have mostly boreal and tall grass prairie plants but we are also blessed with some medium grass plants. The parkland is an area rich in diversity. We have so many different birds nesting right around our yard that I can’t name them all. I will try. The types of birds I see in my yard every single day are ruby throated hummingbirds, robins, mourning doves, Baltimore orioles, cedar wax wings, American goldfinch, purple martins, wood, barn and cliff/mud swallows, nuthatches, juncos, chickadees, three kinds of kinglets, common red polls, pine siskins, yellow bellied sap suckers, northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, blue jays, marsh and house wrens, about 15 different little brown sparrow types birds I can’t identify, and often overhead, riding the thermals, sandhill cranes and pelicans. They arrive to enjoy the vast abundance of insects, seeds and nectar our nearby wetlands and wildflowers produce. Many of these birds are featured in this delightful blog.

When we first moved into our little house, we were confronted with a real eye sore. Our sump pump drains at least once a day, and in spring or periods of heavy rain it can kick in as often as once an hour. It pumps out about 20 litres of water each time. The result was an ugly brown bare place where nothing grew. It showed up as a sunken, slimy pest hole beyond our deck. I went looking for pictures of it and I found I have very few pictures because it was so ugly and embarrassing that I mostly took pictures around it. In addition to this bare ugly eyesore is a low ditch that drains rainwater from our typical three day prairie monsoon rains. Years ago someone tried to plant cypress trees but they are long dead, drowned, and one sickly potentilla bush struggles to survive in the muck.

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The ugly bare spot and the ditch that is perpetually wet are visible in the background  of this picture where I am showing off garden produce.

With so much to be done getting the neglected old house in proper shape, I just ignored that ugly spot as much as I could. One day, my husband noticed life in the muck. We had a stroke of inspiration. You can’t beat nature. She is far too powerful and she always wins. You can take advantage of her though, if you are willing to work cooperatively. And so we decided to create a pond.

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In this view you can see potentilla in the foreground, a dead cypress tree and the bare ground eroded out by constant flooding from the sump pump hose coming out of the house at the front of the deck.

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My husband noticed life in the small temporary pond created by the sump pump drain.

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Our first step was to try to disguise the ugly drain pipes with something useful and so we planted a raspberry cane near the deck. This is our raspberry starter cane in the first year.

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By the second season the raspberry cane was taking off and spreading just as hoped it would. It was obvious mere raspberries would never hide the yuck.

The water did not hang around if the input was low. It would drain off, soaking the gravel/sand in the scouring area. The grass would start to creep in only to be washed away as soon as the next heavy rain took place. While we were out shopping for other things, we found a pond liner under-pad on sale for next to nothing so we grabbed it. We ordered a proper pond liner of the correct size from Amazon. It would precisely fit and go over the scoured out area.

It was lot of digging. Anyone who visited ended up doing some digging. Over the course of the second summer we got the pond dug out to our satisfaction. We made many trips to collect suitable pretty local rocks to prevent the liner from moving. We felt like we were getting somewhere by the end of the summer. The pond liner stopped the scouring. The water from the sump pump is ground water and therefore hard, but rainwater from the roof is collected and sent via another pipe into the same area.  The pond has an overflow channel that directs water into the low ditch. This keeps the water level in the pond constant. The pond is maintained by the sump pump drainage and is regularly flushed out by rainfall off the roof. We had a stable pond! On our regular walks we began searching for native plants with appealing shapes and forms.

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We soon found ourselves with a lush growth of algae. Yuck! We began bringing home buckets of local pond denizens, snails, beetles, water striders and the like to try to control the algae. We soon had a marvellous flourishing of pond life. We worried about mosquito larvae but a few passing dragon flies ended that issue and we now grow dragon fly larvae  in abundance. These ferocious hunters live as the apex predators of our pond ecosystem. We simply never see moquette larvae. Several of the water plants ‘took’ and we soon had lily pads, bullrushes and sedges in pots.

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The drainage from the overflow channel ended up creating a constant wet zone in the nearby ditch. We decided to extend the pond area to have a wet meadow in the ditch. A wet meadow would be a lot easier to maintain than a wet soggy ditch that is often impossible to mow. We began looking for plants that inhabit areas that are soaking wet in spring and subject to flooding in heavy rains, but dry up in late summer or between rains. We transplanted individual plants and collected and spread seeds. It has been a labour of love. Each year we have seen small improvements in our pond and wet meadow garden as lawn is replaced by local native plants. Because they are native plants, once established they need no care. This spring we were positively delighted and astounded to discover native orchids like our wet meadow. I moved the grass around and found these lovely late yellow lady slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum). Though common in our area they are as lovely as any orchid you can find anywhere else.

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We have stopped trying to mow the drainage ditch/wet meadow. It’s pretty messy yet but you can see a flash of yellow among the dandelions going to seed marking our lovely orchid. And we found this. I think it might be a showy lady slipper orchid. If it is, we will have two spectacular native wild orchids growing in our wet meadow. It will be years of tending before our pond and wet meadow look exactly like the ponds and wet meadows of the surrounding area. It will take time and persistence to get rid of the lawn grass and the other nonnative plants. But the lawn grasses really have no chance to compete when people aren’t helping them. And so we are hopeful. And we will have less lawn to mow.

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The slender green shoot with branches looks a lot like a Showy Lady Slipper. Time will tell!

 

That duck.

I recently had a heartwarming experience that most of us can probably share in some fashion. I was walking the beach with friends and I found a weak, injured duck with a neck wound from a shot gun pellet. Duck season was full underway so it was not entirely unexpected to find such an injured duck.Scaup

My personal religion does not forbid hunting. However it is considered incumbent on Jews to avoid hunting for sport. Hunting for survival or when domestic raised meat is not available is acceptable. When we hunt, or have any kind of interactions with animals, we are also supposed to avoid causing an animal any unnecessary injury or pain. We are supposed to do what we can to help an animal in trouble if we can. All the creatures of the earth share in the spark of life with the Creator and should be treated with respect and consideration.

That being said I have nothing against hunting per se. I am an old style environmentalist and I support habitat preservation above all other ecological endeavours. Those who favour hunting as their sport tend to put significant effort and resources into preserving large areas of natural habitat. One only has to look at the acres of forests in northern Florida set aside for pheasant hunting or follow the work of organizations like Duck’s Unlimited to see supporting hunting is supporting the environment. The other thing I really like about hunters is that in all my years of environmentalist efforts, I have never had to try to convince a hunter that animals don’t live in lovely suburban style parks gambolling about like happy cartoon characters in a typical animated and disgustingly anthropomorphosed movie for children. Hunters know nature is harsh and demanding and that most animals don’t make it past their equivalent of infancy and childhood and old age is a rare thing that never extends to infirmity. I also value people more than animals and I have noticed large predatory animals such as alligators and bears will lose their fear of people if they are not hunted. Better to hunt a few and have them all afraid than to have them hunting us. Finally in areas where we have disrupted nature by doing things like killing off wolves, we must be willing to step into the vacated niche and become the apex predator. For example, hunting is required to keep populations of deer in many areas at levels where they don’t destroy all the vegetation and they all starve over winter. Starvation is a far worse way to die than a well placed gunshot, not to mention all the plants that are destroyed when overburdened by herbivores.

So it was with mixed feelings that I scooped up the little duck and checked him.  The duck was not mortally injured. It had a wounded neck that was actually healing nicely but the injury had made it unable to preen. This meant the water proof layer on the outer feathers was not working properly because the duck had been unable to move oil along all the feathers. The result was the poor thing was really wet and as a result really cold. What should have been soft warm down was wet gunk against a chilled body. The duck’s feet were icy cold, something I know they do anyway to preserve body heat, but this seemed far colder than even that should be. It was also acting stupid and confused, which is common with hypothermia. We were heading into another below freezing night so I knew the duck would be dead of hypothermia by morning if I did nothing. On the one hand, duck season was still going on and ducks were dying all up and down this coastal area and that is the way it is. There is no much point being upset about one duck. On the other hand, here is one injured animal, suffering and in pain. Silly to put so much effort into one animal while others were dying but I decided this one animal could be helped now and I would do it. Our host knew of an injured wildlife refuge that could take the duck and so off we went.

I was not equipped to deal with the wound or hunger or anything like that. I could fix the hypothermia. We put the duck in a grocery bag so he had just his head out and then I help him against my chest tucked inside my coat. We had a 40 minute drive to the Florida Wild Mammal Association during which I observed closely as the bird warmed. At first the poor bed struggled and tried to get free. I spoke to him soothingly and held him close and he eventually settled. I am not sure if birds respond to soothing voices but he either gave up  fighting because he was too worn out or because he decided I was not going to eat him. He settled in a position designed to ease his wounded neck and then rested, his eyes closing for a few minutes and then popping open to stare and then going back to dozing. He also let out a kind of sigh sound and snuggled closer. After about 20 minutes he began to warm up and sleep for longer periods. As we got near to our destination I could feel his little feet were finally warm and since I wanted to avoid overheating him, I loosened my hold on him and removed some of the layers over him. He woke up completely and began watching things fly by out the window. Now ducks are certainly used to flying fast but what might a duck’s mind have made of traveling in a car looking out the car window at 55 mph?

We arrived at our destination and one of the volunteers there took him from me. He was looking much better. He certainly flapped around a lot more. She gave him a quick check and pronounced him as almost healed from the neck wound but skinny and weak from being unable to eat properly. She promised they would keep him safe and warm until he was fully healed and feed him and get his weight back to where it should be. I left confident the duck was in good hands. My husband slipped her the $40 cash we had on us because we know animal rescue is never cheap.

After we got back home we looked up ducks and discovered he was a lesser scaup. This is common diving duck but for reasons unknown scaups have been in a decline. The lesser scaup is currently classified as a Species of  Least Concern by the IUCN. If the decline continues that may change.Saving one little male was probably a good thing.

Wildlife rescues are often criticized because an enormous amount of time and money goes into rescuing a few animals who may well have been among the stupid or weak. Wouldn’t that money be better spent buying habitat or something? There have been many studies about this question and they generally conclude the same thing.

Allowing people to interact directly with injured animals develops a sense of stewardship for wildlife which may foster community involvement in local habitat protection and conservation (Tribe & Brown 2000, Feck & Hamann 2013). Additionally, the release of rehabilitated turtles can have important public educational benefits (Tribe & Brown 2000, Cardona et al. 2012, Mestre et al. 2014) because such opportunities are often advertised widely as media events to raise awareness of the threats facing wildlife. Although this may not contribute to conservation directly (in terms of population growth), continuing to rehabilitate these animals in facilities that are open to the public likely contributes to conservation in other ways, by facilitating a widespread understanding of the causes and nature of wildlife injuries. The public can also use this knowledge to place political pressure on decision makers in a context where conservation measures are known, feasible and available, but not implemented because of lack of will by those responsible. Edwards, Baker and Pike, 2015

And the duck was okay.

Two weeks later he flew out of the cardboard box and made his escape back to the dangerous beautiful world where he belongs. These ducks nest in the area around our Manitoba home so it might well be that I will even see him again back home. Certainly, whenever I see a lesser scaup, I will wonder if its him.