Although I can get excited about any type of habitat, I will admit that water attracts my interest more than any other areas. For this reason when we bought the 97 acres behind our 10 acre house site in 2004, I vowed to add some small ponds to our beautiful spring runs and streams. This eventually came to pass and we now have eight tiny ponds of varying sizes that have been very successful in attracting a wide variety of aquatic life. I love to walk around these ponds or simply sit quietly on the edge to observe the natural rhythms of each season. In this time of early Fall there is still a considerable amount of animal life in evidence, but many of the players have changed. Species more characteristic of Summer have disappeared, and others have appeared.
One of my favorite ponds is the newest, constructed in a woodland setting in a deep valley just last September. It is particularly interesting since the vegetation is not yet fully established, there are no fish present, and a parade of new colonists are arriving to check out this new habitat and potential home. Amphibians were among the first to arrive and we now have thriving populations of green frogs and bullfrogs. I am sure Spring pee pers will find this spot next Spring and perhaps some gray treefrogs also. I took off several hours in late afternoon from chores and enjoyed watching events unfold at this pond. A surprise was the appearance of hundreds of young tadpoles that were recently hatched. These are clustered along the edges of a small pool adjacent to the main pond (see photo) in some clumps of algae. I am not yet sure even what species these are- they may be very late-breeding green frogs. It is interesting how they choose the most shallow and warmest micro-habitat along the pool edges. Higher temperatures will speed up their development and I imagine food is more abundant there also.
In the damp mud along the edge of the pond (high temperatures are causing evaporation and a drop in water level) an interesting butterfly, the red-spotted purple, is seen drinking (see photo). This butterfly is like a splash of neon in the forest edge and one wonders what the purpose of this bright coloration could be? This species is a type of brushfoot butterfly related to the white admiral and the viceroy, neither of which resembles it at all. In fact it most closely resembles some of the swallowtails, especially the pipevine, the black morph female eastern tiger swallowtail, the spicebush swallowtail, and the female black swallowtail. All of these species are believed to be mimicking the poisonous pipevine swallowtail which derives toxins from its larval food plant, the pipevine Aristolochia . The apparent mimicry of unrelated species and only some sexes is quite amazing. Butterflies that are drinking from mud or animal faeces in this fashion are likely obtaining salts such as sodium in which their plant diet is deficient.
Around every pond there will be dragonflies of numerous types and it can be difficult to separate out the species. A teacher once told me to focus on learning the 5-10 common species first, and then branch out to rarer ones. I have found this very good advice indeed. Thus at this pond there was a shadow darner and a bluet damselfly that I recognized, but a third and very large damselfly was unknown to me. On closer inspection I noticed that this damsel held its wings partially extended when perched, a distinction peculiar to the spreadwing damselflies. In the photo I took you will see that there are two damsels, a male holding a female around her neck. This “bondage” is a mechanism by which the male controls the female after mating while she is laying eggs. In this fashion he can be certain that his sperm are fertilizing her eggs. This seems rather a neat trick for a very primitive group of insects! This damsel turned out to be an unusual and uncommon species in our Blue Ridge area, the great spreadwing. It has been moving eastwards from its original base in th e southwestern US. This may represent yet another example of how animals and plants react to the enormous human alteration of the landscape by moving, as new habitats open up that are suitable for them.
As I was walking around the edge of the pond I was shocked to see a large hole dug into a bank right under the access road (see photo). This was a new development so I had no idea what it was. The size of the hole and the numerous tracks indicated that possibly we have a coyote den. Coyotes evoke many different reactions from people but mainly these are negative. But I enjoy the fact that we now have a mid-sized predator with the skills to survive despite all the efforts to exterminate them. I love hearing their wild howls at night and I like the idea that small prey such as rabbits and groundhogs will have something to worry about at night. It may be no coincidence that our numerous packs of feral dogs have greatly diminished in recent years and I hope that the deer herd will be regulated at a more natural level also. The latest genetic evidence indicates that our coyotes contain some wolf genes and that is exciting. Isn’t it great that some aspects of the natural world still remain somewhat outside our control?
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA