One Small Pond - One Big Wonder

One of the most amazing transformations occurs when you build a small pond and observe the arrival as if by magic of a whole host of organisms that fly, crawl, swim, drift and drop into the new aquatic habitat. Newly constructed aquatic habitats are the classic scenario of "build it and they will come." Our 107 acre paradise in the Virginia mountains had a variety of small streams and seeps when we arrived, but lacked any ponds. This represented not only an aesthetic deficit, but many species of birds, arthropods, amphibians, reptiles and plants were not present because of this lack. To remedy this situation we have built a series of pools along the bottoms of small valleys which had been channelized by the previous farmers intent on drying up the land and increasing their tillable acreage. To some extent this can be considered restoration of wetlands which used to be present historically, and to some extent creation of new habitat. Since our goal is to maximize habitat diversity and thus biodiversity, both approaches are valuable.

There is an old saying, to make an omelet you must break eggs. It is equally true that to restore and create new habitats you must modify what is present. This can be painful for those of us that like to think about ourselves as protectors of nature. However if I have learned one thing in life it is that biodiversity requires maintaining variety in habitat, and this often requires intervention by the landowner. Thus we maintain our grasslands by mowing, burning, planting and sometimes applying herbicides to kill unwanted exotic weeds. Similarly we maintain forest gaps by bulldozing openings and cutting selected trees and saplings. Creation and restoration of wetlands certainly requires similar kinds of intervention. The two main approaches we have used are to divert channelized streams back into what used to be wet meadows, and to excavate small ponds of various depths and sizes and build dams to hold appropriate amounts of water.

This story deals with what I call pond number two, originally built as a tiny "frog pond" about 20 feet in diameter, as a catchment basin below a larger 0.2 acre pond. It carries surface and spring-flow drainage from an area of grasslands down to a stream in the bottom of the valley. From the before and after photos you can see that it started as a raw clay-lined pond which gradually morphed into a pretty little pond with a profuse growth of planted pickerelweed and native rushes. We have had a wonderful variety of insects, fish, amphibians, and birds visiting and living within this pond within the three years of its existence. Although most of the plants you see in the photo came in naturally, I did plant pickerelweed which has beautiful blue flowers that are very attractive to butterflies (see photo of least skipper nectaring). The birds which have visited that are the most exciting have been migrants such as solitary sandpipers (see photo), marsh wrens and sora rails that pass through every year. Dragonflies and damselflies have accepted the wetland in large numbers. We have a total of about 28 species on our property to date but especially enjoy the green and shadow darners, blue dashers, widow and 12 spotted (see photo) skimmers, common whitetails and bluets which swirl around the pond feeding and breeding. Since this pond is connected by a small stream to a larger valley stream, fish have worked their way into the pond; these are mainly green sunfish which although generally considered to be somewhat undesirable as gamefish, provide an ecological balance as food for our green and great blue herons and kingfishers.

So look around your property and see if you can find a low spot with a bit of surface or groundwater flow that might allow you to build a wetland. It will repay your efforts many times over in the astonishing abundance of new life that will come.

Bill Dunson

Galax, VA and Englewood, FL