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    A shy snipe patrols the pond edge. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

Surprises in the garden

You would think that I know our garden very well by now. After all, we planted most of the landscaping ourselves and nurtured it for the past two decades. Our bald cypress tree saplings are now more than 40-feet high and the crape myrtle tree and wisteria vines have now totally shaded our backyard deck, as we had planned and hoped. I spend a lot of time on this deck in the evenings, watching the pond for action.

Sadly, the pond has lost its vitality over its years of service as a retention pond collecting all the dirty runoff from neighborhood streets and lawns. Its biodiversity has diminished significantly. We used to enjoy the “snake races” as we called them, watching the banded water snakes sidle across the pond, but now they are gone. We also used to see all sorts of frogs around the pond edge, but they too have mostly disappeared. Our nights are quieter but less interesting for us.

These days, the pond is primarily inhabited by turtles that bask on the opposite bank and sometimes crawl into a sandy part of our yard to lay their eggs. We enjoy the turtles but miss the myriad of other species that used to share the pond with them. Various wading birds still come in to catch the occasional fish, but not as many and not as often. Even the fish population seems to be declining. Our bird feeders still attract birds, but only cardinals, chickadees, and doves these days. The painted and indigo buntings are long gone now, having lost the brushy cover they need, replaced by more and more houses.

I’ve gotten used to this decline in biodiversity but hate it. What can one do? Wherever I go in the world studying biodiversity, I see and record and read about declines in species and abundance. Our yard, and Amelia Island as a whole, is no different, alas.

It is in this backdrop that I never expected to see something new – a new species in our yard. I was sitting on the deck one evening, camera in hand just in case, and, look! What is that on the other side of the pond? A bird of some sort, but what sort? This critter snuck out of the bushes and walked to the water’s edge, where I could take good photos of it. Perusing my bird book later, I figured it out. We have a snipe in our woods! This is an actual bird, not to be confused with the old joke of taking someone “snipe hunting” at night for a nonexistent species. This snipe was apparently here only for the winter, but it sure was fun to see it.

Another recent sight in our yard also caught me by surprise. An anole lizard had somehow managed to get into the house. Dumela, our cat, had some great fun chasing it around the sofa. Dumela managed to catch it but didn’t harm it. I quickly retrieved it and placed it outside in a vegetated pot where I hoped it would soon warm up, eat bugs, and prosper again. Little did I know, but a big leopard frog already occupied the pot I put the lizard in! We used to see these frogs near the pond, but now we suspect that the contaminated water is no good for it, so it has decided to stay moist in my well-watered container plants.

Other sights in the yard are not so unusual, but always catch me by surprise. My parsley plants have gotten their leaves eaten away by swallowtail butterfly caterpillars and my milkweeds are succumbing to the advances of monarch caterpillars gorging themselves too. No problem here – that’s why we keep butterfly host plants around in the garden. These caterpillars often roam on the backside of leaves and are hidden until I look for them, a real treasure hunt.

Our backyard deck on the pond is still a good place to hang out in the evening, even if the sights are less diverse because, like the snipe example illustrates, there is still the hope that something new might show up to thrill me like in days of old.

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