Life at a local winter pond

Outtake of a video showing an otter carrying a large fish over a beaver dam. Photo by ©Gary Ace.


By Maria de Bruyn

Our 2023-24 winter season has been marked by quite noticeable in temperature and rainfall variations. Periodic visits to a local pond in the Briar Chapel-Pokeberry Creek neighborhood have made this visible, with water levels repeatedly rising and falling. Sometimes, the water flows over and through man-made gaps in the beaver dam fronting a cattail marsh. The pond shrinks so much during other periods that wildlife observers have wondered whether any fish remained.

To our surprise, at least some aquatic wildlife has been thriving. Proof came recently when my wildlife advocate friend Gary Ace could film an otter carrying a very sizeable fish over the beaver dam (photo above).

Top left: tree being felled by beavers for dam repair; top right: beaver lodge. Bottom left and right: turtles basking at the Pokeberry Creek pond. All photos: ©Maria de Bruyn.

Though not seen so often, the beavers have made repairs to the dam and their lodge, which serves as a resting place for birds and turtles. When the winter days warm, dozens of turtles emerge to find a place on basking logs.

Top left: female and male hooded mergansers. Top right: female belted kingfisher. Bottom left: flyover by a pileated woodpecker. Bottom right: female and male mallard ducks. All photos: ©Maria de Bruyn.

Hooded mergansers begin to bathe as mallards and pileated woodpeckers fly overhead. The male and female mergansers are quite different in appearance, and non-birders might think they are different kinds of ducks. The female’s rusty head feathers are not always raised. The large white patch on the male’s head is always quite visible, making it easier for birders to identify them at a distance. Belted kingfishers perch at the water’s edge, hoping to snag a meal. The one in the photo above is a female because she has a rusty “belt” that the male lacks.

When a pileated woodpecker flies overhead, the presence of a red cheek stripe indicates the bird is male. Female mallards don’t look as flashy as the males with their bright green heads and white neck rings, but their muted brownish feathers can be very beautiful.

Top left: brown-headed nuthatch investigating holes in a snag. Top right: red-bellied woodpecker removing bits of tree bark. Bottom left: Eastern phoebe caught mid-flight with an insect meal. Bottom right: American goldfinch feeding on seeds of an ironwood tree. All photos: ©Maria de Bruyn.

Elsewhere at the pond, brown-headed nuthatches and red-bellied woodpeckers have been investigating holes in pond snags, deciding whether to re-use an old one or to create a new cavity for an upcoming nest. Eastern phoebes flit over the water, snatching insects from the air, while American goldfinches continue eating ironweed seeds as they’ve been doing for the past couple of months.

Given the patience to wait and watch a while, I’ve found there are no dull visits to our local ponds. Seeing a beautiful little field sparrow scratching around in the leaf litter among the more common sparrows can be a treat. And it recently was my first time to see an Eastern gray squirrel enjoying a meal of red maple flowers.

Top left: field sparrow foraging in dried grasses. Top right: Eastern gray squirrel eating emerging blossoms on red maple tree. Bottom left: red-shouldered hawk surveying surroundings near a new nest site. Bottom right: red-shouldered hawk that was busy rearranging twigs and other materials in a new nest. All photos: ©Maria de Bruyn.

My last couple visits to the Pokeberry pond offered me a chance to see a raptor breeding season interaction. For years, a pair of red-shouldered hawks has nested near a parking site, and a couple of weeks ago, I watched them defend the airspace over their area against a pair of red-tailed hawks. The two pairs neared one another often but didn’t engage physically. They did, however, carry out a long and loud soaring dispute overhead.

During a visit a week later, I found that the red-shouldered hawks had prevailed as I was able to watch them bring nesting materials to a high tree. It’s sightings such as these that make my pond excursions a delight — what I (and others) may see can be a total surprise. Pond visits are a great way to pass the time. More photos from recent visits to this pond area can be seen soon in my blog.

Maria de Bruyn participates in nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers for the Orange County Senior Center and for projects removing invasive vegetation and planting native plants. Her photos are posted on Instagram ( and in blogs at

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