By Paul Cox, South Merseyside
By the third year, our ponds were a constant delight. They were visited by nearly all the birds in the neighbourhood. On some days the gravel areas look like a crowded beach, with twenty or more birds ranging from sparrows to starlings, doves and pigeons all sharing the water. The only birds, which always bathed on their own, were the magpies, no other bird seemed to like them.
In late April the ponds were busy with tadpoles and a myriad smaller creatures, ranging from small beetles right down to creatures smaller than a speck of dust, while during the summer, the occasional frog could be seen sunbathing. Then disaster struck. Again.
Something was once again eating the tadpoles. A close investigation revealed literally hundreds of damselfly larvae in both ponds. The previous autumn, I had noticed some of these in much smaller and less developed form, but I had not known what they were. Despite catching as many as I could and transferring them to another very small tadpole free pond in another part of the garden, the tadpoles continued to disappear, until there were none left. That autumn it was very wet and windy and despite the loss of the tadpoles, I felt sorry for the damselflies, as most of them appeared to drown as they emerged. The few that did emerge successfully flew straight off into the distance and were never seen again. To date, there have been no further dragonfly or damselfly larvae in the ponds. All was not well though…
The year after the damselfly larvae the summer was very warm and wet. Soon both dead frogs and dead tadpoles started to appear. None of the tadpoles were seen to emerge as froglets and so many dead frogs were found that I was sure that there were none left.
The next spring just five lots of frogspawn were laid in the ponds. Four of these were fertile, but the tadpoles very soon disappeared. During the summer several more adult frogs were found dead. The following spring, just three lots of frogspawn were laid. Again the tadpoles from these very soon disappeared and in the summer one or two dead frogs were found.
The following winter was the most severe for over thirty years. The shallower pond froze almost down to its base and one dead frog was found floating in the deeper pond. I waited with trepidation to see if any frogspawn would be laid. As for the newts, they had not been seen for several years.
The frogs were nearly two weeks later than normal but it felt like a miracle they’d arrived at all. And more good news followed – the frogs laid more spawn than ever before!
Up until early July, the summer was the driest on record. While we were away on holiday the shallow pond dried out completely, despite having someone to come in and look after the garden. Neither ponds were netted, since there was by now quite heavy vegetation near the pond margins. On our return from holiday we found that the blackbirds had jumped into the dry shallow pond and pulled out most of the underwater grass. All weed and other vegetation had also been removed from the shallow margins of the deep pond. When the deep pond was topped up, the tadpoles were quite exposed in the shallower margins, so these areas were once more netted. On re-filling the shallow pond, three tadpoles were found to have survived. I don’t know how, since the pond appeared to be bone dry. Since evaporation rates were very high in the exceptionally dry weather, I cut back and in some places pulled out grass, which had grown down into the water. This seemed to improve matters marginally.
Just as the local water company declared a hosepipe ban, the rain came back and the rest of the summer was much wetter than usual. Thanks to the blackbirds and my efforts to reduce evaporation, the wide gravel beaches of the shallow pond were once more exposed encouraging the local birds to bathe. The shallow margins of the deeper pond quickly recovered from scraps of root left in the gravel.
By now I had a young grandson, so for his safety, the ponds had been fenced off with an attractive picket fence. With our grandson’s safety in mind, we fenced off the ponds. Some marginal grass remained on the pond side of the fence which was allowed to remain uncut from late June onwards. It provided ideal shelter for the many froglets that emerged.
The winter which followed was even more severe than the one before, certainly the worst in living memory. The temperature in the garden dropped as low as –10’C. The shallow pond froze completely, right to the bottom, and there was at least 12 inches of ice in the deeper pond. Once the thaw came, I examined both ponds carefully. The grass had survived in the shallow pond. Much of the weed was dead in the larger pond. To my surprise, a water beetle larva was swimming in the shallow pond, but despite some disturbance of both ponds while removing dead
weed and debris, not a single hibernating frog was found.
By the morning of my birthday, on 24th February, not a single frog had returned to the ponds. Then by chance on the evening of the 24th I noticed three frogs one large female and what appeared to be four smaller males. By the next morning, one clump of frogspawn was in the shallow pond. By the evening of the same day all of the frogs had disappeared, yet over the next four days frogs appeared and disappeared in waves. In total, ten lots of frogspawn were laid; nine in the shallow pond, and one in the deeper pond.
Clearly, in my garden, cold winter weather does not seem to threaten the survival of the common frog
Read on: Part 4 (the final part) of Paul’s diary – a few tips on maintaining your pond and why it’s all worth it.