We've had a small fish and garden pond in our backyard for about 13 years, and every season it looks more natural in the landscape.
This wasn't the case the first few years, mainly because we weren't sure exactly what we needed to do to make the pond seem as though it had been in the yard for years. The answer was to wait until it was in the yard for years. Nature, it seems, does eventually take care of things.
We positioned stones around the rim of the pond to give it a natural look. We hid the plastic tub for the waterfall under cascading plants and strategically placed flat rocks. We planted shrubs around the skimmer to hide it from view. And over the years, the groundcovers and bog plants we placed here and there began to not only fill in, but started sprouting in places we didn't put them, as if they knew best where they should grow. They did.
We have fish. One particular fish we call Jaws because he was the largest of all of them, swims slowly around the water lilies, rush and cattails that live in the depths of the pond's bottom. The cattails are confined, but we suspect they have cracked through the sides of the large bucket that once secured them.
We also have frogs, green pond frogs that bask in the sun on top of the flat water lily leaves or try to hide themselves, but not too well, between the wet stones along the pond edges. There are sometimes bullfrogs, large greenish-brown boys - and girls, I suppose - that make a lot of noise and feast on insects.
We also have great blue herons. Our house isn't far from the Mahoning River and on summer evenings we sit on the patio and watch the birds fly overhead. We can almost set our watch on the time they go over, always from the same direction toward the river.
The heron is not a crane. A crane, which are endangered in North America, flies with its neck stretched straight out in front. A heron flies with its long neck bent and held close to its body. Sometimes, when we walk to the river and stand on the bridge looking down the river, we will see herons wading near the edge, hunting for fish, frogs and whatever else it can find.
We felt lucky to have these birds in our world, until the day a neighbor commented to the husband, ''I saw a really big bird sitting on top of your house the other day.''
Fear struck. Herons are notorious robbers of garden fish ponds. They can clean out a pond in a very short time, and some pond owners have told stories of the herons that, when the fish are too big to eat, they simply toss them on the grass to die. We've had the pond for years and watched herons fly by even longer and never had an issue. We admired them and they left us alone.
And then one day, it happened. While walking past a window overlooking the back yard, the husband glanced out the window and saw a tall heron standing on the edge of our pond. Acting as quickly as he could, he opened the back door and literally released the dogs.
Of course, he knew the dogs were no match for the heron. It was simply a scare tactic, and it worked, to a degree. When the dogs finally realized they were supposed to chase the big, strange thing in the yard, the heron had already taken flight. But not before cleaning out a good portion of the fish. Our once more than 20 fish now equaled about seven. Jaws was still there, as were a few other larger fish.
Since that day, we have talked to others who have lost fish to hunting heron. Some of our pond gardening friends gave up keeping fish because the herons took them as fast as the ponds were stocked. Others chose not-so-attractive, but functional, netting and other techniques to keep the birds out of the water.
We haven't had any further problems and once again, the heron seem to be leaving our fish alone. We don't know if the dogs did the trick or if our fish just aren't tempting enough. Or maybe they're just waiting for the right time.
To see great blue heron up close and personal, visit the website, www.allaboutbirds.org at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. The lab has a live webcam that monitors a heron nest. As I type this, there are five eggs in the nest and viewers will be able to watch not only their hatching, but the chicks' growth and eventual first flights.