Of beaks and bullheads

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It may come as a surprise to some, but Camden now hosts a new Magnet School. No, not an educational establishment…it is a school of fish, bullheads, to be specific, located in the storm water runoff pond on 42nd Av N in the Webber-Camden neighborhood.

This school has recently become a magnet to Great Blue Herons and egrets, drawing them in for the easy feast. On the afternoon of June 7, no less than 11 of these large marsh-hunters prowled the perimeter of the pond. As I watched, one sharp-eyed bird waded out until it was floating in the water… and zap! Out flashed its sharp bill, and it snatched a five-inch bullhead that had carelessly floated within reach.

The Great Blue Heron returned to the shore, where it dipped its prey into the water a few times, released it from the grip of its beak, only to re-catch it an instant later, and seemingly toyed with his supper for a few minutes. That’s because, lacking hands and fingers, the bird must do a lot of re-positioning of the fish until it is pointed directly down into its gullet. The fish must be swallowed whole, head first, with nothing to snag on the way down.

I had barely resumed my canine-assisted hike when I noticed another Heron in the process of juggling its meal-to-be. And then another! By the time the circuit was complete, no less than five of the 11 big birds was observed to have enjoyed success at the fishing hole. No wonder their numbers have swollen rapidly from the occasional heron or egret stopping through! Indeed, this school is proving to be quite a magnet.

After all, this is the pond nearest the Great Blue Heron rookery in the Mississippi River, just upstream from the 42nd Ave. Camden Bridge. What a better place for mom and dad heron to bring their brood, than a pond full of easy-pickin’ bullheads.

Since the native grasses and vegetation have not been allowed to grow rank, hikers on the handicapped-accessible asphalt trail can watch the expert “fishermen” far more easily than in most marshes.  You need not brave fierce clouds of ravenous mosquitoes, stirred by your stealth through tall sedges and cattails as you near the pond.  You need not traverse the muck and ooze which characterize the approach to wetland marshes, in order to catch a glimpse of Great Blue Herons on the prowl. Here in Camden, the birds have become accustomed to human presence, so they often ignore your stares. And the sheer number of birds, and of fish which attract them, make for predictable action.

One question may remain for some readers: How did bullheads find their way into a pond fed exclusively by storm water runoff?  Elementary, my dear Watson. Other waterfowl brought them, in egg form. Ducks are fond of fish eggs, but they don’t digest well. Voila!  Fish, meet our pond.

Neighbors to the pond, and even those of us who live a few blocks away, can attest to the attraction it is to transient, migrating Canadian Geese. Large numbers pause here on their spring and fall travels, but none seem to nest here. For that we can be grateful, since they litter the trail and the whole area in general with their slimy droppings during their few weeks on-site.

But the ducks have decided to take up residence and make this pond their nursery. The last few weeks have treated visitors with the delight of two hatches of ducklings, one a Mallard family of nine, and the other a happy clique of eight Wood Ducklings and their mother. Without much cover for raccoons to hide in, hopefully these broods will both survive the vulnerable early summer until they can fly for safety.

The lack of hollow trees or bird houses somehow didn’t dissuade the Wood Duck family from nesting at the pond. However, they far prefer an elevated nest site. I would urge the city to allow interested citizens to install a Wood Duck house on one of the light posts. While talking bird houses, this would also be an ideal site for a Marten house and a few pairs of Blue Bird houses, all of which would be effective at controlling the insects which proliferate at ponds.