Beautiful Native Plants

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Cheer for the Predators in Ecosystem Gardening

A female Florida cooter laid a clutch of eggs
next to the rain garden. Her head is tucked in
because I’ve invaded her privacy and she can’t leave.
So this happened the other day between the natural pond out in our front yard and the front porch:

A female cooter turtle (Florida cooter (Pseudemys floridana)) laid some eggs at the edge of a mulched path near a rain garden. After I took several photos, I went inside to download the photos. Not five minutes later I saw two fish crows, each carrying an egg, flying from the direction of her cache. I stealthily crept out the front door with my camera on to see if I could capture some of the mayhem.

There were six or eight crows flying around the area and cawing loudly. I wasn’t fast enough to take a photo of the crows, but I did catch this red-shouldered hawk, which had joined the fracas. It was sitting on top of our pond-side swing and crows were dive-bombing it. My photo caught its nictitating membrane covering its eyes. All birds have this second eyelid that cleans and protects their eyes–at that point the hawk needed to protect its eyes from the crows. All for a turtle egg breakfast.
A red shouldered hawk: its nictitating membrane
 is covering its eyes for protection.

Cheer for the predators

While we humans feel sorry for the cooter and her eggs, in reality it’s the hawk (and maybe the crows) that we should be rooting for. If your yard and its environs can support a top carnivore like a hawk, then you have a balanced ecosystem.

Another consideration is the capacity of the pond, which is about 1/10th of an acre when full. It’s tough to count the turtles since the water is murky, and they come and go between the neighborhood ponds and the 110-acre lake out back. But we’ve seen up to six or seven cooters basking on the shoreline or logs at the edge of the pond. They are shy and plop into the water as we approach. We’ve also seen some snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and eastern mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) in the pond in fewer numbers–they don’t tend to bask like the cooters.

A little blue heron stalks along the shore
during the dry season.
The pond can support a limited number of turtles; so how many of those eggs need to survive in a year for a balanced pond ecosystem? Maybe one or two a year at the most. It’s been shown that the female cooters lay a few eggs as a distraction, and while the crows and hawks are fighting over the first clutch of eggs, she may be working on her “real” nest under cover somewhere. Fortunately, we have taken out much of the lawn and the cooters have plenty of places where they can easily lay eggs, so the turtles will have to duke it out for space in the pond.

Some of the baby turtles will end up being supper for this little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) or maybe for the other wading birds we host such as the great blue herons, the various egrets, and the little green herons.

How much fun are you having in your ecosystem yard?