Tag Archives: wildlife photography

My New Garden Pond – What Showed Up in the First Four Weeks: Dragonflies and Water Boatmen and the Best Way to Photograph Them.

The first female dragonfly laying in the pond two days after filling with water.
The first female dragonfly laying in the pond two days after fit was filled with water.

During the summer dragonflies arrive to fly over our garden in numbers – they simply come to feed on insects – taking a break from the hassles that life throws at them when they are hanging around their breeding pond.  I have counted as many as a dozen at any one time doing circuits and bumps, and none could truly be described as resident… But, as soon as our new pond was filled with water, a male instantly took to patrolling and hovering in front of me as I worked; the insistence that this was now his territory was encouraging.

Later that day a couple of females of the same species arrived; and with a metallic rattle of wings seemed held by the glimmering surface as if drawn by a magnet. Soon they began laying eggs, which was impressive for a pond that was only a day and a half old. Clearly, when you get things right nature quickly lets you know.

Every afternoon this male dragonfly shows up to eyeball me. Suddenly there is water and now this is his territory and doesn't want me around, which I find rather encouraging.
On late afternoons this male dragonfly would show up to eyeball me as I worked around the pond. I am not an expert on North American species, but both behaviour and markings suggest this to be a variable darner Aeshna interupta – one of several Mosaic Darners species to be found along the west coast of Canada. On a 400mm lens it is easy to throw the background out and concentrate on the subject, but maintaining focus on an insect in flight isn’t quite so easy, even when it is hovering.
A female lays on recently introduced pond weed.
A female lays on recently introduced pond vegetation (lower centre) before I’ve even finished covering the surrounding liner.

Darners are large dragonflies so named because their abdomens are long and thin; which must have suggested to somebody in the past that they looked like darning needles.

At first the females laid their eggs in the water, with their abdomens partially submerged, but when the pond was about three weeks old and summer was turning to fall they began laying in the grooves of log bark above the waterline. I wondered if they had perhaps lost their senses, but then considered they might be enhancing the chances of their eggs hatching as water temepratures began to drop and warmer conditions prevailed above the waterline during daylight hours.

Within  a few days it came onto rain heavily which is to be expected on Canada’s west coast at this time of year and soon the logs at the ponds edge were partially submerged. Millions of years of evolution has selected for the most exacting behaviours, but maybe I am making a naturalist’s observation here that won’t hold up under more careful scrutiny – there’s a science project here for somebody – I’ve seen successful Phd’s start out on flimsier grounds.

Two females laying clomse by one another in a pond that has barely been in place a month. Not so much of a theme park for them - this is the real thing!
Two well camouflaged females laying close by one another in a pond that has existed for less than a month. I have rarely seen two females laying this closely together in the wild, so this is encouraging. For them, my pond edge arrangement is not a contrived theme park but part of nature.

The arrival of my first ‘true’  bugs.

WIMG_7789***.FIX.©.SMALLithin a couple of weeks I saw two water boatmen fly in: one landed on the water and dived down before quickly returning to the surface; it took off at once but dropped straight back through the silver mirror as if this extraordinary insect couldn’t quite believe its luck. Over the same period half a dozen pond skaters also showed up and were soon busy feeding on insects unlucky enough to have fallen onto the water’s surface. 

Pond skaters show up.
The first pond skaters soon showed up. 
Pond plants seen enormously resilient. Native Water Smartweed - Polygonum amphibious quickly sorted itself out and was in flower well within a month of going into the pond.
Pond plants seem to be enormously resilient. Native Water Smartweed – Polygonum amphibium quickly sorted itself out and was in flower well within a month of going into the new pond.

Much of the photography that I do is exacting, but if the situation allows I prefer to work quickly, which is often necessary when photographing wildlife. Sitting around waiting for stuff to happen is a waste of time; so, usually I set my camera up on a tripod and get busy doing other things until something does.

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This water boatman was removed from the pond using a net and then photographed in a small plastic salad box (left outdoors to collect rainwater to benefit indoor plants). The container has developed a film of algae across its base and various bits of vegetable material have fallen in, providing a background that looks very natural.

Once introduced bogbean Menyanthes trifolita produced leaves very quickly. When in flower next year, pollinating bees will make an interesting subject to photograph.
Once introduced bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata produced leaves very quickly. When in flower next year, pollinating bees will make an interesting subject to photograph.

I used a more than five year old Canon 60D digital camera, with a favoured 55mm Micro-NIKKOR lens – this purchased secondhand in the mid-1970s when I first started filming wildlife for the B.B.C.. For many years it travelled around the world  with me surviving everything from the fine dust of deserts, to the humidity of tropical forests. It has never been taken to bits to be cleaned and is as good today as when I bought it.

Some of these early lenses are said to be better optically than many made today – I won’t make that claim, but without doubt they are tougher. I used a conversion ring bought for less than $10 to attach the NIKKOR micro lens to my Canon: but don’t attach any non-standard lenses to your camera until you have checked that doing so will not cause damage – in particular to the metering system.

My old 35mm macro Nikor lens with a converter to CANON EOS Camera body - It is best toonly use such inexpensive fixes if you know what you are doing.
My old 55mm macro NIKKOR lens with a converter to Canon EOS Camera body – it is best to use such inexpensive fixes only if you know what you are doing.

If there are no obstructions and the lens fits easily there should be no problems, but it is important not to suddenly flood the camera’s sensor with light as this may cause irrepairable damage.

Old Nikon lenses prior to1959 won’t fit on new Nikon cameras let alone Canon cameras, but  F mount lenses made after 1959 will attach to new 35 mm SLR Nikon bodies. I can therefore fit my old Nikon lenses to my Nikon D5200 or to my SLR Canon cameras although I don’t expect to achieve either automatic metering or focus. I often set apertures and speeds manually, so this isn’t a problem as I’ve been looking through cameras for many years now, and can guess settings fairly accurately without using a metre and still get things in focus by twiddling a focus ring.

I utilized a small four and a quarter inch (11cm) square bathroom tile mirror to reflect sunlight back onto the bug. Lying on the ground, supported on my elbows, I took a deep breath and snapped several pictures, holding the camera in my right hand, because the mirror was in my left. Two elbows and a torso can make a fairly stable tripod for speeds faster than 1/60th second, but you really shouldn’t expect pin sharp images when doing macro or telephoto work without a tripod. Focus was made by simply moving my head and camera backwards and forwards, having already preselected a  point of focus my turning the lens ring. When using a tripod I have a mount (pictured below) that allows the camera to be moved back and forth along two straight bars; this looks very professional, but I rarely attach it for stills photography, preferring instead to push the back leg of my tripod with my foot which achieves a similar result and often more quickly. Sometimes working fast is of the essence and it really doesn’t matter how you get the job done.

A small focusing system on rails that I only use for very small subjects - focus is achieved by turning the wheel to move the camera and lens backwards and forwards, consequently there is no need to readjust the focus ring on the lens. Made in Britain is etched on the side - so it must be old!
A small focusing system on rails used only for very small subjects – focus is achieved by turning the wheel to move the mounted camera and lens along the bars, consequently there is no need to re-adjust the focus ring on the lens which might cause vibration – especially when working with cine or video. Made in Britain is etched on the side – so it must be quite old!

I spent twenty minutes on the project, taking perhaps a dozen pictures, two of which have been reproduced in this article. The water boatman was soon returned to the pond, presumably  now believing in God, and busy converting other water boatmen to his beliefs as they arrive on a daily basis. But, so far, he is the only one to have seen that special light that shone from above; as for the others – well, they just think they have.

Under the circumstances, the pictures I took were reasonable, demonstrating that it is possible to get good close ups without great expenditure. The main reason I started my career with macro photography was, that in the early days, I couldn’t afford the quality telephoto lenses necessary to take good pictures of animals inclined to keep their distance. Everybody has to start somewhere, but once you get the hang of it, most photography is a piece of cake – just as long as you put the time in to practice – in my case that would be around 40 years. And the other thing… if set to automatic modern cameras do almost everything for you – so, what’s not to like?

The large darner dragonflies

that arrived almost as soon as the pond was filled, were I thought, best photographed using a long lens around 400mm., at the shortest point I could make the thing focus; I set my working distance a little beyond to give some focusing leeway, and was just far enough away to avoid disturbing my subject, providing I moved slowly.

Many manufacturers produce  close up (macro or micro) lenses that are set around 100mm or less, but at these focal lengths it is necessary to get very close to a subject (as was the case with the water boatman). But most flying predatory insects have well developed eyes sensitive to visual disturbance; and dragonflies are near the top of the list.

The 100-400 Canon zoom is rather oddly my standard lens.
The 100-400 Canon zoom is rather oddly my standard lens.

I used a 100-400mm Canon zoom for all the dragonfly pictures but one; and common to many upmarket telephoto zooms, this is a bulky, heavy and expensive item. Using cheaper lenses usually involves compromise, and may involve a loss of definition at the long end of the zoom, which is frequently down to the lenses inability to stabalize a moving object at a distance.

On a fixed 400mm lens, a sight made from an old wire coat hanger can be looped around the lens hood to quickly target a subject, but when using a zoom, I find it just as easy to locate subjects using the 100mm wide end and crash zoom in to the full 400mm. Even the excellent Canon zoom has issues when fully zoomed in – although the updated 100-400mm US II has superior stabilizing capabilities and regarded as a better lens. However, the problem is less noticeable on the older lens when framing small animals that are close, and better still when they are hardly moving, a situation that is improved by always using a tripod.

This picture was taken using an old Lumix 16 mega pixel camera with an inbuilt lens. Not an expensive camera, but a bit more than just a point and shoot - it has a good macro fascility, and the advantage of Panasonic digital develpment combined with a Leica lens.  For this shot I needed to be very lose - the dragonfly had closed down to rest for the night and by moving slowly I was able to get this shot without causing a disturbance.
This picture was taken using an old Lumix 16 mega pixel camera which has a built in lens, and although not a new or expensive camera, is a bit more than just a point and shoot. It has the advantage of Panasonic digital development combined with a Leica lens with a macro facility. For this shot I needed to be very close – the dragonfly was resting and ready to overnight and with the use of a monopod, and by moving slowly, I was able to get very close without causing a disturbance.

Under extreme circumstances, expensive gear usually produces better results – for example, the provision of an extra stop to open the lens up when working in low light conditions and still maintain image quality; this a plus for many photographers, but  such additions don’t come cheap. The good news is that there are many less expensive cameras without all the bells and whistles that can still produce good results under optimal conditions. 

Photography essentially boils down to three things: the focal length of a lens, the framing of an image… and finally, making a correct exposure. Assume for arguments sake that the focal length of the lens is fixed and that most of us can frame an image (although this isn’t a given), the only thing left to consider is, how best to achieve the exposure. And that’s a tricky because different shutter speeds and apertures will produce different results: a slow shutter speed will provide motion blur on a moving object for example, and the lenses aperture will affect the crispness of an image as well as how much of the subject is in focus from front to back.
There is a simple relationship between shutter speed and lens aperture for making an exposure – it’s a wedding of compromise: because the amount of light needed for an exposure is an constant, an increase in shutter speed inevitably requires a reduction of lens apeture and visa versa. These blocks of time and aperture are conveniently equal on your camera set up and so changing a setting is simple, although many people prefer to rely entirely on fully automatic settings, but because the various combinations are capable of such different results, it is helpful to understand which works best for the picture you want to achieve.
I like using small fully automatic cameras to get interesting pespectives quickly and without fuss. These Lumix camera are favourites - none are new or expensive and I often set them on the macro setting to get wilidlfe close ups.
I like using small fully automatic cameras to shoot a variety of  perspectives quickly and without fuss. These Lumix camera are favourites – none are new or expensive and I often set them on the  macro setting when trying to achieve interesting wildlife close ups.
It is also important to recognize that different lenses have different focal lengths and each of these changes the look and perspective of a picture, with none of them exactly duplicating the way we see things with our eyes.  Photography relies to a large extent upon illusion, utilizing the brain’s habit of rejigging what we see to make sense of the outside world, essentially tapping into our innate ability to recognize the familiar.
It was fun for a moment to claim a compromise of  the wedded couple, shutter speed and lens aperture, but there is a third consideration that makes this match into a love triangle – the new variable is a change of emulsion speed (when film is used), or an increase in sensor sensitivity with a digital camera, with the result that pictures may be taken in lower levels of light. There is however, no such thing as a free lunch – faster emulsions produce grainier images; and now that film emulsions have been superceded by camera sensors, the grain has been replaced by another form of degradation termed ‘noise’. Having said that, the technological advances of digital cameras has progressed so rapidly in recent years, that some can now produce very good pictures in extremely low light.
With macro photography, keeping side on to the subject keeps much of the subject on the ame focal plane and optimises the chances of an in focus picture.
With macro photography, staying side on to a long slim subject will maintains most of an animals body at a set distance from the camera and optimize the chances of an in focus picture.

I’ve left the best bit till last –

there’s one thing in particular that is crucial to the way a macro picture will look and that is ‘depth of field’, which is especially important to the wildlife pictures I’ve taken here. When a lens is stopped down to make the aperture smaller, ‘depth of field’ increases. Put simply, ‘depth of field’ is everything that is in focus from front to back either side of the exact point you choose to most critically focus.  A lot of other stuff matters as well, for example – the focal length of the lens, and how close you are to the subject… but these things often cloud the issue and no matter what you hear, the key thing to remember is that you can’t defy physics.

If you take a picture from the same position and from the same distance, the ‘depth of field’, both with a wide angle and then a telephoto lens, remains the same. What happens is, a wide angle lens magnifies the subject less than a telephoto lens, and consequently more of the image appears to be in focus. Because I’ve never read a book on photography or taken a lesson on the subject, it took me seven years to figure this out; and believe me, what you work out for yourself, rather than accept from others without question, leaves less room for doubt. Most of the differences we notice relate to the lenses that we use and the distance we use them at.

This is not a bad picture - the angle is higher than I would prefer, but this gives a better chance of maintaining focus across the whole of the insects body as much of it remains close to the same plane.
This is not a bad picture – the angle is higher than I would prefer, but this provides a better chance of maintaining focus across the insects body as so much of of it remains close to the same plane.

A lot of people like to use low f stop numbers to create a very narrow  ‘depth of field’; because doing so concentrates interest on just one region of the picture. For example a portrait photographer might use an 80mm lens, (often regarded as the best focal length to most naturally render a human head and shoulders), and focus on the eyes whilst opening the lens aperture up to maximum – this creates a very shallow depth of field, drawing attention to the eyes, by throwing quite a lot else out of focus – in particular the background, making for a very stylized kind of picture. Focus is therefore critical when using wide open apertures on all but the widest angle lenses, and getting eyes perfectly in focus might  mean the even the tip of a nose won’t be sharp, especially if your subject is a regular Pinocchio. 

I mention this to highlight that there are many different ways to take photographs and perhaps because a lot of my film career has featured small animals, I have moved in the opposite direction to this portrait photography style, using macro lenses and stopping them down to f16, f22 and f32 to achieve the greater depth of field I can. Sometimes this requires more light than nature can provide and I have in the past used artificial cold light in a studio situation (because many insects aren’t so much troubled by light as by heat), although I prefer when I can to use only natural light and mirrors. Optimally the lens is giving its best results around f8 to f11, but when taking macro pictures I usually consider a greater depth of field to be my priority.
In the 1970s I bought 55mm and a 105mm Nirror macro lenses and I still use them.
During the 1970s I bought 55mm and a 105mm NIKOR macro lenses and still use them today.
So, how are things changed by using a longer lens, a 400mm, which is relevant here because all of the dragonfly pictures taken  in this article – bar one – were taken at this focal length. Put simply, the depth of field seems narrower than it does on a wider lens, but we’ve been through this and it’s just an illusion, but on the 400 mm lens the depth of field does becomes more critical when taking a close up of an egg laying dragonfly at a slight distance. This in contrast to the picture of the resting dragonfly I took on my Lumix camera (on the vine) which has better focus throughout because I was using a wide angle lens setting and and very close to the subject. i.e.  a matter of inches rather than of feet as is the case with the telephoto pictures, this changes the perspective and makes a very different kind of picture.
Likewise the picture of the small water boatman taken on a 55mm macro lens works quite well because the lens is close and I’ve also managed the ‘depth of field’ by keeping the bugs body surface running along the same plane and thus narrowed ‘depth of field’ required to hold focus, but once this has been done focus once again becomes critical and there is no room for error.

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This picture was taken on f16 at 1/125 Sec. I selected midway long the body as my point of critical focus which allows most of the probing abdomen of the egg laying dragonfly to remain in focus, but the front end of the head is just beginning to lose it.

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This picture was also taken at f16 at 1/125 Sec, but this time I have brought my critical focusing point forward – the head is in focus now, but the abdomen is going slightly out. The first picture is the nicer frame, but the second might be regarded as technically better… but of course, it also depends on how the picture is viewed. Blow the top picture up full frame as a page illustration and you might notice the head going soft, but used as a smaller picture it might well be considered the better image.

I am not against ‘happy accidents’, but it makes more sense to try to understand how best to deal with depth of field for your specific needs. Some photographers are less bothered about achieving this wide ranging depth of field and what I might chuck out they will feature – it’s a matter of taste. And if you just want to achieve a really crisp well lit image, then there’s always flash photography. Used correctly you won’t know the difference they tell you… Well, yes you will. I’ve never travelled down the ‘Chocolate Box School of Photography’ route, but many have, and their success rate is higher than mine. Everything in the end is a matter of opinion – it just depends on how you want to present your view of the world, using the artfulness of photography. There are really no right or wrong ways to take a picture – and if you are trying something different and it works… this has to be a plus.

 

 

 

 

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The Natural Garden – Building a Pond for Wildlife Photography.

I presently tend a mid-sized suburban garden just south of Vancouver; close to the coast and the U.S border, with the climate about as temperate as Canada has to offer. Rarely is the weather extreme and it rains fairly regularly. All things considered, not a bad place to tend a garden, but ours has one glaring oversight… it doesn’t have a water feature..

It was fairly common to see a frog following fairytale rules during summer in the  pond that I built in my parents garden.
It was fairly common to see a frog following fairytale rules during summer, in the first pond that I built in my parents garden, when I was a teenager.

I’m fond of garden ponds and over the years have built several – mostly using  concrete, which usually provides a sense of permanence; but the pond I am presently working on has been dug in soft sandy soil, where it is more practical to use a pond liner.

This will be the biggest pond I’ve installed so far, with a surface area of  a little under 600 square feet, an area that is expansive in relation to the whole garden – a situation that provides one major advantage… it takes up space, reducing the amount of land that would otherwise need tending in a more traditional labour intensive way; and in addition, a larger pond that has both shallow and deeper water, where pond plants are plentiful, will stabilise as a viable eco-system more quickly than a smaller volume of water.

Using nature as a reference:

P1290151.©.SMALLIt’s good to have a natural pond in mind during construction, but there are no plans to build a miniature version of the wild. The intention is to steal ideas from nature, which, with the benefit of time, has worked things out pretty well.

There are many good reasons for creating garden ponds; they will certainly increase the bio-diversity of urban spaces and improve things by as much as a third. 

The presence of water can be calming and my wife sees the value in that, but my interests are related more directly to wildlife photography, and a naturalistic pond will allow me to take pictures of plants and animals living in and around fresh water without having to travel more than a few metres from the house.

Build it and they will come –

They’ being wild animals… mostly small creatures such as amphibians and insects – in particular the ones that rely upon water as an integral part of their lifestyle needs. When flora an fauna are biologically committed to what you have on offer, it is difficult for a project to fail.

During the 1970s and 80 regularl photgraphed toads visiting my parents pond, but for many years common toad numbers in Britain have been in steep decline;and  I find it rather depressing
During the 1970s and 80s I regularly photographed and filmed European common toads spawning in my parent’s garden pond during early spring, but sadly, their numbers have gone into steep decline in recent years.

The difference between the pond that I am creating and many others is that I am committed to a natural look, and will use the skills I’ve learnt over the years to dress the area appropriately, so that it might double as a film set. 

 In summer it will be necessary to cut back weed growth, and during fall scoop leaves from the surface, but there won’t be the continual round of weeding, planting and mowing common to most land based garden areas.

Previously we lived in New Zealand and I never built a pond, just a bucket on the deck - even with minimal water it is sometimes surprising what shows up.
During our time in New Zealand I didn’t have time to built a pond. We just had a bucket on the deck – even with such a minimal amount of water it is surprising what shows up.

I haven’t been slow to move the pond along during the autumn months, but will admit to digging the pond over a longer period of time, due to a troublesome back, and also because I have quite a lot else to do. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the process has involved a lot of hard work, because the soil here is light and sandy, although there has been quite a lot of it to move.

Had I started the project in our front garden, with its heavy underlying base of slipper clay and shallow top soil, I doubt I would have made much progress without a mechanical digger. The area I did chose could not have been more different, at the back end of the garden the soil is fortuitously sandy and runs to a considerable depth. On the down side, heavy machinery would have been difficult to operate here without crumbling or compressing the soil, especially with my lack of experience with a digger. But as most of us can work efficiently with a spade if we have the time, I didn’t see a problem and did my best to view this arduous process as very good exercise.

The selected site in the back garden dropped about a foot over its length and I used soil from the back end of the excavation to build banks up the front. This was essential because a pond on a slope is technically a river and the water will always end up somewhere else. A spirit level was therefore an essential tool, but I did little more than run a taught string from front to back and  make regular checks to gauge where the future water level would be.

P1280709.FIX.©.SMALLBefore starting I had to get a permit to fell two trees – the remains of a long gone badly managed hedge, they were now a danger to my neighbours property, and situated on the southern border of our property, they cut out the light. To make a success of the project, both would have to go.

Overall, a garden pond doesn’t need to be very deep, but a better balance can be maintained if in some places it gets down to around a couple of feet in depth. This is best achieved near the centre and not at the edge. A gentle gradation from around the sides is far more natural, and important for a variety of reasons.

Water plants require different depths depending on their preferences – some will do best with just their roots in water – water buttercup for example; others such as water lilies and bogbean need to be totally submerged, and will push their leaves and flower stems up to the surface during the warmer months of the year.

IMG_6884.FRAME.©.SMALL2The Yellow waterlily Nuphar polysepalum is a native water plant (although it may originate from the eastern side of North America). In contrast, many colourful water-lilies are introductions.

It is very important to exercise common sense in any garden where pets and children are spending time: if smaller children in particular are playing close by, a pond should always be covered with some form of supporting mesh.

When the dig is complete I am keen to move the process along as quickly as possible and sort out the surrounding garden. This will involve everything from new fencing covered with climbing plants (which will improve and soften reflections in the water), to organising the border areas as sympathetically as possible, with the back half of the garden given over to native flowering plants that will help draw in local wildlife.

P1280894.FIX.©.SMALLHere the digging out is almost completed. The stump of one of the felled trees has been left to rot out naturally, and a bird nesting hole with an interior nest site has been created at the top. There are also slits for bats and a vine has been planted at the base to eventually cover the old trunk to make it more aesthetically pleasing. With the trees gone there is now enough light to maintain a healthy pond. 

Another good reason for proving shallow slopes into the water is to create a place where insect and amphibian larvae can develop without high levels of predation; hungry fish in particular are a problem and won’t be introduced into our pond. This will also prevent the nitrification of water from fish poo, and reduce algal blooms. I appreciate that the temptation to introduce fish will be too great for some, but if the intention is to boost pond bio-diversity, goldfish, koi and any other large predators should be avoided.
Salamander and newt larvae can be voracious predators eating almost other creature smaller than themselves.
Salamander and newt larvae can be voracious predators eating almost any other creature smaller than themselves.

In direct sunlight shallow areas will  warm  more quickly than deeper areas. It is a broad generalisation tin natureo claim that chemical reaction times will double for every 10 degree rise in temperature; as with biological systems there are limitations as to how warm an organism can get before it become physiologically stressed, but there is no doubt, that over a small range, amphibian and insect larvae will develop more quickly when conditions are warmer, providing there is adequate food and oxygen. The quicker that a larva develops, the better are its chances of survival, and the very first to hatch and begin growing may end up feeding on late starters, and certainly this is the case for the young of many amphibians. The strategy has been developed by many species living in small ponds that will dry out during the summer months. Garden ponds are not usually allowed to do this, and that’s another good reason for not introducing large predators into a garden pond – they flourish until they have eaten everything else!

P1280898.FRAME.©.SMALLEven though the pond base is sandy, and I’m using a quality 1 mm thick pond liner, every inch of the base and sides has to be sifted of stones. I start from the centre and work out and admittedly, this is a time consuming drag, but essential if the rubber base is to be protected. Done properly, it will improve the chances of the liner surviving for 25 years or more.

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There was clearly a burn and bury here – probably when the house was built  – to clear rubbish, and all had to be carefully removed  as rusty nails and twisted shards of glass will puncture any pond liner.

MVI_6761 STILL.FRAME.©When I started working on the inside of the house, I saved the old carpets to line the pond. I don’t like anything synthetic going onto soil, but a degraded carpet layer can be cleared if the pond is ever decommissioned and certainly it is more useful here than in landfill.

IMG_6775.FIX.©.SMALLThe liner in place, the pond was filled  with water, allowing it’s weight to contour the rubber liner – aided by some judicious tugging to flatten out creases. Many people will empty a new pond after a few days and refill it, but that’s a terrible waste of water and quite unnecessary if you can live without fish. There is nothing much else to do once the liner is organised and I start getting plants in well before the pond was filled.

I had already installed a very small pond in our garden when we moved in, using a small piece of liner bought in the mid 1980s. It was a remnant from a larger pond installation, and has travelled around the  word with me for a good many years to become part of many temporary sets during the filming of small animals. In its latest incarnation I’ve managed to grow on various small aquatic plants that can now be moved across into the newly completed pond.

It is a good idea to visit a local pond after a storm and remove small pieces of vegetation that have broken from the various water plants that live there, but it is necessary to get to them before the ducks do. It is unwise to bring plants in from a distance as what suits your area best will be growing locally, and it is very important not to introduce pest species. Almost anything you need can be bought from an aquarium shop, but who knows where it has come from? If a friendly neighbour is having a pond clear out, it is wise to make use of it. Where I live in Canada, garden ponds are less common than they perhaps should be; and where they do exist are often too ornamental and busy with goldfish to be very helpful to native wildlife.

P1290196.FIX.©.SMALLThere is a small hump at the edge of the pond that prevents garden run off; once over this the depression behind is filled with a layer of sandy base soil, this is then covered with layers of smooth stones. Finally, small plants are added to grow amongst them. This wet area at the front of the pond is essentially a pebble beach. But along the back and sides I have used mosses and ferns that are commonly found in the damp rainy conditions of our area, many of these have been grown on by placing fallen branches in shady areas of the garden. Each of us might use what is natural to our own area.

I try to make my mini-landscapes appear as realistic as possible. Over the years I have build a lot of sets that have been used to photograph small animals and I approach the pond decor with the same attention to detail, but with the understanding that in this case things need to be more permanent.

P1290200.FIX.©.SMALLI begin to make use of the cut trunks from the felled trees by cutting cookies to walk on – none are placed on the liner itself, and all have a protective pad of thick rubber beneath them.

P1290194.FIX.©.SMALLThe job is certainly painstaking, because every stone that goes into the pond or comes into contact with the liner has to be hand selected.

Using sand and stones in this dipped peripheral area will reduce nitrogen run off into the water and help prevent algal blooms.

To make things look natural, larger stones need to be clumped together as if a stream or river had perhaps arranged them hundreds or even thousands of years ago – rather than somebody like me having done so yesterday.

P1290296.FIX.©.SMALLAt this point I am about half way to creating the illusion of a pond just a few days after the digging process has been completed. I will move the fallen branch temporarily and hack away at the ends to provide a more natural look. Obviously, sharp tools must never be used anywhere near the rubber liner. 

Some might consider my efforts to be on the verge of theatre with a distinctly theme park feel ,which is true only up to a point, after the liner is installed everything above it is quite natural and many plants will creep across hard surfaces, especially where there is water, and as roots grow and interweave they will eventually hold the basic structure together.

Up and just over the hump that separates the land from the water I have used moist play pit sand to form a base, because it doesn’t contain much in the way of nutrients (especially if it has been washed thoroughly), which might otherwise flush into the pond. The liner forms the base of a gully that lips up along the backside to retain water and conditions moist, acting as a suitable substrate for more primitive plants – such as mosses and ferns, that might be grown there.

I haven't seen a raccoon at the pond in daylight, but I've seen then from the bedroom window in moonlight and they love re-adjusting the plants with their familiar post-apocalyptic style.
I haven’t seen a raccoon at the pond in daylight, but I’ve seen them from the bedroom window in moonlight and they love re-adjusting the plants in their familiar post-apocalyptic style.

The stones are layered deep enough for the liner to be well covered, but they won’t stay in place if a raccoon or some other creature visits and decides to shift them around, but that’s true of any part of a garden that has been visited by any beast that arrives with the malicious intent of a masked marauder, as raccoons so often do. They are not always welcome, but I tolerate them.

Other than the wild animals drawn to the pond, I will be the only one walking along the cookies to micro manage the environment, so I won’t have to worry about guests falling in. This is presently be an illusion of the natural world, but the longer things are left to themselves, the more natural they will become; and increasingly provide a habitat for a great many animals, that although small, will play their part in this developing ecosystem.

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It was no trouble to stash moss covered logs for a couple of years when the garden was shaded by the now felled trees. Repositioned close by the pond these mossy supports remain healthy because the pond overflows directly into the gully keeping things moist along the edge of the pond in the places where I didn’t cut back the liner. Most pond building advice suggests that you should trim the overlap, but I prefer to make use of it wherever possible. This peripheral area will remain mostly wet, but will require a little watering during the dryer months of the year – although this will be more of a spray than a thorough dousing.
Less than a month from the end of the pond dig one side of the pond has been realistically dressed.
Less than a month from the end of the pond dig one side of the pond has been realistically dressed.

Once the fences are covered in climbers, the background reflections in the pond will create a very natural feel and the sky reflected in the surface adds another dimension to this new environment.

The pond was finished before fall began to make its presence felt, and this is a good growing time. I begin moving plants from my small nursery pond as soon as I can, and achieve quite a lot in only a few days. The partially established water-plants quickly increase their root and leaf systems under the new conditions. If plants grow well without too much help, it is a sign that you’re getting things right. 

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Winter came early on November 3rd with an overnight snow flurry, bringing an abrupt end to the many insects that had survived though what has, up until now, been a mild fall.

The little supply pond I use to establish small water plants, now looks a little sad with the sudden change of season.
The little supply pond I use to establish small water plants, now looks a little sad with the sudden change of season.

I notice most people who give advice on pond construction are particular about giving lists of plant and animal species, but these details will depend very much on where you live. My pond is arranged around the local flora and fauna, and you might do the same.

If that is the case, you should be aiming to attract what is common close to where you live – if for example, a plant is local there will be other organisms that thrive in association with it. All you are essentially doing is creating a web of natural interactions and it isn’t necessary to know every detail to make this work. If you chose to be observant, expertise and those tricky Latin names will come with time – but this isn’t essential, especially if you don’t find it easy to remember cumbersome nomenclature – a system mostly used to convey precise details to others.  It is however worth checking out your local invasive weed species in order to avoid introducing them.

Any animals that can fly will arrive of their own accord, but don’t introduce amphibian spawn or larvae unless you are sure of which species it belongs to. In my area the last thing I want to do is introduce alien bullfrogs which will eat most of the smaller native species; there is also a very real problem with amphibians of spreading disease, so it is essential to understand exactly what you are doing before you attempt a relocation. 

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The was the pond only a week or so after the liner was installed. A Wooden divider prevents the more fertile soil from the garden washing into the pond, but it cannot be seen from the opposite viewing side… I know –  it sounds like a theme park without the carriages, but really it’s just gardening! 

The best bit of the whole process for me, was when dragonflies of both sexes showed up and the females began laying eggs on water plants within the first two days of the pond being filled. When such things happen it is impressive and reminds us that nature can be extraordinarily persistent.

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If you want to keep things like this, remember you still have to do a bit of micro weeding, but that should be fairly minimal – and if it goes a bit wilder – nature won’t mind.

Get it right and any of us might make a difference to the natural world. If you  decide to build a pond of your own, don’t forget to record what you have achieve by taking pictures – you might influence others to follow your example. And remember, when something new and interesting shows up, it will be you that made it possible.

Please do not dig up or remove any plants from protected areas. Flora and fauna will usually establish naturally in your garden once you have provided a suitable habitat.

Next Time: My New Garden Pond – What Showed Up in the First Four Weeks: Dragonflies and Water Boatmen and the Best Way to Photograph Them.

 

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