My home office window overlooks our little Koi pond. In fair weather I open the window and the babble of the waterfall just below is a soothing counterpoint to the robotic tap, tap, tap of the ubiquitous chicklet keyboard. It was 4:00 in the afternoon yesterday, and I was just finishing editing a document, a task that demands concentration as I am a notoriously bad typist. I can spell but can’t type and my ‘monitor vision’ is also very bad. If you’ve read here much you know that I often 'finish' before I am 'done', leaving it to you to wade through the weed patch of typos to find the hidden blossoms of wit and revelation. So this means much squinting, leaning forward, scrolling forth and back, concentrating not on my brilliance as a writer but my sloppiness as a technician.
The morning had dawned with a ‘thousand foot ceiling’, and steady rain; not much ambient light through the window but warm enough to have the window cracked letting in natures music if not much of her summertime glow. By late afternoon that rain had stepped aside for ‘sun breaks and scattered showers’ (rolls off the tongue like I say this every night at 5:00) so that now the window is open, the sun casts shadows, and many of the Koi are up at the surface sunning themselves. They often do this on sunny afternoons, and it makes me smile to see them reaping the rewards of having survived a long winter with as much as 6 inches of ice on the pond surface. It’s almost pastoral, but I have to look away, to lean into that blue background with the lines of black squiggles, searching for squiggles out of place.
There is a brief shadow and a flash across the window. Crows often swoop and land on the lawn to pick through the grass. It’s enough to draw my attention out the window; to see a huge pair of mottled brown and white wings flapping furiously to lift off the pond clutching a large and majestically, gloriously, golden packet in the talons below. I know instantly this is the Osprey, come to invite one of the basking Koi home for dinner.
In a flash I’m up, running, shouting, and cursing at the top of my lungs, trying to get around the corner out of the office, out the front door only feet away, before this predator departs with one of my fish. Chairman the cat leaps from his nap spot, instantly puffed to twice his normal size, back arched and tail big as a two inch hawser, ears back and eyes that look like Delftwae saucers. He’s both trying to dance with me and get out of the way as I barrel through the door. I leap off the front porch shouting louder, just as the marauder sweeps low and out of sight around the corner of the garage, the fish below almost grazing the driveway. As I chase behind, screaming and waving I notice that Chairman has come out on the porch, but that’s all the further his courage will take him.
I dash around the garage, shouting loud enough that it’s possible the neighbors might think ‘domestic dispute’ to see the bird making steady progress in the dappled sun with the brilliant golden package oriented aerodynamically below. (S)he’s still very low to the ground, but I have as much chance of disrupting this progress as I would if it were a military drone. Two very large, very black (against the sunny sky) ravens have swooped in hot pursuit, dogging the Osprey. They dive and feint making every attempt to disrupt, but the bigger bird flies almost as if they are unnoticed. She’s still low enough that she flies around the back instead of over the shop. A moment later she emerges for the other side of the shop with just enough elevation to gain the neighbors roof line, the crows still in hot pursuit. “NO! NO!” I continue to shout as they continue their avian dance into the sky, headed for the big woods across Blockhouse road.
And just like that, it’s over.
Shortly Chairman ventures out to the driveway and anxiously rubs up against my legs for assurance, making sure to place himself squarely between my legs as I shield my eyes looking into the sky, watching as the three birds and the bright golden fish slip through the crowns of the big firs across road. They’re gone, and so too is one of my fish.
I don’t think of this so much as a possession of mine, purloined by an opportunistic predator, more in terms of a compact I have made with a fish: “I’ll bring you home, I’ll put you in a small confined space, you’ll provide me some measure of pleasure with your presence, and in turn I’ll feed and care for you. You’re job to be a beautiful fish, my job to be a conscientious Koi keeper".
After a period of staring off into space a little longer than necessary, I wander back and look into the pond. There huddled on the bottom are all the other fish. They stir frantically when my shadow hits the water, they’d go deeper, much deeper if they could. Peering into the pond, as the fish stir and move in nervous disorder, I can see sprinkled on the bottom a smattering of big, golden scales; all that is left of whoever went home with the Osprey for dinner.
After a little bit of nose counting and contemplation I conclude that the fish who is now most likely nourishing a clutch of Osprey chicks in the nest over on Sickman-Ford road was one of my 7 Sarasa Comets. These fish are not really Koi, but a variety of gold fish, often with markings similar to Koi. These were the first fish I put in the pond about four years ago. They cost a couple dollars each and I started with them precisely because they were not expensive, they were hardy, and I figured a good variety to ‘learn’ on. In short, I thihgt of them as expendable. Against all odds I have been able (until today) to keep all of these fish alive, healthy and growing. They have more than doubled their size, they are about 10 to 12 inches each and the one that flew off was (naturally) the biggest and prettiest: Solid, bright, vermillion red with a distinctive white band running from top to the bottom at the very back edge of his big, feathery tail.
There are plenty of ways to lose fish hereabouts. Though we have a higher than average Osprey population locally (they fish the Chehalis and Black rivers and tributaries mostly) I had not been too concerned about them as a risk to my pond. The pond is fairly small (by Osprey standards) and close to the house. It’s not out in the open, affording little space for a bird to make a swift approach and exit. Any bird would have to pretty much drop in (losing a lot of escape velocity) and then lift out relying more on power than aerodynamics, a pretty strong disincentive. So thought Mr. Natural.
Osprey look big when you see them flying or on their nests. When you see them a couple feet outside your window powering off the pond clutching one of your fish they look positively huge. That 70 inch wing span looks like something out of a Sci Fi movie, or a nature channel documentary. I've now recalibrated my notion of how hard (or not) it might be for such a bird to drop in, nab one of my measly little colored carp and then power up and away.
Like a dimwit I am only now seeing how certain pieces of a puzzle fit together:
A month or so ago, I found one of my other Comets, a big white one stuck between the rocks that line the pond. Just his head was sticking out and I figured it had died of old age. So I reach down to get my thumb in to his mouth to pull him from beneath the rocks. Imagine my shock when he bit down on my thumb and started wiggling! I carefully lifted a couple these rocks off of him and he wriggled to the bottom of the pond. I noticed two large gashes one either side of his body just behind his pectorals, and his right pectoral fin was trashed.
I didn’t think this fish would make it. He looked badly hurt so I watched for him to do the back float each day and though his wounds became infected he still swam and ate with the others. A couple days later I netted him out, placed him in the quarantine tank and began treating him with an antibiotic dip. A week or so later I found one of my much bigger, prettier, and more prized (and more valuable) Koi a (Shusui) in the pond with two deep gashes in his side. Again, just back of the gill plates, the thickest part of the fishes body.
He had another wound farther back along the lateral line. I netted him out for a closer look and thought that these deep puncture wounds would likely be fatal. Nevertheless I put him in the Q tank with the Comet and started him on the antibiotic dip treatment as well. So far both fish are making a strong comeback. Their wounds are no longer infected but are still prominent enough that I don’t think they will be back in the pond until late summer.
At the time, I didn’t have any idea how the Comet was injured. They are always poking around among the rocks looking for a morsel so I presumed this fish just had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the case of the Shusui, I suspected raccoons as the source of the problem. We have at least one family of raccoons living in the woods behind the house, they come to raid the bird feeder on the back fence most nights, and I have worried that sooner or later they would become brave enough to come up to the front of the house in search of a fish dinner. We also have Herons that roost and nest in the woods back there. There is a perennial creek that provides plenty of cover and habitat for these wild critters. I like having them around and until today I thought we had an ‘understanding’.
Anyway, as a result of this seemingly unconnected series of misfortunes, I put a net over the pond a couple weeks ago. This black fine mesh netting is the stuff you often see stretched over peoples berry bushes and fruit trees in an attempt to thwart their feasting. It’s said to be effective against birds and raccoons but as far as Koi pond aesthetics it’s akin to Bob Trailer attached to Colnago.
So for the last few weeks, all seemed to be calming down and with the water warming up the fish have become ravenous. Whenever I am around the pond they are up at the surface following me like a litter of piglets, mouths agape. Feeding them is the fun part this time of year and some of the preferred tidbits I feed (Manda Fu) won’t fit through the net mesh. So I rolled the net back, exposing about half of the pond’s surface so that I could more easily toss them this special treat.
Needless to say, I have the net back on the pond and I’m thinking I’ll have to devise some more permanent (and elegant) protection. If you’ve visited a fish hatchery or fish ponds where birds of prey are more common you’ve probably noticed lines, like fishing line or wire strung across the top of the pond. These applications are designed to deter the flyers from swooping in to make off with fish. I’ll cook up something similar, in the next day or so.