Mountain Lion Seeks Backyard Oasis

from Wildlife Promise

Guest post by Hari Viswanathan.

On May 18, this beautiful mountain lion stopped by my parent’s backyard pond in Los Alamos, N.M., adding to the long list of amazing wildlife encounters over the years.

Photo by Hari Viswanathan.

Photo by Hari Viswanathan.

Our pond—called Warbler Pond due to the numerous warblers that visit—has attracted 90+ species of birds and numerous mammals over the years. Here’s the story of Warbler pond and the NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat that has given us years of wonderful memories.

Lotus bloom from Warbler Pond

In the summer of 1997, we decided to build a pond in our backyard. I was back from college and thought this would be a good summer project. We weren’t new to ponds: we had two in our front yard that proved to be great for attracting birds, chipmunks, and garter snakes that were frequent visitors.

We decided to build this new pond since we never could get a lotus to bloom in the front ponds, as they did not receive morning sun which Lotus require to thrive. Lotus is a very important flower to Indians, and we were excited that lotus are actually hardy and can handle the below freezing winters of Los Alamos. This new pond bordered a 1,000 ft deep canyon that comprises our amazing backyard. Los Alamos exists at 7,200 ft with a temperate mountain climate. With the addition of our new pond we were successful in growing lotus and getting it to bloom. We had no idea how introducing water into our yard would result in years of amazing wildlife encounters.

Bunting in Los AlamosWith its location on the back canyon, it became clear that the pond attracted an amazing variety of birds present in Los Alamos County. During spring (May) and fall (September) migration, beautiful warblers, tanagers and buntings (right) were commonly seen at the pond, so my mother, Selvi Viswanathan, decided to name it Warbler Pond.

My mother worked extremely hard on our yard and created a beautiful habitat nestled between two canyons. She had heard about National Wildlife Federation and decided to apply for backyard Wildlife Habitat Certification. Our yard became one of the first NWF backyard Wildlife Habitats in Los Alamos on June 30, 1995 (Certificate #16249). There are now many more and there is talk about Los Alamos becoming a NWF Community Habitat.

We put fish in the pond and numerous water plants. It soon became clear that there was almost constant activity at the pond. Garter snakes frequently came to the pond and seemed determined to catch the fish, though these were not aquatic garter snakes and never seemed to catch any fish. However, the snakes actually bred in the pond and we once saw four baby snakes sliding across the lotus leaves. My mother then witnessed a sharp-shinned hawk swoop in to take away a baby snake! We never got a picture of that but here is a sharp-shinned hawk that frequented Warbler Pond. As years passed we gave up on fancy water plants and fish since they were eaten but certain plants such as floating heart, buttercup and native grasses established themselves making for a beautiful scene that required very little upkeep.

Close Encounters

Years passed and we did notice that mammals sometimes visited Warbler pond as well. Coyotes, bobcats and deer were seen on occasion. However, despite usually having a camera handy, we never got any pictures since large mammal visits were fleeting and few and far between (at least when we were watching).

fig08By 2011, I was living with my own family 10 minutes drive away on a different canyon in Los Alamos. Early in the morning of Dec 24, we had a rare and tragic encounter with a mountain lion that attacked and killed our pet dog Gwennie in our backyard that also borders a canyon. We knew mountain lions were present in Los Alamos County but an attack was unheard of. In fact, most people never see a mountain lion during their lifetime in Los Alamos, even if they are avid outdoor enthusiasts. In our case, experts believed it was a combination of recent habitat loss from the Las Conchas fire, heavy snows forcing deer into town and simply bad timing.  If I had not let Gwennie out by herself at dawn this incident would have likely been avoided. Since this incident, other problems have not occurred and we take care to only take our dog out on leash into well lit areas. That being said, living in an area like ours comes with some risk.

The encounter left my family quite shaken and I decided to purchase a critter cam to see what wildlife was visiting our backyard. I also purchased a critter cam for my parent’s yard to see what was visiting Warbler Pond at night. We were amazed at the diversity of wildlife that was visiting. Within a few nights of putting in the critter cam, it was clear raccoons and foxes were frequent visitors at Warbler pond. Our backyard (despite being the location of the mountain lion attack) was not as active but fox, ringtail and raccoons visited sporadically. Being an amateur photographer, I decided to purchase Phototrap so I could use my nice camera equipment to capture pictures of wildlife visiting both our yard and my parent’s yard/Warbler Pond at night. This would serve to both warn and document what was visiting our yards. I could not believe how many amazing wildlife encounters were captured within one year of setting up the Phototrap.

Sleuthing Around With Nocturnal Cameras

Gray fox proved to be a frequent visitor year round. So frequent that we even captured interesting behavior such as a fox eyeing this mouse.

Gray Fox at Warbler Pond

Raccoons were common and sometimes entire families came in for a romp in Warbler pond. It became very clear what must have happened to our water plants in the early years! We even tried out fish in this back pond and it is now clear that they didn’t have a chance based on the number of nighttime visitors.

fig09In the summer we were shocked to learn that black bears used Warbler Pond as a bathtub! What was even more amazing was that come morning, one could not tell a giant animal had been there! People with fruit trees were not so lucky. For them it was clear when a black bear had visited at night, since branches and fruit would be strewn about. In our case, we were shocked when we’d check the camera since Warbler Pond would look untouched. Clearly, even these big animals leave areas mostly undamaged unless food is at stake.

Bobcats were infrequent but gorgeous visitors that were seen about once a month.

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Deer also came in groups of 3-6 for a drink. Here is one during the peak of the buttercup bloom. We were surprised that a Great Horned Owl even came in for a bath in the pond.

We were shocked by how many animals were taking advantage of the pond. This was likely going on for over a decade without us knowing! The good news was there were no problematic wildlife encounters in the neighborhood despite the frequency of visitors. We were curious if a mountain lion would ever visit, due to our tragic encounter at the other yard. It was clear deer are common, and mountain lion expert Ken Logan declared Los Alamos prime mountain lion country after he visited to learn about our incident.

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On May 6, 2012 (3 months after we installed the critter cam, a night where only the black and white critter cam was setup), this amazing mountain lion came in for a drink on the night of a super moon. It was a bit disconcerting that mountain lions likely have been visiting Warbler Pond all this time! After this photo, I assumed that perhaps mountain lion visits may actually be common. However, a full year went by and no more mountain lion sightings at either yard. I thought perhaps the 2011-2012 sightings was simply due to the immediate aftermath of the Las Conchas fire. Then May 18, 2013 showed us that mountain lion visits do occur but seem to be very rare (which is a good thing). Here is a gorgeous mountain lion that came in for a drink and spent about 15 minutes at Warbler Pond (left, above). She then melted away back into the canyon making it hard to believe she really paid us a visit.

After the first encounters with the mountain lion, my mother Selvi took several steps based on Ken Logan’s advice:

  1. To remove the shrubs nearby where the mountain lion and other animals can hide.
  2. Also to have open space where the animals can run away when they see us.
  3. To inform neighbors about the sighting of the mountain lion.

For more information on backyard predators, see “When Carnivores Come Calling” in National Wildlife magazine.

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My mother said the neighborhood took the news well:

I got a few e mails encouraging [me] not to trap the mountain lion. Our neighbors are happy and they are all learning to live with wildlife.

I take the welfare of the community seriously, especially since the mountain lion was right in my back yard. It is interesting, my neighbors and friends who see me in the yard when I am working or even in supermarket, always tell me how nice the pictures are. They are careful now. They never told me to get rid of the pond which I expected some may say.

To me it is extremely exciting to see the amazing wildlife that exists within close proximity of our town with hardly any incidents to speak of. The animals that visit appear healthy and have figured out how to mostly avoid altercations. Our town is rare in that canyons weave their way through all of Los Alamos, so wildlife corridors abound. It is clear most animals do not rely on Warbler Pond. There must be plenty of water sources due to bird baths (we’ve seen bobcats at ours rather than coming to the pond), sprinklers, and the numerous ponds in town.

However, our pond that has now celebrated its 14-year anniversary and has becoming a watering hole for an amazing variety of critters. It’s not just the water that attracts the wildlife. We noticed that our hummingbird feeder was emptied in the morning day after day. Then one night we figured out who the culprit was, a beautiful ringtail. People in areas like ours would be surprised at the activity that is likely taking place in their yards when no one is watching!

Turn Your Yard Into a Haven for Wildlife

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Welcome wildlife into your own backyard! Find the best native plants for your yard, learn how to attract wildlife, and be kind to your neighbors. Then, make your yard an official NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat®!

Hari ViswanathanHari Viswanathan in an amateur photographer who lives in Los Alamos, NM with his wife Gowri and 4 year old son Aditya. He is a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory where he focuses on increasing energy efficiency and reducing the environmental impacts of fossil fuels. Hari enjoys nature and wildlife photography and living in New Mexico gives him many opportunities to pursue his hobby.  He has also traveled all over the world and has had opportunities to visit and photograph many amazing places. For more pictures please see HarisPhotos.com.