Walking along the edge of the pond I heard a new-to-my-ears sound, an odd sort of mewing, repeated over and over again. What could that be? I snuck along as quiet as could be following the sound. To my amazement, it was a pair of Muskrats cavorting in the reeds, and they were courting and mating!!! You can just barely make out two together in the photo with the dense reeds, too dense to get a good photo, but not too dense to see what they were up to.
A female Muskrat is ready to breed at only one year of age. The breeding season lasts from March through August. A pair will mate while partially submerged, or on water-logged debris above the surface (where our little pair was mating). She may have 2-3 litters per year, with an average of 6 to 8 kits per litter.
Lest folks worry the pond will become overrun with Muskrats, they are a relatively short-lived mammal and have many, many predators including Snapping Turtles, large fish, Eastern Coyotes, Red and Gray Foxes, Weasels, River Otters, Bobcats, Great Horned Owls, and Northern Harriers. But their chief enemy are Minks and Raccoons.
For our reader’s general information, Muskrats are easy to distinguish from Beavers. They are about a tenth the size; Muskrats weigh 1 to 4 pounds whereas Beavers weighs 30 pounds or more. The muskrat’s tail is not large large and flat, but slender and elongated.
Muskrat at Niles Pond
Big fat Beaver Tail
Slender Muskrat tail – above Muskrat image courtesy wiki commons media
The recent winter storms of 2018 have provided empirical evidence of how global climate change and the consequential rising sea level is impacting the Massachusetts coastline. Whether broken barriers between the ocean and small bodies of fresh water, the tremendous erosion along beaches, or the loss of plant life at the edge of the sea, these disturbances are profoundly impacting wildlife habitats.
The following photos were taken after the March nor’easter of 2018 along with photos of the same areas, before the storm, and identify several specific species of wildlife that are affected by the tremendous loss of habitat.
Barrier Beach Erosion
Nesting species of shorebirds such as Piping Plovers require flat or gently sloping areas above the wrack line for chick rearing. Notice how the March nor’easter created bluffs with steep sides, making safe areas for tiny chicks nonexistent.
You can see in the photos of Good Harbor Beach (top photo and photos 3 and 4 in the gallery) that the metal fence posts are completely exposed. In 2016, the posts were half buried and in 2017, the posts were nearly completely buried. After the recent storms, the posts are fully exposed and the dune has eroded half a dozen feet behind the posts.
In the photo of the male Piping Plover sitting on his nest from 2016 the metal posts are half buried.
Although scrubby growth shrubs and sea grass help prevent erosion, the plants have been ripped out by the roots and swept away due to the rise in sea level.
Plants draw tiny insects, which is food for tiny chicks, and also provide cover from predators, as well as shelter from weather conditions. If the Piping Plovers return, will they find suitable nesting areas, and will plant life recover in time for this year’s brood?
Other species of shorebirds that nest on Massachusetts’s beaches include the Common Tern, Least Tern, Roseate Tern, American Oyster Catcher, Killdeer, and Black Skimmer.
Common Tern parent feeding fledgling
Where Have All the Wildflowers Gone?
Female Monarch Depositing Egg on Common Milkweed Leaf
Wildflowers are the main source of food for myriad species of beneficial insects such as native bees and butterflies.
Monarch Butterflies arriving on our shores not only depend upon milkweed for the survival of the species, but the fall migrants rely heavily on wildflowers that bloom in late summer and early fall. Eastern Point is a major point of entry, and stopover, for the southward migrating butterflies. We have already lost much of the wildflower habitat that formerly graced the Lighthouse landscape.
Masses of sea debris from the storm surge washed over the wildflower patches and are covering much of the pollinator habitat at the Lighthouse.
American Wigeon Migrating at Henry’s Pond
Barriers that divide small bodies of fresh water from the open sea have been especially hard hit. The fresh bodies of water adjacent to the sea provide habitat, food, and drinking water for hundreds of species of wildlife and tens of thousands of migrating song and shorebirds that travel through our region.
The recently rebuilt causeway (2014) between Niles Pond and Brace Cove was breached many times during the nor’easter. The causeway is littered in rocks and debris from the sea.
The causeway being rebuilt in 2014.
The road that runs along Pebble Beach, separating the sea from Henry’s Pond has been washed out.
The footsteps in the sand are where the road ran prior to the storm.
Mallards, North American Beavers, Muskrats, North American River Otters, and Painted Turtles are only a few examples of species that breed in Massachusetts fresh water ponds and wetlands. All the wildlife photos and videos were shot on Cape Ann.
Migrating Black-bellied Plover
Cape Ann is hardly alone in coping with the impact of our warming planet and of rising sea level. These photos are meant to show examples of what is happening locally. Regions like Plymouth County, which include Scituate and Hingham, have been equally as hard hit. Plum Island is famously heading for disaster and similar Massachusetts barrier beaches, like Cranes Beach, have all been dramatically altered by the cumulative effects of sea level rising, and recently accelerated by the devastating winter storms of 2018.
Covering storms back to back, I didn’t have time to post on both Good Morning Gloucester and on my blog. The following are links to storm posts from the region’s three March nor’easters, beginning on March 2nd.
More muskrat love! Did you know Muskrats eat phragmites?!! They gnaw off the emerging and exposed shoots at the base and then eat the green stems. Very cool. Other fun facts: Muskrats can hold their breath underwater for up to fifteen minutes. They can also chew underwater. Unlike beavers, whose tails are flattened horizontally, a muskrats tail is laterally flattened (in other words vertically). The tail functions like a rudder to help the Muskrat maneuver through water. Muskrats can swim forward and backward.