Tag Archives: New England Pond Ecology

NEW SHORT FILM – THE HAIRY WOODPECKER

The wonderful Hairy Woodpecker featured in this short film was seen on a sunny afternoon along the banks of Niles Pond. He spent a great amount of time alternating between excavating a fallen log, foraging for wood boring beetles, and climbing up and down trunks of trees. I’ve been back several times and can usually find him by his funny high pitched squeak that sounds much like a pup’s squeaky chew toy.

Snagging a grub

On that very same day the Hairy Woodpecker was pummeling away at the log, a sweet little Downy Woodpecker and beautiful Red-bellied Woodpecker were also in the neighborhood. And too, there is an elusive golden-winged Northern Flicker flitting about, but he has been a challenge to capture. Hopefully, at some point in the future, we can add him to the short film.

Related Post –

Update from Beaver Pond: A Wonderful World of Woodpeckers!

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

 

WHY NILES POND IS VITALLY IMPORTANT TO CAPE ANN’S ECOSYSTEM AND WHAT IS BEING DONE TO PROTECT THE CAUSEWAY

Repair work to the Niles Pond/Brace Cove berm was completed last week. Severe storms over the past several years had breached the area of the Pond adjacent to the Retreat House. Sand, rocks, popples, and even boulders have been pushed by the pounding surf into the Pond.

Despite the excellent repairs, this corner of Niles Pond continues to remain vulnerable. The causeway needs not only to be repaired, but to also be rebuilt to withstand future storms and rising sea level.

Why not just let nature take its course and let the sea pour in you may ask? Won’t Niles Pond eventually become a saltwater marsh? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

The answer is a resounding NO!

For readers not familiar, the very narrow strip of land that runs between freshwater Niles Pond and Brace Cove is interchangeably referred to as a berm or causeway. This narrowest bridge of land plays an outsized, yet invaluable, role in preventing the salty sea of the Atlantic from swallowing Niles Pond.

It is believed that long ago Niles Pond was a lagoon, which was sealed off by rising sand and rock. Over time, it became a freshwater pond, fed by springs and rainfall. The detail of the Mason map from 1831 clearly shows the division between the Pond and the Cove.

It can’t be overstated enough how uniquely invaluable is the ecosystem created by the causeway, this juncture where Niles Pond meets Brace Cove. Ponds are widely regarded as ecological “hotspots,” for the diversity of life they support. Nowhere is that more evident than at Niles Pond. The sheer number of species of wildlife supported by Niles Pond is simply breathtaking. To name but a few: Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles, Spring Peepers, American Bullfrogs, Leopard Frogs, Muskrats, Minks, Red Squirrels, Green Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Screech Owls and Barred Owls, Cedar Waxwings and songbirds of every tune and color, Honeybees and native pollinators, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Coyotes, Red Fox, White-tailed Deer … the list goes on and on.

Common Buckeye drinking nectar from Seaside Goldenrod, Niles Pond causeway

The Niles Pond ecosystem not only supports myriad species of resident wildlife but also hundreds of species of migrating songbirds, waterbirds, raptors, and insects. Eastern Point is an important stopover and staging area for wildlife traveling the Atlantic flyway. Niles Pond provides essential freshwater while both the Pond and Brace Cove provide much needed sustenance. Berries, wildflower seeds, pond vegetation, and the zillions of invertebrates found at the Pond, in the seaweed, and at the shoreline support a wondrous array of travelers; a small sampling includes herons, Merlins, hawks, songbirds, Monarch butterflies, Bald Eagles, gulls and ducks and geese (rare and common), Snow Buntings, Plovers, Whimbrels, and many more.

Monarch Butterfly drinking nectar Smooth Asters Niles Pond

Juvenile Wood Stork

Why, even the wildly-rare-for-these-parts White Pelican and juvenile Wood Stork have stopped at Niles Pond to rest and to refuel!

To lose Niles Pond to some misguided notion that it needs to become a saltwater marsh would be tragic beyond measure. Our nation as a whole is losing its freshwater ponds at an alarming rate. Ponds are absolutely critical to the survival of local and migrating wildlife, especially large scale, healthy natural ponds that are located within the four US Flyway zones. Niles Pond has been a great pond for millennia. The accessibility of the fresh water ecosystem found at Niles Pond is part of the instinctual DNA of both resident and migrating wild creatures.

The Association of Eastern Point Residents has assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the causeway. In the future, the Association needs permission to bring riprap in to distribute at the weakest points of the causeway. Every time the topography of the causeway is redistributed to rebuild the corner where the greatest number of breaches are occurring, the vegetation from another part of the berm is disturbed. This is wholly counterproductive because it is in part preventing a natural succession of vegetation to permanently take hold.

Migrating yellow-rumped Warbler Niles Pond

Niles Pond is enjoyed by dog lovers, ice skaters, ice boat sailors, birders, painters, photographers, joggers, walkers, and more. We can all give thanks to the Association of Eastern Point Residents for the stellar job they are doing in maintaining the causeway. Their time and expense is a gift of the greatest kind to the entire community.

This narrowest of causeways plays the critical role in preventing a freshwater dedicated Massachusetts great pond from becoming a salty marsh or lagoon. Cherished greatly by residents and guests alike for the beautiful, peaceful walk it affords along the banks of the Pond, the preservation of Niles Pond benefits all of Cape Ann, her citizens and wildlife. 

With thanks to Karen Gorczyca, John McNiff, and Mike S. for sharing information about preserving the Niles Pond causeway.

American Bullfrog Niles Pond

Cattails Niles Pond

 

AUTUMN MEADOWHAWKS MATING AND IN-TANDEM

At this time of year, look for Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonflies at our local ponds, wetlands, slow moving streams, marshes, and woodlands. They emerge in mid-summer and are on the wing as late as through November. The males especially are easily spotted with their brilliant vermilion abdomens. Male Meadowhawks dart about chasing other males away from their territory.Autumn Meadowhawks copulating in the typical dragonfly “mating wheel” fashion. The male (vermilion abdomen) grasps the female behind her head while the female places the tip of her abdomen at the spot on his abdomen where he stores sperm.

Autumn Meadowhawks in-tandem

After mating, the female Autumn Meadowhawk oviposits (lays) her eggs in-tandem with the male. They stay attached while he repeatedly dips her in water and at the base of vegetation as she deposits her eggs. By staying joined together and flying in-tandem, he prevents other male Meadowhawks from replacing his sperm with their own.

These late season dragonflies are an important strand in our wetland ecology. Their tiny larvae provide food for ducks, fish, frogs, shorebirds, and wading birds, while migrating songbirds traveling through dine on the adults.

American Bullfrog patiently waiting for a dragonfly snack

Autumn Meadowhawks range map

 

MEET THE SNAZZY LEOPARD FROG!

Most often we see American Bullfrogs and Green Frogs at our local ponds. Imagine the joy when encountering the vibrantly patterned Leopard Frog, who was unsuccessfully trying to camouflage in the drought-dried grass along the pond’s edge.

Named for its cat-like spots, the Northern Leopard Frog’s dark spots are each surrounded by a pale halo. The overall body can be brown, green, and sometimes yellow-green. A Northern Leopard Frog may grow up to four and a half inches long on a diet rich in insects, spiders,  mollusks, and crustaceans. As opposed to vernal pools and ponds, Northern Leopard Frogs breed in permanent bodies of water including rivers, streams, ponds, pools, and wetlands.

Northern Leopard Frogs can be found throughout Massachusetts however, over the past thirty years, the species has suffered a dramatic decline in population throughout its range. Aquatic habitat loss and degradation, the introduction of non-native species, disease, pesticides, and climate change have all affected the Northern Leopard Frog adversely.

GARTER SNAKE EATING A BULLFROG

The American Bullfrog, both predator and prey

This month I am taking a short break from working on the Piping Plover feature documentary and am developing a film about the ecology of New England ponds. Frogs, in all their myriad incarnations, are keystone species, playing starring roles as both predator and prey.

American Bullfrogs are by far the most commonly seen. While filming and adventuring around local ponds with Charlotte we witnessed a dramatic scene where a Garter Snake snatched a Bullfrog from the road. As the snake was keeping his eyes on us, he was successfully dragging the frog into the cover of grass, simultaneously trying to devour the frog whole in one swallow. As you can see, the frog was enormous, compared to the mouth of the snake nonetheless, the snake was determined. We couldn’t continue to wait to see what took place but were convinced the snake was going to prevail and eventually swallow the frog.

Known predators of  American Bullfrogs include Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, snakes, raccoons, Belted Kingfishers, and turtles.

Little Blue Heron eating a froglet

As tadpoles, American Bullfrogs are herbivores that eat aquatic plants. As adults, ABullfrogs are carnivorous ambush predators who eat insects, birds, fish, snakes, baby turtles, bats, rodents; anything that fit into their wide mouths. They even eat each other! Bullfrogs wait patiently for prey to pass by and and then use their powerful back legs to pounce. American Bullfrogs are North America’s largest. Females are generally larger than males and can grow up to 8 inches.

 

Note the tail on the above Bullfrog froglet. Half tadpole, half frog, froglets are outgrowing their tadpole stage, but are not yet fully fledged frogs.

American Bullfrog

Green Frog 

An easy way to tell the difference between an American Bullfrog and a Green Frog is to look at the fold of skin behind the eyes. The ABfrog’s wraps around the very large eardrum (tympanic membrane). The Green Frog’s fold on either side runs along the length of the body.

GREAT BLUE SKIMMER

Charlotte and I have been spending time learning about the “web of life” at some of our local ponds. Ponds are instantly gratifying in showing a child what is an ecosystem. We have seen some AMAZING scenes lately, including a small snake trying to swallow whole a very large dead bullfrog. More on that when I have a few minutes to sort through the photos.

In the meantime, here is a lovely dragonfly we are seeing at every pond we have been to visit, a perching male Great Blue Skimmer. They are  a member of the Libellula family and one of the most commonly seen. Libellula skimmers are often referred to as King Skimmers because of their large size.

VOTE FOR RIVER OTTERS!

All living creatures need clean water, clean air, and safe habitat. The North American River Otter has made a remarkable comeback as a direct result of bipartisan clean water acts first written in 1948, and then rewritten in 1972. Stop the republicans from their continuous environmental rollbacks that will have a tremendously harmful impact on our water quality.

Vote the Blue Wave!

What is happening in this clip? Mom River Otter caught a frog. Rather than eating it herself, she set it on the log between her feet for her kit to find and eat.

Read More – The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.

Under the CWA, EPA has implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. EPA has also developed national water quality criteria recommendations for pollutants in surface waters.

The CWA made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained.

In June 2020, EPA director Andrew Wheeler eliminated states’ and tribes’ rights to halt projects that risk hurting their water quality by rolling back a section of the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, counters:

Enforcing state and federal laws is essential to protecting critical lakes, streams, and wetlands from harmful pollutants and other threats. But the Trump administration’s rule guts states’ and tribes’ authority to safeguard their waters, allowing it to ram through pipelines and other projects that can decimate vital water resources.

This is a dangerous mistake. It makes a mockery of this EPA’s claimed respect for ‘cooperative federalism.’

This action undermines how our foundational environmental laws work. The federal government should be setting baseline standards, while states apply and enhance them to the benefit of their unique natural resources and residents.

LITTLE BLUE HERON CAPTURES A MYSTERY CREATURE?

This morning while observing a juvenile Little Blue Heron fishing he captured a small pond creature, but then spit it out almost immediately. No wonder, it is so odd looking. Can anyone help ID? Thank you!

Ready for take off

Skipping logs

BEAVER, BEAVER, LILY PAD EATER

Although I’ve written about this Beaver family previously, I have never been close enough to catch a photo of a Beaver’s teeth but here you can see, they really are that famously orange color!

This hungry fellow was near enough to the pond’s edge that I could see him energetically and two-fistedly stuffing his face nonstop with lily pads. I had read they roll them like enchiladas, but not this lily pad eater, he was just shoveling them in as if there were no tomorrow.

Did you ever wonder how Beavers can chew through trees?

The teeth of Beavers, like all rodents, grow constantly however, Beavers have evolved with orange teeth. Other rodents have magnesium in their teeth whereas beavers have iron. The iron makes the teeth very strong, colors the teeth, and makes their teeth more resistant to acid.

In the warmer months, Beavers devour lily plants; the flowers, the roots, the seed capsules, and as you can see here, the leaves.

Beaver food and frog hideout – Native fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata)

Frances Backhouse writes in her book,  Once They Were Hats, about the relationship between beavers and water lilies.

“Every year in late summer, the beavers devoured the seed capsules [of water lilies], digested their soft outer rinds and excreted the ripe undamaged seeds into the lake. Meanwhile, as they dredged mud from the botom of the lake for their construction projects, they were unintentionally preparing the seed bed. Seeing the lilies reminded me that beavers also inadvertantly propagate willows and certain other woody plants. When beavers imbed uneaten sticks into dams or lodges or leave them lying on moist soil, the cuttings sometimes sprout roots and grow”.

Waterlies in the Moonlight

 

 

WREN OF THE WOODLAND

Flying in to the distinct squarish hole, then flying out to perch at the top of the old tree, then off to find insects for her brood, and then back again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This mama wren was tirelessly feeding her hungry family, returning dozens and dozens of times with a mouth full insects in the very brief time I stopped to look.

I’m not sure exactly what species this is–she has a short tail like Winter Wren and is nesting in a tree cavity, near fresh water, which is common for Winter Wrens. Her tail is too long to be a House Wren. If any of our readers know for sure, please write. Thank you 🙂

Attention!

The always animated Snowy Egret

OTTER KIT STEALS FROG FROM OTTER MOM?

Mother Otters burrow near to, and within, North American Beaver lodges, to give birth and to raise their young. The den will often have many entrances and exits. The mother raises her young alone. At about five weeks old the newborns will begin playing. At two months, the kits (also called pups) coat has grown in and she introduces them to water. At nine weeks they begin to eat solid food and are weaned by twelve weeks.

North American River Otter Kit

The family bond is beautiful to watch and the young River Otters are utterly adorable in their playfulness. Just some of the familial behaviors that have been so wonderful to observe–otters grooming each other, snuggling under Mom (and playfully biting her tail), siblings wrestling each other, and all taking a morning nap together.

One of the most interesting moments was observing what happened one morning after the mother caught a frog. At first look it appeared as though the kit was stealing the frog from her, but after examining the footage, she caught the frog and deliberately incapacitated it, although she did not eat. She was holding the frog for her young otter to come and catch it from her.

An Otter’s whiskers are extra sensitive; the long whiskers have evolved to aid in hunting underwater. NA River otters are near-sighted, possibly as a result of underwater hunting.

A family of otters is called a “romp.”

Cape Ann’s growing Otter population is a clear sign that our waterways are in good health. North American River Otters are very sensitive to dirty water. Clean water, along with the expanded range of the North American Beavers, has helped create a welcoming habitat for River Otters to dwell and to breed.

Mom continually checks the landscape for pending danger. At the slightest hint of disturbance, underwater they all go. A NA River Otter can last up to four minutes underwater.

A FINE FROGGY LUNCH FOR A LITTLE BLUE HERON

First hatch year Little Blue Heron eating an American Bullfrog

Why is this not so little white heron called a Little Blue Heron? Compared to a Great Blue Heron, it is relatively smaller. As to the entirely white plumage, this is a first hatch year Little Blue in its white phase. In the second spring and summer, the white feathers will gradually be replaced by beautiful slate blue feathers, giving the bird a temporary and unique calico appearance.

Little Blue herons are closely related to Snowy Egrets and the white immature morphs feed alongside the Snowys. You can tell them apart easily not only by bill and feet, but by their feeding habits. Snowy Egrets forage with a great deal of flourish, agitating the water with their feet, and vigorously fluttering, flapping, and flying along the shoreline. Little Blue Herons are stealth hunters, moving with slow deliberation before executing an exacting capture.

An Otterly Delicious Breakfast!

The North American River Otter is making an amazing comeback, not just on Cape Ann and all around Massachusetts, but in many regions throughout the United States. River Otters need unpolluted wetlands, streams, rivers, and ponds to survive, along with secluded places to den. Hollows in the banks of ponds and rivers make excellent dens and so do former Beaver lodges. As the perpetually-lodge-building Beaver has returned, so has the North American River Otter.

River Otters also need plenty of prey. Locally, they eat fish, frogs, snakes, and EELS!

This summer over in West Gloucester there appeared to be two Otter families, one mama with three pups and another mama with four pups. After watching the romp of Otters eat tadpoles and frogs early in the summer, by midsummer they had graduated to American Eels. I at first could not figure out what they were doing skirmishing around in the tall grass at the pond bank. Compared to diving and resurfacing with a mouthful of frog, this was entirely new behavior. There was much excited chortling when one of the pups caught an eel, which then seemed to set off a chain of eel ambushing and eating. One morning I had the great fun of observing three otter siblings chomping down on an otterly delicious breakfast!

First one pup catches an eel and brings it to the old wooden perch, which is also the otters favorite place to play hide and seek with each other.

Then the second pup, and soon all three were chowing down on eels!

The first one was getting jostled by his siblings and sought out more private room in which to dine.

American Eels can grow up to five feet long and weigh as much as 16 pounds. These Eels were about three to four feet long. American Eels spend most of their lives in freshwater and only return to saltwater to spawn and then die.

The pups deftly use their feet to hold fast the slippery eel.

Photographed on a different day, I think this pup is eating a snake. Notice the tapering tail in the above photo.

Why is clean water so vital to the survival of River Otters? Pesticides, industrial pollution run off such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and mercury are absorbed by the River Otters prey. The chemicals accumulate in the River Otters, causing illness and death.

It’s a Frog’s World!

Upcoming film projects and studying the life story of our beloved Mr. Swan led to learning more about the life story of many creatures found at our local ponds. Frogs in all their myriad incarnations I soon discovered were the keystone species, playing starring roles as both predator and prey. American Bullfrogs are by far the most common, but I also filmed Green Frogs and Wood Frogs. I shot hundred (perhaps thousands) of photos of frogs, and hours of footage too, and have only begun to organize, but here is a small sampling.

American Bullfrog Snatching a Bee Mid-air

Young Bullfrogs lay in wait for bees and other insects drinking nectar from the pond lilies. They’ll sit stone still for half an hour and in some cases, even much longer, for the perfect moment. The smallest Bullfrog can leap several feet across the water and lily pads to snatch an insect mid-air.

Waiting for a Bee-breakfast.

Half tadpole, half frog, froglets are outgrowing their tadpole stage, but are not yet fully fledged frogs.

When the hunter is hunted. Birds and otters feast on tadpoles, frogs, and froglets. Larger Bullfrogs are cannibalistic and eat smaller versions of themselves. First hatch-year Little Blue Herons (pictured) eating a frog in the above photo and a froglet in the photo below.

More about pond life coming soon!

Prince Charming

If you would like to help towards the completion of my documentary film Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly, filmed in the wilds of Cape Ann and Angangueo, Mexico, please consider making a tax deductible donation here:

DONATE HERE

Donors contributing over $5,000. will be listed in the credits as a film producer.

For more information, visit the film’s website here: Monarch Butterfly Film

For an overview of the film’s budget, please go here: Budget

Thank you so very much for your help.

With gratitude,

Kim Smith