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Walking on the wild side…

Last month, I gave you a peek at the trails of Wellesley Island State Park  (WISP). This month, I want to take you by my favorite part of the park. The pond. Even I’m surprised that the pond is my favorite part. Ten years ago, I probably would have said it was the Narrows Trail, or the potholes or maybe the overlook of Eel Bay on the highest point of the WISP peninsula.

By comparison, the pond is rather sedate. The trail that circles the pond is flat, not much of a challenge, except in spring when flooding sometimes makes the walk muddy. And the view is pastoral by comparison. But no matter what set of trails I take on any given day, I make sure my walk takes me by the pond, because the pond is where I’m mostly likely to see wildlife.

Usually, as I approach, I will see a heron take wing and silently glide over the still waters of the pond. If not a heron, a kingfisher will announce my presence to the creatures of the pond with his rattling, machine-gun call.

The pond is not a natural feature to Wellesley Island Sate Park (WISP). I’m not sure when it was built. I only know that it’s been around as long as I’ve been walking on Wellesley. Not that there aren’t four legged engineers in the park perfectly capable of putting in ponds. There are lots of beavers in the area. I’ve seen their handy work through the years. In the fall of 2008, every time I took the East Trail there was another tree or sometimes two down, blocking the trail that I’d have to climb over or around.

Years ago the East Trail was a boarded walkway through a beaver swamp. Very eerie. But the fluctuating water levels and winter ice rendered the walkway useless and the trail was rerouted to the south over a pretty rock ridge, rife with moss and the scent of pines.

Beaver sightings are usually at dawn or dusk. I usually see them in South Bay or off our north rock on Grenell. Although, I did see a beaver in the center of the pond one time. I was walking across the east end and heard a huge kerplunk…like someone had dropped a bowling ball from the sky and into the pond. I saw nothing at first, but ringlets. Seconds later, the beaver resurfaced and I watched him swim a short distance before he surfaced, slapped his tail hard on the water, then dove again with a kerplunk.  He repeated this maneuver again and again. I’ve read that beavers slap their tails as an alarm, but I’ve also read that they slap their tail sometimes when they are playing. So I’m not sure if he was trying to scare me away, warn others that I was there or just saying howdy.

That was the only time I saw a beaver at the pond. There is pile of sticks that looks like a beaver lodge to my untrained eye on the north side of the pond. One day I sat on the bench and witnessed lots of baby creatures swimming in the water. I thought they were young beavers at first since they were near what I thought was a beaver lodge, but soon discovered they were baby muskrats. (Rat-like tails instead of broad and flat tails) According to my guidebook, the average muskrat litter size is usually between 4 to 8 kits. Maybe they were having a play date, because I counted 11 young muskrats in the water. Their fur was a bright honey brown, much lighter than the adult muskrats I’ve seen. They were swimming willy-nilly, this way and that, diving and frolicking. I wondered if that was the first outing for the little guys.

Muskrat lodges are usually made of vegetation like cattails and not branches. So I’m unsure who built it, but my gut feeling is that the lodge in the WISP pond is occupied by muskrats not beavers.

The last two springs there’s been a goose family raising their brood on the pond. I was going to say the pond is nice quiet spot to raise a family, but not in the spring. While the pond is devoid of boat traffic of any kind, it’s far from quiet in the spring. The pond vibrates with the sound of frogs, green frogs and leopard frogs I think. The place is hoppin’ with them. Some days, every step I take sends frogs flinging in every direction.

As the season winds on, the turtles appear sunning themselves on logs. It’s hard to sneak up on them. The slightest movement sends them slipping off the log, into the water with a plop and out of sight. My advice is when you approach the pond, do so slowly and quietly. I’ve also seen snapping turtles on the trail near the pond, tiny newborns to a behemoth that measured five feet long from the tip of his tail to his snout!

By mid-summer the frog calls are replaced by buzzing. Wildflowers ring the pond. They attract bees and bugs galore. There are so many types of dragonflies and damselflies. And while you can see plenty of butterflies in the Butterfly House, there are also a wide array of butterflies by the pond.

By late autumn, the geese family is long gone. The wildflowers are now brown and withered and the buzzing of bees as been replaced by the hum of locust and the chirping of crickets.  The population seems to be declining: no frogs, fewer turtles, and the kingfishers have headed south. Only the muskrats remain.

I’ve read that sometimes as many as twelve muskrats huddle together in a lodge during the winter. I wonder how many are in the WISP pond lodge right now. Muskrats don’t store food for the winter. They spend lots of time sleeping in their dens, but must venture out on mild winter days in search of food. Sorta sounds like my winters when I lived in winter climes, sans cable TV, of course.

Last fall, the staff was plowing up a meadow near the pond to plant several varieties of clover in the hopes of attracting even more wildlife to the pond area. In the spring the WISP staff will be constructing a viewing station that will overlook the new clover meadow. I look forward to even more wildlife encounters on my daily walks on Wellesley.

[Photographs © 2010 Lynn McElfresh. Click to Enlarge]

 Painted turtle. Photo © Lynn E. McElfresh A leopard frog. Photo © Lynn E. McElfresh Muskrat. Photo © Lynn E. McElfresh
Painted turtle. A leopard frog. Muskrat.
Green Frog. Photo © Lynn E. McElfresh PIX #15 A young porcupine pond-side. Photo © Lynn E. McElfresh
Green frog. To me they sound like a big rubber band guitar. Tiger Swallowtail. A young porcupine pond-side.

By Lynn E. McElfresh

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life often writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. Last month and again this month Lynn takes us on a walk on Wellesley Island at WISP, Wellesley Island State Park.  Not only is Lynn an accomplished writer, but she also takes her camera along on excursions.  This is her third article for the 2011 season as the McElfresh family have left the river and now reside in their winter quarters in Dunedin. Florida.   To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.  Lynn’s bio was profiled in August 2009.

Posted in: Nature
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Thomas Walsh
Comment by: Thomas Walsh ( )
Left at: 9:00 PM Sunday, March 20, 2011
great photos, Lynn