August 11, 2013

Kettle Ponds

For about 35 of my life's summers, I've been fortunate enough to spend at least a week on Cape Cod, first with my mom, dad and sister and later with Bill and our daughters. We stay at the same place we've always stayed--a small cottage on White Pond. The Cape has wonderful ocean beaches, excellent seafood, and fun shopping,  but I think that my favorite part of each visit is exploring the ponds surrounding our rented cottage. 

Cape Cod is basically a pile of sand that was left as the glacier retreated about 15,000 years ago. In addition to sand, it left gravel, rocks, and very large chunks of ice. As the ice chunks melted, holes remained that filled with groundwater and these are called kettle ponds. Over the intervening years, some have filled in to form bogs and some remain open ponds. Here is an aerial view of the ponds that we visit:

In most years the large pond, about  40 acres, is connected by a narrow channel to the one just to the west. That in turn is connected to the next pond by an even narrower channel. The small airport in the photo is separated from the ponds by a ridge of land so noise from it isn't very intrusive. You can also see the wonderful bike trail that runs along the airport property that leads to many points west and north. 

Many more homes surround these ponds now than in the 50s when I first started coming here. Thanks to stringent building controls and improved septic systems, the ponds seem nearly as clear and healthy as they were all those years ago. Large horsepower boat motors are prohibited now so there are no longer waterskiers, just the occasional boat with a fishing motor along with all sorts of more passive recreation:

My favorite way to explore the ponds is via kayak. I can get very close to the shore, making very little noise, and can easily go from pond to pond though the narrow channels.

The ponds are surrounded with all sorts of shrubs, including Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Most of the trees are Pitch Pines (Pinus rigida) and various types of oaks.The ponds support a nice variety of birds, including Baltimore Orioles, Great-crested Flycatchers, Black-capped Chickadees, Yellow Warblers, Catbirds, Northern Cardinals, chattering Belted Kingfishers, Eastern Kingbirds and many more. Last year I paddled within just about 6 feet of a Northern Bobwhite that was calling out in the open but of course I didn't have my camera with me. 

Observing all that goes on at the pond and waiting to spot an unsuspecting fish one afternoon was an Osprey:

I love to poke along the shore in the kayak, and this year there were lots of wildflowers to see that were new to us.  The water level of these kettle ponds varies from year to year, as does the shoreline vegetation. Last year was pretty dry, and often in a wet year after a dry year the growth is pretty lush. Particularly striking is the Plymouth Rose Gentian (Sabatia kennedyana), a relative of the lovely Rose Pink (Sabatia angularis)  that we have in Ohio. I had never seen this growing in such profusion before:

Here is a closeup of this lovely flower:

In many places the Plymouth Rose Gentian was accompanied by Rose Coreopsis (Coreopsis rosea), another plant that  thrives along wet, sandy shores:

One of my favorites is this little plant called Common Pipewort, or Hatpins (Eriocaulon aquaticum). I like the latter name a lot because it is so descriptive of this tiny white flower head on a straight, needle-like stalk. The leaves are a basal rosette under the water right on the sandy bottom:

Several different types of waterlilies grow in the ponds, sheltering fish such as Chain Pickerel, Yellow Perch and sunfish. These include the bright yellow blooms of Spatterdock (Nuphar advena)

and the lovely white Fragrant Waterlily (Nymphaea odorata):

Here is a really cool plant that I had never seen before--I think that doing this blog and getting more interested in botany has made me more observant! It is called Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea):

We have several bladderwort species in Ohio, but as far as I know they all have yellow flowers. The cool thing about bladderworts is that they are carnivorous! Small bladders on the mat of stems and leaves can open and close in a flash, to trap tiny insects and other prey. Enzymes in the bladderwort's tissues digest the prey, giving the plant the nutrients that it needs. Another interesting fact is that this plant has no roots--its stems and leaves just float near the surface of the water.

All this aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation supports a great assemblage of insects. On a sunny day I love looking at the frantic comings and goings of the dragonflies and damselflies. These insects spend most of their lives under the water, breathing with gills and eating tiny fish, insects and other animal prey. They emerge as adults for a fairly short time, long enough to mate and lay eggs in the  water, thus completing the cycle. Two of the biggest dragonflies, the Comet Darner (Anax longipes) and the Green Darner (Anax junipes), never sat still for photos, but I got some decent shots of some of the dragons and damsels, which can give readers an idea of the diversity of pond life. Here is the Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile), a common but exquisite damselfly:

Interestingly, it is perched on a stick bearing the larval exoskeleton that a damselfly has shed as it emerged as an adult. Here is a picture of mating familiar bluets, in their tandem wheel:

This is an Orange Bluet (Enallagma signatum), kind of a strange name but a beautiful critter:

This is a spreadwing damselfly called a Swamp Spreadwing (Lestes vigilax). Note how differently it holds its wings:

The dragonflies are much stronger fliers and are great fun to watch. Here are a few that we were able to photograph, beginning with one of the most common, the aptly named Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis):

Here is a Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina):

This is perhaps the most common, the Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera):

Those three are pretty common in Ohio ponds too, but here is one that was new to us. This is a Black-shouldered Spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus)--love these names--that our daughter snapped a photo of when it landed on the boat she was rowing:

Painted Turtles (Chrysemys pictawere quite common in the ponds' shallow areas:

We usually think of shellfish as marine animals, but there are many species of freshwater mussels, many of which are threatened or endangered for a variety of reasons (poaching, habitat loss, competition with zebra mussels). Freshwater mussels can move around, as opposed to their marine counterparts which are usually attached to solid substrates by strong byssus threads. Our ponds support a variety of mussel which makes sinuous tracks through the sand:

Here is what it looks like out of the water:

These in turn provide food for raccoons and other animals. I've also seen coyotes around the ponds.

So that is a bit of tour of a place that is near and dear to my heart, that has produced memories of wonderful times with family and which probably spawned much of my interest in the natural world. A sunny day, a kayak, and lots of time to explore--it doesn't get much better than that!