Have you visited Willow Pond yet? You’ve probably noticed this new Arboretum site on your drive in (down to the left, just before you reach the parking area), but you might not have ventured down the hill to check it out for yourself. The pond has actually been here since the Arboretum’s initial construction, but over the last couple of years it has been totally redesigned for use as an outdoor exhibit and classroom. Around the expanded pond, there are now paths to walk along, a footbridge beloved by children and stone steps for standing at the pond’s edge, as well as the beautiful Harley Pavilion, which provides shade during the heat of the day. Our horticulture team has also planted a variety of native plants around Willow Pond, many of which are currently in bloom. As I write this in early June, foxglove beardtongue, lanceleaf coreopsis, blue flag iris, pickerel weed and softstem bullrushes are all flowering beautifully in the Willow Pond landscape.

Showing off a red-spotted newt during a recent Adult Education course. (Photo Credit: Ken McCullough)
Adult learners down at Willow Pond. (Photo Credit: Ken McCullough)

Learning by the Water

This year, our education department has expanded its use of Willow Pond as an outdoor classroom through adult education classes, our Outdoor Adventure Kids program, the occasional weekend popup — and now — summer camps! One of the advantages of teaching down by the pond is that guests can learn about the many creatures who live there through direct observation. We invite guests to sit or stand on the stone steps by the water to see what creatures they can spot, remembering that some fly, some swim in the pond and some hang out around its edges. Often, our educators will use nets to dip waterbugs or amphibians out of the pond, and then we will ask guests what they notice about these organisms, helping them safely identify what we’ve found together.

A collage featuring some of the organisms we’ve found at Willow Pond whose lifecycles depend on pools of water like these.

Lifecycles on Full Display

A young boy observing dragonfly nymphs up close. (Photo Credit: Julie Thomson)

There’s so much to see at Willow Pond, and every day is different. Everything from the time of day to the weather and season can affect what wildlife is active and visible — and in what stage of its lifecycle we encounter it! This spring, we have enjoyed seeing frogs metamorphose practically in front of our eyes, from eggs to tadpoles to froglets with front and back legs. Visitors have been astounded at the large size of the bullfrog tadpoles, which will spend up to two years as big, wiggly larvae before their final transformation. We have also found various species of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, who may live in Willow pond for up to six years before hatching into their more recognizable, flying adult stage. Both of these nymphs are aquatic macroinvertebrates that live amidst the many other waterbugs in Willow Pond, along with other creatures like the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)!

A Mole Salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) netted from Willow Pond. (Photo Credit: Julie Thomson)

The superstar species of Willow Pond is the mole salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum). In North Carolina alone, there are over 60 species of salamanders, but the mole salamander is a species of special concern that is only found in specific sites — one of those being Willow Pond. Mole salamanders lay their eggs in the pond, which hatch into larvae with identifiable gills projecting from their heads. While many mole salamanders grow up and leave the shallows for the forest, there are some that stay in what’s called a neotenic stage — a perennial teenager — in the pond. Both the adult and neotenic salamanders lay eggs in the pond during the winter, and the cycle begins again. Our education department continues to monitor the mole salamanders at Willow Pond with guidance from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Explore for Yourself

Willow Pond is a delight for explorers of all ages, and you can help us document all of the cool biodiversity down by the pond on your next visit. Families with children ages K-8 are invited to join ecoEXPLORE, a free program for all residents of North Carolina that allows young scientists to upload pictures of the organisms they find at Willow Pond (or anywhere in the world) to help out scientists. Children can earn seasonal patches, as well as points to redeem for scientific tools. And since Willow Pond is an ecoEXPLORE HotSpot, ecoEXPLORERS can earn a bonus point by posting a picture taken at the pond! For more information, visit the ecoEXPLORE website. We haven’t forgotten about community scientists over age 13, either: You’re invited to add your photos to our Explore the NC Arboretum project on iNaturalist!

Stay tuned for more upcoming programs and special events down at Willow Pond, including a new Willow Pond Track Trail guide that will be available for children later this summer. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing all of the amazing organisms you observe at Willow Pond through ecoEXPLORE and iNaturalist. See you down by the pond!

Julie Thomson is an Environmental Educator and Naturalist at The North Carolina Arboretum.