Living in Eugene, Oregon, I frequently visit our city’s star wildlife area, the Delta Ponds wetlands. Until recently, these ponds close to the Willamette River were known mainly for their stagnant pools and massive blackberry thickets. Human activity over the past several decades reduced or halted water flow and most of the native habitat and wildlife had vanished.
Over the past ten years, an extraordinarily successful wetlands restoration project has renewed water flow between the river and the ponds, replaced a vast amount of invasive vegetation with native plantings, and carried out other habitat enhancements.
Delta Ponds is now rich in wildlife, including, for the first time in sixty years, Chinook salmon fingerlings taking refuge in quiet water during their long journey to the Pacific Ocean. Visitors sight osprey, bald eagle, egret, and many other resident and migratory birds. River otter and muskrat have been spotted, and the western pond turtle, a state sensitive species, is often seen basking on logs.
For me the headliner is the beaver, the species that many biologists believe is most strongly linked to wetlands health due to its impact on water quality and overall habitat. Said to be second only to the human in its ability to alter the environment, this animal is Delta Ponds’ own Corps of Engineers and go-to animal rolled into one.
If you visit the wetlands, look for the dams, pond-bank lodges, felled trees, and stripped bark that show the beaver’s presence. The hours of dusk or very early morning are your best bet to see the creature itself. But be careful not to mistake the detested nutria for a beaver or you’ll never hear the end of it. Trust me on this.
Although a nutria is generally less than half the weight of a beaver, and the two creatures have many other differences in appearance and behavior, the truth is that in dark water it can be tricky to tell them apart. The key is to focus on the tail. One good glimpse of the tail (nutria’s are rat-like, while the beaver’s is paddle-like) and you can make the call with no worries.
Nutria were brought from South America to Oregon and several other states decades ago to raise for fur. In its native terrain, this mammal is held in check by natural predators and occupies a niche in nature’s complex scheme. Now, descendants of imported nutria have invaded many of our area’s wet and brushy places, including Delta Ponds. The species reproduces rapidly, damages and consumes vegetation, and fouls the water. In addition, people really dislike that rat-like tail.
Recently, I made a trip to Delta Ponds at dusk to try to spot a beaver, ignore any nutria, and savor a late summer evening. Other people ambled past me on the trail or stopped to watch a great blue heron that was standing motionless in shallow water. The popularity of the area is evidence of how much it is enjoyed and appreciated. There are locals and visitors from around the Northwest and beyond, parents with kids, teachers with students, senior groups, and friends out for exercise. Volunteers clearing invasive vegetation and tending new native plantings. People painting, fishing, taking photographs, birding, walking, running, and just sitting quietly.
On that beautiful, balmy evening I had the luck to spot a large, sleek, dark brown beaver on the bank of a pond. Making its way down to the edge, it disappeared into the water but popped its head above the surface about fifty feet away. I asked the family standing a short distance from me if they saw it. No, the two little boys said, but we saw nutria and we’ve never gotten to see them before. For a second I considered clueing them in, but fortunately I thought the better of it and decided that in some situations it is much better to keep quiet.
Visiting Delta Ponds
To get directions to the ponds, or to learn the history of this ongoing wetlands restoration project, go to www.eugene-or.gov/parks and select Parks and Natural Areas, Delta Ponds. The area has level walking trails, parking, and year-round access. Informational reader boards are located at key viewing spots. There is no fee to visit Delta Ponds, and it is open every day from 6:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m.