Beaver Caper

Our interest was piqued a couple of weeks ago and we promised each other we’d return to learn more–thus today was the day that Alanna Doughty, education director of Lakes Environmental Association, and I ventured to the Muddy River at Holt Pond Preserve.

Crossing the Emerald Field at the corner of Grist Mill and Chaplins Mill Roads, we found our way to the trail, passed into the woods and immediately noticed some fresh works created by Castor canadensis.

Please take note of the small portion of a sapling trunk in the bottom of this photo, for I promise that you’ll see it again. And again. And . . .

But in the meantime, we slipped, slid, and postholed our way to the brook, and noted where water flowed over an old dam so it was obvious this wasn’t the spot to which the beavers had dragged their sawn logs.

Also notice the “Posted” signs on the trees. Can beavers read? It did seem that they stayed away from the far shore. Maybe they can read 😉

We looked upstream, but decided to turn around and follow the river down, ever curious about what we might find.

First, however, we did pause to admire the ice sculptures where the water rushed and gurgled and bubbled over the old dam. Soon, these will be a thing of the past and we’ll miss their varied forms frozen in time only momentarily.

And then, as we started to walk south, the foamy water drew our attention.

Where Alanna saw frozen froth of rootbeer floats . . .

I saw mini ice discs in their final form.

And one that created a tree skirt with a lacy slip below.

Just beyond we spied the largest of all the sculptures and gave thanks for its existence. In our minds’ eyes we could see the upper part of the sculpture taking shape when the snow was deeper beside the brook. And the lowest part a more recent attempt of the chiseling artist.

The artwork was enhanced by the chips splayed about as if creating a textured pedestal for the display.

Just beyond that spot, we looked further south and scanned the shoreline, not noting any further work of the sculptor. The water didn’t seem particularly backed up so we figured there wasn’t a dam below. What did it all mean? We knew from our previous visit that there was more work north of our location, but had so hoped to find something new to the south.

The only thing visible, a few old beaver stumps such as this one. Given that, we did a 180˚ turn and made our way north.

First, however, we had to walk through the water and gave thanks for our boots, before passing “the” tree one more time.

Alanna, being much younger and far more agile than me, was kind enough to lead and wait, lead and wait. And because she was ahead, she went shopping when I wasn’t looking. I don’t remember what we were talking about when it suddenly occurred to me that she held a piece of the sapling trunk we’d spied earlier. This is a woman who loves to laugh and so she did when I commented on the specimen tucked under her arm.

Notice how snug she held it as she walked with intention across one of the stream bridges.

We walked for another bit before we found more beaver works, including a cache of debarked twigs–beaver chews. They seemed so fresh, and some were actually green, that we got to thinking. Winter food stash? We know that in the fall they gather saplings and branches, anchor them in the mud and when the ice covers the river, they slip out of the underwater tunnel in their lodge and chew off a stick from the stockpile to bring into the feeding compartment for a meal, thus keeping themselves safe from winter predators. But . . . these weren’t near a lodge and seemed like the result of a fresh logging operation and so we wondered, did they have a new lodge in mind? Are they planning to build a new dam?

We also had to wonder about their debarkation–so smooth were the sticks.

As we continued on, our nature distraction disorder kicked in periodically, as it should, and we rejoiced in the sight of buds on Trailing Arbutus, aka Mayflower.

But still, it was more beaver works that kept calling our names and we tried to pay homage to all of them.

The last fresh one we saw was on a beech and we knew by the height that the cuts had been made when the snow was deeper. So . . . were the beavers still around?

Oh, wait. While we wondered, Alanna also had deer scat to collect.

And just beyond that–weasel scat found its way into her bag.

And then a winter firefly crossed our path as seems to happen frequently of late.

Onward we continued for we wanted to check on a couple of lodges we knew existed. Do you notice that the art work remained tucked safely under her arm?

For a little bit our trail took us away from the Muddy River, but when we returned to it, we focused on old beaver works–a fallen tree and a girdled hemlock. That got us thinking about the fact that they do girdle trees–often, in our experience, it’s hemlocks that they seem to debark in a band that encircles the tree, thus killing it. These they don’t drop to use for building or feeding. So why go to all that effort? We’ve heard different theories, including that once the tree dies, a species more to their liking will grow? True? Maybe.

We continued to look for more recent works, but found none. Until . . . we spotted some brown snow.

Leaves and river muck had been pulled up and distributed over the snowy surface beside the water. We stepped closer and saw footprints that were indecipherable, but knew by the pile of gunk that we’d discovered the makings of a beaver scent mound. Had the two-year-olds left the lodge and set out to claim their own territory? We suspected such.

Atop it all, we noted where a scent mark had been left behind. Of course, we both had to get down on all fours and sniff. I thought it smelled a bit like wintergreen, perhaps an indication of a meal consumed. Most often it smells more vanilla in nature. We found the starts of another scent mound a bit further along that emitted a muskier scent and we thought of the beaver marking its territory with castoreum.

Oh, and then there was some more scat to collect for Alanna spied the round nuggets or malt balls of a snowshoe hare.

At last we reached the board walk that leads back out to the Muddy River, some of it under water and again we gave thanks for our boots–hers Boggs and mine Mucks. Both perfect for our adventure.

From the board walk we could see the twin lodges on the river, but neither had any fresh logs atop and so we still didn’t know from whence the beavers came. It appeared they hadn’t used the old lodges, but we never found any new ones. Or a dam. But the scent mounds were super fresh. And so, we concluded that we’ll have to revisit the area either early in the morning or later in the day in hopes of spying the industrious builders in action.

In the meantime, we left with new findings, new questions, and for Alanna, some new scat and new beaver works–the one tucked under her arm a reminder of our Beaver Caper.

“A Perpetual Astonishment”

It was actually still winter when I joined Lakes Environmental Association’s Education Director Alanna Doughty and LEA member Betty for a “Welcome Spring” snowshoe hike at Holt Pond Preserve this afternoon–but really, for western Maine, it was a delightful spring day.

Our hearts smiled as our journey began beside a clump of pussy willow shrubs, so named for their resemblance to tiny cats’ paws. Actually, the white nubs are flowers pre-bloom. Their soft, silvery coating of hairs provides insulation thus protecting these early bloomers from cold temperatures.

That being said, they aren’t protected from everything and if you look, you may see pineapples growing on some. Those pinecone-like structures were created with leaves by a reaction to a chemical released by the larva that allows a gall gnat midge to overwinter on the willows. It’s a crazy world and everything seems to have its place.

Hanging out with the pussy willows were speckled alders, some with protrusions extending from last year’s cones. It was almost like they had tried to flower. In reality, they were alder tongue galls–resulting from a fungus rather than an insect infecting the female catkins. Apparently, the tongue-like growths are green to begin, but transform to orange, red and finally brown. I’ve yet to see it in its early form but time will tell.

We passed a spider walking across the snow and then came upon another member of the lilliputian world–a winter stonefly on the move. How they and the spiders survive the cold and snow is dependent upon special compounds including glycerol, proteins, and sugars that act like antifreeze. By its presence, we knew we were approaching a fast-moving stream.

More evidence of the stream’s presence became immediately apparent when we moved from the field to woods and immediately spied a sign of beaver works.

Stepping down beside the Muddy River, we began to see beaver tree after beaver tree. Each a most recent work.

Alanna stood upon an old dam, but though it was obvious they’d crossed over it by the well traveled trail of tracks, repair work was not yet part of the scheme for the water flowed forth.

We stood there for a few minutes and tried to understand what they had in mind, when one in our group spied the beaver chews in the water–their snack of choice.

We wondered if they were active downstream or up, and decided to follow the trail north.

A few minutes later, we came upon another trail well-traveled and knew that they’d been working in the vicinity.

In the brook, covered with spring ice, which features a different texture than the frozen structures of winter, was a small tree.

And then our eyes followed the beavers’ tracks back and we saw from whence it had been sawn.


And dragged through the snow. In our minds’ eyes we appreciated their efforts.

Still, we didn’t know what the beavers were up to, so we moved on in hopes of learning more about their activities. All the while, there were other things to notice, like the orange brain fungus growing on the inside of a stump. We weren’t the only ones to appreciate it for snowfleas, aka spring tails, also searched the surface.


Since we were beside the river, it might have made sense that we checked out the beaver works via canoe, but . . . the snow is slowly melting and it will be a while before we need to bring our own paddles, personal flotation devices and duct tape (just in case the canoe springs a leak).

From the boat launch we followed the secret trail and made our way out to the red maple swamp.

In a sunny spot we spied a swab of earth–a taste of what is to come. And the ever delightful wintergreen offering the first shade of spring green with a dash of spring pink.

Slowly we made our way back out to the Muddy River, where we stood and looked across at two beaver lodges on the other side. We didn’t dare cross, but from where we stood, it appeared that the lodges may be active given that we could see the vents at the top. It also appeared that they’d been visited, though we weren’t sure if the tracks were created by predators. Was this where the beavers who had been so active downstream were living? Or were these the homes of their parents? Were the new beaver works those of the two year olds who had recently been sent out into the world to make their own way? Our brains wondered and wondered?

We weren’t sure, but with questions in our mind, we moved on toward Holt Pond.

There were other things to see as we walked across the wetland, including the woody structures of maleberry capsules and their bright red buds.

Rhodora, that delightful pink beauty showed us that she’s waiting in wings.

As we made our way back, more wood chips on the ground indicated that a carver of another type had been at work–of the bird type rather than rodent.

To identify it, we looked not only at the shape of the chiseled structure, but also the scat we found among the chips.

Because it was filled with the body parts of carpenter ants and we knew its creator’s name–pileated woodpecker.

And then we found an insect of another type. Why was a hickory tussock caterpillar frozen to a twig? Was it shed skin from last fall? How did the structure last throughout the winter? We left with questions, but gave thanks for the opportunity Alanna provided to share the afternoon wandering and exploring and thinking and looking forward–to spring.

In the midst of our wandering, we did discover a fairy house and suspect that tonight some wild dance moves are on display under the Super Equinox Worm Moon.

“Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.”

British Author Edith Mary Pargeter, also known by her nom de plume, Ellis Peters (1913-1995)

Forest in a Bottle

When Pam and I stepped into the woods this morning, I don’t think either one of us understood the enormity of the task before us. You see, our job was to gather all the pieces of the forest through which we’d pass.

And so we began by collecting a recent beaver masterpiece with fresh wood chips below.

There was a beaver sculpture as well, those tooth grooves deep and distinctive.

And their tracks, which all emerged from a recently frozen-over hole. The tracks were a few days old, but we added them to our findings just the same.

Because we were in beaver territory, to our delight we found otter tracks and slides galore–many of them fresh.

There was even an otter hole that we wondered if the beavers had used as well. We decided we might as well throw it in to our bag.

And we couldn’t resist our favorite otter activity of all–the spot where the infamous slider slid.

Following the trail to a different part of the forest, we spotted a diptera pupa that gave us pause for quite a while as we admired its structure and the perfectly formed circle where the fly had chewed its way out. We were so in awe that it seemed only obvious we would want to include it in the collection.

Further on, we reached a brook and spied a muskrat, that dark body in the center. As it turned out, it was a stone muskrat and we left it behind as we chuckled about our mistaken ID.

By the brook, we did, however, find mink prints in the dust of snow that had settled upon thin ice. Those were certainly worth capturing.

We also gathered more otter slides, and then stumbled upon an apparent otter roll, an area where the playful critter made a lot of fuss and left behind some urine and tarry-looking scat. We were sure we’d hit the jackpot.

Because we were beside running water, the icy baubles were not to be ignored.

Nor was the snow depth, which we determined to be close to four feet deep.

And then we marched onto a wetland, where we were stumped for quite a while about some mystery tracks. Should we take them or leave them, we wondered. The pattern indicated a perfect walker, as in a candid or feline, but the depth was deep and the toes threw us off.

The curious thing was that those tracks and others left behind by a mink and a fox led to a deep hole beside a tree.

I thought the frozen fluid within was blood, but Pam leaned more toward urine. One thing we knew for sure, if it was a kill site, there were no remains. Had the mammals been on the hunt to no avail? Take it or leave it–we put it in the same category as the mystery prints.

The mystery tracks also led to a beaver lodge and it appeared that the mystery track maker had tried to locate another meal. Given that there was no air vent at the top of the lodge, we doubted anyone was at home at the time of its visit, and so we left the lodge behind.

After standing in the middle of the wetland and eating our own lunches, we discovered a set of perfect red fox prints that we just had to include in our collection. The top print in this photo is actually the hind foot and the lower print is the front. Can you see the chevron in the foot pad?

There was another lodge we considered grabbing because the top of it appeared to possibly have a vent, but like the fox, we took a closer look and discovered that it, too, was abandoned so we left it behind.

Instead, we made our way off the wetland and back into the woods where a debarked hemlock tree stopped us in our tracks. Nuthatches and woodpeckers are known to scale trees–removing the outer bark to get at the insects underneath. Can you see the insect holes? And the cinnamon color of the inner bark? This one was a keeper, for sure.

Especially since a section where the inner bark had been removed revealed a polished layer like one might find on a table top.

There was also a huge snow-capped burl to pick.

And a small cross-section of the liverwort Frullania juxtaposed beside script lichen. Everyone should have a sample of those two.

Two old heron nests were well worth adding into the mix. They’d been used in the past until two years ago. If the herons do return to the rookery, we suspect they’ll build new structures so we didn’t feel so bad gathering these.

And then there was a pileated woodpecker hole that would have to represent all woodpecker holes in these woods. Before tossing it into the bag, Pam made sure that no other critter had set up housekeeping within.

Our final finding was one that made us think back to the mystery tracks. The more we studied these and later met the mystery tracks again and followed them for a while, the more we understood that not only did beavers, otters, foxes, deer, mink, and snowshoe hare romp in these woods, but so did coyotes.

The best thing about this coyote was that it made a coyote angel in the snow! We most definitely scooped that up.

For you see, our mission was to put it all together–in a glass jar. Haven’t you always wondered about the magic involved with placing a ship in a bottle? Well, today, we spent six hours amassing various items in the woods and then assembled them–creating a forest in a bottle. Can you see it?

For the Benefit of All

Living in an area where five land trusts protect land for us and the species with whom we share the Earth strikes me as a valuable reflection of who we are and where we live. Land trusts work with community members to acquire land for permanent conservation through purchases and donations. They also create legal and binding conservation easements that allow residents to protect land holdings in perpetuity, while retaining private ownership. Scenic views, wildlife corridors, flora and fauna, and topography remain, subject only to the whims of nature itself, which is ever-changing.

m1-first lodge

One of the biggest re-designers of the landscape is the beaver. And this afternoon, Jinny Mae and I ventured onto land owned by a friend and under conservation easement by the Greater Lovell Land Trust, to see what changes may have occurred in the past two months since we last visited.

First, we tramped off a logging road and checked on a lodge that was active two years ago. Today, the water level was low and there was no sign of activity. And so we continued on.

m2-pipsissewa

As we climbed up a small incline we stumbled upon a large patch of pipsissewa and had to celebrate our find.

m5-hexagonal pored fungi upperside

Back on the logging road, a tree brought down by one of nature’s recent whims introduced us to a fungi we had not met before–or at least as long as we could remember. And once we saw the underside, we were sure we would have remembered it.

m4-hexagonal-pored

Hexagonal-pored polypore (Polyporus alveolaris) caused us to emit at least six ohs and ahs.

m6-grape fern

Our next discovery–a grape fern. Actually, more than one grape fern once our eyes keyed in on them.

m7-checkered rattlesnake plantain

And then the checkered rattlesnake plantain; and again, once we spied one, we noticed that a whole patch shared the space. We just needed to focus for their presence was subtle amidst the brown leaves.

m8-bees nest 1

Before we met a snake of another kind, Jinny Mae spotted honey combs on the ground.

m8-excavation site

A look about and the realization that a raccoon or skunk had probably excavated the nest.

m9-snake liverwort

And then we met that other snake. You see, the last time we walked this property, we did see a garter snake. As we began our wander today, we commented that there would be no snakes or toads. But . . . we were wrong. This second snake was a snakeskin liverwort (Conocephalum salebrosum). For us, this was a second in another way for it was our second sighting of the species. Maybe now that we are aware of it, we’ll notice it growing in other places. We do know that its preferred habitat is wet or damp.

m10-umbilicate lichen?

In the same area, but across the brook in a place that we couldn’t reach today due to high water, we saw what looked like an umbilicate lichen, aka rock tripe. The color and substrate threw us off and so we’ll just have to visit again for further study. (“Oh drats!” they said with a smile.)

m11-beaver 1

The liverwort and mystery lichen were our turn-around point. On our way back, we decided to follow the water because we were curious. And within minutes our curiosity was appeased. The beavers we’d suspected might be casually active two months ago, had become incredibly active.

m12-beaver 2

Statue . . .

m13-beaver 3

upon statue . . .

m19-beaver 6

upon statue . . .

m20-beaver 7

upon statue announced their presence. And we acknowledged the fact that they have to turn their heads to scrape off the bark.

m14-beaver 4

Any trees that hadn’t been hauled away had been downed and gnawed upon in situ.

m15-beaver 5

It looked as if this one was a more recent dining adventure for there were wood chips upon the thin layer of ice and a hole showing were the diners had entered and exited the refectory.

m16-oak leaf and ice

Because of the ice, we noted other works of art worth admiring.

m18-lungwort 2

And occasionally, our downward gaze turned upward when we spied trees covered in lungwort worthy of notice.

m21-beaver 8

But really, it was the beaver works that we celebrated the most.

m23-beaver 10

And the fact that thanks to the beavers we learned that the inner bark or cambium layer of a red maple is . . . red.

m23a--not all cuts work in the beavers favor

No matter where we looked, in addition to recent windstorms, the beavers had changed the landscape. The curious thing is that most often the trees landed in the direction of the water, making it easier for them to enjoy their chews of inner bark and twigs in a relatively safe environment, but occasionally, hang ups occurred. And that brought about the question, how is it that most trees are felled toward the water? But not all?

m23a--lodge

While our focus was on the trees along the shoreline, we also kept admiring the water view as well.

m24-lodge

And noted the most recent activity at this particular beaver lodge, including a mud coating to insulate it for the winter.

m28-welcome flag on lodge

We also appreciated that a welcome sign blew in the breeze–in the form of an evergreen branch.

m29-otter scat

And where one finds water and beavers, there are otters. We knew of their presence by the scat left behind in a trail well traveled. Several times we found examples of the same.

m31-main channel open

As the sun lowered while we approached the beaver dam, we quietly hoped to see North America’s largest rodents at work, but settled for sky reflections on water and ice. And the knowledge that by their works and sign, we trusted they were present.

m32-dam1

At last we reached the dam, an expansive one at that. It’s in great shape and so no time had been wasted repairing it. That’s a good thing given that a few flurries floated earthward on this day that felt like winter. There’s food to gather and a home to prepare so work must be efficient.

m33-dam other side

Water trickled through in a few places and ice formed, but the infinity pool created by the dam continued to exist.

m34-brook

And below, the water flowed on–to other beaver dams and otter adventures we were sure. For Jinny Mae and me, our adventure needed to draw to a close. But . . . we made plans to explore again in a few months to see what changes may have occurred–with land owner permission, of course.

As we walked out, we gave thanks for the owners and their appreciation of the landscape and those that call it home today and tomorrow.

From the land comes food and water that benefits the critters who live here and us. It also offers us good health when we take the time to embrace it by exploring, exercising and just plain playing outdoors.

Protection is key. So is education, which develops understanding and appreciation. I know for myself, my relationship with the landscape continues to evolve.

I’m thankful for the work being done to protect the ecosystem. There’s so much I still don’t understand, but with each nugget of knowledge gained, the layers build. Maybe someday I’ll get it. Maybe I never will. Either way, I’m happy for the chance to journey and wonder on properties owned by land trusts and individuals.

Even though we can’t all endow the future of our properties, we can get involved to ensure that these organizations continue to protect land for future generations of humans and wildlife so it will remain in its natural state for the benefit of all.

 

Making a list

and checking it twice. That’s what the busy beavers on a friend’s property appear to be doing right now as they ready for winter.

When JoAnne asked if I wanted to see the recent beaver works, I jumped at the opportunity.

beaver pond 1

Today’s rain didn’t stop us from heading out to explore. She first discovered this new pond when she walked down a sloping field and noticed through the trees what looked like water–where it wasn’t supposed to be.
beaver creek 2

A creek flows through her neighbor’s property and once supported several mill sites.

beaver stream width

It continues, or should I say continued, across her property, coming in from the right. That is, until things changed.

beaver ribbons

This past summer, in the middle of what is now the pond, JoAnne stood beside the then creek and marked a property boundary with pink tape.

beaver ribbon 1a

The ribboned tree was on the far side of the creek before her new neighbors  came knocking.

At a former dam site, they took it upon themselves to do their own construction. It needs work as we could see some holes, but I’ve no doubt that they’ll be on that in no time.

  beaver works 6beaver works 4beaver works 2

Their industrious nature was evident everywhere we looked. No tree species was spared. Once felled, they trimmed the branches and carried or dragged them to the water.

beaver debark

With their large front teeth, beavers bite chips off trunks. Their rodent teeth never stop growing so gnawing wood helps keep them in check. Because their lips are located behind their teeth, they can keep their mouths closed while they work. No need to hum a logging tune.

beaver chews

Some trees are particularly tasty and it seems that they like more than just the bark and cambian layer, the softwood just beneath the bark. Or perhaps they are cutting them into log-size pieces to make for easier carrying and maneuvering in the water.

beaver shed

Nothing was safe, including the sapling that had grown beside the shed.

beaver industry

beaver works 3

Sometimes things don’t work out quite the way they intend.

beaver caught

The upper part catches on other trees. All that effort . . . for naught.

beaver works 5

We stood in awe and wondered about how nature plays tricks on them occasionally.

beaver height

We marveled at the thought of them standing on their hind feet to work.

beaver trail 2

And we noticed their oft-traveled roadways throughout the area.

beaver admiration

One of the truly curious things–most of the trees have fallen toward the water. Chance? Instinct? Engineering skills? They’ve learned how to fell a tree in that direction, thus creating the quickest route back to safety?

beaver lodge 2

The lodge is large. Accessible only via underwater entrances, the beaver family has protection from some predators. Outside, we could see part of their winter feed pile. We suspect there are more sticks below the water that will be available once the ice finally forms.

beaver statue 2

When all is said and done, statues like this will remain to remind JoAnne and others of these natural engineers and how they altered the land to create the water world they need for survival, which will ultimately benefit other wildlife.

As for their checklist:

*dam secure?

*lodge in good repair?

*food cut, moved and stored?

How about you? Have you made your list and checked it twice?