The Beaver’s Tale

Once upon a time . . . no wait. This isn’t a fairy tale.

Rather, it’s about changes in the landscape that one might observe, such as a brook suddenly overspilling its banks as was the case in this location upon a December visit. We’d had rain, but that much?

It wasn’t long before a friend and I spotted the reason for the high water. Some new residents had moved into the area and built a lodge of sticks. Unlike the story of the three little pigs, one of whom built a house of sticks that the big bad wolf came in and blew down, the makers of this structure took special care to make it solid and strong and weatherproof. Yes, a beaver or two or six had taken up residence with the intention of spending the winter. Beaver families usually consist of a monogamous couple, plus their two-year-old (almost adult) kids, and yearlings. Mating occurs in the water during the winter and kits are born inside the lodge in the spring.

In order to move into the lodge, a dam needed to be constructed as well. If you look closely, you’ll see that above it there was a bit of an infinity pool with the ice at level with the dam, while below it some water flowed at a much lower level. Though we couldn’t walk along the ice to measure the length of the dam, it was quite long. and made of sticks and leaves and mud. Typically, the family works on this project by creating a ridge of mud and probably the herbaceous plants of the meadow, and then they use the mud and sticks to stabilize it. Maintenance is a constant as water or other critters or humans have a way of breaching the dam.

We, too, build dams to serve similar purposes, such as this one originally constructed to operate a saw mill. Hmmm.

Getting back to the lodge: it also needs nightly work as long as conditions allow and this has been a winter of despair for those of us who love cold temperatures and snow and even ice if it’s in the right place, like on a pond or lake and not in the driveway.

Take a look at how the beaver is holding the small twig.

A beaver’s dental formula is this: 2 incisors on top, 2 incisors on bottom, 0 canines on top, 0 canines on bottom, 2 premolars on top, 2 premolars on bottom (that look like molars), 6 molars on top and 6 molars on bottom, for a total of 20 teeth. Recently, I was able to sketch the upper part of the skull of an older family member, who’d lost some of its molars.

These large, semi-aquatic rodents are gnawers like their relatives. To that end, their incisors are highly specialized for chewing through really, really tough things and they grow continually throughout the critter’s life.

And like all rodents, the front surface of their incisors is coated in enamel reinforced with iron (hence the orange color), which makes it resistant to wear and tear from gnawing. When the chisel-like teeth chew and fell trees, the much softer white dentine layer (the section behind the enamel) is ground down quicker than the enamel, thus creating a sharp chisel surface.

But to me the coolest aspect is that their lips close behind the incisors, thus permitting them to gnaw and carry sticks underwater without choking.

And bingo, you can see the stick being carried in that gap between the incisors and molars. Food sticks become lodge or dam sticks once their nutritional value has been consumed: a true plan of repurposing.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the only beaver family at work in town. This next family, however, chose to park their tree in a spot the fire department lay claim to for filling a water tank. But . . . reading is not on a beaver’s talent list.

In this other place, so many trees have been felled, but not all have fallen as intended, getting hung up on other trees instead. Not wanting to anthropomorphize, but I have to wonder what expletives flash through a beaver’s brain when trees don’t hit the ground as planned.

As strict herbivores, a beaver’s diet varies with changes in the season. During spring and summer, they are drawn to waterlilies, algae, grasses, sedges, herbs, ferns, shrub leaves and shoots. By late summer, however, tree cutting begins as they gradually change their dietary habits from herbaceous to woody materials. Twigs, roots, bark and especially inner bark become the source of nutrition. Aspen, birch, alder, and willow are favored species, but beavers will cut almost anything including conifers.

Imagine this. A beaver cocks its head to the side as it gnaws, thus the consistent angle of the half inch groove as the upper and lower incisors come together.

Likewise, porcupines gnaw, but their incisors are much narrower and the pattern more random.

So, the question remains. Where were the parking lot beavers living? In the past, a family has inhabited the northern most reaches of this pond, but in this case, they had built a lodge on a point not far from the southern end.

The top of the lodge is the only section not covered with mud, for it serves as a “smoke stack” of sorts, a place for beaver breath to escape. Visit a lodge on a cold winter day and you might observe the vapors rising.

And then it was on to another locale, where beavers have inhabited the same lodge for a number of years. When beavers choose to live in a pond or lake or sometimes even a river, there’s no need to build a dam for the water is usually deep enough for their underwater movement.

I often tell people that beaver prints are a rare find because they are either wiped over by the tail or by trees being hauled to the water. Once in a while, however, I’m proven wrong and the sleety snow on a recent day awarded just the right conditions for the webbed feet to be observed.

Tree work and broken ice added to the story of the critters’ journey to and fro the pond. While quite adept at time spent in the water, they are rather clumsy on land and most of their work is within a hundred feet of the edge.

Winter food is cached close by the lodge entrance so that they can swim under the ice to retrieve a stick. A beaver’s ears and nose have a valve that closes when it is submerged and they can stay underwater for up to fifteen minutes. Back at the lodge, there is a raised chamber surrounded by a moat that leads to the entrance tunnel. It’s upon the raised area that they dine, and groom, and even give birth.

At this particular pond, My Guy and I noted two lodges connected by an open channel between. Given the number of tail slaps that announced our presence near both lodges, we thought perhaps both were active and inhabited by the same family.

And then, and then . . . finally, we spotted a beaver that spotted us. We kept expecting it to slap the water with its tail in a manner of warning so other family members would seek deeper water or cover. Instead, it swam past us.

The thing is that a rodent relative, namely the muskrat, exhibits many similarities, but also differences, including a skinny, snake-like tail.

The beaver’s tail is a source of wonder. While its furry body consists of long, shiny guard hairs covering dense and softer hair that traps air and helps protect the critter from the cold, the tail is broad and flat and scaly. It’s used for a variety of reasons including stability when standing upright on land (think tripod), as a rudder for propulsion in water, as fat storage and thermal regulation, and how we are most familiar, as a warning device.

A beaver’s tale indeed.

Stocking My Wonders

My fingers reach in, wondering what marvel I might pull out of the wool sock, one I knitted when my guy and I first tied the knot so many moons ago.

Of course I shouldn’t be surprised that the first thing my fingers grasp is a dragonfly, this being a Common Whitetail male in the Skimmer Family, with those broad crossbands on the wings and black streaks at the base of each.

Calling it “common” strikes me as such an understatement and I’m thrilled when I next pull out an immature male of the same species. I mean, look at those wing markings. And the spots along the sides of the abdomen segments. And the difference in color from immature to mature. Surely, next it will be a female that falls into my hands.

It is quite a shock, however, to realize it is fur that tickles my hand, and voila, out of the sock comes a Red Fox. A Red Fox who settles for Black-oil Sunflower Seeds, not quite the next best thing to capturing a squirrel.

When I next reach in, I am sure I’ll pull out a female Common Whitetail, but . . . instead it is a much smaller, and even more extravagantly decorated female Calico Pennant Skimmer. The same family, but this is one of my favorite species (please don’t be offended Whitetails, I really do think you are more special than common), with those heart-shaped markings along its abdomen segments and basal wing coloration reminding me of a stained-glass window, which seemed apropos for today’s celebration.

And then there are two with similar colors and equally delicate, puddling as is their habit, these Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies sticking their proboscis seeking nutrients from the gravel road. The chemical make-up of the site is key, for the butterflies are looking for something specific: salt (sodium) and minerals

Most puddlers are males, who ingest the salts, minerals and amino acids that the source provides, especially after it has rained. They store these nutrients in their sperm so that when the time comes to mate, the male passes these goodies as a nuptial gift along to the female. This gives the female an extra boost, which she then passes along to her eggs. It’s an important gift because eggs that receive the extra nutrients have a greater chance of success than those that do not.

Back into the sock do I dip, this time finding a Little Copper Butterfly seeking pollen and nectar upon Pearly Everlasting flowerheads. Little Coppers, tiny as the name suggests, thrive in areas disturbed by either human activity or natural events and it seems almost an oxymoron to think that as teeny and delicate as they are, they are right at home in waste places.

Once again, there is a significant change between the Little Copper and the next species that my hands discover. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” hoots the Barred Owl much to my delight. Only two nights ago I heard it calling out the back door, so to find it in the sock is a treasure indeed.

Almost immediately after, a Muskrat swims out of the sock, moving quickly toward me with its rat-like tail acting like a rudder in the rear. I love its questioning look as we meet each other for the first time.

Enough fluff about the Muskrat. It is a feathered friend. who next pops up out of the sock. One of the most amazing things to me about this gift is the color of its eyes and how they reflect the sky above and water below.

Still pulling from the leg of the sock, this Gray Seal floats forth, as if on the incoming tide. Sometimes called “horseheads,” because of their long snouts, Gray Seals scientific name, Halichoerus grypus, literally means “hooked-nose sea pig.”

Not the prettiest of names, not the prettiest of species, but I am still excited to realize this one is my own to keep.

Suddenly, there seems to be a theme to the gifts, and a life on or in the water makes sense. The next item in the sock is one we think of as nature’s engineer, and though not everyone is thrilled with their prowess at felling trees, building dams and lodges, and changing waterways for their own benefit, it’s good to realize that they also benefit other species in the process, including humans. This particular Beaver is active during the day because hikers like my guy and me keep ruining its dam as we cross over it to access a trail.

Still on the water theme, but much diminished in size, is a female Fairy Shrimp. Just sighting one such species is enough to make its vernal pool habitat significant. The way to identify a female is to look for her two dark brood sacs that are positioned just under her legs or appendages.

So here’s the thing. Fairy Shrimp have a short life span, but . . . their eggs must dry out and freeze before they can respond to environmental cues such as reflooding to hatch.

The eggs, known as cysts, can remain dormant for years, and only a small portion of cysts hatch each year, thus leaving plenty more for the future. And temperature plays a key role in hatching.

I’m beginning to realize how much I am enjoying the variety hidden within this sock, and the next gift turns out to be a Blinded Sphinx moth, a species one doesn’t ofter encounter during the day. Or at all, for it’s a night flyer. But those markings and folds, and the overall design. Oh my.

With the next item I choose, I am reminded that one must look for anomalies in the landscape. And so I do. It is the horizontal line of the back that gives away the fact that I am starring at a White-tail Deer. Otherwise, I might think that the legs are sapling trunks and the face maybe a few bleached beech leaves.

My next surprise–comes as a trio. And I might not even realize they are there if I hadn’t heard them first–chattering to each other as they swim and play and fish and sometimes sit on the ice before slipping quickly back into the water in what can only be known as River Otter delight.

Once again, I suspect I know what I’ll pull out next, only to be surprised to discover that it is not a prickly friend, but rather a feathered one who roosts high up in a tree–this being a Ruffed Grouse.

But the prickly one doesn’t disappoint, and makes its own appearance in a different tree and place.

That is to be followed by another I often spot basking in the sun with friends, but it is great fun to spot a Painted Turtle swimming below the water’s surface of a shallow pond.

The water theme begins to appear again, maybe because the one who filled the sock knows I spend a lot of time peering into the depths, and sometimes I’m rewarded with sightings such as this of tadpoles forming into their mature frog beings.

And then there is another that requires a stretch of my neck as it stretches its neck to feed its young high up in a nest.

Having regurgitated a meal, the mature Great Blue Heron stays with its young a wee bit longer before heading off to replenish the pantry.

No sock of mine would be complete without a couple of canoodlers, he atop her. Water striders can walk on the surface because they have very fine hairs on the undersides of their legs that trap air and repel water, a technique called superhydrophobic. They move so quickly because what they are doing is more like rowing, vigorously rowing, creating little swirls in the surface that help propel them forward.

When I slip my hand down into what feels like the toe of the sock, I pull out the largest gift of all and a totally unexpected sighting–a buck. Actually, there are two, but this was the larger and definitely mightier. I feel blessed to have received such a gift. In fact, to have received all of these gifts. To have been present for these presents.

It’s actually toeless, this wonder-filled stocking of mine. And could go on forever. But I’ll pause here and rejoin my family. I do, however, wish you all warmth and peace and electrical power and good health this holiday season.

Cheers.