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.

Otter Delight

Once upon a time in a land close, close at hand, there lived a family of Otters who were mothered by a Snowshoe Hare.

They spent most of their days and nights exploding through the ice and sliding up and down the mill pond’s edge.

But one day their momma rounded up some snowshoes large and small and strapped them on to all.

The family headed off through the woods where moments of wonder captured their attention.

It wasn’t long into their journey when a winter firefly upon the snowy surface stopped them in their tracks.

E. Otter took the firefly that overwinters as an adult and looked for a safe place to deposit it.

She found such in an old beetle hole upon a dead snag and wished it well before she hopped away.

W. Otter found another tree that he quickly identified as a yellow birch and then honored with a hug.

C. Otter looked upon the bark of a beech tree and was thrilled to spy a fungi.

On the tree’s back side he spied another and posed above the false tinder conk.

Soon, the little Otters convinced their momma that they didn’t want to try to be hares any more and so they shed their snowshoes.

Within moments, A. Otter decided to instead try his feet at being a frog.

Catching some air, he leapt up the trail.

By a vernal pool he revealed his true identity–a tree frog.

Soon, his siblings joined him as they channeled their inner tree frogs.

A short distance later, momma couldn’t help but smile when her young’uns displayed their angelic nature.

Those angelic Otters eventually found their way to the top of a huge boulder.

And then they began to do what Otters do.

They slid.

And climbed back up.

To slide some more.

Sometimes, it seemed as if they flew down the boulder’s face.

Other times they bounded.

In true Otter rhythm, one foot landed diagonally in front of the other.

After creating a series of troughs in the snow, they begged their momma to join them.

Being a Snowshoe Hare, she wasn’t sure she would be able to slide quite the way they did.

But she shed her inhibitions and climbed up to join her children.

After noting how scary it was, she smiled and slid down in one of the troughs the children had created.

Once was not enough and up and down she went again.

At last it was time to head for home. Being Otters, the children thought they might just den up below their favorite boulder. The youngest, of course, pouted for he wanted to slide some more.

But moments later, he showed his momma how much he loved her by presenting her with a snowheart.

What an otterly delightful family and equally otterly delightful way to spend the day!