Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Paddle at Dusk and Beaver Heaven

Last evening (3/23/12), a friend and I went to the Muller Field Station that our college owns for a early spring canoe paddle. It's been so warm (actually HOT) this past week, that last night was so pleasant. Each night the sun goes down just a bit later and we had until around 7:30 of good daylight. This time of the year is one of my favorites. I feel like there is so much color popping out, maybe it's the contrast between the dead drab vegetation from the last growing season. Or maybe new life just has a bit brighter color to it.

What my eye has been drawn to in particular, has been that amazing chartreuse color of the willows budding out. There are quite a bit of them at the field station, as it is in a swamp. Willows love moisture, we have happy willows :)

Wednesday March 24th, 2012 - Happy weeping willows (80*F that day!).

Melissa, my friend and I, are wildlife-loving we were hoping for a quiet, calm paddle in the swamp. And hoping for sighting of a wetland mammal. I'm aching to see a river otter, which DO live in the Finger Lakes region, and specifically in this very swamp. Spoiler alert: we didn't see a single mammal. We did get to enjoy some water birds and sign left behind by wetland-dwelling mammals though.

On each side of the channel we were paddling in, were scent mounds GALORE! I get particularly excited about these little piles of gunk because I've learned so much about them in class, and they can tell us so much about where the beavers are, how active they are, and possibly individuals monitoring them (if I were set a camera trap on one...and I have in the past!). A scent mound looks like this:

Melissa is so excited about scent mounds!

A scent mound is mud dredged up from the bottom of the water body, may it be a pond, stream, swamp...whatever. The beaver uses this pile of mud to perhaps: mark territory, deposit scent, or both. Beavers work hard to build a suitable habitat for themselves, and then must defend it. I'm not actually sure if beavers participate in paw-to-paw combat, but they heavily mark and scent their territory.

Beavers have a gland, the castor gland. I'm sure many people have heard of it, even if you aren't completely aware of it's purpose. It's this little pair of glands on either side of the anus that emits this oily, sometimes slimy-gooey stuff. Castor stinks. I wish that I could make my blog a scratch-n-sniff, so that we could all enjoy it together! This scent lure to the left is one that I've been using. It is literally ground up castor gland from the beaver. Often, the castor gland is worth MORE than the pelt at a fur auction. It's very reliable when used for trapping beaver. So this scent mound in the picture above probably smelled just like this scent lure. I couldn't logistically get to it to smell, as I was in a canoe, and really didn't want to take a dip in the swamp. I would have smelled it though, I'm a firm believer in experiencing the wild with as many senses as possible. I HAVE smelled scent mounds in the past, and they have reeked of castor. I guess I should also mention that river otters make scent mounds as well. Without staking out surveillance on these mounds for days, I can't FOR SURE say they were created by one or the other. But, I'm confident in saying that I observed several other types of beaver sign nearby, so that the odds of the mounds being beaver, are high.

We continued on our paddle, noticing here a scent mound, there a scent mound, everywhere a scent mound. We passed several beaver lodges, and one seemed to be the grand daddy, Taj Majal of the beaver lodges we saw.

This was probably 5 feet tall, 10-15 feet wide at the base, and there were fresh additions of chewed sticks to the structure. You can see them above, they are lighter in color than the older, aged sticks. Also, in the foreground, bottom right, are more sticks coming out of the water. This is what I believe is/was a cache. Beaver cache food for the winter. They don't hibernate, but are well adapted to life under the snow and ice on the water. This winter I don't think they really had needed to prepare like this, but who knew this would be the warmest March in years? So the beavers collect fresh, leafed out branches, and then stick them perpendicularly into the mud of the water. The ice then comes in and freezes it in place. The beavers have an underwater entrance/exit to their lodge, and then at their whim, will swim out to their cache of food, and have access to food all winter long.

This is what I'm calling Beaver Heaven from today on. As always, in the picture, the amazing-ness of this area is lost. It was a wide open space, easy to navigate. To my right, the channel cut through the swamp. All along the waters edge: scent mounds and slides in/out of the water. To my left, you can see a beaver felled and chewed tree. On the right in the image you can see another beaver lodge. This one appeared to have been abandoned. Although there was fresh sign within close proximity of the this lodge, the lodge itself was unkempt, and there were no fresh chews within its structure.

For a bit of scale, I ve stood on top of the beaver lodge. Had I felt this was an active beaver lodge, I would not have stood on it. Partially out of respect for the animals, and partially because I'm scared of beavers. I love them, and love learning about their amazing adaptations and workmanshp. I had a terrifying experience as a child, though, with a beaver, and also as an adult canoeing in a very similar setting. I respect The Beaver.

I found this above scat on the beaver lodge that I was standing on. I am very hopeful it is beaver scat. I mean, wouldn't YOUR first impression be that scat found on top of a beaver house was deposited BY a beaver?! But, ever the skeptic I am, I can't just believe that it is. I actually didn't want to post about it until I was sure, but I'm hoping those out there who are full of crap can lend me a suggestion! :)  My go-to book has become Mark Elbroch's Mammal Tracks & Sign guide. The shape and size are consistent with the beaver scat images shown in his book. BUT it's very white and there is hair in it! My little experience with scat ID tells me that this looks like the calcified scat of a carnivore. But...but...I found it on a beaver lodge! I'm going to pick the brain of my college's local beaver expert, Sasha Mackenzie, a staff member of our Conservation Department, a wonderful naturalist, and a dear friend. And she is way more skeptical than I, and has double the experience. Anyone else care to chime in? Any and all thoughts are welcome. I guess beavers have to groom themselves, so they COULD have their own hair in their scat?

A fresh beaver-felled tree.

Fresh woodchips at the chewing site. What compels them to chew the log in the middle of the trunk? I understand that they chew at the base of the tree, to fell it and add to the dam or lodge. Or they chew along the length of a branch to get all the cambium off, which they eat. But chewing through the midsection of a tree? Seems like wasted effort to me. Unless this tree is to big to move in one chunk, maybe they have to section it up.

I love the texture of beaver chews. Their teeth leave amazing grooves in the wood. Just thinking of doing that damage with my own teeth makes me cringe. I found a 7 foot long branch that had VERY recently been stripped of it's cambium. Some of the the gaps between the chews show green cambium still. I brought it home with me and might try to fashion it into something, to have this awesome texture in my home!

It was such a great night. We found and saw many other things, but they will have to wait until another posting perhaps. Thanks to Melissa for joining me on hopefully one of many future dusk paddles!

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