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16 July 2010 @ 06:18 pm
Beaver Tales  

On Monday I told Deb all about my wonderful Mud Lake outing. She thought it sounded fantastic, and as she wanted to see the juvenile Cooper's Hawks and the Black-crowned Night Herons we decided to go there one evening after work. I arrived there before her, so I walked over to the first opening onto Mud Lake in the woods and waited for her there. I saw the spreadwing damselfly perching in the vegetation again, but as I didn't have my net I couldn't capture it to confirm whether it was in fact a Northern Spreadwing.

Then I noticed a beaver swimming in the water to my right and froze, knowing how sensitive these mammals can be; if I startled it, it would splash its tail against the water and disappear below the surface. The beaver did swim toward me, but then smoothly slipped under the water without any indication that it had seen me.

Baby Beaver

Deb arrived shortly after that, and I told her about the beaver. This was the first one I'd seen since last February from the bridge at Hurdman, so I was quite happy to have such a close encounter with this one. Deb then pointed to the water and said it was right there! And so was the beaver lodge! The beavers had built their lodge beneath the trees just to the right (south) of the lookout. I was concerned that it was so close to the path, for it is a heavily used conservation area and not all visitors are there to enjoy nature, or obey the rules (i.e. no bikes, dogs or overnight camping are allowed in the woods, though I have seen bikes, dogs, tents, and even people walking their cats from time to time).

We weren't there long before a second beaver appeared in the water and joined the first! The two beavers spent some time swimming around and bringing large sticks back to the lodge area. These appeared to be food items rather than construction material, for they ate the bark off the sticks just the way cartoon characters eat corn-on-the-cob.

It took me a while to realize I could hear muffled cries coming from within the beaver lodge. The whole time we were watching the beavers I realized I was hearing something calling, but thought it was further away. We wondered if the two beavers actually had babies inside the lodge, and sure enough, a few minutes later we saw two of them! They were very interested in the sticks Mom and Dad had brought back to the lodge.

One of the babies decided to help itself to the branch that Mom or Dad was working on; after gnawing on it for a bit, the baby beaver eventually took it away from its parent and swam off with it!

Although the beaver is an important national symbol, it has become widely disliked for its "destructive" habit of cutting down trees and creating dams to deepen the wetland it calls home, which sometimes causes flooding. When discovered living in city wetlands or conservation areas, near farmlands or tree plantations, they are often trapped and removed (i.e. killed) because of the potential damage they can do. We forget that beavers have evolved to survive this way, and that they have been doing this for thousands of years. If anyone has caused inalterable damage and destruction to the landscape, it is not the beavers, it is us humans!

Despite its official Canadian emblem status, beavers are not seen very often because they are normally nocturnal. Perhaps as a result, they are not very well understood by the general population. Most people don't realize that during the peak of the fur trade in the mid-19th century, the beaver had almost been trapped into extinction. Prior to that, Canada was home to an estimated six million individuals. In the 1930s, governments closed the beaver trapping seasons for many years in response to conservation concerns. The population slowly recovered. In 1975 the beaver received royal assent to officially become a Canadian emblem, and by the 1980s it was determined that the current beaver population was stable.

For more information about these intriguing mammals, and the story of one young beaver which found its way into the Fletcher Wildlife Garden last autumn, please see Christine Hanrahan's informative article on the FWG website. The Hinterland Who's Who website also has excellent information.

A superb engineer, the beaver is a hard worker which spends most of its time building impressive dams, canals, and lodges. The babies do not work in their first summer, but help with many colony chores in the second season such as cutting food, repairing the dam and lodge, and digging channels and canals.

This little one found a twig just the right size for a baby beaver!

The beavers ambled up onto the lodge a couple of times, so I thought I would see if they were visible from an opening on the other side of the beaver lodge. Sure enough, I found one of the beavers on the bank. Although the beaver is a graceful, strong swimmer, both under water and on the surface, it is awkward and slow on land. Its wide tail acts as a prop when the beaver is sitting or standing upright.

Beaver on the Shore

After spending half an hour watching the beavers, Deb and I took a walk through the woods to the observation platform. We found one adult night heron along the edge of Mud Lake, and one juvenile in the water not far from where the beavers were active. We also saw at least six night-herons flying together over the lake, heading north. It's lovely to see that this species, at least, is doing well in Ottawa!

Black-crowned Night Heron

We also found the three young Cooper's Hawks in the woods. Although they called and flew by frequently, they were elusive to track down. Eventually we succeeded, although they didn't provide any photo opportunities.

Deb and I thoroughly enjoyed our hour at Mud Lake, and we were utterly charmed by the wonderful beaver family. It is not often that we see beavers on our outings, and I have never seen a beaver family (or baby beavers for that matter) before. The babies stay with the parents for two full years, after which the youngsters leave to make their own way in the world. This family will likely be together for at least another year, possibly two, during which the challenges of survival will be tough. I hope that they all make it!