The View from Heifer Hill: A tough break for the beavers
In the middle of January I gave up on waiting for snow and set out on foot to check on the beavers. I had not been to the pond since late November, but felt optimistic that the old one-eyed Willow and her new mate would be doing well; on my last visit I found that the two had built a small lodge and had quite a fine cache of branches piled up outside their door in the pond — their food supply for the winter. Their lodge still needed some work, but they had plenty of warm weather and open water in December to finish sealing things up.
Willow and her suitor had moved to this downstream location last summer and patched up the large hole Tropical Storm Irene had blasted through an old dam. Behind their repairs arose a fine pond, perfectly acceptable habitat for a pair of beavers. I arrived on that January day expecting to find the beavers tucked into their lodge and living beneath the ice, instead I found their pond was gone — the dam had broken in one of the heavy rain events of this weird winter.
Woebegone, I walked upstream to the lodge. The entrance was well above water, fully accessible to predators and therefore no longer suitable for beavers. Their food supply sat like an untidy haystack in the middle of the brook, most of it above the level of the water. Beavers prepare for such emergencies by making bank lodges, simple burrows dug into the bank of a pond. I suspected these beavers had moved into a bank lodge in a small pond just upstream. I could see a few openings in the ice above the intact dam of this pond, and from one of these a slide led down the face of the dam into a plunge hole in the ice at the base. Dusk settled — time for the beavers to become active. Sure enough, a beaver's head appeared in the water above the dam. I said hello to Willow. She climbed onto the dam and slid down into the beaver-sized hole below. She reappeared downstream at the old food cache and came up through the ice for an apple. She appeared as calm and unruffled as usual. She had not seen the weather forecast — a deep cold would seal the ice on their pond within a few days. She and her mate would have no longer have access to their food supply.
Since then, I have been keeping an eye on the weather for her. Whenever the beavers exit holes freeze, friends and I have hauled a sled load of poplar and beech to the pond, whacked a hole in the ice with a maul, and shoved the beaver food into the water. Our altruism has been doubly rewarded; not only do we suspect how welcome our deliveries are to the hungry beavers, but this wild stream valley is especially beautiful in winter. We have never seen the beavers on these delivery missions, but our offerings always disappear within a few days.
The torrential rain of late February washed away much of the ice on the beavers' pond and stream, so on the last night of February I headed out to visit again. Within minutes of my arrival, a beaver scrambled up onto the shelf of ice beside me. While not as rotund as she had been in the fall, Willow looked reasonably healthy. I gave her an apple, and she rested on her elbows to eat. She did not offer protracted tales of woe, nor effusive gratitude. We just sat together, she enjoying the luxury of fruit after months of eating bark, and I enjoying the starry thaw-time night. What could be better?
Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Find pictures of Willow and her predicament at thefretfulporcupine.blogspot.com. Patti welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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