The View from Heifer Hill: Iced in
As I write this column, I imagine you reading it on a day that is sliding toward sticky summer temperatures, a day on which you might welcome a vicarious journey back to a cold afternoon in early March and a hike to a small remote beaver pond: Though March 6 was seasonably chilly, it came after several thaw days, and I expected to find open water at the pond. Instead I found it still completely frozen. A noise coming from near the dam betrayed the presence of the beaver. At the site of the sound, I discovered that the beaver had been chewing a hole through the ice. More surprising, I saw that the beaver had also gnawed and dug a tunnel through the frozen dam to escape from beneath the ice. The beaver must have been starving to undertake such a task! When the tunnel had been completed, the water level in the pond dropped, and now ice again blocked access to the outside world.
Even if the beaver managed to get out, it would be quite a hike to the nearest meal. Fortunately, I had a few apples in my pack. I smashed the ice with a stout stick, spread this offering where the beaver would emerge on the dry side of the dam, and settled down to watch and wait. Sure enough, as the light began to fade, a beaver clambered through the tunnel and followed its nose to the small feast.
Those of you who have read this column before will not be surprised to learn that I had a particular hope, though a slim one, when I hiked to the pond; I hoped the resident beaver would prove to be one of the kits of the beaver colony I have watched and reported on for the past eight years. Finding one of the kits would provide insights into the dispersal patterns and success of juvenile beavers. What's more, I have fretted over these beavers, and would be thrilled to find they had survived the challenges of independence. After scrutinizing the beaver that ate the apple on that March evening, I reluctantly decided it was too small to be one of my now mature kits.
The beaver took a second apple and disappeared back through the tunnel into the pond. As I prepared to depart, I looked over the dam and saw the beaver floating in the open water on the other side, still eating, not alarmed by my proximity in the least, and no longer looking particularly small. No strange adult beaver would be this comfortable in my presence, no matter how hungry. This was one of my missing kits!
Because I had not seen this beaver in at least two years, I could not identify it by appearance, but I could narrow down the ID with a simple test: some of the beavers in the colony love the nutritious rodent nuggets I sometimes offer, others won't touch them. I happened to have a few with me. I placed them on the dam by my feet. When the beaver finished her apple, she came right over and started munching the nuggets. Snowberry and Balsam never ate nuggets. This beaver must be either Dewberry or Sundew. I doubted that I would ever know which of the two this one was, so I decided to just call her Dew.
I made several trips to the pond in the following weeks, bearing the saplings that would get this hungry beaver through until the thaw. I returned again at the end of April for a springtime visit. When I called to announce myself, I saw the wake of a beaver paddling across the pond. She hauled herself out of the water and flopped down beside me to enjoy an apple and a few nuggets. I like to think she also enjoyed the company of a long-time family friend. I know I did.
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. See pictures of Dew and her frozen pond at thefretfulporcupine.blogspot.com. Patti welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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