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Visit to a beaver pond reveals winter preparations

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Each year, by the time we get to mid-November and shortly before the freeze-up, I like to walk out to some of the nearby beaver ponds. Here I can check the status of the local residents and see how these large aquatic rodents are preparing for the impending cold season. Two of the three neighboring beaver ponds are along a road, so I choose to visit the one that is not. To get to this inhabited wetland, I need to walk through a forest, along the edge of a field and another woods that is adjacent to the pond. I find that the route to get to the beaver home is also quite a trip that reveals much of the season.

The day is in the 40s, cloudy and calm, a splendid November day for a walk. Autumn-winter conditions have opened the woods so that I can now see far among the trees. Overhead I note an abandoned hornet nest, left from last summer. The colony workers have died in the cold while the impregnated queen sleeps under a log nearby with the hope for next year’s colony. Bird nests of twigs also appear as a testimony of another resident now gone. Squirrel nests of leaves, so easy to find now, are most likely still occupied. At a small tree, I see that a buck has been rubbing his antlers to mark his territory.

It appears that the base of every tree trunk, as well as rocks and many logs, are covered with the miniature moss plants. We never realize how common mosses are until now. Their leaves and those of club mosses and wood ferns add some green to the drab gray-brown forests. The last six weeks have not been a time for fungi; I have seen almost no mushrooms. But as I go through the woods today, I find a clustered growth of small puffballs, about 1 inch in diameter. These were expected, but I’m surprised to also find two large giant puffballs, about the size of footballs.

At the edge of the field, it is reds that stand out. A patch of blackberries still hold red leaves, about the only leaves that I see that are not brown. And the small trees of crabapple, hawthorn, highbush cranberry and sumac all advertise their red and purple berries. A bit smaller, but just as bright, are those of the wild rose hips. Out in the field, the product of the season of goldenrods, asters, thistles and milkweeds stand out as numerous fluffy seeds trying to catch the winds of November. By the time that I reach the beaver pond, I have already had quite a lesson of the seasonal happenings, but as I look around, I quickly see plenty more.

The resident beaver family has been very busy lately. The woods at the shore is scattered with chewed-off stumps of largely aspens, but I also note some willows and poplars. The fallen trees, mostly small, less than six inches in diameter, lay on the forest floor. Once the trees are downed, branches are bitten off and taken to the lodge out in the water. The largest ones are placed on the lodge to add more of a fortification and protection for the beavers.

Protection is from the winter weather, but also predators. In like manner, some stout branches are used to strengthen the dam. This wood, plus rocks and mud, will make this structure solid and keep the water level of the pond high enough to allow the beavers to swim about as they enter and exit their house from below without being frozen shut. In recent years, I have found a few nearby ponds where winter cold caused the ice to form deep and block the beavers’ swimming and feeding beneath the ice.

But the beavers are doing much more than fortifying the lodge and dam for winter. They are also preparing a food cache to get through this time.

All through the warm weather, they were able to swim ashore to cut and snack on nearby arboreal meals. Ice will curtail such activities and so the beavers use saplings and smaller and thinner branches of their cut trees to stash food in preparation for the long freeze-up. Now, in the freedom of no ice, they drag the branches back near the lodge where they store large numbers of this winter food. This cache of twigs and branches will freeze in the ice, but is close enough so that the food is accessible as the beavers swim under the ice and bite off morsels for meals.

It’s a long time from now until the thaw next spring and so the beavers try to store enough woody food to last this whole frozen time. And from what I see here today, in mid-November, they appear to be doing just that.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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