I am newly obsessed with beavers. Aquatic rodents, ecosystem engineers. They are fascinating animals. I keep coming back to the same thought, “Apes don’t do this stuff! I am a primate person and a rodent is blowing my mind!” They are social, monogamous, cooperative. Busy and eager, sure. They are efficient builders, eating, constructing with, or caching every part of the trees they chew down. Females, males, and yearlings are caretakers of young kits. They are speedy swimmers. They slap their tails on the water to startle predators and warn other beavers of danger. Their dams create habitat for other species and filter sediment. Their ponds recharge aquifers and prevent the spread of wildfires. Are you impressed yet?!
I work on a nature preserve in the northern Virginia Piedmont. I knew beavers lived there. The dam they built this past fall flooded a hiking trail. Then they constructed a lodge at the edge of their new pond. Signs of their presence are everywhere- felled trees and stripped branches with the signature of their teeth in the wood. Did you know they can aim a falling tree toward where they have to drag it???
Last week, after looking for them daily for about a month, I finally saw a beaver for the first time. Or so I thought. I stood right next to the lodge in my bright blue jacket. A critter swam out, did a little figure-eight lap, and returned from where it had come. Dam entrances are underwater, so I couldn’t see exactly from where it had come and gone. It was swimming so fast! It was also smaller than I expected…
The more I watched and thought about the video I had taken of the animal, the less I believed it was a beaver. So I turned to Twitter- the only place where a beaver enthusiast can ask a beaver expert for identification help late at night and get an immediate response. I provided information on where I had seen the critter with pictures of the lodge and the dam. Based on the tail, a couple of people suggested the animal was a muskrat. That’s how I learned that MUSKRATS HANG OUT IN BEAVER LODGES! AND THE BEAVERS DON’T SEEM TO CARE! If you weren’t impressed before, now you should be.
I visited the lodge again the next day, my head full of the wonders of the world of inter-species interactions. I heard little cooing sounds coming from within the structure of thoughtfully placed sticks, but saw nothing. A day before I would have assumed those were beaver vocalizations, but now I had to ask myself what kinds of sounds muskrats make! Nature…she always keeps me on my little naked, bipedal toes.
A few days after that, as I was leaving work, I stopped my car at one of the ponds when I saw a critter swimming from an island toward the shore. It was dusk, I didn’t have my binoculars, and I couldn’t tell what it was before it disappeared. Walking back to my car, a nodded a quick goodbye to the geese. That’s not a goose! Another mammal was swimming around among the waterfowl. I stepped a little closer. It went underwater. Only ripples remained. I waited a few minutes. I never saw the critter again. I drove away in the dark.
Have I seen a beaver yet? I don’t know! Does it matter? Nope! While I am excited to #leaveonlypoetry about many future muskrat and beaver encounters, what I have seen is enough for now. There is always more to observe and to learn! Here are some pictures. Come with me to my beloved beaver pond…
I’ll leave you now with my two favorite pop culture beaver references:
Moose in Disney’s Brother Bear, to a bear, “Gee eh, you’re one big beaver.”
Jim Halpert, on The Office, mentions Justin Bieber.
Dwight: “Who’s Justice Beaver?”
Jim: “A crime-fighting beaver.”