Thursday May 16, 2013

CHATHAM, N.Y.

The glimmer of gray light grows brighter as the sun rises above the trees, now spring fancy with pale green leaves. The dawn chorus is a riot of birdy competition: cardinals, titmice, thrushes, catbirds, chickadees, blackbirds, jays and finches -- all vying for center stage desperate to attract a mate. I step out onto the porch to listen and hear the throaty song of the scarlet tanager. Spring is definitely in full fig!

I wander down the road and pick out one warbler after another -- the noisy ovenbird, a thin sounding black-and-white, both loud waterthrushes, treetop blackburnians, hidden yellowthroats. The coltsfoot along the road has been superseded in places by equisetum and in other places by small tracts of maple seedlings. I enter Hand Hollow Conservation area and find a tree with 15 warblers bopping from branch to branch -- all turn out to be yellow-rumps.

The deeper I go into the woods the quieter it gets. All of a sudden I hear a splash, but am not yet in view of the pond. I amble along noting that tiny purple polygala, white toothwort and twinkling starflower are all blooming. Occasionally a spring peeper peeps. As I follow the path along the cove, I come to a clearing near the shore where there is an old abandoned beaver lodge.

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Slap! A chunky beaver swims around and claps its tail on the still surface of the water! Not so abandoned after all! He dives and I am distracted by a clicking noise.


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Another beaver surfaces, this one swims towards me, head entirely out of the water, beady little eyes focused on me, front paws just beneath his chin. Click, click, clickety, click. The beaver is gnawing on something clutched firmly in his paws. I cannot see what it is even as he swims closer and closer. Maybe he is just snapping his teeth, irritated that I have disturbed his morning routine.

On the water side coming away from the house are branches, sticks and twigs some with green leaves, strewn about halfway across the cove. This odd, sloppy-looking formation has been here for a while. I cannot tell whether this is part of a drowned woodsy area or whether these have been put here intentionally by the beavers.

The two dive together and disappear beneath the surface in a swirl of concentric circles. Both reappear in and among the weird branch formation. Maybe the previous inhabitants had begun construction on a dam and this pair is inspecting the underpinning to see what needs to be done. I watch for a while and eventually the pair do not surface. I assume they retreated into the lodge for their daytime snooze.

Beavers, Castor canadensis, are the largest North American rodent (up to 55 pounds), big, brown, thick-furred aquatic creatures that are masters of construction. Not only do they create these complex lodges with defined entrances and emergency exits, they are able to build working dams. Although they have webbed hind feet for swimming, they have rather articulate front "hands’’ necessary for dragging timber to the construction sites and creating the lodge and dam. And what big teeth they have, needed for gnawing down these small trees and saplings. Their teeth grow continually so throughout a lifetime they always have sharp implements for woodcutting. Curious, there are no new stumps here.

When this country was first settled, beavers were a boon to the colonists, not only for fur -- their fur makes excellent felt and, even better, very warm winter coats -- but also for food for the Native Americans and Europeans alike. The Catholic French were most favorable to eating beaver especially on fasting Fridays since according to Peter Kalm, in "Travels in North America 1748-1751." "His Holiness the Pope has, like many old zoologists, classified the beaver among the fishes, since he spends most of his time in the water."

Other people collected the oil from the castor glands to make medicine that was used to eliminate pain and hysteria, to raise blood pressure and increase cardiac output. We know that the beaver’s diet consists of vegetation, especially water lilies and among others, the bark of aspen, alder, birch, maple and willow. Pharmacologists posit that the bark of the willow provides salicin which is transformed into salicylic acid by the beaver and stored in the gland. Salicylic acid has the properties of aspirin.

Many descriptions from the colonial era have each and every pond, lake or river throughout the United States and Canada inhabited by beavers. The area north of Ft. Orange, New York, now Albany, was called Beverwyck which some say means "beaver district," though other historians claim that the Dutch named the area after a home town, Beverwijk.

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Men like John Jacob Astor made his millions trapping and selling beaver. One estimate puts the North American beaver population back then at 90 million or so of these critters. Yet by the end of the 19th century, they were eliminated in certain areas, such as here in the Northeast. Through a concerted effort of trapping and releasing, these areas have been successfully repopulated, so much so that we often hear of a homeowner claiming that the beavers’ creation of wetlands is infringing on, and is damaging to, his property. If so, contact the local DEC and find out what its rules and regulations allow.

Other than man, beaver is the only other creature that shapes the surrounding landscape to meet his needs. Beavers may not use keystones in constructing the lodge, but they are the ‘’keystone species in an ecosystem’’ whenever they create wetlands used by many other species, both plant and animal.

I continue on my way, but will check Beverwyck lodge whenever I am wandering through Hand Hollow and see whether this pair sticks around, makes home improvements and raises a family.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.