EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — June, like May before it, slipped in with a blast of cool air from the north. Be-gloved, I take to the road just after sunrise and listen, often catching a glimpse of a gaudy wood warbler as it flies from one leafy branch to another.
About every half mile, I hear a scarlet tanager's slightly burred song, interrupted now and again by one of the insistent flycatchers: phoebes (phee-bee) near every other house, least flycatchers (chebec, chebec) near the ponds, great crested flycatchers (wheep! wheep!) in the treetops with the tanagers, peewees (peee-a-weeeee) from deep in the woods, kingbirds (a chittering kdik, kdik, kdik, pika, pika, pika) by the open fields, and from back in the extensive marsh, an alder flycatcher (rreee-beea).
Even though the bittern is long gone, this marsh is always a hive of activity. Sometimes I see wood ducks, mallards or mergansers. Redwings and grackles mingle amid the brushy islets and grassy tussocks shared at the water's edge with many a basking turtle. The blasted pine is often the perch for a kingfisher or a kingbird. Near the road, song sparrows keep one another company while from the back of beyond swamp sparrows trill as they skulk about the brush. Canada geese have once again nested atop the old beaver lodge.
When the water is low, you may observe a spotted or solitary sandpiper poking around in the muddy shore. Occasionally even a least sandpiper or a yellowlegs. All spring, though, the water has been rather high, so high the mud-spit in the middle of the marsh that connects one side to the other is no longer visible. So high that the water has flowed onto the road.
SEEK PERFECT HOMES
Every so often I catch sight of the beavers that dwell here the beavers that are in a game of wits with the road crew. The Slaptails vs. the Shovelers. The marsh itself extends behind a couple of houses and back into the woods and drains towards the road I am on. The road crew replaced the culvert a few years ago with a larger one to facilitate the flow under the road when we have those drowning downpours. Good luck with that, we said.
But it isn't heavenly rains causing the problem. It's those Slaptails intent on creating and maintaining the perfect homes for their families.
The beavers, absolutely great intuitive architects, gnaw away at branches big and small, drag them to the desired location and spend a couple of days building a "lodge" with an entrance from under the water. This way the beaver family can live tranquilly with no fear of predators trying to push their way in. For the entrance to work properly the water must be fairly deep, so the beaver knows he must stop the water from running out through the culvert.
Thrice this year the Shovelers have had to come and clear out the mud and sticks from the culvert to make sure the road does not get covered with water and have portions of the dirt wash away. Four times the Slaptails have, in a day or so, completely filled the culvert with mud and sticks. So far we haven't had but a sprinkling of rain in the last few weeks. When it does rain, the water will surely overflow its banks and cover the road. Score: Slaptails 4, Shovelers 3.
One morning I catch sight of Mr. Slaptail swimming towards the culvert with a small branch draped with green leaves in his mouth. He catches sight of me, slaps his tail and dives, taking the branchlet with him. I don't wait for him to re-emerge since beavers can remain underwater for up to 15 minutes. By the time I am on my return amble, he has completed his task, triumphantly propping the branchlet into the top of the mud at the mouth of the culvert, much the same way a construction crew puts a tree at the top when they have completed the framework for a new building. Is this some form of convergent evolution?
In the local area, four ponds or marshes have active lodges. No matter where you go in our area, you will come across evidence of beavers: lodges, dams, and sometimes canals used by the beavers to move the larger trees they fell. If you see a swampy area populated with dead trees, think beaver. Hard to believe now that beavers taken for their felt and fur had nearly disappeared from the Northeast by the end of the 19th century. Trapping is still permitted (Nov 1-Apr 7 in Columbia County) but pelts only bring $10 or $12 since real fur is waaaay out of fashion.
PONDS HAVE BENEFITS
Beavers certainly don't care if you know they are there. They go about their business of felling trees, building dams and living the dream in the ponds they occupy, feasting on bark, grasses, water lilies and reeds. Native American legends feature many a beaver — especially giant beavers. Hard to imagine but fossil beavers were the size of bears.
In a Tlingit story, Porcupine and Beaver, best friends, arranged house visits. Beaver, not wanting to have any quills dropped in his living room, led Porcupine to a tree stump in the middle of a pond and left him there. Porcupine had to freeze the waters to get back to land. In reciprocation, Porcupine took Beaver to a tree top and told him "this is my home" and then left Beaver there. Eventually Beaver figured out how to climb down leaving a myriad of claw marks which the Tlingits say is why tree bark looks like it does.
Some homeowners are distraught when a beaver creates a pond where once there was a rolling hillside with a babbling brook running through the trees. But then when Slaptails do create a pond it becomes a new and valued habitat for both specific flora and fauna. Many a heronry began life as a beaver pond.
These small skirmishes for the control and reshaping of the landscape by beaver or by man, the traveling roadshow "Slaptails vs. Shovelers," continues all around us.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.