Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone – Blaming Beavers

A woman walks the trail beside the upper beaver pond. Two young boys running in front of her come to an abrupt stop where overflow floods the trail. “Walk around,” she says, then adds, “The beavers are ruining this place.”

“Why do beavers want to ruin our trail?” one of the boys asks.

“That’s just what beavers do,” she replies. “They destroy any place they live.”

The boy shrugs, and chases his brother on a detour around a large hemlock, avoids getting his shoes wet. As he passes me, I smile, he waves, I nod. I am tempted to respond to his question about the beavers, but say nothing. Had I answered him, I might have begun with mosquitos.

Up until now, she has spent her entire life in the water. From an egg laid in a raft of a hundred or more potential siblings, she hatched into a wiggling larva that lived just below the surface, breathing through a snorkel.

Feeding on suspended organic matter, she developed quickly, shedding her skin four times over the course of a week as she transformed into a comma-shaped pupa, partially protected by an enveloping cocoon.

Now, four days later, she has emerged an adult mosquito, legs spread wide, standing for the first time, her feet stretching, dimpling the tensioned surface of the quiet beaver pond. She extends her delicate wings to dry in the still air.

So far, she has been lucky. Many hatchlings never make it past the larval stage, falling prey to small fish or tadpoles. If her luck continues, she will mate one time, then live up to two months, feeding on blood, and laying her own rafted eggs.

Nearby, a handsome gray and white bird sporting a black mask, and yellow crown, rump and side patches lights on a skunk cabbage. His sunlit gilding matches the flower of his chosen perch. He has been watching the emerging mosquito. As she takes off, he swoops. Her luck runs out. Her single flight lasts less than a second.

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All around the pond, a cadre of hungry yellow-rumped warblers, arrived from as far away as Central America, dart from perch to perch, snatching easy prey. Some mosquitos, plucked right from the surface, never take their first flight. Others manage a few airborne feet. A few—the lucky ones—escape predation to find a mate and continue the cycle.

I am standing in the middle of the second pond now, next to the three-toed woodpecker tree. The female is rapping away inside their cavity. The male is flaking bark off a nearby spruce in his quest for beetle larva.

The warblers, singularly focused on the hunt, pay me no attention. Sometimes they land on branches so close that my lens cannot focus on them, allowing me, for a moment, to simply share their space.

From the woods behind me, a mink cautiously slinks towards the pond, padding silently across moss and mud, stopping occasionally to scan for danger. In the shadows his chocolate brown fur provides camouflage, but in the open area around the pond, he is vulnerable. These woods are home to goshawks, owls, foxes and wolves, any of whom would be happy to take advantage of a careless little weasel.DSC_3924.jpgHalfway across the dam, he slips into the relative safety of the water. His is a life of both predator and prey, and the watery world created by beaver serves him in both roles. A swift and agile swimmer, he is a deft fisher, and has the cunning to sneak up on unsuspecting ducks or gulls which he grabs by the neck, pulls under the water and drowns. As long as he is in the pond, he also has the upper hand against pursuers who do not share his piscean proclivity.

Afternoon sun dapples through the canopy, lighting tiny white bell-shaped flowers hanging from the branches of blueberry bushes. A rufous hummingbird dashes from bush to bush, hovering beneath flowers, where he tilts back his head and threads his long slender beak into the narrow openings. I can only imagine the delicacy!DSC_1832.jpgThough you might not always see them, anywhere blueberries are flowering, all it takes is silence and a little patience, and you will hear hummingbirds zinging through the forest, both dining on, and pollinating blueberry bushes.

But hummingbirds come to the beaver pond for more than blueberry flowers. If his nectar is sipped one micro drop at a time from these dainty inverted cups, his protein is served up one nibble at a time, and the mosquitos emerging from the beaver pond are his ambrosia.

In Southern Appalachia there is a saying among those who fancy ornately-decorated winged migrants. The best spring birding happens, they say, “when the oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears.”

While we don’t have oak trees here in the rainforest of Southeast Alaska, the same bush providing nectar for hummingbirds is the perfect surrogate to complete the adage. A week after the flowers begin to open, the first bright green blueberry leaves unfurl. Today—the first day of the feeding frenzy on the pond—the largest of those leaves are exactly the size of a certain bushy-tailed rodent’s outer ear. If you know what signs to look for, anybody can be Nostradamus in the rainforest.

In this narrow window when spring migrants are arriving en masse, and the canopy is still thin enough to see them, the transformation of the forest is as dramatic as Dorothy’s shift from Kansas to Oz, and not in small measure, thanks to mosquitos.

I decide to take a walk downstream to the third pond. Here, orange-crowned and Wilson’s warblers  join the butter butts, swooping from one low perch to the next, hoovering up all the blood suckers they can.DSC_4129.jpgA second mink sees me from across the pond and slips back to her den. I sit down to wait for her to reemerge, but she has a back door, and I catch a sly parting glance as she reappears fifty feet away on her way to vanishing into a sea of skunk cabbage, safe from my watchful eye.DSC_4145.jpgAll of this abundant life—warblers, minks, hummingbirds, fish, tadpoles, and yes, mosquitos—owe their abundance here to the oft maligned beaver whose architecture sculpts this landscape into a teeming wetland.

Standing water provides perfect habitat for mosquitos and other water-borne insects. Insects attract small birds, as well as fish and tadpoles who then become meals for mink. The beaver pond also drowns standing trees, rendering them susceptible to wood-boring beetles and cavity-creating three-toed woodpeckers, red-breasted sapsuckers and black-backed woodpeckers. Skunk cabbage that thrives in the saturated ground around the pond is nibbled by deer. Ducks shelter in the nooks and crannies. Kingfishers hunt small fish. All thanks to beaver.DSC_2533.jpgI am glad I did not engage the boy about why the beavers destroy the forest. Clearly, a conversation with the intent of winning hearts, should not begin with mosquitos. But maybe there is a conversation I could have had that would win him, and his mom over.

Should I run across them again, maybe I could show him a sapsucker—head as red as Prince’s Corvette—chiseling an old spruce tree, ask him if he likes birds. Or I might point out mink tracks along the pond’s edge, ask him who he thinks left them. Or, perhaps I would ask his mom if she likes to watch hummingbirds or eat summer blueberries.

There are very few people who honestly like mosquitos, but who doesn’t love a fresh blueberry picked along the trail? Who doesn’t find beauty in the radiant glint of a male hummingbird’s throat? It doesn’t take much work to trace all of these back to that pesky beaver, whose industry occasionally floods a few feet of trail.

Aldo Leopold wrote, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Beavers are a big wheel in the machine. Removing them would result in so many cogs grinding slowly to a halt, until the marsh would not only stop acting like a marsh, but would eventually drain, and cease to exist at all. The trail would stop flooding, but without ducks, hummingbirds, mysterious mink tracks, and the beautiful view across the pond, it would also lose a great deal of its appeal. It would just be a path through the trees.

If those who so casually malign the beavers knew just how much they gain in exchange for their mild inconvenience, and how much they would stand to lose were the beavers removed from the landscape, perhaps they would view them differently. Perhaps, they would even come to appreciate mosquitos, though I somehow doubt it.DSC_4181.jpg

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Jim, you should submit some of these to the paper. Would improve the quality of the writing.

Beavers are entirely underappreciated for their role in shaping the Western landscape. Too bad we don’t have many more of them.

What do you think?