As winter approaches, Delaney’s beaver population is busy at work, adding mud to insulate their lodges against the cold. Active lodges will have a muddy path leading up one side, and if you’re lucky, you might see the beaver’s webbed footprint in the muck.
Active lodges will also have a food cache nearby – a half-submerged pile of recently cut saplings and branches. Once Delaney freezes over, the beavers will feed upon the underwater cache throughout the winter.
In contrast, an abandoned or inactive beaver lodge will have lost most of its mud, and will be topped with whitened logs that have weathered in the sun over the years. Purple loosestrife and other vegetation may have sprouted and grown up from the lodge. There won’t be a cache of food adjacent to the lodge.
The beaver captured in these photos was out working on his lodge every night. He’d make his first appearance an hour or so after sunset, and then make repeated trips up and down the side of the lodge, hauling mud, muck, and sticks. Notice how he walks on his two hind feet, pressing back on his flat tail for balance.
Surprisingly, this lodge doesn’t have a food cache yet. Unless this beaver gets busy, he may not make it through the winter.
You may not ever see a beaver out and about at the Delaney Wildlife Management Area, but you can’t walk or paddle very far without seeing signs of their presence. Freshly-chewed poplar and alder branches wash up on the beach and the boat launch. Scent mounds serve as territorial boundary markers along the shore. Stick dams impound the waters in the wetlands above the Future Electronics spillway and clog the drainage culvert underneath Finn Road.
And of course there are the beaver lodges out in the ponds. How many lodges are there at Delaney? I know of seven, in various conditions, scattered throughout the property. Some are active lodges, with fresh mud and a submerged cache of recently-cut branches which will sustain the beavers under the ice until spring. Others have been abandoned for years, bleached white in the sun and sprouting purple loosestrife and other vegetation. How many have you seen?
I spent much of Saturday exploring the Delaney Project, and came across two reminders of the cycle of life and death that plays out in the natural world.
As I walked through a stand of white pine along the edge of the wetlands, I glimpsed a red-tailed hawk being pursued through the trees by a single, angry crow. The hawk seemed reluctant to leave the area, flying to the next tall pine, only to be set off again by his attacker. Both finally flew off, and the forest returned to silence.
A minute later, I came across the still-warm body of a gray squirrel lying dead at the base of a pine. No doubt the hawk had caught the squirrel only moments before, but had been forced to abandon his meal when set upon by the crow.
Curious to see what would happen next, I took a two-hour detour to pick up a camera and left it monitoring the site. I half-expected the hawk to have returned for his dinner, but he had moved on.
Later that day I came across another kill site closer to the wetland edge. Here the weathered rib cage and vertebrae of a white-tailed deer lay half-buried in the oak leaves. Had this deer been killed by coyotes? Broken a leg crossing the ice? Or had it simply run out of food at the end of winter and collapsed in starvation?
This is the time of year when deer are on the move at Delaney. You may see them running through fields, crossing trails, or darting out into the road at this time of year, even in broad daylight. A doe bounded out of the woods in front of me on a recent walk at Delaney, and seemingly everywhere I look in the woods now, I see fresh signs of deer.
It’s deer mating season, and during the rut, the male bucks are spending all of their energy looking for females in estrus. They leave behind two easily-identifiable signs which you can look for when walking the trails at Delaney in the fall: rubs and scrapes.
Male deer rub their antlers on saplings, and the torn bark and shiny wood underneath is visible to does (and hikers) from a long distance off. If you can find one rub, turn around 360 degrees and try to locate another. A buck will often rub trees along his favorite deer trail, and you can follow his progress through the woods.
Scrapes are another sign that there’s a buck in the area. Look for a V-shaped scratch in the dirt, often underneath an overhanging branch that may have the tip broken off or hanging down. The male will scrape back with his front hoof, urinate into the scrape to leave his scent, and also rub the branch with glands on his head to deposit scent. Does will be attracted to the disturbed patch of earth and leave their scent as well.
I’ve been monitoring this buck scrape at Delaney for the past week, and each morning there are fresh tracks around it. In the video below, you can see the buck that made the scrape returning to freshen it up (at 7PM and midnight) and to check whether any receptive females have been in the area. Halfway through the video, the buck notices the red glow from the camera’s infra-red lighting, and stomps on the ground. Later, when the buck returns to the scrape, a second deer (a doe?) emerges from the woods, and the buck rushes off to investigate.
It’s a busy month for chipmunks. On our walks at Delaney I’ve been struck by how many chipmunks scold us from the trees after scampering out of our path with a mouth-pouch full of seeds or pine cone scales. This particular fellow didn’t bother retreating very high up the pine –
he just tucked into a crotch in the tree about 12 feet up and was content to watch as we passed by.
Yesterday we happened upon a pair of chipmunks who raced back to the nearest pine, and ran circles up and down the trunk until the dogs were completely bewildered. One chipmunk then raced up the inside curve of one of the multiple trunks on this pine tree, only to lose traction and slide back down again. The second attempt took him to safety.
This photograph of three river otters emerging from the water at Delaney won first place in the Stow Conservation Trust’s 2010 photo contest.
Many people are surprised to learn that there are otters at Delaney. I was, too, the first time I found otter scat there. In the last two years, however, I’ve come to appreciate that otters are frequent visitors and make use of the entire Delaney shoreline. The more I look, the more I find the tell-tale plops of fish scales left behind by otters on the banks of Delaney’s main reservoir and along the streams and wetlands that feed it. (If your dog ever starts rolling around in ecstasy, and comes back smelling like a dead fish, that’s another good sign you’ve found otter scat!)
The spot where this photo was taken is unremarkable, and I would have walked right past it 9 out of 10 times. But one day I was walking the shoreline, and noticed a small patch of ground that didn’t have autumn leaves on it. That tipped me off that animals might be coming in and out of the water here. Over the next few weeks I captured images of raccoons and beaver visiting the spot. And on the morning of November 19th, these three river otters emerged from the water and posed together for the camera.
This white-tailed deer took its own portrait when it wandered in front of a motion-sensing camera that had been placed along the edge of the Delaney pond.
Raccoons at Delaney spend the days curled up asleep in the branches of the tall white pines that ring the main pond. Raccoon scat can often be found on the landward side of the tree, as is the case here.
These two deer follow a well-worn path through the woods, which leads them across this dry stream bed. Deer trails at Delaney are used by raccoon, coyote, and fox, as well as deer.
During months when there is a lot of rain, this raccoon crosses the stream using these fallen branches as a makeshift bridge. There’s no water in the stream now, but the raccoon crosses here out of habit.