Monday, April 30

Leave it to Beavers

Beavers have been working away from both sides.

Amazing to see the tooth marks chiseled in the wood.
In a previous post, I included a picture of this big, beautiful maple tree that is quite clearly a work-in-progress for a very ambitious beaver. Since then, Jim and I have taken some guests on a guided tour of our property and we included a visit to this tree and the area around it.

Our guests found it as remarkable as we do, so I thought I'd share some more with you. The photos don't quite do it justice (they never do), but I'd be happy to show you in person during a visit to the inn.

Talk about ambitious -- I can't even get my arms around it!
From mossy trail to beaver pond.
A couple years ago we discovered a little beaver pond in the woods just off our mossy trail. We couldn't see it from the trail but could hear a loud chorus of frogs singing and went to investigate. 

What we found was a stretch of pond--shallow and rather murky--clearly not from a steady flow of fresh water. It's not a large pond, from what we can tell, but it's hard to get a look at it for all the debris of trunks and branches. What's remarkable is the sheer number and size of the trees that were obviously taken down by beavers.

One of many stumps.
Tree down!
The tree I mentioned is still standing, but for how long? A beaver (or beavers) have chewed chunks out of both sides. There are others that are just stumps and others that look like pieces of a giant "pick up sticks" game.

While it's easy to think of the beavers as "destructive", keep in mind that the changes they wreak on their environment also create habitat (for frogs, for instance) and open up parts of the forest to sunlight, creating opportunities for sun-loving plants to take route and flourish. A forest is never static. It's an ever-evolving system and beavers are just one tool of change.

Giant game of Pick Up Sticks
To my fellow Canadians out there, I have to say: If you've ever bemoaned the fact that our national animal is a large, buck-toothed rodent; if you've ever wondered why we didn't instead choose to represent our country with an intimidating grizzly or polar bear or a majestic bull moose... bemoan no more. 

The beaver is underestimated, quietly yet assuredly effective, fiercely determined, analytically intelligent and adaptable, charmingly cute, and has a wickedly dry sense of humour (I'm just guessing on that last one). Leave it to beavers to be the surprisingly apt ambassadors of the true north strong and free.

The busyness of beavers.

Saturday, April 21

Reading the Forest - Peek into the Past

In my last post, we read the signs of animal activity in the forest. It amazes me every time to see how much is going on every day in our own patch of woods. But there's more than just current animal tales to see. If we know what to look for, we can peek into the past and see how the land was shaped by settlers over a hundred years ago and by the forces of nature over millennia.

Ancient bedrock. Somewhat-less-ancient Jim and Saba.
If we start at the beginning of the narrative, we'll have to go back a few billion years to the Precambrian era which is when the Canadian Shield formed. The exposed bedrock you see as you travel through the region is some of the oldest in the world. Though the elevation is quite low now, these rocks are the roots of ancient mountains, eroded over time and rising up (like an iceberg) above the mantle below.

If this wall could talk...
Glaciers advancing and receding over Canada over twelve thousand years ago also left marks we can still see during a walk in the woods today. The ice sheets of the glacial period picked up and transported rocks and debris as they moved, scraping away soil and scouring lake basins. Every time I see a lonely bolder sitting amid a stand of trees I wonder if it was dropped there by a glacier "back in the day".

Was this boulder left behind by a glacier?
It can be easy to assume, when I'm surrounded by tall, strong trees, that the soil here is rich and deep. But then, after a windstorm perhaps, I'll see a healthy tree has come down with it's root system still attached. And I'll see the roots have only been growing in a mere foot and a half of soil which was lifted--intact--off solid rock as the tree fell.

You can see solid, bare rock on the other side of those roots.
You can see the sparseness of the soil over bedrock (and the stubborn determination of these trees to grow in it anyway) when you see a tree with it's roots spread out over the ground instead of reaching deep down into it.

Big, beautiful tree is holding on to a thin layer of soil over rock.

Saba walking on a furrow.
Turning the pages of the history book forward, the signs of recent history are easier to see and decipher. This land was settled as part of the Land Grants program in the 1880's. One of the conditions of the deal was that settlers had to clear 40 acres for farming (which would not have been an easy task). We can still see the furrows, now covered in moss, very clearly on our Mossy Trail.

You can still see the furrow (now covered in moss) from the farm days.
Throughout the property are piles of fieldstones. Every stone in every pile would have been lifted by hand and piled up out of the way of the field work. Very likely it was a job for the children to do.

One of many piles of fieldstone throughout the property.

Nicely intact section of fence, perhaps 100 years old.
In one spot just off the Mossy Trail, you can see the remains of a split rail fence covered in a lovely, vibrant moss. Was this to keep cows in? To mark a border? How long was it and who built it? We don't know and probably will never find out.

There are many narratives only hinted at throughout the forest--of current activity as well as the recent and distant past. Take a walk, keep your eyes open, and enjoy the mystery as much as the answers.

You can glimpse the split rail fence from the Mossy Trail.
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Discover the stories of the wildlife in our woods in Reading the Forest - Animal Tales.

Tuesday, April 10

Reading the Forest - Animal Tales

This is a work-in-progress for a busy beaver.
Just about anyone can enjoy a walk in the forest. You don't have to know your flora and fauna, your history or geology, in order to appreciate the fresh air, natural surroundings and gentle workout that comes with a hike through the woods. But if you're so inclined, you can get more out of the experience than a clear head and physical exercise. If you pay attention and read the signs, you'll see the forest tells a story.

Work of pileated woodpecker.
Actually, it tells many stories—of the creatures that call it home and the history that shaped the land in recent years and in the distant path. While we rarely get to see the actual animals in the woods (they're too shy and stealthy most of the time), we can see where they've been and what they've been up to.

A pair of pileated woodpeckers have been busy all around the property lately. We hear them rat-tat-tatting every day, but more than that, we see firsthand the results of their work. This is just one long-dead tree trunk that a woodpecker has "written" on. You don't even have to see the woodpecker to know it's been here, or to know it is one big bird.

We can also see that a cousin of the pileated has also been active. These neatly drilled holes are the work of a sapsucker. This smaller woodpecker makes the holes to get to the tree sap, eating both the sap and the insects that are drawn to it.
Neat holes drilled by a sapsucker.

Old scar on a tree, scratched open for sap.
Birds aren't the only forest inhabitants who like sap. This scar is a few years old, but you can clearly see the claw marks where a bear scratched through bark to get to the sap. 

Other animal stories are told by tracks and trails (pictured bottom), scat (not pictured!) and even hatched egg shells from a snapping turtle. The well-gnawed tree trunk (pictured top) is clear evidence of beaver activity.
Empty shells from hatched turtle eggs.

Snow is especially good at telling a story of what just happened. It's an excellent (though temperary) slate for recording tracks, trails, skirmishes and the food chain in action. I've seen a little track from some unfortunate little rodent end abruptly at a swish made from the wing feathers of some fortunate bird of prey. I didn't get a picture of that scene but this photo (taken after a wild turkey trotted through our yard) shows you what I mean about the wing swoosh.
A wing swoosh and footprints in the snow tell us a wild turkey was here.
Animals are just some of the character in the forest stories. Rocks, trees and even the earth have their own tales to tell. I'll have to save that for another post. This is one story that is, well, to be continued...

Moose track.

Moose trail.