Posts Tagged beavers

Wetland Wonderland

Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres of green chaos since 1989. We’re not in a subdivision. Our road was a country road to nowhere back then, with mostly small houses set back from the street a bit, adjacent to fields and forest. Subdivisions seem to multiply daily around us now; schools were built, water lines were laid, but our five acres remain — for now, at least — fairly secluded, thanks to the large creek that forms our eastern border. The land on the other side has been logged in the past, but likely because of its swampy nature, no one has tried to put houses on it.

Atamasco lily with an admirer (click on the photo to see a larger version).

We found our place in January, but I knew enough about piedmont forests and ecosystems to recognize that the snow-dusted landscape was special. Part of our land is an active floodplain; some years, the creek overflows across it up to a dozen times, turning our home into lake-front property for 12, sometimes 24 hours. One edge of our land shelters a remarkably healthy wetland, where Atamaso lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Lizard’s Tails, Cinnamon ferns, Sweetbay magnolias, and other southeastern US wetland natives thrive.

They were here when we moved in, and I’m delighted to report they are still here, and still thriving. The wetland plants are having a spectacular spring this year, likely due in part to a mild winter, and I think the beavers that have claimed the land on the other side of the creek have much to do with the improved vibrancy of the wetland communities.

The beaver pond continues to expand in width and length, engulfing canopy trees.

My area is in a moderate drought, which usually means our creek drops to a trickle. Not this year. This year, the creek is deep, sluggish, and brimming with wildlife. A family of Canada geese raucously argues over the best swimming spots, their calls echoing up the hill where I pull weeds in my vegetable garden.

Canada geese noisily enjoy the beaver pond.

Mallards complain, quacking their disapproval, and until recently, female Wood ducks shrieked when suitors pressed a tad too ardently. I’m not hearing them anymore; I suspect they are sitting on nests. Every time I walk down for a closer look, I disturb at least one Great Blue Heron stalking the shallow edges of the pond. They rise, croaking in raspy voices that don’t match their elegant forms. Kingfishers patrol the creek, which has more — and larger — fish in it than we’ve seen in many years.

These are small fry, but Wonder Spouse is routinely spotting sizable brim and bass loitering in deeper spots in the creek.

Dragonflies zip through the trees; frogs are less boisterous, likely because tadpoles teem in the shallows. Life abounds. And we get to live next door to it.

A freshly excavated woodpecker hole in a maple in the middle of the beaver pond.

Recently, we showed a plant-loving friend our wetland treasure, knowing he would appreciate what some might perceive as a nuisance. His sharp eyes spotted caterpillars devouring willow leaves at the edge of the pond. They turned out to be caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly, a Monarch mimic that needs wetland food trees for its young.

Caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly appreciate our wetland habitat.

This is my dream come true — living immersed in the natural world, where every day brings a new discovery, or the return of an old friend as another species pops up for the season. I feel deeply blessed to live in this place and this time while simultaneously worrying about how outnumbered my wild friends and I are these days.

Just a quarter mile away as the crow flies, a massive subdivision covering a thousand acres is nearly complete. Whole neighborhoods are getting group rates from insecticide companies that spray “safe” poisons throughout their yards to kill ticks, mosquitoes, and spiders on contact. On contact? Safe? Can anyone hope to touch, much less open, the minds of those so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that they think a dead, sterile landscape is an ideal?

All I know to do is to keep talking and writing about my green world, in the hopes that at least some of the plant blind — those who cannot distinguish, or can’t be bothered to distinguish, between a maple and a sweet gum, an ash and a walnut, a beneficial spider and a disease-carrying tick — will learn to see the beauty, wonder, and essential role  of the natural world they so blithely ignore.

I’ll leave you with two final photos of small jewels native to my wetland and currently blooming there. Many of the photos in this post were taken by the amazing Wonder Spouse and his long lens. A number of the close-up shots are mine.  Now that the wetland trees and shrubs are almost fully leafed out, we won’t be able to get many more good shots of the beaver pond, so I hope you enjoy these.

Maybe if every lover of the green world could crack open one plant-oblivious mind per month, maybe, just maybe, we could still salvage what is left.

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Reflections on winter’s last laugh

I’ve decided that Mother Nature — at least in my part of the world — is afflicted with the bipolar disease that appears to be plaguing much of humanity these days. Moments of wild mania — in Nature’s case, reflected by record heat in February that prompted insane blooming of flowers meant to slumber until mid-March — are followed by roller-coaster crashes of depression — and ice. I’ve found it difficult to maintain my equilibrium in the midst of this wildly cycling chaos.

But early this icy morning as a just-past-full moon began to set while dawn brightened the eastern horizon, I felt compelled to grab my camera and stroll — albeit briefly — in the 17-degree chill. I didn’t want to document the death all around me — frozen, browned flower buds so recently full of spring promise. Instead, I focused on the wetland on our eastern border that grows daily, thanks to industrious beavers.

From the top of our hill looking east.

You can click on any image in this blog to see a larger version, and it might help you interpret the one above more easily if you do so. The water in the left foreground is a tiny pond on our side of the creek that defines our eastern border; the ice in the top photo was on the shallow side of that pond this morning. It is difficult to make out the creek just behind the pond, but you can’t fail to notice the line of water farther back. That’s the beaver pond. I think it gleamed more brightly than usual, because its many shallow portions are frozen over like my tiny pond.

View from the bridge adjacent to the tiny pond, not visible, on the left.

Now you can see the waters of the creek in the foreground, while the beaver pond behind it looms icily closer. When the light is favorable, from my living room that overlooks our back deck, I can use binoculars to watch ducks dabbling happily in this growing expanse of water. Usually they are wood ducks, but the last time I walked down there — about a week ago — in addition to a group of about a half dozen wood ducks, I spotted several pairs of mallards, and about a half dozen Canada geese. They glided silently across the pond until I got too close, prompting them to erupt noisily into the air, their bodies shedding miniature waterfalls.

This view from my back deck shows the creek waters in the foreground, the beaver pond looming close behind.

The beaver pond is about 25-30 feet behind and parallel to the creek. Its length continues to stretch toward my house. In fact, its shallow, northernmost extent now reaches behind my house. When Nature’s mood crashes — as it feels to have done now — I struggle not to interpret the encroaching water as threatening. I struggle these days not to feel as if I’m drowning in terrifying news, as everything I have loved and worked for is being systematically dismantled by rule-makers who believe science is just another belief system they can ignore.

But before panic pulls me under, I head outside at dawn to watch the setting moon, breathe in deep lungfuls of icy air, and smile at the jungle-worthy call of a Pileated Woodpecker. “We are still here,” it reminds me, “and so are you.”

Impatient vegetables in my greenhouse on the day of our brief snow four days ago.

And then I enter my little greenhouse, my glasses instantly fogging up from its warm humidity, and smile at the lettuces and other greens waiting patiently for their move to spring vegetable beds. “We’re still here,” they tell me, “and so are you.”

The northern end of the growing beaver pond with the creek in the foreground.

When I turn back to the expanding wetland beside my home, I see beauty instead of danger, the promise of abundant life instead of its demise. I remember that change is life, that chaos is always present, and I am responsible for my response to it.

It’s my responsibility to find the beauty.

Saracenia flava blooming in my greenhouse.

It’s my responsibility to find the light.

It’s my responsibility to remember that love always wins.


A New Year’s Eve Walkabout

We knew rains — significant rains — were promised for New Year’s Day, so Wonder Spouse and I took advantage of a mild New Year’s Eve Day to wander about our five acres. Mostly, we saw what we expected to see, but as always, there were a few surprises.

Our area hasn’t seen significant rain for over two months, and we’ve been labeled “abnormally dry” by the experts who monitor such things. Usually when this is the case, our floodplain dries out, the mud disappears, and the creek level drops to a trickle. But this hasn’t happened this time. Previous such episodes have taught us to suspect beavers.

As New Year’s Eve Day dawned, I realized I was seeing much more water than normal reflecting light on the floodplain opposite our side of the creek. It’s a tad hard to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but this is what I saw.

The water reflecting light in the foreground is our creek. All that water further back wasn't there a month ago.

The water reflecting light in the foreground is our creek. All that water further back wasn’t there a month ago.

We pulled on our boots after the light grew stronger and got as close as we could to what turned out to be a growing beaver pond.

The edge of the pond area. Note the cattails in the right foreground.

The edge of the pond area. Note the cattails in the right foreground.

When I got in and looked at this next picture, I spotted a suspicious-looking structure on the right side.

We startled a pair of mallards when we moved in for this shot.

We startled a pair of mallards when we moved in for this shot.

I’m fairly certain that’s a beaver lodge in the middle of the pond on the right. Here’s a zoomed-in view.

See the dome in the middle that looks like a pile of sticks?

See the dome in the middle that looks like a pile of sticks?

The beavers are well on their way to creating a very large pond on our neighbor’s side of the creek. And today they got a lot of help — about 1.5 inches of rain, with a similar amount predicted for tomorrow. As night fell, our creek had reached the top of its banks. Even though the rain had stopped several hours earlier, the water was barely moving, thanks to the beaver dam downstream. More rain will certainly cause the creek to spill out onto our side of the floodplain — for how long remains to be seen.

The transformation is mesmerizing.

The transformation is mesmerizing.

It will be an interesting late winter and spring, if the pond is permitted to remain. The influx of waterfowl could be wonderful, and the last time the beavers did this, a few river otters moved in to enjoy the increase in fish and other aquatic life.

If 2016 taught me anything, it is that life is entirely unpredictable. It’s best, I think, to seek beauty anywhere I can, to savor it, celebrate it, and pray it wins out in the end. With that in mind, here are a few final beauty shots also taken this day.

Active nesting holes of resident Pileated Woodpeckers in a sycamore beside the creek

Active nesting holes of resident Pileated Woodpeckers in a sycamore beside the creek

First bloom of Witch hazel 'Amethyst'

First bloom of Witch hazel ‘Amethyst’

Lingering fall color of Virginia Sweetspire 'Henry's Garnet'

Lingering fall color of Virginia Sweetspire ‘Henry’s Garnet’


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Now you see them, now you don’t

It’s been a week of appearances and disappearances in my yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse and I were checking out our sad little creek, which has morphed into a series of shallow pools separated by sand bars, when we noticed this:


That was a large branch of a buttonbush growing beside the creek. All the leafy goodness was removed recently by a beaver.

It quit halfway through this one.

It quit halfway through this one.

We figure it’s probably the work of a juvenile beaver recently expelled from its parents’ territory, because the only other damage we could find was to a stand of naturally occurring hazelnuts that grow downstream from the buttonbush about a hundred yards. If a pair or more of these rodents had moved in, we would be seeing much more damage. The other possibility is that a group has set up camp somewhere in the wetland beyond the creek, which is criss-crossed by a number of channels that eventually feed into our creek downstream of our property. However, if that were the case, I would have thought even our part of the creek would have higher water levels.

Note the striations from those mighty beaver teeth.

Note the striations from those mighty beaver teeth.

I’m hoping it was a juvenile just passing through. If I had a hundred acres, I’d happily share ten with beavers — that’s the average size of the impoundment they prefer to create. But I only have five acres, and they’re full of trees and shrubs that I planted with love and have labored and watched over for decades. So I’m hoping this one moved on after decimating the tastiest woodies it could easily access.

Caterpillars of black swallowtail butterfly on bronze fennel

Caterpillars of black swallowtail butterfly on bronze fennel

My bronze fennel and parsley plants were playing host to about three dozen caterpillars four days ago. They were growing fast, and I was looking forward to searching for their chrysalises when they were ready for that transformation. However, I think they were instead transformed into dinners for my local bird population. I’ve been grateful all summer for the steady work of bluebirds, wrens, gnatcatchers, and warblers as they prevented tomato hornworms from inflicting any serious damage to my tomatoes.

Fat, finalized, and apparently delicious

Fat, fennalized, and apparently delicious

But I should have realized that the same bright eyes that spotted the hornworms would eventually notice the swallowtail caterpillars. A few mornings ago when I came out to inspect their progress, I found one lone caterpillar on a fennel. Thinking it was too exposed there, I moved it to a parsley plant disguised by chive leaves. The birds must have been watching from the trees. My relocated caterpillar didn’t last the day.

This is a tough one for me, but if forced to choose between aiding the reproduction of a beautiful pollinator species and nurturing a healthy horde of insect-devouring feathered flying machines, I think the birds are doing my landscape more good than the swallowtails. Still, it was a jolt to see my fennels suddenly devoid of caterpillars.

Red-spotted purple butterfly

Red-spotted Purple butterfly

As if in compensation, Red-spotted Purple butterflies are suddenly back in my yard. This one was sipping the moist bed in my vegetable garden that I had enriched with compost and deeply watered before I planted it with spinach, lettuce, baby kale, and beet seeds. As of yesterday, germination was evident for all varieties. I see much transplanting and watering of small seedlings in my future.

The greens bed just after planting.

The greens bed just after planting.

I am gambling big time with direct-sowing these veggies, but I had the seed, I’m craving good spinach and lettuce, so I planted. A possible hurricane may get close enough next week to make temperatures soar, but odds are we won’t get any rain out of it. I’ll be lucky to keep the seedlings and the broccoli transplants I’ve added alive until more autumnal temperatures arrive. And if the rains don’t come soon, lack of water may finish them off. But even the faint chance of sweet fall broccoli, savory spinach, crisp lettuce, and maybe even more sugary red beets was more than I could pass on. As any vegetable gardener knows, once you’ve grown — and eaten — your own, it’s very hard to go back to the grocery store.

Soldier beetle enjoying a zinnia

Soldier beetle enjoying a zinnia

Another sign of summer’s waning is the appearance of increasing numbers of soldier beetles. They are mobbing my flowers almost more than the bees.


Sky dragons sporting an array of colors and patterns patrol the skies from dawn till well past sunset. Given their numbers this year, it’s a miracle I’ve seen any butterflies flitting about at all.

Autumn fruits are also coloring up on a wide array of shrubs and trees in my yard, but I’ll save those for another post. For now, I advise my fellow gardeners to keep close eyes on your charges during this transitional time of year. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly miss some of the comings and goings in your patch of green.

A motion-blurred male Spicebush Swallowtail attempts a dalliance with a female enjoying an annual salvia.

A motion-blurred male Spicebush Swallowtail attempts a dalliance with a female enjoying an annual salvia.

A note to my NC piedmont region readers:

I post a number of links of local interest on my Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Along with many extra photos of my yard and gardens, you’ll also find links to relevant local events and to articles of interest. Check it out, and if you like what you see, follow me there.

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If you don’t look, you won’t see

Green Treefrog

Autumn is a great time for patrolling your yard/garden. As frost kills formerly lush vegetation, areas hidden by summer are revealed. When I removed a mountain of dead Japanese Stiltgrass from a spot in my north garden yesterday, I discovered a thriving, still-green native blueberry that I planted three years ago. The hideous invasive grass had grown so fast and thickly that I forgot the little blueberry was there. I apologized for the neglect, but fortunately, I don’t think the blueberry was much hindered.

The best surprises yesterday appeared as Wonder Spouse and I walked beside our creek. We’ve been very dry here; we’ll likely be placed into the Abnormally Dry category by the meteorologists next week, unless the rain promised for tomorrow is much more bountiful than predicted. Despite the drought, our creek has more water in it than is usual for such conditions. The water itself barely flows. These signs tell me that beavers are working downstream; their dams prevent the creek water level from dropping. Local inhabitants have noticed the change.

Perched on brown leaves recently discarded by towering Sycamores, we discovered two very bright Green Treefrogs nearly side by side. In Summer’s greenness, I would certainly have passed right by them, but their color contrasted vividly with the browning landscape, making them impossible to miss.

The link above notes these are mostly inhabitants of our state’s coastal plain, but they’ve been creeping west of late. From the recording of their call and previous sightings on rainy summer nights when they climb our windows seeking insects, I know that this species has been part of our wetland for at least 20 years. The frog in the top photo was larger than its companion here:

Green Treefrog Number 2

Both frogs seemed astonished that they were spotted. Perhaps the water level in the creek and the unseasonably warm air made them think they were still camouflaged by Summer’s green cloak. We wished them well, advised them to seek warmer quarters ahead of the latest cold front due tomorrow, and continued upstream.

After only a few steps, as we passed a deeper spot in the creek, several ducks flew up and away in a whoosh of wingbeats. They departed so quickly that we didn’t get a good look, but by their size and general conformation, we suspect they were Mallards. The source I linked to says these ducks are now fairly common throughout my state, and our environment seems to be exactly what they seek this time of year. During Spring, I often see Mallards, Wood Ducks, and some years even Canada Geese. All three species have raised young ones in our wetland.

Right now, the recently arrived beavers are far enough downstream from us that we are gaining the benefits of their presence without any negative consequences. As our forest goes bare for Winter, our trusty binoculars will get much use as we observe increased numbers of wetland-loving wildlife. I confess it is possible for me to lose hours this way.

But beavers are hungry rodents, ever expanding their reach to fell trees for food and dam-building. If they approach too closely, the creek will jump its banks and create a shallow pond across our floodplain. The last time this happened, the water covered an acre and a half, trees were being felled at alarming rates, and those that still stood were dying as the water deprived their roots of oxygen. When this happened, we felt obliged to take steps we did not want to take. I hope circumstances won’t force us there this time.

We made all of these discoveries from one brief Autumn walk with eyes open and ears sharpened. I encourage all my readers to try this. Step outside, into your garden or onto a nature trail. Turn off your electronic devices, remove ear buds. Walk softly through the landscape with your senses tuned for subtle changes. When you really look, you will see.


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