Friday, December 20, 2013

Beavers: Ready for the Winter Solstice!

Active beaver lodge at Highland Oaks County Park, Oakland County, Michigan  12/16/13 
All photos by Jonathan Schechter

Beavers are nature's supreme engineers and not just because of their dam building skills. These amazing animals are the largest rodents in North America and may weigh up to 60 pounds. And they  are the only species in Oakland County that alters the environment to suit their needs other than man!  Winter weather transforms the lives of the beaver and  by the time  the Winter Solstice arrives the sturdy lodges become the center of all activity. Each lodge has an above water platform chamber where the beaver family sleeps, dines and grooms all winter. And they stay warm even during howling blizzards. In spring the lodge becomes the birthing chamber for the kits. But to survive until spring the beavers had to prepare in autumn much in the way humans would prepare if given advance notice of a powerful storm---beavers and humans both store food and fortify their homes in preparation. 

Branches were cut from trees they felled  in autumn and dragged to the pond  to be stored in underwater food caches near the lodges. And underwater entrances to the lodge enable the beavers to swim to their winter 'store' to shop for their stashed meals. The survival of each beaver colony during winter depends on the availability of this under-ice food supply and the sturdiness of the lodge to repel predators. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the wolf is the primary winter predator; in Oakland County coyotes pose some risk.  After ice-out next spring beavers  resume their surface swimming and search for fresh  wetland vegetation and tender young twigs and saplings on shore and more trees to cut to repair damage to dams and add to the lodge.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Muskrats: Masters of winter survival and cozy construction!

Photos by Jonathan Schechter, Oakland County, Michigan 

The muskrats of Michigan are perfectly adapted to their semi-aquatic life style. And just like their much larger cousin the beaver, they are pros at constructing cozy lodges.  But unlike  beavers that built large lodges from  sections of trees they gnawed down and branches they gathered, muskrat uses wetland vegetation as building material. Lodges have an underwater entrance and a cozy above water level feeding platform. Most of the winter is spent in the lodge sleeping and keeping warm and sometimes the lodge is even shared with other muskrats. Muskrats the live in areas devoid of abundant vegetation have another trick; they dig burrows into banks and create subterranean homes. Predation hazards remain in winter for all muskrats; for they are hunted by mink and on days when muskrats venture above the ice or snow they can fall victim to red-tailed hawks. But for most of winter they are safe for they have another neat trick of adaption.  Not long after the ice forms they chew though thin ice to create an opening and then build a tiny lodge of  mud and vegetative matter on top of the ice known to wildlife biologists as "push-ups".  The push-ups function as  small feeding stations and secure resting areas when on underwater forays for food away from their main lodge. The push ups remind me of the  back country shelters that add to the comfort and safety of  hikers on the Appalachian Trail!


To some the muskrat is nothing but a large pesky  field mouse. But to those that know this amazing "water rat", it's a cleaver creature that makes the best of its harsh environment. The muskrat even has four chisel like teeth that protrude ahead of its cheeks and lips that seal tightly behind the teeth enabling this amazing well adapted creature to chew on vegetation underwater with its mouth closed or swim on the surface with a mouthful of  veggies!                                             

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Oakland County Coyote Nests?

Eastern coyote caught on my wildlife camera in Brandon Township, Michigan
(The mound behind the coyote is a large anthill) 

The heading in The Oakland Press front page story screamed, "2 Coyotes spotted in recent weeks".  I decided to  sit down and read the story since there is absolutely nothing unusual about coyotes being in Oakland  County.  The eastern coyote, our native wild canid, is found in every county in the State of Michigan including our highly urbanized areas.  So why the news story about a coyote being seen in Oakland County?

I cringed as I read the rest of the story about coyotes in the Village of Lake Orion as if that was a rare event.  The story included a police officer stating that he believed the "the coyote had a nest in someones backyard".And from the Lake Orion Village Police Chief ,"While coyote are typically afraid of humans the fact they are nesting closer to neighborhoods  means they could get more comfortable with that environment."  Fact of the matter  is we are "nesting" in their habitat and have created a mecca of more good habitat for them with our landscaping  techniques interspersed with woodlands and fields.

Coyotes are very much a part of the natural scene in Oakland County and are adapting to our ways faster than  we learn about their ways.  Sightings increase in December primarily because with leaves down we can see them!  During summer and autumn the leafy cover of Oakland County provided great cover.  As for coyote nests;  I have seen bird nests and mouse nests and squirrel nests but never a coyote nest. Coyotes establish large territories and during spring dig dens for raising pups.

Want something to fear? 

Fear the texting and distracted drivers that infest our highways leading to injuries and deaths. Fear the drunk drivers.  Fear aggressive off-leash dogs.When it comes to coyotes, learn about their behavior and how we  should behave if we come in close contact. Rule number one is never ever run from a coyote.  Keep them fearful of humans by standing your ground, yelling, throwing things and never ever giving access to a food source. Keep coyotes wild by respecting their wild ways!