A combination of abundant vegetation and some type of water — a creek, river, wetland, pond or lake — is one of my favorite types of natural area to visit for wildlife watching and photography. Water attracts wildlife and increases the chance of seeing something unexpected.
This was the case recently at a local nature reserve. A few days earlier, I’d seen many goldfinches and warblers at one of the ponds, but this day it was very quiet. I descended a small slope to stand on a mudflat and was suddenly surprised by a large splash to my left.
When I looked, I saw a largish head forging across the water in front of me. My first thought was that it was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) as there is no beaver lodge in this enclosed pond.
Muskrats and beavers look very similar, but beavers (Castor canadensis) tend to be much larger. This was a hefty individual who seemed fairly relaxed as s/he swam along.
As I watched the mammal swim back and forth for a while, I tentatively concluded that it was a beaver, based on my previous sightings of this rodent species. Still, I wasn’t quite sure and kept hoping that the animal would raise its tail so that I would have a decisive clue to its identity.
Beavers have large flat tails, while muskrats have long, thin tails. Finally, as s/he swam by again, I got a glimpse of the tail for a couple seconds and it was large and flat! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that (see a previous blog for some photos showing the beaver’s tail).
As I watched and took photos, a couple walked by with their dog and stopped to watch as well. I moved down the path and heard the gentleman exclaim, “Oh, it’s a beaver!” I turned and he explained that he had thought the swimmer was a muskrat, but he had just seen the tail, too.
The aquatic mammal climbed up onto a log for a bit to groom and relax and, as the couple remarked, almost seemed to be posing for me. The beaver kept its back to me most of the time though.
I began to walk back down the path in hopes of getting a head-on view if the beaver decided to swim again. S/he did indeed slip back into the water to resume swimming back and forth. And then to my delight, a small head popped up going the other direction!
For some reason, I just assumed that it was a baby beaver, swimming around under the watchful eye of a parent. The newly arrived rodent seemed to be very intent on eating and dove down into the pond to bring up some tasty vegetation.
It then swam over to the mudflat where I had been, and I ventured back there.
Moving slowly and maintaining a good distance from the dining animal, I was able to get some good views as it enjoyed its meal.
While the beaver’s fur remained sleek on its head and back after being submerged a while, the little one’s fur stuck together in clumps all over its head and body. To me it looked a bit like a punk teenager — an analogy that undoubtedly came to mind because I was thinking of it as a baby or adolescent beaver.
This was one of the cutest wildlife spottings I had had in recent weeks, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. But I began doubting if this animal was indeed a beaver. I never saw its tail but at one point, I could see some orange teeth that reminded me of beaver incisors.
Of course, the diner didn’t care and just kept diving for more veggies to eat. The large beaver appeared to have left in the meantime.
It was when I was reviewing identity characteristics of beavers vs muskrats while writing this blog that I ultimately came to a final conclusion about whom I had been watching. This was based on several websites that provided some good ID clues:
Beavers tend to weigh about 35-70 or even up to 100 lbs (15-30 or even 45 kg), Muskrats generally weigh only about 2-5 lbs (0.9-2.3 kg).
Beavers’ ears protrude from their heads as they swim around (first photo below), while muskrats’ ears lie flat (second photo below). Beavers also have larger noses.
Muskrats dive down to get vegetation from pond bottoms to eat, which my second visitor was very busy doing indeed. Beavers strip bark and leaves from trees and in my experience (having watched beavers eat close by a couple years ago), they can be quite noisy chewers.
I’d enjoyed the idea of having seen a parent-and-child beaver duo but, in hindsight, I concluded that I’d been watching a beaver and a muskrat sharing pond space.
This was also a very cool event since neither one had been shy. A lack of other human passersby (only the one couple strolled by in the space of almost an hour) may have made them feel comfortable. It was certainly a treat for me!
Next up: fateful days for frogs….