MUSKRATS: Masters of the Murky Marsh

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY 

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With a bit of imagination, the common muskrat might be compared to a very large field mouse: one with a can do attitude that easily adapts to life in the wetlands and waterways of Oakland County. To muskrats, winter is not an obstacle for cozy living. For just like beavers, the muskrat prepares, with a few additional twists of its own, to guarantee Homeland Security during winter. This paunchy appearing rodent is covered with a rich, dark brown waterproof layer of fur (except on its scaly-skin tail). As soon as ice coats the lakes of the Oakland County Parks, the well dressed for the weather muskrats create pushups. Pushups provide a unique way for them to feed, travel and stay out of sight.

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Secret World of Beaver Freezers: Life Under Ice


WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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Beavers are the largest, yet least seen, rodents found in Oakland County. Even though these creatures can weigh more than 50 pounds with their massive flat tails, it’s difficult to spot them because they are mostly nocturnal and semi-aquatic. They are without a doubt, the best dam builders in our county. During late autumn, beavers busied themselves preparing for winter by strengthening their dams, adding extra mud and sticks to their fortified lodges and most importantly, stocking their underwater pantries. Wildlife biologists like to call those winter food caches Beaver Freezers. Rarely does a human get to see these underwater food storage sites; for usually, as the ice begins to freeze, it quickly turns opaque and snow blocks any view. Not this year. On the second day of January, I had the unusual opportunity to inch my way carefully out over crystal clear ice and capture images of the top of a beaver freezer in one of the 13 Oakland County Parks.

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The Wilder Side of Oakland County

 

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Season of the Beaver

The beavers of Oakland County were snug and cozy in their lodges with plenty to eat while tens of thousands of county residents shivered in the cold and dark for almost a week after that powerful ice storm late last month.   The beaver is America’s largest rodent and is not bothered by snow or freezing rain for these master builders are skilled survivalists that stay one step ahead of winter weather.   Adapting to conditions by reshaping their environment with dams and lodges is the key to their winter survival and territorial expansion; and in winter the secret life of the beaver goes on under blankets of snow and a layer of ice.

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About the time of the first heavy frost beavers accelerated their felling of trees to gather building materials to strengthen lodges and create food caches for winter.  The lodges are 5 to 6 feet high and 10 – 12 feet in diameter and are built to withstand extremes of nature.  They have two underwater entrances, one of which can function as an emergency escape hatch if a predator enters or there is a sudden rise in water level.   During winter the beavers spend much of their time napping on sleeping platforms and dining in feeding dens; areas above the water level created within the security of the lodge.  When the food pantry is empty all beavers need do is slip out and swim down to their nearby food cache of tasty aspen and willow branches stored in the murky depth of the cold pond bottom.  And if fresh veggies are desired they swim under the ice in search of roots and stems of aquatic vegetation.

Even when winters are mild and ice is absent they seldom venture far from shore, for on dry land Oakland County beavers are vulnerable to coyotes and their northern brethren are easy prey for wolves.   Beaver lodges are hidden in wetlands throughout the county but an observant hiker has the best chances of discovering one of these amazing structures in winter at Addison Oaks, Highland Oaks, Independence Oaks and Rose Oaks county parks.  For details on all 13 Oakland County Parks visit: www.DestinationOakland.com

Courtesy of Jonathan Schechter, Oakland County Parks Nature Education Writer