As across much of North America prior to European settlement, beavers are the prime architects of the land in the nature preserve. You may not see them, but evidence of their activities is visible along the edges of the pond where sapling trees have been cut off about 6 to 10 inches above the ground. Beavers tilt their heads to use their sharp front teeth (incisors) to gnaw the tree resulting in the angled cut you see on the tree stumps along the boardwalk. The beaver then drags the tree to a safe place to eat the inner bark. Some of the stripped branches can be seen in piles at the edge of the pond; others are used to fortify the dam at the back edge of the pond.
Other evidence of beavers is the system of “canals” they dig to reach the trees along the shore. These are shallow linear depressions in the pond bottom that the beaver uses for protection and to drag branches to their safe “dining rooms”.
If you go to the preserve before sunrise, you may be able to see a beaver in the pond. They work mainly in the early morning and late evening. If the beaver hears you, she will slap her tail on the water as a warning to her young or other beavers that a predator is near.
The beavers at the preserve live in burrows dug in the side of the creek bank. That is why we see no beaver lodges in the pond. Since the pond sometimes dries up in summer, it cannot provide continuous safety (as a moat) for the beaver’s home and the creek offers an alternative.
New shoots sprout from the cut stumps and grow quickly in the moist soil at the edge of the pond. This is an excellent example of a “renewable resource”. The beaver takes what it needs for food, building material, and shelter but the resource is renewed.
The Red Fox is widespread across North America and is more abundant now than when Europeans first colonized the new world. Clearing the land for farming increased the habitat that red foxes prefer and the removal of wolves and coyotes reduced the competition for food sources. Red foxes eat rodents, birds and bird eggs, frogs, insects, and berries. They mate in winter and build a den in a cave or burrow in the ground. The kits are born in spring, normally about five to a den. Foxes in the nature preserve are rarely seen but their tracks are often found in the mud of our trails.
The Raccoon is also widespread across North America and has increased in numbers since the discovery of the new world. Raccoons generally nest in hollow trees but will choose other locations such as attics, and sheds. Young number from two to seven in a litter, born in the spring. They are omnivorous and will eat insects, berries, fish, eggs, and crayfish. Raccoons are notorious for raiding garbage cans and stealing food from campgrounds. They are nocturnal (active at night) and are rarely seen during the day. The tracks of the raccoon are distinctive and are often visible around the nature preserve pond where they hunt for crayfish and other food.
Otters are primarily aquatic (living in water) and can be found across North America. They are long and sleek like minks but larger and have webbed feet for swimming. River otters mate in winter and one to five pups are born in spring in dens in the river bank. All otters are extremely playful and will use steep river or pond banks as slides. They eat fish, frogs, crayfish and insects. Otters are usually seen in the nature preserve pond in the spring.
Skunks are present across North America but are usually noticed first by their odor. Scent glands in their at the base of the tail contain a foul smelling, oily liquid that the skunk can spray at predators or humans that come too close. Skunks live in natural crevices or dens abandoned by other animals and give birth to four to seven kits in spring. They eat many types of foods including plants, insects, eggs, mice, and carrion (dead animals).
These common rabbits are found throughout North America from the Rocky Mountains eastward. Their white “powder-puff” tail is the distinguishing characteristic. Very prolific, Eastern cottontail females can raise up to six litters every year with as many as seven young per litter. Most young rabbits do not survive their first year due to disease and predators, such as foxes and hawks. Cottontails in the nature preserve like to hide in the dense vegetation or brush piles but can often be seen eating tender shoots in the grass near the entrance.
Another common resident of the nature preserve is the Eastern chipmunk, often heard “chipping” in alarm when humans get near. The sound is sometimes confused with the call of the Northern Cardinal. Chipmunks live in burrows near fallen logs or rock outcrops and stash piles of acorns and other seeds in their lairs to survive the winters. Their burrows get larger over time with long tunnels and extra chambers and exits to fool predators. Chipmunks can climb trees and swim if necessary to avoid their enemies. Four or five young are born in late spring or early summer but do not leave the den for six weeks. They will eat berries, mushrooms, worms, insects, and bulbs.
The Gray squirrel is also a common inhabitant of eastern north America and is seen as often in people’s yards as in the nature preserve. They nest high in trees using pine needles, grasses, leaves, and hair to weave a protective “basket” for their young. Females give birth to three or more young twice a year. Squirrels eat seeds, berries, flowers, insects, and mushrooms and are eaten themselves by owls, foxes, and snakes. A squirrels bushy tail serves as a balance, a blanket in cold weather, and a signaling device for courting. Their loud chattering is usually a warning signal.
Flying squirrels are nocturnal, that is active at night. Therefore, they are rarely seen by our visitors to the nature preserve. Flying squirrels do not actually fly, but spread the broad folds of skin along their sides to glide between tree branches, changing direction by maneuvering their arms and legs. These squirrels nest in vacant tree cavities, left behind by woodpeckers. Three to five young are born in the spring. Foods include insects, nuts, berries, and baby birds.
The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial animal in North America north of Mexico. Marsupial refers to the method of birth: an internal womb for gestation and the external pouch where the young complete their development. Opossums share this characteristic with kangaroos and wallabies of Australia, the yapok of Brazil, and the platypus. An average of eight young spend two months nursing in the pouch, then another month or two with their mother before leaving to explore the outside world.
Opossums eat mostly grasses, nuts, and fruits but will also eat insects, snakes, and garbage. They nest in any protected space including basements and attics. They use their long, hairless tails to grip tree branches and to carry materials to their dens for bedding. Opossums are nocturnal (active at night) and are rarely seen during the day at the nature preserve.
Common in North America, the little brown bat weighs only 0.25 ounce and hibernates in colonies during the winter. If no caves are available, the bat will roost in attics or rock crevices and sometimes under the bark of trees. These bats eat mosquitoes, mayflies, moths and beetles. They are nocturnal and can be seen around dusk flying over the beaver pond in the nature preserve in the summer. Bats are NOT blind as was once believed. All bats use sonar (high pitched sound waves) to navigate, but they can see very well and hunt by smell and sight.