NATURE NOTE - Number 68 May 14, 2023
As I have mentioned before, there are animals out there that are difficult to see, but they are there. Their names might be familiar to scouts, but we may forget about them because we never see them. So let’s get familiar with one group of these mammals:
Our Current Topic: Virginia’s Water Mammals
By this, I mean mammals that are normally found around lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. I am excluding whales even though they are certainly water mammals, as you are not likely to find one in the BRMC footprint. So here is some info on several of them:
Beavers are said to be found in every county in Virginia. This was a surprise to me as I have only seen one beaver (at Camp Ottari) in Virginia and not many dams. The early fur trade almost wiped out this rodent coast to coast, but today is much more common than thought. They tend to spread via streams from an established colony to new territory when the young leave their parents after two years. The first sign of a new resident at the pond or lake is usually the rapid appearance of cone-shaped stumps with wood chips around it. A beaver at Lake Ottari, about 10 years ago, made quick work of several cherry trees along the road beside the lake (I think the stumps are still there), and was working on other trees at the head of the lake. It showed how quickly they can remove trees. The trees they cut may be used for construction or striped of the bark which is then eaten. Their skills for building dams, lodges, and rerouting streams or flooding areas are well known. While they can be quite destructive, causing streams to overflow into roadways, flooding crops, and destroying trees that need protecting, they are absolutely fascinating to watch if you ever get the chance. I watched some in Alaska several years ago while parked next to their remote pond. Apparently, they had no idea what a car was, so they kept on working - like beavers.
Otters are more common in eastern Virginia than in our area, but they occur throughout the state. Once on the state endangered list, they were removed in 1990 due to their rebounded population. A number were relocated from eastern Virginia into the headwaters of the James River, and from there they spread throughout the watershed. Trapping, with some restrictions, is now legal throughout the state. Since they are mostly nocturnal and rather elusive, sightings are uncommon. However, a couple of years ago one was spotted crossing a parking lot in Richmond. Go figure. What you might find along a river or stream, is evidence of their most playful habit: sliding down muddy river banks. Their main diet is fish, but they also consume frogs and crayfish. Their den is often an old beaver lodge or a hollow log stuck in a log jam along a stream. The usual weight is 10-25 pounds, but 40 pounds is not unheard of. Dark and slick looking, their thick furry tail tapers at the end and is used as a rudder as they swim. They make a variety of noises including screams and growls.
The chunky muskrat is an inhabitant of wetlands and swamps where aquatic plants, such as water lilies, duckweed and cattails, as well as clams, frogs, crayfish, provide its food. Muskrats (they look like a rat, especially the tail, and have a gland that produces a musky odor) can be mistaken for a beaver, but are much smaller with a length of 18-24 inches and weighing only 4 pounds. Mostly nocturnal, these mammals don’t hibernate, but in cold weather, they are less active. In warmer weather, they will wander considerable distance from water. A big problem with muskrats is their tendency to burrow into dams and weaken the structure. Because of this, Virginia laws are rather lenient when it comes to trapping or hunting this animal. Some counties have an open trapping season but check with your local wildlife authorities before you set out your trap line.
The nutria is an invasive species that escaped from fur farms in the past. It is similar to the muskrat, but larger, weighing up to 20 pounds, and is more competitive, therefore it has displaced the native muskrat in many locations. They are much more common in Eastern Virginia but seem to be spreading. This is due in part to their rather prolific reproduction. They have several litters of up to 10 young per year. They feed exclusively on aquatic plants. Like the muskrat, a big problem is the nutria’s habit of burrowing into earthen dams and destroying the integrity of the dam, especially during the winter. They also are credited with major damage to wetlands and soils.
While you probably aren’t likely to see these creatures, there are places throughout the area that might offer the opportunity to start a conversation with your scouts, and give some idea of how widespread they were in the past. Traversing Bedford County on US 460 presents the Peaks of Otter, the Big and Little Otter River and the community of Otterville. The Beaver Park community is off of US 29 in Pittsylvania County, and Pandapas Pond west of Blacksburg has trees along the pond wrapped in wire to discourage a beaver from having lunch there. And it would not be unusual to find these animals on the reservation. Since Mammal Study Merit Badge requires a write-up on one mammal, any of those listed above gives a start on this. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources website at https://dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/information offers more information. And years ago, seems like every scout troop had a Beaver Patrol. And do we have any Wood Badge Beavers out there?
Remember: keep exposing, exciting, encouraging and educating future protectors of our wildlife about nature. A little piece at a time. NATURE NOTES help you do that. And thanks for reading it. Read again in two weeks. Give me your thoughts at: