Thursday, January 11, 2018

Chapter Five

Why Beavers Prefer Not to Raise Their Kits Where Otter Pups Get Their Lessons


One breezy spring day from his boat anchored next to the cattails in South Bay, Old Ernie explained to us that it was easiest to catch the spawning bullheads when the water was "riley." But in 2000, we could have caught them with our hands as they flip flopped up rocks toward the leaking dams of the lower ponds. It had been a wet spring. The river was high and the ponds overflowing. The bullhead run ended my worry that the drought depleted the fish stock in the beaver ponds. I didn't catch any and trusted that raccoons didn't eat them all.



That left plenty for otters. I hid in the brush beside the two creeks but saw no otters. On April 12, 2000, I saw two napping on logs behind Otter Hole Pond dam. One swam toward the lodge behind the dam and the other ducked through the hole in the dam and went into Beaver Point pond. I watched the nearer otter fish and scat on a log. All the while it was making a beeping noise and getting beeps in return from the otter in Beaver Point Pond.

Unlike the otters I saw in the spring of 1999 these two gave no impression of being on a mission from Eel Bay. And I didn't fall for the implication that two otters together in the spring must be mates. Beeping when separated from each other is behavior I associate with pups separated from Mom. And where was she? I began working on the hunch, informed by my reading, that she was behind me in the woods somewhere raising a new litter of pups. Audubon had found a mother and her pups in a hole in a tree trunk. I never found the like but the anticipation warmed my hikes through the chilly brown woods.


As with several other small mammal species, evolution has increased the North American otter's chance for survival because the embryo conceived in the spring does not implant in the mother's uterus until the next winter. Delayed implantation guarantees that otter pups will not be born too late in the spring to learn all the skills assuring their surviving the coming winter.

With otters seemingly distracted in one way or another (I had no idea if and why siblings separated), I had my own delayed implantation. In the spring and early summer I didn't sit on the banks of ponds with good views of beaver lodges where I might see otters snuggling. That would come in the fall, but even then, thanks to my reading, I steeled myself to view it with a colder eye. There was no analogy between otter families and mine.

The year's delay between conception and birth dampens any paternal instincts. After mating, female otters avoid males and hide so they can bare and raise their pups conceived a year ago. She won't put up with the voracious appetite of an adult male around her small charges.

OK, but what a pity. Seeing otters snuggling on top of a beaver lodge for an hour left plenty of time to warm my brain with memories of me with Mom, Dad and my two brothers lying on a blanket at Fenwick Island beach or of Leslie and me and our boy between us deep in a soft bed in a friend's stone house in a Medieval village in Italy's Abruzzo region.

For otters spring is the season of separation and concealment. Just before or just after mating with a touring male, the mother has to tear herself away from one litter to raise another hidden somewhere on dry land. Unlike beavers new born otters do not know how to swim. Mother has to fatten them up for a few weeks and then move them to shallow water and get them wet.

So I was left with those who made the ponds and lured me to my paradise. Beavers were everywhere.

As the ice retreated behind the lodge on Beaver Point Pond dam, there was a flotilla of stripped log behind the dam, say 10 big logs and 100 small ones. Seeing such a compression of leftovers, fruits of the paradigm, made for an aesthetically pleasing thaw. A few days later I saw a beaver up on the outcrop nibbling sticks. By mid-March the New Pond opened up for business and I saw six beavers. I was quite taken with how some stretched up from the ice just reaching a half downed trunk with their teeth.


By mid-March I also saw beavers in the East Trail Pond and Big Pond. On March 19 when half its ice cover was gone I saw 5 beavers in the Lost Swamp Pond. In April I figured out that the Meander Pond beavers who were forced to live in a 60 foot long channel between bank burrow and lodge to survive the drought

  Meander Pond during the drought
moved to the small pond at the top of the watershed, Thicket Pond. 

I saw no signs of beavers in Shangri-la Pond. Those beavers made the most dramatic escape from under the ice by sculpting a foot long hole through the ice. But not only was the pond too far away to keep track of during the winter and soggy spring, in 1997 the Nature Center staff put a eight inch wide pipe through the dam (I saw them do it) to keep rising water from flooding the East Trail boardwalk. 
 Shangri-la Pond in 2000 with pipe through the dam

The beavers thwarted that so in 1998 the staff set the pipe deeper in the dam. The beavers mostly defeated that but there was always a diminished but steady flow through the pipe. So I kept expecting the beavers to leave and thought the dam unnatural, not at all the same as when otters or beavers themselves made a hole in a dam. 

But no matter the trials of far away beaver, in 2000 I had all I could handle in the Second Valley. On the evening of May 17 as I sat by the Lost Swamp Pond, I felt like I was in nature's Rome, the trails of all species seemed to lead to it.

A little beaver near the shore dived for and ate stringy roots. Across the pond another beaver etched a golden wake. A muskrat with teeth just above the water carried greens back to the point below me. Another sniffed a log as it walked down its length. Another dived and brought up what I couldn't quite see. 

The more exciting show was put on by the common terns. Four worked the large pond frequently squawking at each other. Their flight is not unlike a flight of fancy but their splash is so definitive! Then a splash followed by a cackle - the kingfisher. The setting sun shined on its red belt. The great blue heron flew out and then back and perched on a dead tree across the pond. It looked so conspicuous with its elegant angles amid the dead branches, but it was the exact color of the dead tree.
A few moments later an otter streaked, yet also fished, up near the old lodge and then to the lodge by the dam and then swam up into the shallows in the northeast end of the pond, moving at twice or thrice the speed of the muskrats and beavers. Two muskrats nearby made a great flutter in the water just off the point. About to fight? No. A reaction to the arrival of the otter?

A beaver swam over and started splashing. A red squirrel chattered at me too. Orange moon rose. A ripple out on the far end of the pond turns into a wood duck with a dozen ducklings who stayed so close to mom that she seemed to have expanded to comical dimensions.The beaver near me splashed some more, my cue to leave. Then I saw a wake in the northeast end of the pond that materialized into three otters swimming relentlessly right toward me.

One scooted up on the point below me; another followed with a long beep (I had been hearing strange noises from the far end of the pond, come to think of it) and then the third came up. That large log they were wont to scat on was in front of me so I couldn't see what they were doing. They started grooming and wrestling each other. 

It was like a puppet play. They emerged from behind the log, otter heads each smothering the others with biting kisses (I guess you could call them kisses.) Then one head worked itself free. No! They all nuzzled again and fell back to the ground - a paw and then a tail was all I saw. One jumped over to another log and draped over it to survey the pond.


The other two danced over and around scatting. Then after another brief tussle, one slipped into the water and then the other two. They swam off to my right fishing. A beaver swam right by them coming the other way and heading back to the lodge and didn't give me nor the otters the time of day.

The otters had a brief family reunion and the beavers let them go on their merry way. Did the mother of the two otters who stayed in the ponds take a break from her pups? I didn't see three otters together for the rest of the year, not in the Lost Swamp Pond nor anywhere else. But as for the supposed nursing mother near by, I didn't see any otters at all for almost two months and just a few scattered scats along the shores of all the ponds in the valley.

I was patient. I just knew a mother was off raising her pups and one day she'd reveal them in the ponds. I expected to see them in Otter Hole Pond. The beavers didn't repair the hole in that dam so there was once again a shallow expanse ideal for otter pups to learn their stuff (not that at that date I had clearly seen an otter pup learn anything.)

Meanwhile the march of beaver history continued: a progression from the Second Swamp Pond, to Otter Hole Pond, to Beaver Point Pond and now the New Pond. 

 The New Pond

In July 2000 I didn't credit the otters for influencing the beavers' recent history. The beavers moved down stream to get to trees easy to cut down and debark. 

As I write now I think the otters had something to do with the timing of the beavers' pond hoping.  There was nothing inexorable in the beavers' creating and moving down to a new pond. The beavers in the First Valley after moving down to the new Lowest Pond in 1994 moved back to the old Big Pond in 1995 even though there was plenty still to eat around the Lowest Pond. The parade of otters up the narrow creek through the Lowest Pond and other small ponds up to the Big Pond (remember I fell on my face chasing five of them) may have prompted that quick retreat back to the much larger Big Pond.

Since I hadn't seen a beaver and otters face to face in a meaningful way since October 1997, I can't boast my conceit that otters and beavers negotiated a mutually convenient arrangement to share the valley. But I saw that as the beavers in the New Pond raised their kits, the last thing they needed were otters in that pond too. So keep them in Otter Hole Pond.

I first got a full measure of the year's kits on July 30 and an old friend from high school was with me. He was vacationing from his job in the White House budget office. In high school we both sat in the back of our two hour long advanced physics class where I wrote satirical poems and he embellished his history of a colony of flamingos in a magical corner of the Okefenokee Swamp. Just where the East Trail headed up from the South Bay trail, we walked up a slight shady ridge that led to a knoll overlooking the New Pond. 

One kit was out in the pond and others humming inside the nearby lodge. The kit mimicked the adults in the pond, even tried to take a branch back to the lodge. Then the kit got a lesson in diving. An adult beaver pulled it underwater by the ear. Kits can swim from birth but they have to be taught to dive. The adult dived under with the kit, but they surfaced separately and away from each other.



Seeing an adult tug a kit underwater was an exception. Largely the adults ignored the kits and rarely fawned over them. Kits learn by imitating, to a degree. When imitations get too cloying, too stupid, really, adults push a kit away. I did once see, in another pond, an adult, a yearling and a kit line up side by side and eat bark off a log about four inches thick. But a kit sidling up to an adult gnawing a thinner stick gets pushed away because the kit can only get in the way of incisors several times bigger than his and can only retard the bark gnawing adult's quick manipulation of the stick.

In mid-September I saw a kit very much learning the ropes on its own. It went to a freshly stripped log leaning at a slight angle above the pond, and tried to hoist itself up to gnaw the bark - that didn't work. 

It tried to swim under the log and twist around to get its mouth on the underside of the log - that didn't work. It went to the end of the log, sat briefly, and then dived and came up with a snout full of vines and leaves. It didn't seem to get real satisfaction until it clutched a big leaf and gobbled that.

Yet throughout this assertion of self, all beavers get into a rhythm necessary for their survival as a family which basically boils down to repairing the dam, maintaining the lodge and bank burrows, finding food not only for the moment but for the winter ahead, and in this family one of the beavers was blind. It seemed to have no eyes.


It bumped nose-first into trees and floating logs. Other beavers threaded the maze of trees and logs without trouble and with evident anticipation. The blind beaver helped me keep track of the family. I later saw it in Otter Hole, Beaver Point and the Second Swamp ponds.

All ponds have the same rhythm but each pond has its own history, so to speak, its own crises, and that sets the lesson plan for kits. The Meander Pond beavers survived the drought by dredging and several years later I saw kits in that family dredging mud out of channels in other ponds. I never saw the New Pond kits dredge.

The crisis in the New Pond was the pond's rocky bottom. The creek that lazed down from the center of the island picked up speed as it flowed down between the Porcupine Hotel and the granite outcrop in the middle of the Beaver Point Pond dams. There was around a 10 foot drop in about 50 yards of loose stones on top of granite. 

Creek below the New Pond dam
Over in the First Swamp, the creek made a similar tumble over rocks but after a sharp turn and behind that turn silt had settled allowing beavers to make a competent dam, at least for two winters, creating what I called the Lowest Pond. In the Second Valley the creek ran directly to South Bay.

So kits soon joined in bringing what sticks they could to the dam though they couldn't push the sticks up on the dam much less over on the backside of the dam as the big beavers did. Not that more sticks and logs made much difference.


The beavers needed mud to keep the dam from leaking and there was no mud to dredge, only rocks. Meanwhile, the beavers set out to cut every tree they could in the pond.

In every other pond where I saw beavers, they cut likely trees within 30 yards or so of the pond and trimmed branches and segmented trunks and dragged them to the pond. The New Pond beavers rarely did that. They cut the trees flooded by the pond. At first I didn't think that at all remarkable. I assumed beavers knew exactly what they were doing.

The basswood or linden tree is not a beaver favorite but the New Pond beavers took a liking to basswood leaves provided they were still green. So getting down a small basswood with yellowing leaves became a priority that September. I sat on the bank expecting to see a beaver expertly and methodically bring the tree down. Since the tree was in standing water and leaning into another tree, the only way to bring it down was to keeping cutting off sections of the trunk. That's what the beaver did but once when the tree slightly shifted, the beaver fled in panic splashing away in the water.


Over the years I learned how seriously beavers took the peril of falling trees. I saw a beaver swim from the far end of series of small ponds making a point of bumping noses with every beaver out in the ponds. Then a very tall poplar crashed down in the far end of the pond. In December 2007 just off Shangri-la Pond I saw a dead beaver flattened under a red oak cut down, I assume, by that same beaver.



Earlier I had seen a beaver in that same pond, Shangri-la Pond, run away when it had cut a maple to that point where the wind could (and did) blow it down.

If only in 2000 I had been alive to how concerned beavers were to keep clear of falling trees! It's the difference between natural history and the history I am trying to write. In 2000 I assumed beavers had the instincts to solve every problem, including falling trees. 

Now I think that the increased pressure from otters in their ponds forced the beavers to make changes at their peril. When the adult beavers cut down trees in Beaver Point Pond in 1997 and 1998, the younger beavers waited in Otter Hole Pond to be fed. In 2000 in the New Pond the obvious solution would have been to keep kits and yearlings in Porcupine Hotel or Beaver Point Ponds while the adults cut down trees in the New Pond. 

The sure way to lure beavers from a hazard is to give them something to eat. That summer I never saw fresh beaver cuttings or nibblings in those upper ponds. Meanwhile I saw more and more otter scats around Beaver Point Pond and heard an otter and saw its nose between rocks in Porcupine Hotel. Perhaps beaver parents deemed leaving the inexperienced beavers in ponds where they might be exposed to the distracting behavior of otters was more of a hazard than falling trees.

All that said, the otters weren't quick to take advantage of the New World Order. At least I whiled away many a summer afternoon without seeing otters. Then on a hot July afternoon I saw how distracting otters might be to beaver kits who learn by imitating and then trying to fathom the pond and the vegetation in and around it on their own. 

On July 19th when I got to Otter Hole Pond, a muskrat was swimming behind the dam. Since muskrats always seemed respectful of otters, I take that as a sign that otters aren't around. Then a few minutes later two otters ventured out from the hole in the dam which was framed with lush vegetation. There was about a two foot gap between the water and the top of the hole and another two feet of hard mud to the top of the dam proper. 

I was disappointed seeing just two otters because I was expecting an otter family. These two had thick adult otter tails so I hoped they were two females, a mother and her daughter from a previous litter recruited to help care for pups. They retreated back into the hole, then a few minutes later swam back out of the hole and this time swam almost past the lodge. Then they turned, went back to the dam, seemed to jaw some grass from off the dam, and swam back into the hole.
 
Then the water back in the hole began to roil. That roiling came out into the pond like a flying saucer landing and materialized into three swirling otter pups chasing each other. A big otter tossed them up out of the water. I saw the hind legs and tail of one pup sticking straight up into the air. 

Suddenly they were under water and I didn't see them. The roiling retreated into the hole again, then roiled back out.

The pups were so often underwater that if they were being taught something, it was not obvious to me. I saw chaos: legs, tails, noses up and down willy-nilly. This was not at all like the simple dunking a beaver parent might impose on a kit. The otters roiled back into the hole again. Then evidently taking time enough to compose themselves, all five otters launched out roughly in a row all swimming furiously over and under each other up the pond to the edge of its grassy shallows. Then they stopped and looked up pond. The two adults' bodies towered over the heads of the three pups lying low in the water. 
One adult snorted and then they all dived back toward the dam and disappeared. 

I was ecstatic, but would beaver parents want such behavior in the pond where they were going about their lackadaisical way of raising kits?

As in previous years I began seeing otters frequently in late September principally in the Lost Swamp Pond, and once in the Big Pond and Otter Hole Pond. But I didn't see the family. I saw an adult otter in Otter Hole Pond on September 27 and it seemed to make itself at home, diving in the shallow reaches and then caught a fish in the deep channel in the middle of the pond. After gnawing that down the hatch, it fished around the lodge, and then through the gap in the dam. Down in Beaver Point Pond it caught a big fish and then scatted and pranced on the outcrop by the dam. Then it dived down along the trunks of the dead trees in far end of the pond and I lost it. 

When I didn't see otters but saw their scats, otters became creatures of my imagination. More scats fueled more imaginings and on October 3 I saw so many fish fins glistening in gooey black scats on the shore of the Lost Swamp Pond that I imagined the exhausted and sated otters napping somewhere in the tall grasses around the pond and on the beaver lodges there. I moved on to Otter Hole Pond knowing the otters wouldn't be there. But there I saw a slithering black tube, an otter, then another, then another, all slithering in the shallows. The otter family, mother and three pups, were alive and well.

They soon made their way toward the dam - one went off on a tear and I couldn't tell if it was to catch a fish or to start a game of tag. They slithered behind the dam and then swam through the gap into Beaver Point Pond. The three pups especially worked a few clumps of grass sticking up out of the water. Though their presence could not be unknown to fish or pollywogs, they managed to catch at least three fish leading to a masticating frenzy. Otter pups have very white teeth.

 
They couldn't fish without playing, cocking heads, rolling bodies and thrashing tails. At times one otter or another would periscope up, but only to see where its playmates were. They also made a high squeaking noise, and an occasional snort, not at me. Finally another otter swam over purposefully and periscoped and snorted.


It was mom and she didn't like the smell of me. The four of them swam off together on the surface of the water, fishing some of the way, to Otter Hole Pond dam. The pups did not fish like adults. Nothing methodical, every dive was an adventure.

Three days later just as Leslie and I got to our usual perch above Otter Hole Pond, we saw the otters in the shallow areas across the pond. With my eye glued to the camcorder, I saw four otters. Leslie had the binoculars and counted five. At first they headed away from us, then, fishing furiously all the way, came right toward us. I had never seen otters so successful in getting fish. This was very much group fishing. The otters were often together, almost seemed to be competing. Frequently getting up out of the water as if to see what their mates might be up to. Two or three times, the pups fought over fish or a fishing spot, complete with brief growls and screeches. 

The mother was in the thick of it. After looking at the video, I saw that she caught a fish, a pup swam by her going the opposite way and suddenly that pup had a fish in its mouth, and the mother was off fishing again. The smallest otter seemed to stay close to her, somewhat imitating what she did. One time the mother caught a fish, then the pup came up with one behind her. Perhaps the mother crippled the fish and let it go so the pup could get it. The pup almost climbed on her back as it tried to use her as a prop to help keep the fish in its mouth. 

Several times I saw the pups with their paws and mouth using the vegetation all around as a kind of plate on which it could try to keep control of the fish. 

Then they got wind of us and the mother led the pups away from the rock dens and into the beaver lodge in the middle of the pond. I wrote in my journal: “This was the most exciting sighting of otters I've ever had, mainly because they fished in such shallow water. Even when they dove, it was easy to follow them, and with the wave of their dive compressed, they seemed more energetic, they seemed like total energy.”  

Ten days later I saw them again. There was less fooling around as they foraged, though the pups still fished playfully and one otter still used mom's back as a plate. Put it this way, when they mounted a big chase now, plowing through the shallow water, it was usually to catch a fish and not another otter.


Then what beavers had wrought, the otters overwrought. They all scatted on the once sacrosanct Otter Hole Pond lodge and then they all climbed up on the dam over the hole, and scatted there. I counted five otters and then a sixth swam down the pond. Then they swam through the hole into Beaver Point Pond. I sneaked down then noticed a pup looking at me. I've noticed this in beavers too, the young have better senses.


They swam back, fishing along the way and capering on logs, but still looking and snorting in my direction. They swam into Otter Hole Pond but were not to be seen. In my journal I speculated that “they were snug in their lodge.” 

“Their lodge!” The grandest beaver lodge I would ever see became, in my mind, the otters' lodge. I had been watching the pond for three months and that a beaver might come up from the New Pond to the lodge they had used from 1996 through 1999 never crossed my mind. For three months I had seen why an invasion of otters would disrupt the education of beaver kits. In October I saw why otters might prefer to raise their pups in ponds that beavers had left so their concentration on fish could not be broken.

There is no reason for an adult beaver and an adult otter not to get along. They don't compete for food. But they raise their young differently. Pushing a branch with leafy twigs in front of a kit seems the epitome of decorum when compared to the scramble for fish with the mother tossing them at the pups or crippling them so the pups can try to catch them.

Not that the way beavers and otters divided the Second Valley ponds was a pattern found elsewhere. The otters spent more time in the Lost Swamp Pond and at first it seemed that the beavers there didn't mind. In late September 2000 when I came out at dawn, I saw a pair of otters and perhaps a third fishing along the edges of the pond while the half dozen beavers in the pond swam back to their lodge beside the dam. I assumed the one tail splash I heard was for me. The beavers seemed to ignore the otters.

Throughout the fall otters used the Lost Swamp Pond lodge not just to conceal themselves. They groomed and played on the lodge, crawled all over each other and even seemed to kiss, as it were, in a jaw open fashion. In October I saw the family sleeping on top of the Lost Swamp Pond lodge. Thanks to the lighter fur of the pups, I soon made out the five otters, three pups and two adults. 


They were still for at least a half hour. The adults woke up first, scatted and then crawled over the other otters.

Needless to say, the tail waving, an integral part of the art of scatting, was diverting. One adult was quite active in grooming, first doing the other adult and then the pups. That got the pups active. They had been sleeping curled onto each other. Now they squirmed and nuzzled. The pups liked to push and roll another pup on its back, but without a hint of aggression. Beavers groom each other but I never saw a beaver family showing the same joy in being together.

Again, I am certain this was the family that riotously fished Otter Hole and Beaver Point Ponds. One evening I saw five otters fishing in the Beaver Point Pond, which they accomplished in a more orderly manner than at the beginning of October, and tracked them back to the Lost Swamp Pond. There the three pups nuzzled down to sleep on top of the lodge behind the dam while two adult otters continued to fish.

From my tracking I knew that otters visited all the ponds in the winter. But since changing leaves kept the hiking trails busy, it never crossed my mind that the otter family would use the Duck Pond and East Trail Pond in the fall. The former was surrounded by a hiking trail and the latter half surrounded.

All I read about otters gave me the impression that they raised their young in seclusion, definitely off trail. In the summer and fall I checked on the ponds ringed by hiking trails only to see if the beavers were still there. The First and Second Valleys were a secret I shared with the otters. Once the East Trail was re-routed in 1994 only the New Pond had a trail flanking it for a few dozen yards, and otters didn't seem to care much for the New Pond.

State Park map showing my Second and Third Valley, the latter in the network of hiking trails the other left to me and the otters

True, I did first see otters on the island while walking with my family and brother-in-law along the network of trails around the Duck Pond and Shortcut Trail Pond. But that was in the early fall of 1992. In 2000 as I calculated the history I was observing, the otters I saw in 1992 were touring males just discovering the expanding beaver developments. So were the five otters I chased up the First Valley in 1994. Then especially after 1996, female otters put the more secluded ponds to better use and, as I've described, perhaps persuaded the beavers to keep out of Beaver Point and Otter Hole Ponds.

I learned how wrong I was in the fall of 2000. On the evening of October 26 I tied my boat on the north shore of South Bay planning to hike down to the New Pond and take video of the beavers there. But the camcorder battery was low so I went up to the Duck Pond instead. I saw that beavers had been preparing the one lodge in the pond for winter by packing it with mud. 


As I walked around the pond I also saw lots of otters scats. Obviously I had to expand my search for otters. On the 27th I checked the East Trail Pond for otter scats.

On the way to the relatively short five foot high dam that connected two well wooded ridges, there were beaver-cut trees including a maple with flaming leaves hanging up in the air embraced by another tree. And there were otters in the pond. 

One was fishing right in front of me and the others to my left. They moved on quickly and didn't scent me. Surely four of them, and I saw some climb onto the beaver lodge in the center of the pond. One kept fishing. I sneaked around the dam aiming to get to the rocks on the other side where I would get a better view of the lodge. When I got to the rocks, one otter was still fishing, giving a fine display of its thick adult tail, probably the mother. Her pups nestled in the dying grass on the old lodge. Judging by the stripped sticks and logs outside it, the beavers were living in a new bank lodge along the rocks between the dam and the big rock I hid behind. 

Then a class of school children came down the trail to the pond. The pups showed some initial interest but no panic. From my video I extracted a photo of three otter pups looking toward the school kids. 


Then as a Nature Center naturalist began lecturing, the pups dropped down to nuzzle and nap on top of the lodge. I think I saw an adult climb up on the lodge, work her way through the pups, and slip back into the water. The kids left chattering up the trail, then the otters cleared the lodge. So much for otters hiding their pups from people.

On November 2 I saw the otter family making itself at home on the beaver lodge in the Duck Pond, napping and scatting on it.


I came back the next day later in the afternoon. Coming up to the pond from South Bay, I saw the otters dancing on the opposite shore behind the beaver lodge scatting with glee (no other animal like otters in that respect.) Then they swam purposefully out onto the pond, like a flotilla. A beaver swam away from the lodge following them. Beavers can't swim as fast as otters. I followed the otters who successfully fished behind the high embankment along the west shore of the pond and while swimming over the deep middle of the pond, two otter pups porpoised almost completely out of the water.


But when they swam back toward the beaver lodge, an otter dived and the beaver swam right over it, like a destroyer hunting a submarine. Then an otter popped out of the water right in front of the beaver. That didn't stop the beaver, it cruised right after them, and like that, the otters seemed to disappear seemingly warded off by the beaver except there was an underwater wake speeding toward shore. It was dark enough now that I could only see what was going on through the video camera. Moments later I heard the screeching of otters that seemed to come from the shore; then the screeching seemed to move inland. Had the beaver scared them that much. Then I thought I heard screeching that seemed to indicate that the otters were moving away from the pond heading up to the upper ponds over land. 

I began walking toward the lodge, and then I heard screeching from the lodge. I could see that one otter was there, then another. They were not screeching at me but the beaver who, out flanked in its effort to protect the lodge, was swimming toward the lodge. There was a splash in front of the otters. The screeching continued and a whimpering sound. It was too dark to see much more. As I walked away the screeching calmed down. A beaver swam into the upper pond where there were other beavers and I heard gnawing behind me.
I could grasp what I saw, though I didn't understand why only one beaver confronted the otters. I was unnerved by what I heard. Early in the edited video clip of the encounter you can hear me laugh as if I regarded the beaver's policing more like a game of tag. The otters screeching, their taunting the beaver as they stood on the lodge, was not funny though one interpretation of it might be that the otters were laughing at the beaver. 

Why unnerved? Our written and visual explaining of wild animals accustom us to take even the most cataclysmic occurrences in stride, provided we can stride away from them ourselves. To be sure we have an ample fund of sympathy for any suffering animal, but the struggles of animals form part of the beauty of nature which serves so often as a balm for our own suffering. I could have accepted a beaver and otter in mortal combat and found beauty in it. Wasn't that what I was originally expecting to see back in 1997 when I bought a camcorder? But the sneering, contemptuous screeching of the otters, the back stabbing insinuation, the ganging up -- three reasons I was glad to leave Washington. 

Go to Chapter Six. 


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