Perfect time to visit a beaver den

  • Fog lifts from melting snow and ice at a beaver pond in Ossipee on March 15, 2007, as warm air passes through. Jim Cole / AP file

For the Monitor
Saturday, February 03, 2018

If you let the deep cold of winter keep you inside, you’ll miss out on some wonderful possibilities for exploration that don’t exist in warmer seasons, namely the opportunity to walk on water. Frozen ponds and lakes are special places to visit but snowshoeing, skiing or just walking on ice should be done with extreme caution and only after a consistent stretch of below-freezing weather. See New Hampshire Fish and Game’s website for a brochure on ice safety.

Once you’ve determined it’s safe, visiting a local beaver pond can be very rewarding. Beaver ponds are identified by a dam and mound made of sticks and mud. Since swimming is their preferred mode of transportation, beavers build dams to flood an area and improve their access to trees which provide their food supply of bark and leaves.

The house or lodge is often away from the shore to provide protection from land-based predators. Beavers enter their lodge from an underwater tunnel which leads into a dry, cozy compartment above the water level.

A frozen pond enables easy access to a beaver lodge (watch for thin ice around the lodge). Thorough examination enables you to determine if there are beavers living in the lodge or if it has been abandoned. Look for a collection of twigs sticking out above the ice near the lodge. This is the top of the beavers’ winter food stash. In the fall they gather saplings and branches, anchor them in the mud beside their homes and when the ice covers the pond, they only need to slip out of the underwater tunnel in their lodge and chew off a stick from their stockpile to bring into the feeding compartment for their meal. This reduces the amount of time they need to be out on solid ground in search of winter food, thus they are safer and well supplied for the season.

Another sign of an active lodge is fresh sticks on the lodge itself. These will be yellowish in color, indicating the bark has been chewed off within recent months. During warmer months, the outside of a lodge is continually upgraded. As a result, over many years it can get quite large. If the lodge is made up of only gray sticks, it likely does not have current occupants.

By far the most exciting sign to search for is a frosty “chimney.” The mud mortar of the lodge freezes solid in winter and makes for a sturdy roof which can be climbed on, with care. During this close encounter, examine the top of the lodge and look for a small opening.

If the beavers are inside, and the outside air temperature is below freezing, there will be lacy ice crystals lining the edge of this opening. This is where the moisture from the beavers’ breath freezes as it encounters the cold outside air. It is a sure sign that someone is home!

If ice crystals are present, put your ear to the lodge. If you are very quiet and it’s not windy, sometimes you can hear movement or soft sounds coming from inside. It is fun to imagine beaver parents and two to three yearlings curled up inside their home beneath you.

Once you’ve determined that they are home, it’s best not to stay too long. A commotion outside their lodge may be stressful. Just imagine if you had a giant on your roof! 

If on the other hand, you found an abandoned lodge, don’t despair. Beaver ponds often have multiple lodges and the family moves location when the pond changes. Keep looking; if the dam is in good shape, there’s a strong likelihood that industrious builders are nearby.

If you can’t get out to a beaver pond, a similar magical discovery can be made by examining brush piles or even small holes in the ground. Look carefully for openings and whenever you see spiky, lacy ice crystals jutting out from their edges, it’s a sign that some mammal has been breathing beneath the surface. These are special treats you just don’t get on a hot summer day and make it worth bundling up to get out and observe the winter activities of your wild neighbors.