I have to confess that I absolutely love the wetlands at Audubon Community Nature Center. The swamps, ponds, and marshes provide every day opportunities to see wildlife and plants that are hard to find in other places.
There are muskrats swimming in the ponds, mink loping across the trails, and River Otters frolicking across the ice. It is not unusual to see a deer napping in a high spot under an evergreen tree or a Bald Eagle float lazily overhead. Wetlands are a treasure full of life, but sometimes that life creates conflict.
Muskrats are, in my slightly biased view, cute as a button. They have chubby brown bodies, a short, blunt snout, and skinny black tails that wave randomly into the air as they swim and dive. Occasionally, a whole group of children can sit ten feet away from one and watch it. They are adorable little destroyers.
That’s right. They are adorable little destroyers. You see, muskrats like to tunnel into the banks of ponds in the wintertime. Audubon’s ponds are actually maintained by a system of dikes, with the trails going over the dikes. Muskrats are adorable until they tunnel under the trail. At that point, they become a nuisance and a hazard.
Trails collapse onto the muskrat tunnels from heavy footsteps and equipment. The front tires of a wagon full of volunteers fell into a muskrat tunnel a couple of years ago, stopping the wagon in its tracks and sending a crew of volunteers flying. The tunnels can be dangerous.
When Audubon redid the paved section of the Blue Trail, people worked hard to make the pond edges muskrat proof. Trees and shrubs were cut down and a roll of fence was unrolled along the side of the trail. Large rocks were then put on top of the fence. The idea was that muskrats wouldn’t be able to dig through the rocks and the fencing. This would prevent more tunnels from creating potholes in the trail. While no new potholes seemed to form, all the old ones returned within a couple of years.
Muskrat numbers are at some of the highest we have seen in years. Their cattail and mud huts dot the ponds like snow-covered domes. We expect to see some more muskrat damage this year and hope to muskrat-proof the edges of more trails in the coming year.
The other big animal that works hard in wetlands is the beaver. These giant rodents love to plug the pipes that drain ponds. The biggest concern for Audubon is that almost all the water on the property drains out of one big pipe that leads to the Conewango Creek. This includes water from over a dozen small ponds, a twenty-acre pond and a forty-acre pond. When the beavers stop the water from flowing, trails start to flood.
Beavers hate the sound of running water worse than my dislike of ska punk. They have been known, in experiments, to cover speakers that are playing the sound of running water while ignoring actual running water that is silently flowing.
This has spawned some creative solutions to beavers that are plugging up pipes, ditches and culverts. The goal is to create a device that silently drains water without the beaver noticing by using fencing, perforated pipes and other devices. There are dozens of designs to try.
Unfortunately, at Audubon, the pipe that drains the property goes through a noisy water control box that our maintenance crew uses to raise and lower the water levels. Water levels are raised and lowered for migrating birds, breeding frogs, and other reasons. The water control box is always noisy with the sound of running water and beavers eagerly swim over to stop the racket. Beavers prefer there to be more water in the pond, not less, and constantly work to keep the water from leaving the property.
Audubon is lucky to have some dedicated volunteers that work on keeping the pipes clear each week, though their love of clearing beaver debris is far exceeded by the beavers’ love of moving mud and sticks. This makes the pond levels higher than normal.
Ponds get high enough, in fact, that some trails are affected. The Big Pond Photo Blind is down a dead end trail near the beaver lodge, and it is often flooded with water that is close to knee deep. Audubon’s maintenance crew raised the trail going to the tower to keep that trail above water.
Audubon volunteers have created a box out of fencing to keep the beavers from getting in the pipe. They have also installed pipes under the water to try and quietly drain the pond. Neither has worked well. The beavers have covered the pipes and the fencing and just about everything they could reach with sticky layers of mud and branches.
Wild animals are amazing to watch as they go about their lives. Like some people, I could spend hours watching an animal build, hunt, eat, and go about its life. Also, like most people, I find it incredibly annoying, frustrating, and exhausting to fight the same battles with wildlife over, and over, and over.
Audubon’s volunteers deserve a lot of credit for helping to keep Audubon’s beaver activity under control. It has been a demanding, unending, and thankless job that has been carried out diligently since beavers returned to the property three years ago. Right now, a project is in the works to bring out some experts in the spring who can help design new ways to allow water to flow out of the property while allowing the beavers and volunteers to live in peace. Look for some programs on living with beavers in the spring.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist at ACNC.