2016 Field Trip, Day 12 – Part 2

Today I took the inner mountain road (Teton Park Road) through the Tetons to stop at several locations along Jenny Lake and get a good view of the Teton glaciers. Then, around dusk, I headed over to Schwabacher Road (at Schwabacher’s Landing) to look for beavers. When I got there, I parked in the second lot and walked down a dirt path to the river. There, I saw a professional videographer setting up to capture footage of beavers. He started talking a bit about what he was doing and asked us what I was doing – I told him I was looking for beavers and that I’d been wanting for find one for a few months. He said, “You’re in the right place. Just wait and watch and the beavers will do their thing.”

For a few minutes, I walked around the riverbank scoping out the den and an entrance hole near the dirt path. The videographer, who by this time had introduced himself as Jeff Hogan, said that the beaver den in front of me had several underwater entrances and that the beavers had many lodges along and across the river. A few other visitors walked up and waited with us to see if a beaver would emerge. During a moment of silence, I heard noises coming from the den that sounded like breathing, growling, and hissing. A few minutes later, a full-grown beaver swam out of the den into the water and then back down into the den. Was he or she checking us out to see what we were up to?

Jeff said he’d seen another beaver swim downstream to another den location, so I walked along a dirt path up the river to see if I could spot the other one. On the path parallel to the river, I saw some very ambitious beaver projects – there were massive trees (some a foot in diameter) that had obviously been taken down by beavers. I took out my field ruler and took photos of several of the large trees. I also took some pictures of the many beaver dams that stair step down the river and a scent mound across the river. I got to a small rocky clearing and heard what I thought could be a bear making an aggressive noise nearby. I decided the best thing to do was to head back to the parking area where I saw the first beaver to get out of the way of whatever was in the woods. Say what you will, but I’m from Texas – every threatening noise sends off alarms in my brain.

Back near the beaver lodge, I showed up just in time to see the beaver emerge again, but this time, carrying something. When I looked through the telephoto lens, I saw that it was a baby beaver! At first, I was worried that it might not be alive, especially considering the amount of noise that was coming out of the den. (Mourning?) But all of a sudden, the baby, called a kit, swam off on its own and followed the mother to the beaver dam. The mother pushed it over the edge to move it forward, and it seemed to go along okay. On the other side of the dam, the mother started swimming ahead to the next dam and the kit, who was behind her, turned around, climbed back over the dam, and swam back into the den. The mother made it pretty far before she realized the kit wasn’t with her anymore. A minute or two later, she turned around and swam all the way back to the lodge and dove underwater through the entrance.

I waited for a few minutes, paying attention to the sounds coming from the den, and walked around to take a photo of the entrance hole on the path. Then, the mother swam out of the den and across the river. I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but I wanted to keep my eye on her. She disappeared into the trees across the river, so I waited with the camera. A few minutes later, she emerged from the trees carrying a small twig with leaves. Was it food for the kit in the den?

Later, the mother and kit emerged again. Like before, she nudged the kit across the water and up to the dam. Then, she pushed it over the dam and continued pushing it along. When it seemed to struggle and started grabbing onto rocks, she used her nose to nudge it along all the way through the water. Across each dam, the mother beaver carried the baby up, tossed it over the dam (this was hilarious…the baby rolled…) and nudged it up to the next dam. After doing this four or five times, the beavers got to a rocky area where the kit seemed to be okay walking on its own. She made sure the kit made it over the rocky area and then they both disappeared into the trees across the lake where Jeff said they had another den.

I can’t know for certain what kind of beaver behavior I witnessed at Snake River. In fact, even my best guesses are weak. Here’s what I think based on a very limited understanding of beavers and beaver behavior. Assuming this was a mother and her kit:

 

  1. The mother could have been moving the kit because she suspected danger to the kit or the lodge. This could be high human activity, a particular smell, an intruder into the lodge itself, a nearby animal threat she detected, changing lodge conditions, neighboring beaver threats, or and aggressive stranger or kin (unlikely) beaver.
  2. The mother could have been moving the kit because that’s the normal progression of beaver-hood. Maybe the lodge at the riverbank was the birthing-kits-lodge and she wanted to graduate it to an adult lodge down the river. Since she seemed to have fed the kit in the den, it’s possible she’s weaning it, teaching it how to eat, and moving it to another dam.
  3. The mother could have been giving the kit a tour of their river home. From this perspective, it’s possible that she was training the kit to follow the dams downstream and cross the rocky cascade to reach another lodge. It’s even possible that she’ll bring the kit back to the original lodge until it can make the crossing without her help.
  4. The mother could have been taking her kit along with her to run errands. Okay, this is a stretch, but maybe she had work to do on the other side of the bend and leaving the kit behind would have put it in unnecessary danger.
  5. The mother could have been moving the kit because something tragic happened at the lodge – the death or injury of another kit (or other kits).
  6. Finally, it’s possible that the entire scene is so normal that beavers just lug their young around on a regular basis, travelling back and forth to different lodges at their leisure.

 

Of course, those guesses are based on the assumption that the two beavers were kin and that their relationship was mother and kit. A bit of research filled me in on complicated beaver family systems. Beavers mature in about three years, which means there is an awkward adolescent stage between kit and adult. During this time, the adolescent beavers (one to two years old) assist in dam building and are even known to fill in parenting roles (a beaver babysitter) to learn the ropes of adult beavering. It’s possible that the adult beaver we saw wasn’t the mother or father, but was instead an older sibling or more distant relative. (Beaver family groups can grow to more than a dozen.) Of course, it’s impossible to know what exactly was going on, especially out of context.

Schwabacher Landing on the Snake River

What is known, or at least is established in the literature, is that the Snake River System is a great habitat for beavers – the perfect combination of riparian plant life, meandering streams, and ground material make the Schwabacher area perfect for a thriving beaver dam system. The Lower Snake River, where these beavers made their home, is well known for its beaver activity. In 2013, one researcher submitted a proposal to the Grand Teton National Park system to study these specific beavers in more detail, but, for whatever reason, was not able to complete his outlined objectives. His plan was to GPS tag a few of the beavers in the area to determine where they went to live, eat, and do beaver things. Instead, the GPS system failed, his equipment was lost, and he abandoned tagging efforts. A second objective was to map the Snake River area (extending from Upper Snake to Lower Snake) to collect data on the existence of beaver lodges, dams, and habitat availability; however, the researcher didn’t have much more luck in that area either. What he was able to do was compile aerial imagery, soil data, a few other datasets from government agencies to perform a secondary data analysis. His write-up to Greater Teton National Park, likely a requirement for their permission to study the area, mostly covered that portion of his study.

Since I’ll be back in the area in September, I plan to make another trip to the area to see if there are any changes to the dam or lodge in a few months time. Beaver dams can rise and fall in a few weeks, so over a few months, it’s possible that I’ll see noticeable change. It’s also very possible that I won’t see any change at all, but given the dams’ effects on the landscape (I pulled this up in Google Earth for a few years since the 90s), I think I’ll be able to see some amount of change just upstream of the large dam by the main lodge. It would be great to get my hands on some aerial photography – or even historical photography – of the area to see what kinds of changes have taken place over time. Obviously these beavers are impacting the landscape and the entire river system, so it would certainly be interesting to see how. At the least, I’ve started my own repeat photography project.


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