Muskrat in our meadow

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I spent the last couple of days at my parents’ new place, house-sitting for them as they returned to the old house one final time (hopefully) to complete the paperwork for the sale of the property. I returned home this afternoon, in the rain. When I got home, Dan asked me if I’d seen the muskrat. He took me out to the side of the house where he’d seen it last. It wasn’t in the same spot, but a peek into the two basement window wells turned up the little critter. Dan commented that it had already fallen into one of the wells; this time it was in the other. It was just hunkered down in a corner, looking a little soggy and disgruntled but otherwise fine.

It was small, and appeared to be a youngster. Heaven only knows what it was doing way out at our house. Although there are tiny little ponds here and there, the closest significant water source is a marsh-bordered creek a kilometer (0.6 miles) away. Presumably it was dispersing from its natal territory, looking for a new place to call home. Muskrats have relatively quick breeding cycles, with the female giving birth a month after mating, and the young weaned and independent at just six weeks of age. The female may have two or even three litters in a summer, often giving birth to the subsequent litter before the first one is completely weaned. They can potentially have three litters in three months, each bearing five to ten young. That’s a lot of baby muskrats! It comes as no surprise, then, that they suffer a high mortality in their first year, and the high birth rate has evolved to counteract that.

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Dan scooped him up in my butterfly net to get him out of the window well, and deposited him in the grass. Muskrats even when full grown don’t get that big, only about 1 kg (2.2 lb) on average, and 50 cm (19.6 inches) long from nose-tip to tail-tip. About half of that length is tail. Their tail is flattened vertically, like a fish’s, and is used in the same manner while swimming. Although they superficially resemble beavers in their general shape and scaly tail, they’re actually more closely related to field mice, being, essentially, a large field mouse that has adapted to life around water. Beavers and muskrats and field mice all belong to the same order, Rodentia, so it’s not surprising then that they should seem similar.

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Once released from the net, the muskrat scurried across the grass to the nearby lilac bush. He could move quickly, and I just got one sort of blurry shot before he was in the shrub. They’re most at home in the water, however, and spend the majority of their life in or near it. They build their burrows into riverbanks or along lake or pond edges, with the entrance to the burrow underwater. In the winter, they create “push-ups”, hollow mounds of vegetation that protrude through the ice, in which they can eat and rest undisturbed. I found a few of these last winter.

They get their name, muskrat, from their resemblence to rats (even though they’re more closely related to mice), and from two musk glands they have near their anus. In the breeding season these swell and exude a yellowish musky substence that the muskrats use to mark locations along frequent travel routes such as their lodge or conspicuous land features. The purpose of the scent marks isn’t clear, but is thought to be a form communication between individuals, perhaps within a family group, or maybe as territorial markers.

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Once in the relative safety of the lilac bush, the muskrat hunkered down and wouldn’t budge. Check out his feet in this photo. Those long claws are used for digging in banks when building their burrows, as well as in foraging underwater. Much of their diet is made up of cattails, especially the roots. Many nights at our last house we’d hear the sound of chewing coming from down at the lake edge. There was a muskrat that had a burrow in our shore there, and he’d often make meals of the cattails that lined the banks. We rarely saw him during the day. If cattails are scarce, muskrats will also eat other aquatic vegetation such as bulrushes, horsetails or pondweeds. And if plant matter in general is hard to find, they can and will turn to protein sources such as fish, frogs or even clams. That would explain all of the empty mussel shells we’d see around our shoreline.

Unlike beavers, muskrats only have a moderate amount of webbing on their back feet. Most of their foot power is from hairs that line the toes, creating a paddle-like effect. They use their feet mostly when swimming at the surface, where their tail acts as a rudder. When underwater, their tail provides most of the propulsion, and their feet help with the steering. They have the ability to slow their heart rate and metabolism, and have a high tolerance for carbon dioxide in the blood, the combination of which allows them to stay underwater for up to 15 minutes at a time.

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When I got a tad too close with the camera, the muskrat bared his teeth and even lunged at me. He was fierce! While they’ll usually escape to deep water if they have the option, muskrats are very courageous when confronted on land, even if not cornered. They can be very vicious, inflicting deep wounds with those sharp rodent teeth. Despite this, they suffer heavy predation from mink, as well as snapping turtles, pike, coyotes and wolves, fishers, wolverines, lynx – basically any large carnivorous vertebrate.

The sharp cutting teeth are primarily used in chewing vegetation. Muskrats are specially adapted for eating underwater, something that most land-dwellers would be unable to do. Their front teeth project in front of their cheeks, and they can close their heavily muscular cheeks behind their incisors, essentially closing off their mouth and airway while they’re cutting vegetation. Once they’ve cut some food, they can close the front of their mouth and open their cheeks to allow them to chew and swallow it.

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After I’d run off a few photos, we backed off and let the little guy be. We kept Raven inside to allow him to wander off without being harassed (also for Raven’s safety – she could get a sharp bite on the nose if she got too close, which undoubtedly she would). When I went back out to check on him after an hour or two, he was gone, and I was unable to relocate him. Hopefully en route to better habitat than our grassy meadow.

Back on the blades

Nameless Island

Yesterday was such a nice day that Dan and I decided to take Raven and go out on the lake for a skate. The warm weather last week had melted down the snow on the ice surface and smoothed it all out, so the lake was snow-free and relatively smooth, perfect for skating, something we hadn’t done since before Christmas. Despite that we’d had a few days of above freezing, though, the ice was too thick to melt enough to be a concern. A couple weeks ago our neighbour measured it at 23″ (58 cm), and peeks down through frozen-over ice fishing holes confirmed that it was still plenty thick, despite the warm temperatures. Our neighbours suggest that the ice will stay on the lake till April 15, give or take a couple of days, which means we’ve still got a couple months of frozen water, although I imagine the last few weeks as it starts warming up it’ll begin to thin out and become more unstable.

Playing ball

We went out with the intention of being gone just an hour or so, but ended up spending the whole afternoon out. We skated up to the far end of the lake and dropped in on some neighbours we’ve gotten to know there. Dan hadn’t met them and I knew Raven would be thrilled to visit with them and their dogs. I told Dan it would just be a short visit, but he saw through that, he knows me too well. The skate was nice, though. Easy going, and considerably faster than walking. It’s about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) to the end of the lake one-way, and we tagged on a loop into the eastern bay (Kingsford is sort of Y-shaped, with one branch being the original river channel heading to the dam, and the other being an enclosed bay), so we probably did about 8 km (5 miles) of skating all told.

Cabin on the lake

The lake is interesting in that the residents are divided into two groups, a set of cottages along a private lane at the north end, and the houses and cottages along our road and the offshoot lanes down at the south end. In between is no man’s land, aside from a couple of small cabins such as this one, barely large enough for a cot and a heater. The reason for this split is because the waterfront in the centre bit is too far from the road to be practical to run access in. Laying in a private lane, and then following that up with hydro, would add an extra hundred thousand or more to the price of your home.

Grapevine arbour

It’s funny the evidence of people that you come across, though. In one spot we found these metal chairs set up along the edge of the water, now acting as a grapevine arbour. I’m not sure if that was the original intention of their placement there or not. Just a short distance away was a little fence-like structure, also covered in grapevine, that may or may not have been built for the purpose.

Raven in the wetland

We swung by the wetlands we’d visited back in early winter, but because we had our skates on we didn’t go in to poke around (except for Raven). The wetlands are another reason the mid-section of the lake hasn’t been built on. Because they block easy access for boats or swimming, your effective waterfront would actually be a couple hundred yards out. Wetlands also affect what sorts of building restrictions are applied to your land (obviously more would be in place given the sensitivity of wetlands to runoff and other pollutants). The properties along that stretch would make great hunting or vacation retreats, and I do suspect waterfowl hunters take advantage of the proximity of the wetlands in the fall (we heard gunshots in that vicinity during that period), but it would probably not appeal to residents or serious cottagers.

Shotgun shells

And then there’s the evidence of people you don’t like to see. Shotgun shells dumped and left carelessly on a little island beside the wetlands. Some of them looked older, but some looked relatively new. I don’t think that gun hunting has been open since early December, though archery was still allowed for a while longer than that. Even if there isn’t someone potentially hunting out of season, at least clean up your mess before you leave. I’m not that keen on sport hunting, and things like this make me even less so.

Muskrat pile?

I believe this is the work of a muskrat. Called a “push-up”, muskrats make these piles in spots around frozen ice by either finding or making a hole in the ice (when the ice is thin) and then pushing submerged vegetation, fine roots and other debris up through the hole. As they push more up, the pile grows and expands to create a dome-like structure over the hole. They then use these frozen dome covers as protection while still allowing them to come up for air and rest when away from their lodge. There were lots of these push-ups scattered about the lake, but mostly in the vicinity near the marshes.

Open water

There was also a fair bit of open water around the base of a couple of stumps, and a small channel that cut through the ice for a little ways. We didn’t approach closely enough for me to take a good look, but I wondered whether it might have been the work of one of our lake residents, muskrat, beaver or otter. I still haven’t seen the otter myself, just their tracks that one time back in December.

Stress fractures

The entire lake was criss-crossed with these stress fractures, cracks that formed as the lake ice shifted and settled. Most of them only ran through the top two or three inches of ice and appeared to be just superficial. They were a bit disconcerting at first, but after the initial wariness wore off, it was interesting to look at the cobwebbing patterns they made on the ice surface.

Open channel

Another channel in the lake ice, going from a small island to the mainland. There were a few spots in the lake where the original river channel still carried the water swiftly enough to open it up before the rest of the lake, but I don’t think it goes through here. It may be another mammal corridor.

Snowmobile tracks

This is also a mammal corridor, the sort with big machines on skis. The snowmobiles compacted the snow enough that when it all melted, the tracks remained in the ice, rendering it rough and bumpy. The snowmobilers were coming from the north cottages and going round into the enclosed bay. They’d taken the same track enough to really rough up the ice through this spot, making it difficult to navigate on skates. Other tracks, where they occurred just singly, could be glided over without too much trouble.

I took so many photos during the outing. I didn’t realize just how many I’d taken until I got home and started going through them all. Ten to twelve photos is my limit on a post, so the other half will appear tomorrow.

We’re moving!

House as seen from the lake

After some five years here in Toronto, Blackburnian and I decided it was time for a change, time to move on. Neither of us are city people, and when circumstances allowed that we could move back out to the country, we jumped on it. We’ve spent the last three weeks or so driving around a good portion of southern Ontario checking out house listings, which, it turns out, are few and far between when you’re looking for a rental (we want to both save up a bit and also make sure that we really want to be in the area before we commit to investing in a home). Yesterday we spent a long day on the road, checked out four listings, two of which we absolutely loved. The view from the one of them finally won us over, and we went back today to take care of paperwork. While we were out that way (it’s nearly three hours from where we currently live, so not exactly around the corner!) we revisited the house to take some measurements and also some photographs to share with people.

View from the upper balcony

It was the view that really drew us to the place, and the general setting. It’s right on a shallow lake, with the house at the top of a small rise, looking through the trees at the water. It’s surrounded by forest, with small open patches here and there. Unfortunately, both days we visited it was later in the day, past the hour when birds would be active and singing, but it’s starting to get late in the summer to hear much anyway. The timing of the move isn’t great for experiencing the local bird life (we may have to wait till next spring for most of the residents), but we’ll get to see all the migrants through the fall and feeder birds in the winter, and in the meantime there’s still lots of other wildlife to be seen.

Lake

A view looking up the lake from the dock. It’s a relatively small lake, and quiet. Apparently most of the water traffic is human-powered, with just the odd motor boat going by. The other shore is only about 200 meters/yards away, an easy paddle, or even an easy swim if one was so inclined. The other shore is part of Frontenac Provincial Park, another reason why boat traffic is quiet. A short canoe paddle will take you to miles of hiking trails through relatively untouched wilderness.

Looking back from point

Part of the 2 acre property swings out into a little point. This is looking back toward the dock and shoreline from the point. The water in this area is fairly shallow, only a couple feet deep through most of it. The water is pristine and clear, and you can see right down to the gravelly bottom. There are plenty of fish in the water, and what I would consider to be larger stuff (fisherpeople would scoff at that description, I know), bass and sunfish and others that are easily six or eight inches long. There are even bass spawning beds in the gravel just offshore (Blackburnian had to point them out to me; he used to fish and knows all this stuff much better than I do).

Muskrat

To make up for the lack of birds while we were there, other stuff put in appearances. Here’s a muskrat that was paddling around in the lilypads just off the dock, while we were standing there.

Black Rat Snake

And a Black Rat Snake that we startled from the shrubs at the edge of the lawn (I’m actually not sure who was more startled, the snake or us). It’s the first one either Blackburnian or I have seen in Ontario, where their range is extremely limited, and the species is declining and listed as threatened. They’re only found in a few patchy locations in the southwest, and in the Frontenac axis in the east. Unfortunately, I only had my wide-angle lens on the camera, not anticipating to be taking photos of wildlife. It seems that there will be lots of good fodder for future blog posts from there!

Main deck

Not sure if you can tell, but I’m excited to move! We officially take possession August 1, but are hoping to arrange to be in a few days earlier, if possible, both so we could overlap the move with our last day at this apartment, but also simply because we’re really looking forward to moving in!