Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen
As far as weather goes, March rolled in like a warm, drippy towel. A towel that was mistakenly dropped in the bath but had to be used anyway because “it is what it is.” Snow and pond ice melted away seemingly overnight, leaving one with feelings of “too soon.” Knowing that there is another winter just 10 months away is hardly a consolation prize—winter is simply the best, never want to see it go (not that it is necessarily over yet, if you know what I mean).
A crepuscular stroll to pay my final respects to the thick winter ice that no longer can support humanoids anymore was interrupted by a loud “SLAP.” It was a jarring slap, unexpected and unprovoked—came out of nowhere. More importantly though, it was the kind of “wake up” slap that pulls you out of your head and reminds you that life marches on after the snow and ice are gone. And then there was another “SLAP,” and I moved on completely from the thick ice of a week before.
The mad slapper was a beaver (Castor canadensis), of course, and it was using a newly opened and expanding ice-hole to announce not only that it survived the winter but also that it wasn’t entirely too happy about something (most likely my presence). Beaver tail slaps are a cool, if not startling use of non-vocal communications to relay potential danger and/or aggression. The sound of a tail slap will inspire any beavers on land or shore to quickly retreat to the safety of deep waters. “Deep-water safety” is the basic inspiration behind beavers damming up streams and creeks—five feet is safer than one foot. Safety first!
Beaver societies are closely knit and family-focused with colonies following a matriarchal order (picture a female beaver saying, “this is Big Mama’s lodge!”). To a certain extent this social dynamic is even reflected in beaver tail-slapping. While male beavers tend to tail-slap more often than females, members of a colony are more likely scurry to deeper waters when an adult female does the slapping. Apparently beavers take dangers more seriously when they are relayed by a female beaver’s tail. Do male/female slaps sound different? or does the colony know who’s doing the slapping simply by being aware of where other individuals are at the “moment of slappage?” Either way I got the message after the fourth slap and retreated as darkness was taking hold anyway.
My return home was balanced with the familiar “Peent” of an American Woodcock, the first I’d heard this year. A true harbinger of spring, woodcocks are a somewhat early bird returner to breed in Maine. A shorebird of the woods, male American Woodcocks prefer field edges, especially those bordered with shrubs, as their stage for their impressive aerial courtship display.
After “peenting” somewhere between several and (seemingly) hundreds of times, a male woodcock will take to the skies and slowly ascend hundreds of feet in a large circling pattern (not unlike a raptor catching a thermal) flapping and buzzing the entire time. Once at its apex the male lets gravity take over and the woodcock falls in a zig-zaggy formation back to the ground—essentially landing in the same spot where it took off. Three of a woodcock’s primary (flight) feathers are modified and create whistling sounds throughout the entire aerial portion. And then he repeats over and over again. The gusto of a bird performing such maneuvers in early spring, even at times when there is snow on the ground, makes it a hit every year!
That night I got home with a few new questions and a slightly revamped perspective, which is really about as much as one can ask of a hike. Winter certainly is the best, but soon spring will be here and that will be the best. At some point summer will arrive and will be the best then. And of course autumn then follows and will become the best at that time. And then soon we’ll be back to the winter, the best of all. At that moment.
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen