Monday, May 14, 2012

Spring at the Beaver Marsh

A visit to the Beaver Marsh Preserve, the hidden jewel behind an old shopping center in Durham, NC, is like a visit to an exotic wilderness  in some other part of the world. Click on this image or any other one in the blog to see a larger version.

It is that time of year again. The time when I emerge from the dark and cold of Winter and feel life again in the way I like it best. The cycle is reliable and consistent. I know what to expect. This year I have been spending much more time at the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association's Beaver Marsh Preserve. It is a lush green oasis nestled behind a run down shopping center in a part of Durham that could use some attention. The marsh itself is something like a secret public jewel. It is a secret kept by many, most of whom talk freely about the jewel at the slightest prodding. I am one of those secret keepers who tells everybody he meets. "Do you know about the beaver marsh behind Big Lots and Compare Foods?"

There is so much to tell about the marsh. Anything from the politics of urban nature conservation to an accounting of all the various plant and animal sightings would make for a good story. Then there are the people who frequent the place from the dedicated and scholarly birdwatchers to the homeless bike rider who makes sure baby turtles don't get stranded in the street. Of course there are also the litterbugs, trash dumpers, and the many volunteers who pick up after them to keep the place as pristine as possible. But these are not stories for this time.

This time it is about Spring and the reality of new life at the marsh. I wander all over the marsh going from the easily accessible observation fence to the thickly wooded and swampy areas on the other side where most people don't bother to go. This Spring, though, I have been really taken by how much there is to see in the most public of places right at the edge of the preserve. All the signs of new life are there. Spring is speaking loudly as Summer approaches and all of that new life matures through its inevitable cycles.

A Young Black Racer with New Skin
Very early on while walking very slowly and quietly near the marsh's edge I startled an absolutely beautiful young black racer. Actually, we startled each other. Even after a lifetime catching and playing with snakes, I am easily startled by one I am not expecting. This one had obviously just shed his skin. The shiny new scales showed an amazing iridescent blue. Time for one shot with my camera. A single click and he was gone. I could not have been happier but I knew some small frogs and other creatures would not be sharing my joy over such a sighting.

New life was emerging everywhere. For the few weeks before I had been watching a pair of Canada geese nesting right on the side of the beaver lodge in the center of the marsh. It struck me as being too much in the open and unprotected. Not the most secure place for a nest. A pair of crows seemed to take an interest in the nest too. They would perch on top of the lodge facing the nest and make a racket clearly intended to disturb the geese. I don't know if they were after eggs or goslings but I do know they kept a vigil, I even imagined I heard one of the say something like "Nevermore."  Okay, not really, but you get the picture. It did not look good for the goslings.

Four of Seven Wait for the Others
Imagine my surprise when a few days later I saw the whole family of geese out for a stroll. There were seven goslings following the goose and gander around the edge of the marsh trying to graze just like the grown-ups. It was so good to see them all survive the schemes of the crows and reach the point where they could keep up with the adults and, like these four, wander off for short distances to explore the huge new world. In case you are wondering, these are too big for our serpentine friend in the previous section to take on. That doesn't mean life for them is without risk. Nevertheless, life had prevailed and I was looking for more.

It came in the form of a nesting painted turtle. The ground was soft following a long overnight rain; just right for making a nest. Like most turtles who are well into the nesting task, this one was not disturbed by my presence. It is almost as if they go into a trance. They spend hours carefully digging the nest, laying the eggs, and covering them up in a way the makes the site almost invisible. When she is done she leaves and doesn't look back. In a few weeks, half a dozen tiny hatchlings will poke their way out of the shells, dig out of the nest, and scramble through the brush to the relative safety of the water. No parenting for these little ones. They are on their own..

Slider Finishing a Nest
On the same day, I ran across a yellow bellied slider putting the finishing touches on a nest she had made right next to the observation fence. Her muddy backside was the only clue to what she had been doing. I watched as she carefully tamped the damp soil and pulled old vegetation over the place where she had dug the nest. It was slow meticulous work. When she finished she simply walked away without so much as a glance back to inspect the work.

The Finished Nest
In a few days the spot would be practically invisible, like nothing had happened. Hers was only one of dozens of such nests scattered along the edges of the marsh and in the surrounding area. Some are as far away from the water as fifty feet. In one case a large snapping turtle was seen nesting across a street from the marsh. One thing is for sure. Once the nest is made it is all but invisible unless you know what to look for. The eggs are safely hidden underground until it is time to hatch and dig out.

All is well at the marsh. The snakes have shiny new skins. The goslings are following their parents around like the little "ducks on wheels" toys they inspired. Dozens of embryonic turtles are starting to develop in their eggs, nestled away in warm underground nests. Dragon flies are flitting about and there is more green stuff coming up than one can imagine. The bullfrogs are calling as are their cousins the tree frogs, green frogs, toads, and who knows what else. It is Spring and all is well. I can almost hear Disney music . . . Listen.

Okay, cue the sound of the needle scratching across the grooves of a vinyl record! (I am hoping this still counts as a signifier, regardless of age) Maybe this idyllic place is not so idyllic after all. I went back the very next day mainly to see if the overnight showers had further camouflaged the turtle nests. The first one was altogether invisible. Nobody would ever know a nest was there. I only knew where it was because I had made note of some small stones on the ground nearby.

The Next Day: Predation
Still More Predation
I wish I could say the same for the other one. Somebody other than me and the turtle knew it was there.Those little turtles never had a chance. It was breakfast or more likely, a midnight snack time for somebody and there was plenty to choose from. I didn't  have to wander far to see another ravaged turtle nest, this one a little neater but devastated nevertheless. There were others scattered around. I wondered how many nests had been raided, how many little turtles would never see the beautiful green of the marsh.

Night Raider
I didn't have to wonder much about who or what might be responsible. I thought the night raider would probably look something like this. This is not the actual egg predator but I know from personal experience that this very one has a definite taste for turtle eggs and turtle hatchlings. She was captured in my backyard last year and sent into exile. I also know that opossums, skunks, and even foxes are possible suspects but my money is on the masked bandit.

What about the goose family? It wasn't long before I had my answer. First there was the familiar quiet honking sound. Then the sighting. Just a few yards away, marching from the nearby parking lot back toward the marsh, came the parade. Two adult geese followed by seven little waddling wannabes. It made me smile. These guys were going to be okay.

Bullfrog at the Beaver Marsh
Then next day I went back, just to see what I could see. Maybe a new sighting of some sort. This time it was a frog that caught my eye. She was a relatively large bullfrog who did not seem to mind my presence. I was able to get close enough to get a pretty good shot. She watched as I tried to move even closer then decided that enough is enough. As I took one more slow step, she  reoriented her body toward the pool, paused for a second, and took one long graceful leap, making barely a ripple as she entered the water. This was not a panic escape. More like a case of discretion being the better part of valor. There is much to say about the frogs but I will save that for the next entry.

Of course I had to check on my little goose family. After a few minutes of looking around, I found them again. This time there wasn't much to celebrate. The parade was much shorter.

The Last Parade
All but one of the goslings was gone. By the next day, even it had disappeared. I could only speculate about what happened. In this case there are many suspects. On land, there are the feral cats who hang around the marsh and nearby restaurants. Raccoons and opossums are not off the hook either. Then there are the larger snakes, especially the rat and water snakes. In the water, there are snapping turtles. While they are not likely to pursue or stalk water fowl, they would be more than happy to snag one passing by. Who knows? Maybe the crows didn't give up after all.

What I do know is that the marsh for all of its beauty, is a very dangerous place. It is a place easily misunderstood and over romanticized by those of us who work to preserve it. We see the beauty of the place and wonder at its presence in an urban setting. We watch the seasons come and go, each with its particular aesthetic and charm. We adore the beavers and cherish the rare sightings of those little engineers who created the marsh in the first place. We visit and watch and record and admire it from the distance afforded us by human civilization. We decide what is cute, what is beautiful, what is graceful, what is interesting, what belongs, and what doesn't. What we don't do is live in the marsh. For those that do it is another reality altogether.