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Beavers

Unusual Beaver Activity

Beavers are known for their ever-growing incisors which allow them to cut trees down, eat the cambium (a nutritious layer just beneath the bark) and cut what’s left into pieces they are able to haul and use as building material for dams and lodges. More often than not, it’s straight forward work.

Occasionally not every step is taken – you can find standing trees that had the bottom three or four feet (as high as the Beaver could reach) of cambium removed without the trees being felled.  You can find de-barked logs that have been left where they fell and not carried or floated to the dam or lodge as construction material.  It’s also not unusual to find standing trees where several times a Beaver has attempted but failed to cut all the way through.

Recently John Twomey brought to my attention a tree felled by Beavers unlike any other I’ve ever seen:  one or more Beavers had cut down a Paper Birch and eaten the cambium layer, leaving the tree clean of bark.  At some point they cut into the tree every 18 inches or so, not quite severing the pieces, but leaving them connected by a core of wood that ran the length of the tree. If any readers have seen anything similar to this, or if you have an idea as to why Beavers would have cut the tree in this fashion, Naturally Curious would love to hear from you.  (Photo by Prentice Grassi of his sons investigating said tree earlier this spring.)

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Beavers Foraging

Even in the coldest of winters, there is often a thaw around this time of year that frequently allows beavers to escape the cold (+/- 34°F) dark lodge where they reside during most of the winter.  Our most recent thaw was such that in many beaver ponds, ice didn’t even have to be broken in order for resident beavers to forage for food on land.

When beavers are confined to complete darkness (under the ice) their 24-hour circadian cycle extends to a 28 hour day. During this time beavers sleep for longer periods at a time and thus need less food.  As spring approaches and the days lengthen, the slightest exposure to daylight will reset the beaver’s biological clock back to the circadian cycle. (Leonard Lee Rue, Beavers)  (Photo by Alice Trageser)

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Beavers Feeding Young

In summer Beavers spend considerable time on land searching for, cutting and bringing vegetation back to their young in the lodge.  Their woody plant preference (they eat large amounts of herbaceous plants during the warmer months, but also some trees) tends towards the inner bark (cambium) of willow, aspen, maple, birch, cottonwood, beech, poplar, and alder trees. This beaver, however, has retrieved a Red Oak sapling for its offspring.

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Muskrats & Spatterdock

6-12-19 muskrat eating water lily flower bud1B0A0488Cattails, sedges, rushes, water lilies and grasses make up the bulk of a Muskrat’s diet although these aquatic rodents have been known to occasionally dine on fish, crustaceans and freshwater clams.

Muskrats typically don’t eat their food where they find it – they usually bring it out to a feeding platform in the water, which provides them with some protection from predators. However, they make an exception for Bullhead Pond-lily flower buds (Nuphar variegata), also known as Spatterdock, which they often devour on the spot wherever they find them (see photo). Beavers, Porcupines (yes, Porcupines can swim), White-tailed Deer and waterfowl also dine on the leaves, rhizomes, buds, flowers and seeds of Bullhead Pond-lilies.

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What Goes On When We’re Not Looking

5-17-19 beaver and ducks_U1A0432A blind is a wondrous thing, allowing you to observe natural behavior in a natural setting. Having watched beavers for over 50 years, I thought I had seen most of what there is to see regarding Beaver behavior, but this particular morning I was witness to a new activity, namely a game of tag.

The resident Beaver spent the better part of half an hour chasing ducks around its pond. A pair of Mallards were subjected to this annoyance first. When approached, the Mallards would swim away together, with the drake quacking loudly, but obviously weren’t put out too much by this game as they tolerated it for about ten minutes before taking off (undoubtedly in search of a more serene body of water).

No sooner had the Mallards left than a pair of Hooded Mergansers arrived. The Beaver greeted the newcomers and proceeded to chase them around and around the pond, occasionally catching up to them, and then restarting the game all over again. Eventually the mergansers, too, departed, leaving the Beaver king/queen of his/her castle. (Thanks to Mike Keating for photo op.)

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Canada Geese Nesting On Beaver Lodges

4-29-19 c. goose on beaver lodge _U1A7241If you are fortunate enough to have a beaver pond near you, you should give the lodge more than a cursory glance this time of year. It is common to find Canada Geese nesting on beaver lodges, for obvious reasons – safety from most land predators. While Common ravens have been known to raid Canada Goose nests for eggs and goslings, the overall rate of survival of the goslings of lodge-nesting geese is very high.

A Canadian study showed that ponds with beaver lodges (and therefore Beaver activity which warms the water and thaws the ice) thaw at least 11 days sooner than ponds without Beavers, allowing early access to water for Canada Geese returning for the spring nesting season. Battles between pairs of geese vying for these coveted nesting sites are not uncommon.

Canada Geese have much to thank Beavers for. Not only can geese get an early nesting start on beaver lodges, they have a relatively safe spot to incubate their eggs and raise their young.

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Muskrats Cohabit With Beavers

4-24-19 muskrat_U1A7137Muskrats, or “rats,” as they’re sometimes derogatorily called, are semi-aquatic, mostly plant-eating rodents that live in ponds, streams, lakes and marshes. During the winter they seek shelter in lodges that they build out of grasses, reeds, cattails and sticks. Muskrat lodges are much smaller than Beaver lodges, which are constructed out of mud and sizable branches, sticks, stones and mud.

In the spring Muskrats often build nests by burrowing into a stream or pond bank, which they enter under water. Muskrats are also known to set up residence in active Beaver lodges. After dining on aquatic vegetation, the pictured Muskrat made a beeline for the beaver-occupied lodge nearby, and dove under as it approached it. Beavers and Muskrats tolerate each other’s presence in the same pond (and lodge) even though they both consume much of the same vegetation. Unlike Beavers, Muskrats supplement their diet of plants with frogs, crayfish, clams, snails, and fish. It may be that when cohabiting a lodge, they may help one another keep an eye out for predators. (Photo: Muskrat eating pond vegetation)

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Beavers Seeking Green Food

3-22-19 beavers 935Although spring is arriving a bit later than usual this year, there are beaver ponds where the ice has started to melt and resident beavers have wasted no time in exiting the water. (Where ice is thinning, they are known to bump their heads up against it in order to break through.)

Having had a diet of bark all winter (from the underwater supply of branches they stored last fall), beavers head for a greener diet if it can be found. Skunk cabbage, where it’s present, is the first fresh food of the season for beavers. The rhizomes (underwater stems) of water lilies, as well as the leaves and flowers when they appear, are also favorite foods. As spring advances into summer, grasses ferns, sedges, and all manner of herbaceous flowering plants are eaten.

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Beavers Breeding

2-6-19beaverimg_3683Beavers are in the middle of their breeding season, which means copulation takes place under the ice, undetected by human eyes, making information about their reproductive habits hard to come by. What is known about the breeding practices of North America’s largest rodent is that beavers form permanent breeding pairs and are monogamous through consecutive breeding seasons. Should a beaver’s mate die, a new one will take its place. In a colony, only the adult (individuals which are at least three years old) pair breeds. Mating usually takes place in January or February, and typically occurs at night in the water. Gestation is roughly 128 days and three or four kits are born in May or July.

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Coyotes Investigating Beaver Lodges

1-21-19 beaver lodge img_6186Over the past century beaver trapping has declined and beavers have returned to many of their former habitats. Wolves also have come back in a few areas (not the Northeast yet) — but most places where beavers now live remain free of wolves. As a result, the beaver population has continued to increase, limited only by a few predators, primarily humans and Eastern Coyotes.

Coyotes are major beaver predators and have established themselves throughout the Northeast partly because of the abundance of prey and partly because of the absence of wolves, who keep coyotes out of their habitat. During most of the year, coyotes can take advantage of beavers that leave their pond to feed on land. When they are in their lodges, however, beavers are fairly safe from coyote predation, especially if their lodge is surrounded by water. Come winter, when ponds freeze and beavers remain in their lodges, coyotes can easily approach an inhabited lodge by walking over the ice. Thanks to the lodge’s two to three-foot-thick walls of frozen mud and sticks, the beavers within are safe. (Photo: signs showing a coyote’s attempt to access a beaver lodge)

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Beavers Eating & Grooming

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This photograph conveys the essence of a beaver’s summer – eating and grooming… more eating, more grooming. During the summer months, beavers feed on non-woody vegetation (grasses, ferns, aquatic plants, etc.) 90% or more of the time. (During March/April and October/November, their diet switches to 60%-90% tree bark, and during the winter, bark from trees stored under water composes 100% of their diet.)

When beavers are not eating, much of their time during the warmer months is spent grooming, both themselves as well as each other.  Combing debris out of their coat (with the help of a split nail on both hind feet) and applying oily material from their anal glands to waterproof their fur consume much of their waking hours, both at night as well as at both ends of the day. (Castoreum, produced in castor sacs, differs from anal gland secretion, and is used primarily to mark territory.) (Thanks to Roger and Eleanor Shepard, and Sara and Warren Demont for photo op.)

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Beavers Up and Out

4-16-18 beaver l 690Although most of the Northeast is snow-free, parts of northern New England still have a while to go before bare ground is visible. Most beaver ponds, however, are open and the beavers have been taking advantage of their ability to access fresh food after a long winter of water-logged woody plants. While this particular beaver is dining on bark, most beavers head for any green plants, buds, grasses, etc. that are poking their heads above the ground. A particular beaver delicacy this time of year are the leaves and blossoms of skunk cabbage.

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Beavers Breaking Ice

11-13-17 beaver and ice IMG_4410

We’re right on the verge of when beavers will no longer be able to smell fresh air, see the sun and obtain fresh bark. Until the temperature drops to around 16 degrees F. they continue to break through the thin ice covering their pond. Once the temperature remains in the teens or lower for several days, they no longer try to break through the ice and are sealed under it until spring, unless there’s a mid-winter thaw.

Once beavers are confined by the ice, their activities outside the lodge are minimal. Beavers leave their lodge in winter primarily for three reasons: 1) to swim out to their winter food supply pile and retrieve a branch which they bring back into the lodge to eat, 2) to defecate in the water, and 3) to mate in January or February. Other than these excursions, they spend most of their days in the dark, enduring life in a lodge that has a temperature of about 34 degrees F. (Thanks to Kay and Peter Shumway for photo op.)


Otter Brown-Out

9-28-17 otter brown-out 049A5342North American River Otters are not territorial in the classic sense of marking territorial boundaries. Instead they mark prime resource areas within their territory. Often, the site is near their den or a productive food area. They visit these sites repeatedly to urinate, defecate and roll around on the ground – so much so that the surrounding vegetation is often dead or dying and is referred to as a “brown-out.”

If an otter has been eating fish, its scat is often just a pile of fish scales. However, if it has been dining on crayfish and it is fresh, the scat can be tubular. No matter what form otter scat takes, a tell-tale sign (in addition to fish scales and/or crayfish exoskeletons) is the presence of clear, white or yellow mucus (scat-jellies). It is not always deposited, but occasionally you do find it. The origin of this mucus is not known – most likely it’s from the otter’s intestinal tract or its anal glands. Research shows that the presence of mucous deposits in some otter species indicates reduced prey availability or reproductive state.  (Photo: Tubular otter scat is circled in red. Mucus is on right side of photo. Thanks to David Putnam and Natalie Starr for yesterday’s and today’s photo op.)

Reasons why Mystery Photo was not

       Black Bear: Scat consists primarily of crayfish remains.

Beaver: Beavers defecate only in water, and individual pellets consist of tiny woody fragments resembling sawdust.

       Raccoon: Raccoons have latrines where multiple scat is deposited, similar to otters. However, only otters deposit mucus.


Beavers Preparing For Winter

9-12-17 beaver2 20160905_5707The lazy, hazy days of summer are dwindling, and beavers’ internal clocks are telling them it’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare for several months of life below the ice. This entails adding a significant amount of mud to the outside of their lodge. The mud freezes and creates an impenetrable barrier between them and predators such as coyotes that, thanks to ponds being frozen, will have access to beaver lodges. This mud is anchored by the addition of debarked branches and logs that have provided the beavers with meals of cambium during the summer.

A beaver can transport its own weight in material (roughly 45-60 pounds). Retrieving debarked pieces of wood in many cases involves carrying them over both land and water, using only jaws and sometimes a shoulder for support.  A beaver’s short, muscular neck and its powerful lower jaw muscles make this possible. Try lifting one of the larger logs on a lodge or beaver dam sometime. Then imagine carrying it any distance in your mouth with no assistance from your hands. (This feat rivals that of a moose carrying two 25 – 30 pound antlers around for several months.) While there are recorded cases of beavers felling trees 150 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter, logs of this size are not used as building material for dams and lodges, but rather the bark and upper branches provide them with food.  (Thanks to Roger and Eleanor Shepard and Sara and Warren Demont for photo op.)


Beavers Mating

2-17-17-beaver-img_3766Under ice-covered ponds and lakes in dark, cold water, sometime between December and March, beavers mate. Latitude and climate affects the length of the breeding season, which is shorter and later in colder, more northern locations and longer and earlier in warmer, more southerly regions. February is the peak mating season for New England beavers.

Beavers are classified as monogamous, as once a bond has formed, they remain as a pair throughout their life until one of the pair dies, at which point a new mate is found. However, this does not mean they don’t stray. In a study of beaver colony genetics, researchers discovered that more than half of the litters had been sired by two or more males. So much for monogamy.

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A Beaver’s Winter Quarters

2-1-17-beaver-lodge-interior-img_4899What exactly is it like inside an active beaver lodge in winter? It’s dark, damp and around 32°F. The living chamber inside usually has a ceiling no more than two feet high with a diameter of 4 to 6 feet, depending on the number of individuals in the family. (A typical beaver family is composed of an adult male and female, 2 to 3 yearlings, and 2- 4 kits that were born in the spring.) Fresh air enters and carbon dioxide leaves through a central vent (where mud is not applied) and through small holes that remain under logs on the side of the lodge. When there isn’t much snow and the outside air falls well below zero, the temperature inside may drop to a degree or two below freezing, but if the sun is out, it warms right back up again during the day.

The dampness is due to the beavers’ repeated need to enter the water both to retrieve sticks from their nearby food supply pile and to defecate. Upon returning to the lodge, the humidity inside increases due to the water draining from the beavers’ fur. No small wonder that if a January thaw permits, beavers will exit their pond for some fresh air, food and a little bit of sunshine.

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Beaver Winter Food Supply Cache

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Once locked under the ice, beavers have only the food that they have had the foresight to store in their pond prior to it freezing to sustain themselves for the next four to five months. Sometime in September or October beavers start cutting down trees and limbing them. (The more northern the latitude, the earlier they begin this process.)  Beavers have been found foraging over a third of a mile from their pond in the fall.  At this time of year they tend to go further afield in order to find their preferred trees and shrubs – poplar, willow, alder and sugar maples. The branches are carried to the pond and hauled through the water to the lodge. When they approach the lodge the beavers dive down and push the butt end of the branches into the mud at the bottom of the pond and proceed to weave additional layers of branches into them.

Most caches are built as close to the entrance of the lodge as possible. A cache, or winter food supply pile, that feeds a colony of beavers consists of 1,500 to 2,500 pounds of edible bark, twigs and leaves. (On average, a beaver consumes 1 ½ pounds of food per day in the summer, and 2.2 pounds in the winter.)  Because beavers don’t eat the wood, they must gather several tons of saplings and branches in order to have enough to survive.

If you look closely at yesterday’s close-up view of the food cache, you will see larger limbs on top of the pile. These larger logs are used to weight down the pile –they often consist of species that beavers aren’t particularly partial to, if they eat them at all. (Note proximity of food cache to the lodge, which is to the left in photo.) 

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Low Water Levels Provide Palette for Tracks

10-27-16-tracks2-1The low water levels in our ponds this fall do have one benefit – visitors leave obvious signs in the exposed muddy banks. It is fairly astounding how much nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife regularly visits these spots and remains undetected by humans under normal conditions.

 Under cover of darkness, White-tailed Deer, Mink, Raccoons and a variety of birds and small mammals frequently visit and leave traces of their presence in the form of tracks. Other creatures whose tracks you may well find in the exposed mud of wetlands this year include Beavers, Muskrats and River Otters.

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Beavers Especially Vulnerable

9-28-16-coyote-and-beaver-20160927_3275Little did I know when I wrote yesterday’s post about the silver lining of our low water levels that I would so quickly encounter another predator benefiting from the current drought. I have spent a considerable amount of time this summer watching three generations of beavers do their best to survive as their pond proceeded to diminish to the point of exposing one of their lodge entrances and confining them to an increasingly small body of water. The underwater entrances to a beaver lodge are vital to their protection, and predators are well aware of this.

Yesterday the importance of water as a protective barrier was made very clear to me when a coyote appeared on the opposite shore of the beaver pond from where I sat. It stood for several seconds exactly where the beavers leave the pond on their way to nearby woods to cut poplars and birches which they haul back to their pond to eat. A well-worn trail marks the spot. You could imagine the coyote, upon surveying the shallowness of the pond, telling itself to be patient, as better days were just around the corner.

Moments after the coyote left, the mother beaver got out of the pond precisely where the coyote had been standing and took a few steps before sniffing the ground and then the air (see insert). Being nocturnal, beavers have an acute sense of smell which they use for detecting danger, food and for communication with each other. It took mere seconds for the beaver to detect the scent of the coyote, at which point she turned and sought refuge in the dwindling amount of water remaining around her lodge.  May the heavens open up soon.

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Beaver Kits Out & About

9-20-16-beaver-kit-20160919_0902Last January or February beavers mated (in the water) and in May or June gave birth to 1 – 9 (average 2 – 4) precocial kits. Young beavers are born fully furred, their eyes are open and their incisors are visible. Within four days they are able to swim, but it’s usually a month or more before they are seen outside the lodge. Part of the reason for this is their buoyancy, which prevents them from diving down through the tunnel to get out of the lodge. By the age of two months they are able to submerge themselves and they have begun grooming the water-repelling secretions of their anal glands onto their fur, so they are fully water-repellent. They are ready for their semi-aquatic life.  Sometime between two and three months is when they are often first observed by humans — usually in late August or September you can see three generations of beavers in an active pond.

When they are three days old, kits begin to eat vegetation brought to them inside the lodge by their parents and year-old siblings. By the time they are two months old, they are weaned. The three-month-old kit pictured (measuring about a foot from head to base of tail) is able to debark a twig as deftly as its parents.

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Beavers Consuming Herbaceous Plants

8-31-16 beaver cutting fern 052

One associates Beavers with a fairly strict diet of bark and twigs. While their winter diet consists primarily of woody plants, they consume a variety of herbaceous and aquatic plants (as well as woody) during the spring, summer and fall months. Shrubs and trees make up roughly half the spring and autumn requirements, but as little as 10% of the summer diet when herbaceous plants such as sedges and aquatic plants become available.

Recent observation of a local active Beaver pond revealed that Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana), Jewelweed/Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) and grasses are high on the list of preferred foods of one Beaver family during the summer, although woody plants such as poplars (Populus spp.) and Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) have also been consumed in fairly large quantities.   All too soon Beavers in the Northeast will be limited to the bark of branches they’ve stored under the ice. Until this time, they take advantage of the accessibility of more easily digested herbaceous plants. (Thanks to the Shepards and Demonts for photo op.)

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All In A Day’s Post

beaver hauling food to lodge 245Every day I head out with the hope of finding something interesting enough to write about and share on my blog, and which I can also manage to photograph.  There are days when it happens within minutes, but typically it consumes the better part of half a day. I thought I would take this opportunity to try and convey the sensory experience of this endeavor by describing yesterday’s outing.

I arrive at the beaver pond late in the afternoon, hoping for a glimpse of the two beaver kits that have been seen here in recent days.  Hidden behind ferns and shaded by young white pines, I set up my tripod and camera and settle down, hoping my arrival has not been observed.  I am accompanied by Emma, my lab, who for 12 years has patiently sat by my side motionless as we waited for the expected and unexpected to present itself. The sun is close to disappearing behind the trees, but lingering light provides a warm glow to the pond.

Silence greets me, but not for long. There is no sign of beavers, but I am serenaded by a lone Hermit Thrush, bidding a sweet goodnight to the surrounding woods and all who reside therein.  Soon after the Hermit Thrush’s flute-like song ceases, a chorus of plunking Green Frogs starts up.  Still no beavers, but I hear a splash from a corner of the pond that is hidden from view, and out flies a Broad-winged Hawk, whose empty talons tell the tale of a failed attempt to catch a frog or other aquatic resident.  I suddenly hear the high-pitched whining of young beavers coming from within the lodge that is roughly 150 feet directly across the pond from where I sit. This often occurs when a parent leaves the lodge, so I am on high alert.  Cedar Waxwings appear, perching on snags and flying out over the pond to snatch insects from a recent hatch before returning to their perch.

The sun is all but gone as a lone adult beaver surfaces and heads to the far end of the pond.  As silently as possible I walk along the side of the pond until I hear the familiar sound of rodent incisors gnawing rapidly on wood.  There, at the shoreline, the beaver is cutting a branch off a limb of a sloping tree that is within its reach.  Soon the chewing stops and the beaver grasps the cut branch in its mouth and swims the length of the pond to the lodge where its young eagerly await a freshly-cut meal.  When it gets to within several feet of the lodge, the beaver silently disappears beneath the water and moments later is greeted with the exuberant, anticipatory whining of its offspring.  With luck, I may have captured more than one post’s photograph, but even if I haven’t, my ears and eyes (and soul) have reaped enormous benefit from the effort.

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Beavers Seeking Herbaceous Plants

3-16-16 beavers out IMG_1252A recent light snow provided an opportunity to confirm that northern New England beavers have gained access to land and are seeing the sun for the first time in several months. They, along with any beavers living north of the 39th parallel, may well reap some benefit from the change in our climate. Further south, there is no real winter and beavers do not have to cope with a limited amount of stored food for there is usually no ice on ponds. Milder winters and early springs mean more time for Northeastern beavers to access herbaceous food and fresh bark, and less time locked under the ice.

Unbeknownst to many, a large portion of a beaver’s spring, summer, and fall diet consists of herbaceous food – grasses, sedges, ferns, fungi, berries, mushrooms, duckweed and even algae. When beavers first leave their ponds in the spring, one of the first foods they head for is skunk cabbage, as it is one of the earliest flowering plants to emerge (often when snow is still on the ground). Beavers also relish the new foliage of aspen, willow and alders. When they are accessible, the rhizomes, leaves and flowers of both yellow and white pond lilies are favorite foods. Come late fall, when lush greenery has disappeared, beavers up their intake of bark (cambium) and store a pile of branches on the bottom of the pond   close to their lodge, where they have underwater access to it all winter.

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