Muskrat Sunday

Mallard Pond, Luther Marsh
April 27, 2014

It stirs the soul when you set foot in a place and the first call that you hear sounds primordial. Sandhill cranes do that for me. Their “purling rattle” stops me in my tracks and beckons my attention in an ancient way. It is thoroughly enjoyable to share this with others who have never heard the sound before. After returning home and reading about sandhill cranes, I discovered that they are the oldest known surviving North American bird species. I must admit that these birds are one of the reasons why I return to Luther Marsh again and again.

Tracking Sticks

Tracking Sticks

Walking the perimeter of Mallard Pond and looking for animal signs was truly therapeutic this past weekend. We were “shaking off the road dust” of a long, cold winter by warming our faces with sunshine and cleaning our lungs with cool, moist air. Winter had taken its toll on a few marsh residents and we were able to see an opossum, deer and muskrat carcass near the shoreline. We paid careful attention to the feet and noted the perfect detail of claws, toe pads and palm pads in both the opossum and muskrat.

Muskrat photo by Marcus Garvie.

Muskrat photo by Marcus Garvie

In Mark Elbroch’s “Behaviour of North America Mammals” I read that muskrats are not true rats and are most closely related to voles. I believe it! We often needed to watch where we stepped on the shoreline because of an extensive network of muskrat bank burrows. It seemed like there was some friendly “vole competition” going on since the true voles of the Marsh also had an extensive network of underground tunnels nearby. The receding snow had uncovered unusual tracks called “eskers” or “trail castings”. Voles create these tubular deposits of earth when excavating underground tunnels during the winter months.

Vole Eskers (Trail Castings)

Vole Eskers (Trail Castings)

Lured by the blue waters of Mallard Pond, we surveyed the marsh for birds. Margaret spotted some Buffleheads. Ann found a white-fronted goose swimming near some Canada geese and a relaxed muskrat sunbathing on a feeding platform of vegetation. Jenny observed a beautiful, male yellow- rumped warbler. A northern harrier also showed his characteristic white “rump” while flying low to the water. Marcus spotted possible coyote tracks in the muddy shoreline and coyote scat along the trail.

Canine track in mud by Marcus Garvie

Coyote track in mud? by Marcus Garvie

Other memorable scats included: fox, mink, rabbit, deer, and of course, muskrat. Ann found the largest owl pellet that I have ever seen. We looked it up and learned that Great Horned owls can make pellets that are up to 11.4 cm long! That would be an uncomfortable object to have to “cough up”. The edge of the marsh also revealed some spring awakenings. Mary-Ellen found two garter snakes in courtship adjacent to a muskrat trail, where a crayfish was hiding with eggs underneath.

Spring awakenings!

Spring awakenings!

After eating a delicious waterside lunch accompanied by the sounds of sandhill cranes, ravens and grouse, we headed to the north side of the pond. It was then, that we were treated to a display of synchronized swimming by the muskrats. As we walked along the trail, the muskrats would dive into the water a few metres ahead of our footfalls, resurface and then swim parallel to the shore. Every so often, they would dive into the water again (usually when the camera came out), resurface and then continue swimming elegantly westward with their rudder-like tails sculling from side to side. Thank you to everyone who came on “Muskrat Sunday”. The spring concert was magnificent!

Muskrat swimming

Muskrat swimming