I was supposed to lead a walk for Waterloo Region Nature today, along the Mill Race Trail in St. Jacobs, so Miriam and I went to scout it out yesterday, but the trail was essentially sheer ice and we had to call off today's walk.
We walked gingerly along the grassy edge of the path. Single file was not too bad but it would have been impractical for a nature group, and especially for some of the older members who might do serious harm to themselves if they fell.
Ice it seems is one of those things that is a real curse or a thing of beauty to be admired.
There was lots of bird life with many species commonly associated with a winter walk, but what we found most interesting was the presence of several Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus).
We observed the bizarre behaviour of one individual bent on chasing a Mallard (Anas platyrynchos) drake, to what end I am not sure.
The Mallard was a match for his pursuer in terms of speed, but if the Muskrat got a little too close the Mallard would simply fly ahead a few metres, putting distance between himself and his irritating aquatic companion.
Actually we saw little groups of Mallards all the way along the trail and they were very agreeable companions.
I am a great fan of Mallards. They may be common but they are wonderful birds, and the little curls on the male's tail are exquisite.
There has been a lot of activity by the resident American Beavers (Castor canadensis) this year and lodges and winter stores of food are to be found all along the Mill Race.
And herein I think lies the reason for the proliferation of Muskrats. Although Muskrats commonly build their own dens, they are known to occupy beaver lodges, cohabiting with the beavers in apparent harmony. As far as I know this fact has only recently been discovered due to increasingly sophisticated photographic equipment and the possibility of placing cameras in a beaver lodge to record the activities going on there. None of my reference books, in the sections on American Beaver or on Muskrat, mention this behaviour which would indicate it was unknown at the time of publication.
One of the individuals we watched dived under a pile of vegetation and did not resurface, but another was very busy indeed. It was gathering twigs and branches and taking them down into the den, and returning for more.
We watched this activity for fifteen or twenty minutes and the Muskrat was constantly ferrying food to the occupants of the bank burrow below. Does this indicate a level of cooperation between beaver and Muskrat, thereby ensuring harmony in the den? It would appear so. Our observation included only the above water side of the activity but one can perhaps reasonably surmise what went on below.
In any event it was all quite fascinating and we were glad to have been witnesses to it.