Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 22, 2012

Leave it to Castor – Part 1: The Boring Part

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:36 pm

Although I am primarily a muskrat man (as confirmed in my previous post on the MDL) I must admit to more than a grudging respect for beavers.  In fact, as long as we are confessing here, I have spent an inordinate amount of time seeking out the opportunity to observe these large rodents in the wild. The chances have been few and far between. Even in the North Country I have been provided with sustained views of their handiwork, such as dams, lodges, or felled trees, but only glimpses of the creatures themselves. They are primarily nocturnal and this made things even more difficult.

Incredibly, my golden opportunity presented itself in a very regional manner. It turns out that one of the most observable beaver colonies in the state is located in urban Detroit. No, this is not a joke. The colony is located at DTE’s Conners Creek Power Plant on the Detroit River just opposite the north tip of Belle Isle.

You might recall a news story from a few years ago that a beaver was spotted on the plant property. A trail cam video captured by DTE wildlife Coordinator Jason Cousino in 2008 confirmed the tale that not only did two of the flat-tailed beasts show up but that they were raising kids!  At least two young were shown reaching for some cottonwood boughs placed before the trail cam in 2009.

The press releases trumpeted the “Return of the Beavers to the Detroit River” and cited a mystery figure of 75 years as the last time these creatures were seen in the region. Perhaps biologists were looking at records from the Canadian side of the Strait, because in terms of the Detroit side that figure should be well over 100 years and probably much longer. As a center of the fur trade, Detroit was “ground zero” for local representatives of the Castor clan.

Some 200 years ago this location was prime Castorland.  Bela Hubbard, the early Michigan surveyor, once wrote that much of the pre-settlement landscape of Wayne County – and by inference, the adjoining counties – was actually created by beaver activity (dams, ponds, meadows, etc.). In case you are wondering, he is no relation to Bela Lugosi nor is he responsible for naming Big Beaver Road (that was an early settler thing based on a lodge near the road).

The Conners Creek Power Plant was built between 1915 & 1921 (originally known as the Seven Sisters Plant due to the line of seven stacks that once adorned the building). Placed on the marshy ground where the creek entered the river, this plant loomed over the landscape for 90 years without casting a shadow on any member of the Castor clan. The entire Michigan side of the shoreline south of that point was developed, filled, industrialized, and basically beaver un-friendly.

But, over time the immediate area opened up as surrounding buildings were razed and the place slowly took on the substance of a proper beaver habitat. The appearance, however, remained urban. When that wild beaver colony showed up, they completed yet another grand cycle of life.

My introduction to this colony occurred this past summer when I was asked to give a presentation for the Kid’s Day at the Edison Boat Club. This club just happens to be located on the canal leading to the Conners Creek Plant and they promised to show me the beaver lodge. Not only did I see that the lodge was within touching distance from the club property, (the spot was even equipped with a chair!) but they were open to allowing me to return for some further study.  I did pull a Douglas (as in Macarther) and returned. My experience was, to say the least, memorable. I offer you the accompanying photos as a teaser(wait ’til you see the video).

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