Thursday, June 12, 2014

Appreciating muskrats

Appreciating muskrats

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Last week’s segment ended with a teaser about an animal Illinois Public Media’s Lisa Bralts and I saw as we searched Scott Park in Champaign for urban wildlife. If you caught her segment of “Backyard Industry” on the topic, you know it was a muskrat.

As we watched from the bridge, it swam a short distance toward us until it came ashore on a small gravel bar. It then cut a bunch of bright green grass with its teeth and went back the way it came, disappearing from view around a bend in the creek. Bralts had never seen a muskrat before, and I’m always after better photos, so it was a very cool wildlife encounter for both of us.

What was a muskrat doing in Scott Park, just blocks from the center of town?

Muskrats occupy a wide variety of aquatic and wetland habitats, including slow moving creeks, such as the Boneyard, marshes, swamps, ponds and lakes. They are native to North America, where their range extends all the way from Alaska and northern Canada to northern Mexico. They inhabit every county in Illinois.

[Photos by author: above, muskrat in the creek at Scott Park in Champaign; below, muskrat in the pond at First and Windsor, showing some of its tail.]

Like most Prairie State muskrats, the one that occupies the Boneyard Creek at Scott Park lives in a den it has excavated in the bank. The underwater entrance to the den is not visible from shore, but its approximate location is evident from the mass of cut vegetation and disturbed streambed around it.

You may also be familiar with another type of muskrat home, the lodges built by muskrats that live in shallow, still water, which can often be seen in

borrow pits along highways. These dome-shaped structures are made with aquatic vegetation and mud; they’re much like beaver lodges, but built on a smaller scale.

Muskrats are characterized by few of the things that writers and readers most enjoy in wildlife. At two to three pounds, and with a body about a foot long, they are neither big enough nor small enough to be remarkable. A muskrat’s scaly tail, which is about as long as its body, is flattened side to side and serves as a rudder. But it lacks the certain something that makes a beaver’s oversized, paddle-shaped tail a signature feature.

For my money, the most remarkable physical feature of muskrats is one we casual observers can’t actually see. It is lips that close behind the front teeth. This arrangement enables muskrats to chew submerged vegetation without taking in water.

As for what they can do, muskrats are pretty fast swimmers, with a top speed of about 3 miles an hour. But again, if you’re comparing, that’s less than half the top speed of a river otter. My sources all also mention that muskrats can swim backward, which must really be something to see, and they can reportedly stay underwater for 15 minutes.

Muskrats are also very good at making more muskrats, which enables populations to persist even under adverse conditions, and which serves the creatures that treat them as a resource. Among these are the many animals that eat them, with mink at the top of the list, and people who trap them for their pelts.

Unremarkable as muskrats may be as a species, I’m glad to know there’s one (or more) living in Scott Park. It’s a reminder that a little accommodation can go a long way toward integrating the human and the natural worlds.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Appreciating everyday wildlife

Appreciating everyday wildlife

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It’s summer at last and for many people that includes the promise of traveling beyond east central Illinois to enjoy the outdoors. (Rocky Mountains here we come!) But let’s face it, vacations are not a full-time lifestyle option for most of us, and we’ll spend the majority of days this season doing what we usually do: going to work in the morning and heading home in the evening. So here’s a plug for enjoying the wildlife we can experience every day.

I typically commute from my home just west of downtown Champaign to the U of I campus by bike, via a route that takes me past the Second Street Basin. In combination with Scott Park, the basin provides a little oasis for people, and habitat for a surprising diversity of animals.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, it’s a great place for seeing turtles. The large, spiny softshell turtle that first appeared there last year can be seen again now, basking on a partially submerged boulder or somewhere near the shoreline. She’s the biggest turtle present and the only one with a weirdly tapered snout that ends in a tip like an elephant’s trunk. Near her, you can often see other turtles, too, including a large painted turtle whose head and neck are nearly black, as well as red-eared sliders in an assortment of smaller sizes.

[Photos by author: softshell, painted turtle and red-eared sliders; great blue heron; green heron; belted kingfisher.]

The Second Street Basin also supports a good number of fish, although I know about them only from observing the birds that eat them. The most conspicuous of these is a great blue heron, which catches its breakfast on the west side of the basin where water flows into it. The heron stands knee deep in the current and uses its long, strong bill to snap up unlucky shiners, minnows and sunfish.

A less conspicuous but equally beautiful green heron also stalks the shores of the Second Street Basin on a regular basis. It’s a crow-sized bird with orange-yellow legs, a dark green back and red-brown neck and shoulders.

As if the herons weren’t enough, the fish of the basin are also food for a belted kingfisher, which perches on the railing of the overlook and then plunges into the water to capture prey.

I must admit that while my descriptions of wildlife at the Second Street Basin are accurate they represent a tightly focused view of the scene.

I was reminded of this recently when Lisa Bralts of Illinois Public Media joined me there for a brief tour one morning. Suddenly I was self-conscious about things I normally look right past, especially all of the goose poop on the sidewalks and the sad state of the landscaping (no complaint there; I know it’s a work in progress).

Worse still, Bralts had come to gather material for a segment on urban wildlife for her multiplatform program, “Backyard Industry,” and I felt like it was important that we see something cool. But it was too early for the turtles to be out yet. And the fish-eating birds were all elsewhere.

We got as far as the bridge over the Boneyard Creek in Scott Park before an unlikely appearance by a creature I hadn’t anticipated seeing saved the day. Rather than providing my own account of that, though, let me direct you to hers. It will run on WILL AM-580 tomorrow morning at 7:35. Or you can find it on the Illinois Public Media website at