Tracking the elusive muskrat

A muskrat lives in the creek under the bridge where I cross into the woods every day. Ondatra zibethicus are particularly reclusive, so it took me a while to wise up to its presence. Danny and I saw one three years ago a little way upstream.

I didn’t see it here until last summer. I had been standing quietly on the bridge with my camera for several minutes, focusing on something else, when I heard a quiet rustle below. I peeked over the railing and there was a muskrat, perched on its hind feet eating a weed. When it saw me, it froze. As soon as I tried to manoeuvre to take a picture, it broke away, dashed clumsily across some rocks, splashed through a pool, and disappeared under a bank.

Muskrat resemble beaver and are adapted for similar habitats and lifestyles. They are even known to cohabit beaver lodges and look out for their mutual predators. Both have blunt brown heads and strong tails for swimming, but muskrat are much smaller than adult beaver. A beaver’s tail is wide and flat. The beaver will use it to slap the water in alarm, but I’ve never seen one move quickly like the muskrat last summer. The muskrat’s tail is long, thin, and flattened on the sides.

Cedar Creek

Above is the place where I saw the muskrat last summer (shot here during milder winter weather). The storm drain produces a trickle of water that keeps some open ice in all but the coldest weather.

Marsh muskrat build lodges of weeds, but along river habitats they burrow into the bank. Now that I know one lives here I always look out for it. The signs are few. For months I’ve seen nothing except the hollow under the bank where it vanished that day.

Since the creek started freezing over, the muskrat has left indelible clues. Its tracks are easy to distinguish from raccoon and squirrel, because the muskrat drags its heavy tail designed for smooth propulsion through water. The sinuous line is visible in the top photo.

Below are the clever-pawed tracks of a raccoon left along the same part of the creek a few days ago.

Raccon tracks on frozen creek

This morning I saw something new: the hole where the muskrat moves between the worlds of air and water. Muskrat don’t hibernate and are well equipped for winter survival. They gnaw holes in the ice with their teeth. They can remain underwater for 15 minutes without coming up for breath. Muskrat would probably prefer to forage for submerged roots and weeds. However, in this shallow stream the animal must range above the ice in search of additional food. Muskrat also cache food in their burrows.

Last summer I spotted a mink wending its way upstream. A few minutes later a small animal screamed from the vicinity of the bridge. At the time I assumed it was a squirrel or rabbit. Now that I’ve seen the muskrat there, I think the victim must have been one of its family. I hope both wildlife species manage to survive the winter under this bridge, a stone’s throw from my office window.


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