As we settle into our comfortable, warm home in town, having left our three-season cottage on White Lake for the winter, we are reminded that most of the wildlife we see at the cottage lives out in the open. Some species, however, construct features that assist them in raising their young, harvesting food, and/or surviving the winter. Here we look at four species that design their homes to fit in with nature.
Next to humans, the animal that makes the most substantial and extensive changes to the local environment is the Canadian beaver. Beavers are the largest member of the rodent family in North America with adults weighing up to 30 kilograms. They live in wet areas, and our cottage beavers have taken up residence both in White Lake and in streams that flow into it. In the lake, their presence is evidenced by dome-shaped lodges that are essentially mounds of sticks, mud, and aquatic vegetation. Beavers build at the water’s edge, along the shore, or in marsh areas, using trees they have felled by gnawing through the trunk. They construct an underwater entrance to the lodge, which is usually at least one meter below the water level. In streams, their presence is also made apparent by the stick and mud dams they construct across stream beds, and the water reservoirs that accumulate behind these dams. In the first photograph you can see the trail through aquatic vegetation leading to the lodge. You can see in the foreground of the second photograph a dark-coloured dam behind which the water level is raised. The underwater entrance makes the lodge a safer place to rear young, providing a degree of protection from terrestrial predators and freezing temperatures. Beavers are active year-round as they need to keep their continuously-growing upper and lower incisors worn down by chewing. In winter they feed on branches cached under the ice near their lodge.
Another conspicuous wood structure visible around White Lake is the large stick nests built by Osprey. Successfully breeding, monogamous pairs will re-use the same nest year after year, adding sticks and twigs to the nest with each usage. All the nests we have spotted around White Lake are in the tops of tall, mature white pines, although our field guides indicate Osprey will also use spruce, as well as platforms placed by people on the top of tall poles. They construct nests roughly 20 meters above ground-level near the water’s edge. Adult birds are readily identified as they are large (60 centimeters long) and spend much of the summer daylight hours soaring over the water in search of live fish which they catch using their talons by diving feet first into the water. Breeding pairs lay two to three eggs and both parents spend the summer catching and feeding fish to their chicks.
Bald-faced hornets construct ‘paper’ nests, in which they raise one generation of grub-like larvae, using mouthfuls of chewed wood cellulose fibers as building material. They are not true hornets. Our field guide describes them as large yellow jacket wasps. Like some other members of the vespid wasp family, bald-faced hornet nests are enclosed in a paper covering with an opening at the bottom of the spherical nest by which adults can enter and exit the nest. Only recently-mated queens survive winter in leaf litter and they start new nests each spring. Nests are built under branches in trees and shrubs, and sometimes under our cottage eaves and decks. Females can inflict a painful sting and are able to sting multiple times if disturbed, but are not aggressive like most yellow jackets.
Less durable constructions, but none the less impressive when viewed covered in dew and reflecting the early morning light, are the webs spun by many spiders. The most distinctive are the circular ‘orb’ webs that are built by members of the orbweaver family. The vertical webs are comprised of ‘silk’ produced in the spider’s internal silk glands and spun into threads of silk by the six spinnerets located at the posterior end of the abdomen. Different types of silk are produced including sticky and non-sticky threads that are used to make these hunting snares. The radiating arms of each web use non-sticky silk while the spiraling threads incorporate sticky silk which traps prey that flies into the web. The arabesque spider is one of these orbweavers.
These are just a few of the animals, insects, and spiders that build interesting structures around our cottage. So, humans are not the only ones constructing structures in cottage country.
For this article, we have used Tamara Eder’s Mammals of Ontario; Jeffrey C. Domm’s Loriner Field Guide to 225 Ontario Birds; Tom Murray’s Insects of New England and New York; and, Larry Weber’s Spiders of the North Woods.