I awaken at sunrise, stalking my subject at sunrise with camera in hand, strolling the sands of Bignotti Beach trying to capture the perfect beaver shot. Reeds crackle beneath my careless feet. Suddenly there is a cannonball loud splash as a frightened beaver dives from the bank into the river. He splashes his tail, the slap cracking like a gunshot, alerting the other beavers. I take a picture of the beaver swimming away, just his head poking above the water.
I already have several photos of beaver swimming away but I was hoping for better than this today. I have noticed that many of my wildlife photos have titles like “tail of deer as it runs away”, “splash where fish has just jumped”, or “quivering branch where eagle has just launched”. As the beaver swims off I put my camera away and head to the car. That warning shot when the beaver slapped his tail against the water will inspire all the other beaver to hide for a long time.
Beaver are the largest rodents in North America and can weigh as much as eighty pounds, although most adults tip the scales at about forty pounds. During the Ice Age a giant beaver which was eight feet long and weighed just over two hundred pounds with six inch incisors roamed over much of North America. These prehistoric beaver would have been the size of a bear.
Beavers used to be plentiful all across Arizona, wherever there was flowing water. One of the first Americans to traverse Arizona was James Ohio Pattie. My favorite James Ohio Pattie story took place near Gila Hot Springs, New Mexico. Pattie stated that he could drop a fishing line in the cool swift waters of the Gila River, hook a trout and reel it in. Then he would turn around and lower the fish into the hot spring. After just seconds the fish would be completely cooked and he could eat it right off the line. Pattie trapped his way along the Gila River and its tributaries. Pattie discovered so many beaver along the banks of the San Pedro River that he named it “Beaver River.” He proudly claimed to have taken two hundred skins there. One can see why such avaricious trapping quickly led to the extinction of beaver in many places. The San Pedro River was one of these places where beaver went extinct.
Beaver are no longer extinct in southern Arizona. A reintroduction program along the San Pedro River has been wildly successful. Eight beaver were reintroduced in 1999, followed by five more in 2000, and two more beaver were released into the San Pedro in 2002. It is now believed that as many as forty or fifty beaver now call the river home. It was not the first beaver reintroduction program that Arizona had ever seen. In the 1950’s beaver were reintroduced to the Mogollon Rim to help with stream restoration projects there. In the 1930’s the U.S. government put beaver to work restoring riparian habitats in Wyoming, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest. Beaver are considered a keystone species for riparian habitats. It is amazing how diversity of bird species increases along beaver streams.
My friend Jerry saw his first beaver while still a Marine stationed outside Yuma. He would often see the large chubby rodents scurrying across the road after midnight as they ran from one irrigation canal to another, making commando raids on lettuce fields. There was even one beaver breakout from the Sonoran Desert Museum. One night the beavers left their pond and waddled through the bighorn enclosure before escaping into the desert. In the morning Museum workers followed the tracks which went west for a short while. The beaver tracks stopped where they intersected coyote tracks. Then the beavers prints whirled around and the fugitives headed directly back to the safety of their pond, never attempting to escape again.
My quest for the perfect beaver shot has led me to many early morning sunrises along the shores of Bignotti Beach along the Verde River in Cottonwood. There is a den there and I almost always see the beaver but never get a good photograph. The beaver are too wary. One stumble, sneeze or misstep and the water erupts with a cannonball tail slap and all the other beaver swim away underwater. Beaver are very good swimmers with webbed hind feet and can stay submerged for over fifteen minutes. I figure that in order to have evolved to be so cautious the beaver must be delicious.
Knowing that beaver are mostly nocturnal creatures I went down to the river under the full moon figuring that would be the best time to get a photo. The problem is the beavers like trees and trees cast shade. Thick groves of trees cast lots of shade. I hardly saw nothing but about every ten or fifteen minutes I would frighten one of the beavers and be startled by a loud splash as that big round flat beaver tail struck the water with a crack like a gunshot. Often the tail splashes were only a few feet away from a beaver I had never seen. Once I was so startled that I nearly dropped my camera into the water.
I have learned the best way to see the beaver is to sit calm and still for long periods of time. The beaver still freak out every time I try to move my camera but I have learned to enjoy just watching them. Then too there is that thing about the birds. Like I said before, beavers are well known as a keystone species for riparian habitats. The presence of beaver in a stream greatly increases avian diversity. While I sit on the shores of Bignotti Beach and watch the beaver swim back and forth I have learned to listen and enjoy all the birdsongs erupting from the trees. Sometimes the loudest birds are the most beautiful like the summer tanager or yellow headed blackbirds. One sunrise I had just scared away the beaver and was putting my camera away when I looked up and saw five raccoons climbing a giant desert willow covered in grapevines. My favorite experience was walking a little further upstream than usual and pausing to rest when a bald eagle landed on the opposite riverbank.
If you happen to be up at sunrise, preferably just before sunrise, think of me, knowing that I will stalking along the shore of Bignotti Beach hoping to capture the perfect beaver shot.