Eager Beavers Part I

THEY REAPPEARED THIS FALL, just as suddenly as they had left a few years back. At dusk on 2012 summer evenings we often kayaked our little stretch of the West Fork. We grew to expect a beaver encounter or two each evening, but still were startled by the sudden crack of a broad tail slapped on the water’s surface, a territorial warning. We could detect the mammal smell of them on a particular curve of the river. But then they moved on.

And now they are back, these rotational grazing farmers, shapers of the land. But let me back up a little. We’ve had several wet years, and everyone around these parts notices there is water standing or flowing in places it has not usually been. One of our ponds, though, the naturally formed one below Little Barn Cabin, seemed to be losing water. In fact, the flow from the springs that feed that pond was being diverted by some downed trees. The water was backing up and forming new wetlands in among the trees. The prospect of a new wetland was okay, but the threat of losing the over-wintering spot for at least a hundred turtles and countless other animals was not.


It’s not a stretch to draw comparisons between Tom and a big beaver. The human got to work shoveling muck and chopping out the downed trees that  threatened to dry up the old pond and make a wetland out of the woods between the river and the pond and beyond. Soon the audible trickle exiting the pond was evidence the water level was rising. Shortly thereafter Tom stood at the outflow and proclaimed this would be a great place for a beaver to build a dam. Two days later they began.

Tom doing his best beaver impersonation


Tom had also noticed that the wet marshy area leading to the pond was starting to be choked by willows. He was about to go to work on clearing them out, but the actual beavers beat him to it. The beaver clan – who knows if it was the returning clan? – have now removed a couple hundred willow saplings and built a small dam, raising the water level by 18”. The turtles, frogs and water fowl are the beneficiaries.


We set a trail camera to capture the activity between that pond and the river, a well-used land bridge spanning the twenty or so feet. The photos show those beavers going back and forth, dragging willows, making several trips a night. They never look up at the camera, they just keep working. Of course, they don’t just go after the tender willow shoots. So, we add beaver to the list of mammals that threaten the oaks that we plant or find, and seek to protect with wires till they can fend off rabbit, rodents, deer- and now beaver.

The otters present with a curious demeanor., stopping to pose for the camera.
But the beavers are relentless in this willow removal project, making many trips per night before freeze-up.


Ben Goldfarb wrote Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. He probably owes us a little for the success of this fascinating, and we dare say important book: we have bought at least eight copies, mostly to give to folks who consider beavers to be the enemy for various reasons. Meanwhile, we are watching with keen interest, and just a little bit of nervousness, to see how the relentless industry and work ethic of these creatures will change this little corner of the ecosystem. Stay tuned!

2018 is Year of the Bird – and Birding Tours at Nature Nooks Retreat!

National Geographic is joining with dozens of bird-centric organizations, such as Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology to celebrate 2018 as the Year of the Bird!

What is the Year of the Bird?

2018 marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. Turns out, bird watchers in the US back then saw the need for awareness and action in response to over-hunting and bird habitat degradation and destruction.

Why is it so important to protect birds?

You’ve heard of the canary in the mine, right? It’s not just a metaphor for dangerous mining conditions. In fact, when we take active steps to protect birds, in particular migratory birds, it turns out those actions and policies are also important for so many other aspects of the web of life.

Thomas Lovejoy, Biologist and Godfather of Biodiversity, says it elegantly and simply – “IF YOU TAKE CARE OF BIRDS, YOU TAKE CARE OF MOSt OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS IN THE WORLD.”

May at NNR

It gets downright noisy here at Nature Nooks Retreat in May, especially in early morning, with raucous migratory flocks passing through and sometimes stopping briefly. For example, we had a dozen trumpeter swans here for part of a morning one day last spring!

Honestly, I sometimes despair of getting good at identifying them. It’s hard to spot them! And they all sing and call over one another! But you know, I am getting better. We’ve hosted a few birding events here at Nature Nooks Retreat, and I add a few species every year to those I can feel confident about naming by sight and sound.

We are lucky to count among our friends Craig Thompson, who is an excellent – let me say amazing – birder. (See his bio below.) We are delighted that he will be offering private tours here at NNR in May, during migration. So if you want to tune up your skills, along with a friend or four, we’ve got an opportunity for you!

Here’s what Craig says:

“May birding at Nature Nooks will be a delightful experience. The rich mosaic of habitats offers a bounty of dazzling birds. Woodlands, wetlands and prairies provide safe haven for resident species and passage migrants returning to their breeding haunts in boreal Canada. Dazzling warblers, melodious thrushes and acrobatic flycatchers are all possibilities. We’ll also explore the property’s verdant nooks and crannies to find secretive cuckoos, wrens and vireos. Be prepared for sensory overload!”

Email or call (608-637-3928) if you’d like more info and to schedule a tour during May here at NNR.

And do check into what you can do for birds in 2018 Year of the Bird.


Craig Thompson is a lifelong conservationist with a keen interest in birds. For years he has worked in state, national and international bird conservation arenas. Craig holds Adjunct Faculty positions at The University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and Viterbo University and has taught ornithology, rainforest ecology and conservation biology. He serves as a Board member for the Costa Rican-based Osa Conservation, as a technical adviser for the Los Amigos Bird Observatory in southeast Peru and as founder and instructor for Bird Conservation Boot Camp. For more than twenty years he has led conservation birding tours to the wilds of Latin America. There’s nothing he loves more than connecting people to birds.

Craig lives on Wisconsin’s west coast with his wife, Mary, two mischievous dogs and a yard full of cool birds.






OUR CHARTER: To protect and enhance biodiversity and carrying capacity, and to create a means of sharing an appreciation for and a sense of belonging to Nature.

In fall of 2016 and spring 2017 we completed our fourth round of “river work”. We have now stabilized streambank and enhanced habitat on nearly half of the mile of the West Fork that runs through our property. Visitors will see some areas that look like they were recently disturbed. Rather quickly, though, these areas have become less visible because they were planted with native forbs, grasses and sedges early in the spring of 2017.  For the next year or two, we will still be mowing these areas and rogueing unwanted volunteers.

Eroded bank, pre-work


Human agricultural activity over the last century caused the washing of soil from the surrounding ridges and hillsides into the river valleys. (These erosion-caused deposits are 4 to 8 feet deep along our stretch of the West Fork.) Stream flow throughout the Driftless cuts deeply into these deposits leaving high and continuously-slumping dirt banks that won’t support vegetation. High water events move these often nutrient-rich bank soils into streams leading to degradation of fish and other aquatic habitats. When these soils contain phosphorous and nitrogen and end up in our surface waters, the result is low oxygen levels and algae blooms that can actually kill fish and other animals. Eroded soil rich in ag nutrients is the reason we have the hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Closer to home, this is why surface water lakes turn an eerie blue-green and become unsafe for human and animal contact.


Finished and sown bank

Streambank improvement work seeks to stabilize banks by shaping them to more gradual slopes and planting them with perennial vegetation. Oftentimes, the erosion-prone banks are protected with rock to “armor” them against high water events. Sometimes shaping alone is done. Logs, large in-stream boulders and fish habitat structures called “lunkers” are installed in the stream to provide places for trout to feed and turtles to bask. Shaped banks planted with perennial vegetation allow high water to escape the high-velocity main channel and slow down. This slower water releases some of its sediment load and reduced water velocity lessens the stress on downstream banks. These are modest efforts to reconnect the channel with its flood plain and to restore stream physical structure to something like its natural state. However, because we have so much former ridge-top soil in our valleys, it is nearly impossible to get things back to the way they once were.


There are several stretches along Nature Nooks’ piece of the West Fork where you can see, as you kayak or walk, stream restoration work that has been done in four different projects since 2003. The most recent work is a 780 foot section right out in front of our house. Much of this used to be a 5 to 7 foot high, non-vegetated, slumping mud bank. We calculated a realistic estimate of the rate of recession (bank cut depth X length X height) and found that just this 250 feet of bank has been contributing 35 tons of sediment to the stream system per year! Knowing this and looking at these raw banks every day from the house, we just had to do something about it.


The restoration work plan is usually designed and approved by staff from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and sometimes through cooperation with County Land and Water. DNR permits are required. There may be conservation cost-sharing money available through one of several different programs. If a situation demonstrates a high enough conservation need – is bad enough – one can get approximately 70% of costs covered. Heavy equipment is brought in to move soil, shape the bank, add rock and replace the soil. The bank must then be sown with perennial grasses. For us, this means native short grasses and sedges which will require mowing and rogueing unwanted invasive plants in the first two or three years.


Banks were pulled back with an excavator to a 3:1 ratio (sloped 3 feet back for every 1 foot of elevation gain) on 500 feet of the river. 180 feet with the least amount of erosive water pressure was shaped only and no rock was added. The remaining 320 feet were also shaped at a 3:1 but rock was also added to the “foot” (3 feet into the water and on a flattened bench with rock placed up to 1.5 feet above normal high water) because erosive pressure was judged to be greater here than in the shaped only section. Then, on the steepest and most curved portion mentioned above that really gets hammered in high water events, rock was put in place at a 2:1 ratio. The more gradual slopes at 3:1 are what we prefer as this seems more natural and allows both animals and humans easier access to the river. When rock is used though, the 3:1 ratio adds 40% more rock when compared to a 2:1 slope ratio. And, because rock is the biggest cost factor in such streambank stabilization work, one can pay dearly for making streambanks easier for the turtles and other critters to navigate.

Oh well, priorities are priorities …

Welcome to the NNR Journal

OUR CHARTER: To protect and enhance biodiversity and carrying capacity,
and to create a means of sharing an appreciation for and a sense of belonging to Nature.

Introducing the Nature Nooks Retreat Journal!

Yes, you can get a snapshot view of what we are about here at Nature Nooks Retreat from our website, or from our occasional video posts on facebook. But really, we are serious about the Charter that appears at the top of this page, and which will head each entry in this blog, our new journal. While we hope our entries will be entertaining for our visitors – actual, potential and virtual – they will be more in-depth for those who really are interested, and at the same time, they will help us record our progress in being the best stewards to this land that we can be.

We initiated several projects in the last two years – streambank stabilization, STRIPS for sediment and nutrient trapping, establishment of new prairie and a new constructed open wetland/marsh. Those will be covered in some of the first entries, and then we’ll go back in time, a few years to a few decades. We will definitely spice it up with photos, and we’ll alert fb users to new entries with a link on our facebook page (in case you want to like us). We’ll place a hard copy of each entry in our cabins, so folks who are actually here can connect words on a page to the water, the plant life, and the wildlife.

And always, we’ll welcome your comments!