I was driving along Route 77 through the Alabama Swamp when I spotted him on the edge of the ice in a little strip of open water. He was close to the road and the lighting was perfect, but by the time I turned around and headed back several other drivers had spotted him and stopped. Of course both individuals got out of their vehicles and walked over to where he had been, causing him to disappear under the ice. One fellow was a trapper so it seemed like a lost opportunity for me, a nature photographer.

The next morning, I was out making my daily run around the swamp with my camera, and when I reached that icy spot I couldn’t believe my luck: He was sitting right there! I made a slow approach in my vehicle and got a few shots before he got nervous and dove under the ice. I pulled my vehicle onto the road shoulder about 10 yards away and settled in, knowing it would be awhile before he got over his nervousness. About a half-hour later he showed up. He seemed nervous about my vehicle being there, and a few big trucks flying by, so he kept disappearing and reappearing at brief intervals. Eventually he accepted my presence and went on with his business: getting under the ice to gather vegetation and dragging it up to eat.

Remember what I wrote last week about being patient with wildlife, and careful not to disturb them, in the hope that eventually they may give you some good pictures and a closer look into their lives? Well, that’s exactly what happened that morning.

I used to trap, and I caught a lot of muskrats over the years, but that morning I saw things that I had not witnessed before. For instance, I noticed that when this muskrat swam under the ice, in very shallow water, he didn’t disturb the water or the ice floating above it. Talk about a smooth swimmer! The only way I knew he was going to pop up again is when I saw a few air bubbles under the ice near the spot where he entered. The same was true when he slipped back in to gather some more vegetation.

Another thing I noticed was his constant grooming of his fur, which I suspect is how he kept his fur oiled so it didn’t soak up water. He looked pretty comical while doing this as his front “hands” reached to the back and top of his head while his hind legs “scratched” his sides.

I collected a lot of close and interesting images and noted some interesting things about a fur bearer that I thought I knew well.

The muskrat, also known as a ‘rat by trappers, is a very common marsh animal. It looks like a rat but is much bigger; its weight may range from about 1-1/2 pounds to 4-1/2 pounds. Muskrats live in the water and on marsh edges. Like beavers, they build houses, but only from vegetation such as cattails, or they excavate dens in high banks along a stream or a marsh. Their diet consists mostly of aquatic vegetation, but they love apples and they will eat clams and crabs, as well as farm crops such as corn and wheat if they’re near water.

Muskrats are able to stay under water for 10 to 15 minutes; they have large, partly webbed back feet to propel themselves and they change direction by using their vertical flat tail as a rudder. They’re active mostly at night and they’re on-the-go all winter long, even under the ice like my new “friend.” 

The muskrat’s fur is a beautiful, rich brown and has always been in demand for warm garments, although its value has declined in recent years. For extra spending money, many a school boy was introduced to trapping and the great outdoors by this fur bearer. The value of a pelt today is about $4. The muskrat’s flesh is rich, good eating and many trappers supplement their earnings by selling the skinned carcass for human consumption.

The muskrat is a prolific breeder, often having two or three litters a year with six to eight young each. These are important animals in the marshes as they help control cattail growth and their houses provide nesting habitat for waterfowl. Thus it is important that the population is managed wisely. The muskrat population generally is cyclical; there’s a pattern of increases and dramatic declines over a 6- to 10-year period. At present the population is low and some folks question why that is. Hey, maybe it’s global warming!

The muskrat did much to develop my lifelong interest in nature. Several pelts still adorn my house, reminding me of great experiences on the trap line.

Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or woodduck2020@yahoo.com .

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