Butterflies, birds ‘moved on’ — otters and beaver are next

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Recently, I wrote about otters living in the stretch of Putah Creek bordering the south side of Winters; in particular, one little pocket of undisturbed natural habitat that’s scheduled for imminent destruction. It seems that the Winters City Council has given one individual carte blanche to do whatever he likes along Putah Creek, as part of a “master plan” approved several years back to construct the Putah Creek Nature Park.

On one hand, clearing out the area vastly improved access to the creek and enticed many more people to go see what’s right here in their own back yard. On the other, the area’s been pretty much sanitized of the “nature.” Before, it was wild. Now, it’s a man-made park with a creek running through it.

Those of us who frequented the banks of Putah Creek before it was sculpted by one man’s hand know that the area used to be teeming with wildlife. More than 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to follow UC Davis professor Art Shapiro through the area, and he opened my eyes to what the creek banks supported. It was a challenge to keep up with him (“spry” doesn’t even begin to cover it) as he bounded through the brush pointing out butterflies I’d never even noticed before. It was as if they materialized out of thin air. My favorites were lacy black ones with sky-blue iridescence. Gorgeous!

Shapiro told me that about 80 species of butterflies used Putah Creek as a highway for traveling between the hills west of Winters and the valley. Eighty species! I was so impressed by this that I arranged for him to give a presentation to the city council. I was sure everyone would be as excited as I was about the Winters Butterfly Highway. But no. The council listened and nodded politely, thanked us for sharing that, moved on to the next agenda item and that was that, save for a story I wrote for the Winters Express.

We had a butterfly highway right here in town and nobody cared! Mind-boggling!

Besides physical protection from the thick brush, Shapiro told me the butterflies thrived there because of the ample wild vegetation on which they feed and lay their eggs. Their caterpillars, in turn, hatch and feed on those plants.

And then came the bulldozers.

All gone.

Walk down there now, and you may see a butterfly here or there. Maybe. Where did they go? How are the butterflies getting back and forth between the valley and the hills? Who knows? Literally, who knows, because nobody bothered to ask that question before destroying their habitat.

Along with the butterflies, the birds also moved on. Once there was a small forest of tall eucalyptus trees along the creek. The trees rippled with feathered life, and the morning air would be a calliope of bird song. The trees were deemed “non-native” and ripped away, and for a long time the area looked like a bomb went off there. The growth of grass and brush over the last couple years has smoothed over the damage somewhat, but the birdsong chorus? Like the butterflies: Gone.

Where did they go? Who knows, and who cares. They’re just birds, right?

The most recent phase of “construction” cleared the creek bank up to that little jewel of undisturbed land I wrote about two weeks ago. Prior to the clearing of brush, it was difficult to see this area, as the blackberry bushes were very thick and the old dirt walking path was much higher up the bank. The area was pretty much obscured and inaccessible. With the clearing of brush and the newly constructed walking path that now dips down, it’s suddenly visible. You can see the creek quite clearly, and if you’re lucky, the otters that swim, eat and play there.

Through sheer serendipity, the configuration of the land there prevents off-leash dogs from reaching the area, and the iron fence along the path keeps people out, so the animals feel safe enough not to flee. Their feeling of security, however, is short-lived. The area is scheduled for destruction, and there’s little concern for the animals living there. The official brush-off is, “They’re resilient. They’ll move on.”

No, not “on.”

“Away.”

“Out”

Gone.

Ironically, nature is unwelcome in this nature park.

So, don’t wait to see the otters. Their days in Winters are numbered. And, there’s something else you shouldn’t wait to see, if you can see it at all. I’m outing a secret, and am gambling on the goodwill of humanity against stupidity (a big gamble, I know): There’s an extremely rare piebald beaver that frequents this area. Local nature photographer and wildlife expert Alejandro Garcia camped out for hours just to get a photo of it, which I’ve seen, and it’s pretty darn amazing. It’s a regular brown beaver in all ways, with a thick white stripe in its midsection like an ice cream sandwich.

Alejandro told me there are only a handful of piebald beaver in existence. I googled it, and aside from some horrific trapping sites based in Arkansas, the only information I could find was from a book written in 1876 by John J. Bowman, entitled, “The Emigrant and Sportsman in Canada — Some Experiences of an Old Country Setter.” Bowman merely says, in a story about his experiences with wild beaver, “I saw one piebald beaver; his back was black, his sides white, and belly reddish.”

That’s it. The sum total of all the information about piebald beavers, almost as rare as a dodo, and, by a miracle of nature, there’s one living in a little pocket of natural habitat along Putah Creek in Winters. What a great mascot this animal could be for our little creekside town. But no. We’re glibly forcing it to “move on.” If you want to get a glimpse of it before it’s gone, don’t wait. The bulldozers are coming.

I wonder if beavers are faster than bulldozers.

— Email Debra DeAngelo at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com

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