Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 7 to 12, 2009

December 7 cold cloudy morning and I headed to the Big Pond just as it started snowing. Needless to say, I hurried so I could see otter scats before they were covered with snow. The latrine south of the Big Pond dam was obscured with the new snow but not completely covered. I got no sense that an otter had just been there, but I think there was a spread of old scat that I hadn’t seen before, which is not saying much since I have not been there for two weeks.

The water just behind the south part of the dam was mostly frozen, and the ice not broken in anyway to suggest that an animal had just been there, but there were bubbles under the ice.

I hurried along the dam noting green stalks that a muskrat probably left and some pushes of mud that a beaver probably did. I kept looking out at the pond, and saw nothing stirring, but it looked like the cache beside the active beaver lodge far up the north shore was larger. I got to the mossy cove latrine off the west end of the Lost Swamp Pond in time to see a fresh black scat up on the mossy step at the foot of the granite rock above the latrine.

Since the snow wasn’t sticking to the scat, it still retained some of the otter’s heat. I looked for more scats in the latrine and while I didn’t see any I saw patches of grass and dirt where the snow was not sticking.

Looking back from the fresh scat down toward the pond, I fancied I could see the trail the otter just took.

Needless to say, I sat on a log and looked out at the pond. I saw ducks, probably mallards, up around the lodge in the southeast end of the pond. Then I began seeing muskrats. First one swam out from the lodge to my left. Then I saw one swimming out from the burrow on the north shore of the peninsula; then I saw one swimming up the north shore of the pond, the shore opposite to the burrow. It began to look like the two were going to meet and I braced my self for a tail-spin-splashing contest between the two, but no, one continued up pond, the other went back toward the burrow, and then another surfaced near the burrow. All this took place too far away for me to get any good photos,

or video with the digital camera. I didn’t bring the camcorder. I headed over to the dam -- the snow had let up so I didn’t have to hurry. The far west end of the pond had a veneer of thin ice and I could make out parallel trails of open water heading from the northwest shore to the lodge out in the pond. Perhaps otters had come up from the Second Swamp Pond. I headed down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond and saw no signs of otters there. Then I headed down the north shore of the Second Swamp Pond. The lower end of the pond had ice with snow on it, which, I thought, would clearly reveal the progress of any otters. I didn’t see any slides or broken ice.

I recrossed the pond along the lower dam. I saw a trail under the ice to some chewed up grasses where a muskrat dined.

Below the Lost Swamp Pond dam, no beavers are regulating the flow of water down to South Bay, and I worry that the usual winter of freezes and thaws will widen the gaps in the Second Swamp Pond dam

Fifteen years ago as the beavers developed Otter Hole Pond and Beaver Point Pond, this pond was almost dry. Wasn’t a pretty sight. I almost began calling it Dead Pond because nothing seemed to happen in it except thousand of snail shells surfaced in the muck -- snails all dead. The snow began falling harder, and I decided to go back to the log I sat on at the Lost Swamp Pond. I thought there must be an otter about, and I always find watching muskrats instructive. As I sat I didn’t see an otter, but a muskrat parked itself up on some thin ice off the channel through the southeast reach of the pond and nibbled on grasses

periodically diving into the dark water to get some more. Then another muskrat swam up the channel toward the one I was watching. As far as I could tell there was no contention, but I soon lost track of the newcomer. I headed back to the Big Pond dam realizing that the snow was thick enough to preclude any photos of muskrat activity along the dam. Then as I walked along the dam I saw that a beaver was out in the cache of the lodge far up along the north shore of the pond. Then it moved away from the cache, swam toward the middle of the pond and dove. My theory that beavers come out in the day when otters are around crossed my mind. Then I heard two chirps coming from the marsh along the south shore of the pond. I heard chirps from there once when I knew otters were around. So I wasn’t completely surprised when I saw two gooey otter scats in the latrine at the south end of the dam, an area that I had inspected an hour ago.

However, the falling snow had covered any trail to the scat and the ice in the pond still looked undisturbed. I wished I could think of a huge bird capable of such a scat. Instead, I am afraid that while I was tracking otters, one at least went around me without my noticing it. Despite the cold and snow I still picked one deer tick off my pants.

December 8 yesterday’s light snow mostly melted away, but we had an inch of snow in the night and the day dawned with promise, bright sun, snow, and cold enough to keep it on the ground. I headed off to the ponds early, but I didn’t have to hurry. I enjoyed the bright beauty with everything highlighted and nothing subdued by the snow. The only thing that promised to mar my tracking was that a persistent wind in the night kept the ponds from freezing which meant I might not see long otter slides on the ponds. Taking my usual trail to the Big Pond, I followed deer tracks heading the same way. I was disappointed not to see any otter slides, prints or scats at the otter latrine south of the Big Pond dam.

So an otter didn’t pick up where it left off yesterday. I scanned the pond and saw nothing stirring. With the snow, I could better see the new muskrat lodges in the marsh along the south shore of the pond.

I think the otters like using those lodges, as opposed to the beaver lodges, but from a distance I couldn’t see any otter slides or broken ice around them. I did see broken ice just behind the dam

And a few yards farther along the dam, I saw tracks in the snow coming off the pond

Judging from the tail drag, I think they are muskrat tracks. Heading up through the woods toward the Lost Swamp I saw fisher tracks showing a fisher, or perhaps two, hopping up on a log

and running down the trunk.

The fisher tracks then headed into thick bush and I didn’t follow. I went directly to the mossy cove latrine and here too there were no otter slides and the pond below was iced over, with no breaks. Then I scanned the pond and saw excited activity in a patch of clear water in the northeast reach of the pond. Excited activity usually means otters, but I kept seeing splashes more like what muskrats make when they are defending their territory from other muskrats. Then I saw a mink running on the ice up from the open water. Muskrats also splash with their tails when they are trying to drive a mink away. I kicked myself for not having the camcorder or binoculars, but having a wider vision allowed me to see all the activity. In my memory I am sure there were two minks, one larger than the other, leaping around on the ice surrounding the open water where the muskrats were, but in the video below I only see one. And there were at least four muskrats either fighting or playing among themselves.

However, at one point in the video clip an animal charges head up, and I’ve not seen muskrats behave like that before, but I’ve never seen muskrats play on a sharp winter’s morning like this. And the water out there is probably no more than a foot deep. I waited and watched until I saw the muskrats, one by one, swim back to their burrow on the north shore of the peninsula.

Two muskrats lumped on the ice back where I had seen all the action. Although they look like stumps, they moved.

Meanwhile a mink kept dancing on the ice farther up pond. The brown blur in the middle of the photo below, a little off to the left, is a mink.

I honestly don’t know what to think about what I saw from afar. Four years ago I saw a mink try to sneak up on a muskrat out on the ice of the Upper Second Swamp pond. The muskrat fled but kept coming back. The mink kept dancing around as if energized by the mere presence of the muskrat, forget about actually killing it. What I saw today was more complex. The mink or minks, if I am right about there being two, couldn’t stop dancing all around the muskrats. It’s possible that the muskrats were fighting over territory and ignoring the mink, or was I seeing something incredibly subtle. Were the muskrats taking turns acting like a mink, rearing up and charging another muskrat, playing inspired by the antics of the mink? I never saw many muskrats here in the spring and summer so these that I am seeing now probably moved in recently, as they often do in the fall. I walked around the west end of the pond to the dam which would give me a better view of the muskrat burrows on the north shore of the peninsula, but before I looked that way, I heard breaking ice around the beaver lodge by the dam. I saw a nose pop out of the ice and thought it might be a mink. Then I saw a back roll and a tail flip up in the air. The otters! They fished around the lodge and swam around along the side away from me. Then two otters came up on the rock behind the dam and scatted.

Those two otters went in back of the rock where I couldn’t see them, but a few minutes later they came out again, this time leading two more otters.

Other times that I’ve seen otters out here I thought I was seeing two adults, a mother and her helper, and two pups. But these four acted more like a mother and three pups. The one that is either a large pup or a small adult seemed to closely follow the mother, suggesting that it was a pup, since the whole purpose of enlisting the aid of another adult is to share supervision of the pups. The pup not in the photo above began nuzzling the snow when it appeared, probably why it wasn’t keeping up with the others. It was fascinated by the snow -- snow has been late to come this year, and this is the first morning of snow not immediately melting away. Then that pup found the other pup for a wrestling match on the ledge of the rock near the lodge. The other two otters got into the water. Then I heard the mother snort -- she sensed my presence. She swam back to the rock and gathered the wrestling pups and they all began fishing again. This was probably not the pup’s first experience fishing under ice, but it was still a novel enough experience that when one pup popped up through the ice it let out a plaintive chirp. The mother surfaced with a snort and led her pup on around the peninsula to the southeast end of the pond.

Meanwhile I had lost track of the muskrats. However, in the first video clip of the otters above, you can see a mink running along the north shore of the peninsula. Once I saw the otters I began seeing signs of where they had been, holes in the ice where they had surfaced while they were fishing, and bubbles under the ice. I looked down from where I was standing and saw the snow just up from the pond stamped down by the otters.

So rather than follow the otters, I back tracked them to see where they had been. I saw where they had crossed over the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam and then from the knoll on the north shore of the Second Swamp Pond dam, I saw their trails on the ice of the pond over toward the south shore.

I didn’t see any signs of their having been at the lodge below the knoll, but their footprints were all over the central portion of the dam, and slides on what snow there was before it melted into the pond.

And here I found some scat. In my experience otters leave a token where they cross a dam or dance on shore, but not today. They seemed to be too busy enjoying the snow, and probably the scat on this dam and the scats on the rock behind the Lost Swamp pond lodge were all that they had time to do.

I also saw some mink trails along the dam and on the ice.

Judging from the slide the mink enjoyed nuzzling the snow. I didn’t see any otter trails going below the dam, but the cattails are thick there so to make sure I didn’t miss a trail I followed a deer trail through the cattails and checked the little pond below -- no otter tracks. So I walked up the south shore of the Second Swamp Pond expecting to see a trail coming down from the ridge south of the pond to that area of slides near the south shore that I saw from the ridge north of the pond. On my way I flushed a mink from the south shore and it scampered back toward the dam. I didn’t see any otter slides coming down to the pond so the otters either started the day in the Second Swamp Pond or came down from the Lost Swamp Pond and then went back up to it. I almost decided to go to the Big Pond, hoping the otters were there, but I decided I should at least check the South Bay, Audubon Pond and Meander Pond otter latrines. If I saw otter signs there, I could be pretty sure that there were more otters around. I couldn’t terry if I was going to complete this tour in time to join Leslie in a trip to our land, so I didn’t take photos of the beavers’ trail in the snow at Meander Pond that went from the south canal up into the woods on the ridge. I would only stop for an otter sign --- and I didn’t see any, anywhere, which didn’t trouble me at all. I expected to see beaver trails in the snow at our land, trusting that the Boundary Pond beavers had been out after snow. This was the second time I expected to see their trails in the snow and once again I was disappointed. But I saw new work. A pine tree had been cut and left at the end of the Last Pool.

And the large curly birch they had been cutting, was down, falling conveniently in the channel.

Along the east shore, I saw that a beaver tasted another hemlock. Why this one and not the many others along that shore?

I had to admit that not having the ice beaver broken behind the dam made for a more elegant photo.

I’ve been grateful for these beavers coming out early so I can see them at the end of the day, so I shouldn’t begrudge them retiring early and not making trails in the new fallen snow and breaking the new ice. I did see something curious probably done by a beaver just before the snow. There was a hole dug in the mud just off the shore, and the stump of a cut sapling nearby. Maybe the beaver was after a root.

Come to think of it, when the ground freezes it won’t be easy digging down to roots. Finally I saw some broken ice between the Boundary Pond channel and the west shore.

This freeze, which might be the start of an ice cover lasting through March, certainly captures the ponds at their fullest. The Last Pool now looks like a pond.

December 10 we are being treated to a grand blow that began with 5 inches of snow yesterday morning, melting down to two inches yesterday, and the then another inch or two falling last night -- all accompanied with steady wind of about 25 to 40 miles with roaring gusts. I did walk out yesterday to get the mail and saw a muskrat swimming in the waves racing down the river. This afternoon we went to our land to see that it survived the blow and walked down to Boundary Pond to see how the beavers handled the weather. It didn’t look like the beavers had been out at the Last Pool. The snow and ice seemed undisturbed. But when I got down to the curly birch that fell a few days ago with its crown crossing the Boundary Pond channel, I saw ice broken in that steady way beavers’ do it with an open pool under the birch crown.

The beavers’ wakes that kept the water open until it froze over as it dropped below freezing today described the main channel of the pond.

And I could see the diversions the beavers took. They broke a trail to the upper end of the cache, not sure why they did that

since it is easier to get to the end of the cache near the lodge. Were they all feasting at once and wanted to spread out? And after a month of noting how little interest they’ve shown in foraging along the west shore of the pond, they were wearing it out a few hours ago. Here’s a series of three photos showing their explorations.

A few months ago they were walking over the area in the photo above nibbling duckweed and frog bit, especially the kits. Some of the trails in the photo below look small, perhaps a kit made them, or maybe the cold began gripping the slush.

Usually beavers break ice near the dam first of all, but in most ponds it is often relatively deep behind the dam, not so in this pond.

I didn’t go down to the shore to see their prints in the snow. They are starting to cut trees that, when they fall, will be very convenient to the lodge.

Of course the greatest concentration of activity is around the lodge and these beavers kept a nice pool of ice open there.

But the water between the lodge and the cache remains frozen, almost as if the beavers are adhering to the rule of saving food that is closest to the lodge for the coldest days when it will harder to venture far from the lodge.

They feasted on the other side of the lodge, looks like a birch. It looks like the beavers walked on the slush to give such a rough appearance. Perhaps they were hoping the ice would elevate higher into the crown twigs hanging over the pond from the fallen tree.

To get back to the car, I walked up under the Hemlock Cathedral where I saw several deer trails, a good sign the week after the end of the hunting season. Usually my first winter photo of elegant “cathedral” has snow in the hemlock boughs, but these snows came with very strong winds.


December 11 today the wind was half as strong, half a roar, and I knew if I got into the woods it would cut the wind chill and feel just like the mid-twenties is supposed to feel. Given the variation in temperatures that we’ve had, and the blowing, I assumed I’d face poor tracking conditions, but the squirrel tracks were quite legible and when I veered off Antler Trail toward the Big Pond, I saw some fisher tracks. Unfortunately I forgot to figure out the settings for snow on the digital camera. On the other side of the meadow up on the granite
rocks, I saw a curvy porcupine trail that must be shown -- in black and white to defeat the deadly blue that creeps in on photos taken in snowy conditions.

If I wasn’t anticipating seeing otter slides, I’d have tracked the porcupine (that fisher trail was too close to settlements). So I followed deer trails toward the Big Pond dam, and there I found the latrine disturbed only by a mink‘s trail.

The pond was mostly frozen but the open water around the muskrat lodge gave me hope for otters.

Walking along the dam I soon saw holes but they looked more like the work of muskrats.

However there was a series of frozen over holes in the white ice that might have been made by an otter, but an otter would have most likely left more of a crack in the ice with shards angling up. Though the pond was mostly ice covered, the ice is thin and there were many leaks over the dam. Going out across the dam I stayed in the meadow below the dam. I thought my boots would stay more dry and that’s probably the only place otters would scat. Coming back I stayed up on the dam, and saw generous piles of muskrat poop.

The Lost Swamp Pond looked about the same as it did three days ago when I saw the muskrats, mink and otters, though the ice looked more convincing. I went right to the mossy cove latrine and saw no signs of otters there, but the ice might have closed that latrine, so to speak. As I scanned the ice looking for breaks in it that foraging otters might have made, I saw a muskrat slip off of the lodge in the middle of the pond and dive under water. I sat briefly on the rock above the mossy cover latrine but the wind was too cold on my back so I found a lower vantage point, a little closer to the upper pond where the open water was. Soon enough I began seeing more muskrats, two coming out of small pockets of open water toward the southeast end of the pond and climbing on the ice to munch some grasses and three swimming out of the burrow on the north shore of the peninsula. One of them climbed up on the ice and nibbled grasses.

This time when I walked around the pond to the dam, there was no sudden appearance of otters. I did see something new at the far west end of the pond, the trail of a fisher going right up to the ice of the pond. Fishers generally don’t have much interest in icy ponds. Then as I approached the dam I saw what I almost always see after the first snowfall, the trail of a mink following the arch of the knoll west of the dam and then going down to the dam.

There were no scats on the snow by the dam, but there was one possible otter sign. The dam was leaking, not over the top but down low at the usual place otters have made holes. But I certainly couldn’t see any evidence of otters, or muskrats, for that matter, making a hole in the dam.

And the leak wasn’t big enough to make the pond below look any different so I think the leak is probably just from freezing and thawing and lack of repairs by the beavers who are now in a lodge rather far away. My last hope for seeing otters signs was at the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam -- none, and down on or along side the Second Swamp Pond, none there either. I veered over into what I call the fisher woods, because I often see fisher trails there

And I saw two or three trails, and a good bit of merging and changes in direction, but the camera settings were wrong and the images are blah on blue. Back in the sun, along the Second Swamp Pond dam, I saw some fresh mink tracks,

And a fresh poop.

With all the minks cavorting about you’d think seeing mink poop would be commonplace, but not in my experience. One year there was a series of mink poops at the south end of this dam. I headed through the woods back to the Big Pond dam. I saw the trail of the fisher who wound up at the Lost Swamp Pond -- photo is adequate

So I didn’t see any otter signs, but I’ve known otter families to lay low after a storm sometimes for several days. I’ll have to be patient. We went to our land later than usual and I fancied I'd get to the Boundary Pond just when the beavers were breaking the ice. I went to the Deep Pond first where I flushed a heron that seems to have chosen this pond as a place to die. When he flew off, he didn’t head to White Swamp where there might be some open pools, but up into the woods, probably to lurk there until I was gone. The only other sign of activity is an area of clear thin ice in front of the bank lodge below the knoll.

I assume muskrats are keeping it open -- and that heron. It’s tracks were on and around the lodge. I more or less followed the boundary line to Boundary Pond, and I found all quiet, beautiful, but quiet. I think beavers were out last night because there were many small stripped sticks frozen in the clear ice around the lodge

December 12 I figured out the camera settings for snow and headed up Antler Trail with Leslie, her first off trail hike. She got quite a reward. We saw snowshoe hare tracks crossing our path.

Finding hare or rabbit tracks is a rarity on this end of the island. We sometimes see rabbit tracks in secluded thickets toward the end of winter. Leslie couldn’t hazard following my trekking to far flung otter latrines, so she followed the hare tracks. I should have joined her because there were no otter signs anywhere I went, which doesn’t mean my hike was not lively. Last year after a wet summer, I expected a lively time tracking, but early last winter it was rather dull. This winter tracks are everywhere and all kinds: along with the many fisher and mink trails, I found myself following fox, raccoon, and coyotes. The strangest track was a mink trail coming down the creek to the north cove of South Bay with what I suppose are drag marks of some kind.

I wanted it to be an otter slide, but much as I tried I just couldn’t see it. The slide went up hill at places. Later I saw the same type of slide where a coyote made a slight leap, evidently dragging its hind feet. I was surprised to find a good bit of ice in South Bay

I think half the expanse was from ice chunks blown into the bay that froze together the last two nights. Wind makes ice form in strange ways in bays and coves. On my way to check the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay, where there were no otters signs and no snow, two deer studied me.

Up at Audubon Pond, I was surprised to see only one trail in the snow made by beavers and it came up to a big white oak they’ve been girdling along the west shore.

That surprised me, too. Why break out from under the ice, and walk up the cold snow,

and rear up in the wind (the wind kept up during the night) and gnaw white oak bark?

Perhaps it’s a bit of bracing exercise after being cooped up in the lodge for too long. Last time I was here, my getting close to the bank lodge on the west shore flushed out a beaver and I saw it swim back into the lodge. Today there were beaver trails in the snow on the lodge and nipped sticks in the water in front of the lodge

But no beaver swam out today. Then when I sat on the bench near the lodge just off the north shore, I heard some humming from inside the lodge.

Though I heard them, there were no beaver trails in the snow nearby. I could see that they have still been cutting ash trees in the northeast corner of the pond,

work that's quite convenient to the lodge, and easy to break the ice over there where there is a little spring. Meander Pond did not exhibit much beaver activity either. But there were mink tracks going over the dam.

That seemed to come out from the burrow often used by muskrats, or at least check into it.

Up where I saw the mink coming out of a burrow the other day, toward the middle of the pond, I didn’t pick up a trail. A bit farther up pond I saw that beavers cut down a maple, a rather crippled one that never recovered from the ice storm ten years ago, and its crown fell conveniently into the pond, where the beavers had trimmed off a few branches.

Meanwhile the beavers seem to have added logs to the top of their lodge, another long log or two.

I have a theory that beavers do this when nosy otters are around. I don’t think otters want to eat the beavers, they simply like to carve out a penthouse apartment, gladly entering from the roof. But for the fastidious beaver, a messy otter does not make a good neighbor. I saw that the beavers had kept a channel open to the south canal of the pond

But there was only an old trail in the snow at the end of the canal. I thought of pressing on to check for otter signs at the Lost Swamp, but forbore. On the one hand the first snow of winter makes it seem easy to go anywhere, providing the snow is not deep, on the other hand, the first snow reminds you of how out of shape you are for trudging.

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