Tuesday, November 29, 2011

November 9 to 16, 2011

November 9 as we headed out on a sunny relatively warm morning, we saw a flock of snow buntings along the gravel roads of TI Park; no snow here yet, and none in sight. We parked ourselves high on the ridge north of the East Trail at 10am, time enough, I hoped, to see otters relaxing after the morning feed, and to see a beaver on patrol, keeping those otters in line. But all we saw were very clear views of the pond. From that height we had a good view of the lodge.

Judging from a photo I took on the 4th, there are more logs up on the top of the lodge, where I think beavers jam them to keep otters off the top of their lodge. As the vegetation in the pond dies down, I can get a better view of where the beavers might have a cache, and decided there was none to be seen. So my guess is that they are sinking most of the logs and branches they bring into the pond. As I headed down to check the otter latrine on the rock at the foot of the slope, I took photos to get a better perspective on the large scent mounds the otters fashioned.

The scent mound on top of the rock,

is still not as big as the one they fashioned on their trail beside the rock.

The otters have not done anything of note to that bigger scent mound for a few weeks. That said, I don’t think they did anything to the scent mound on the rock since I was here on the 6th. I do think otters have been here since the 6th. However, at this time of year it is difficult to judge how old any given scat is. The scats I first saw here on the 6th still look fresh.

But I did see scats smeared on the rock a bit up from the other scats.

And I think the otters left those scats on their way to add their marks to the small flat above the rock.

I also took a photo of what looks like their rolling area in that their scrapping there does not seem be as intense as on the other part of the rock.

That said when I first saw this area a month or so ago, it struck me that the otters had rolled dirt down into a rut. As I went higher up the slope, as I left, I finally saw a juicy fresh scat that was still redolent with the characteristic odor of otter scats.

The upper end of the pond still has trails through the surface vegetation. The wood ducks haven’t been here the last few times I’ve come, so that leaves the beavers to make the trails.

As we came up the trail, hurrying to get up on the ridge to sit and watch the pond, we passed a tree that the beavers cut down on the south side of the trail and saw where another tree on the north side of the trail had been tasted.

The beavers have to climb to get up to this spot which is not unusual for them. Indeed the slope is a little gentler here than where they climbed up in the winter.

After many years of watching beavers, I’ve still not developed a theory of when and why beavers climb high up ridges to cut trees. The beavers cut branches off this tree and evidently took them away. They are also gnawing the trunk which, I think, is too big for them to get down to the pond.

Leslie stayed up on the ridge to watch for birds and I walked over to the south shore of the pond. I wanted to cross along the dam, walk around the whole pond and rejoin Leslie. I must admit that the tree cutting the beavers are doing along the trail worries me. Some official might get the notion that they have to be trapped and removed. As the trail goes around the pond, it gets closer to the pond and the beavers cut larger trees.

One they cut in the last few days is hung up in other trees and didn’t fall across the trail.

Meanwhile the beavers seem to be making the most of the tree that do fall to the ground. They have just about completely stripped the bark off the tree that fell parallel to the pond.

Knowing how pokey I would be crossing along the dam, I wanted to hurry past all this beaver tree work that I was familiar with, but I kept seeing juxtapositions that I had to photograph. The photo below show the tree they felled, the stump of a smaller tree they felled and hauled away and the trunk of a huge red oak that they have girdled and began to gnaw into.

The moral of the photo is that it is hard to generalize about what size trees beavers like to cut. Then I have to pause and enjoy how the beavers’ gnawing paints a tree. Standing there today, I was sure the beavers had worked again on the twin maples just up from the pond.

Here is the photo from November 2

Today I think their gnawing on the tree on the right hand side of the photo has reached a point where the beavers will not gnaw anymore. They'll simply wait for the wind to blow the tree down. That said farther down the shore is a bitternut hickory that they left off gnawing months ago. Again, I figured that meant the beavers were waiting for the wind. But they began gnawing it again.

I finally got to the dam, and as beavers often do, they have built up the south end of the dam where it makes sense that water will overflow if the pond fills up.

The last time I walked along the dam, about a month ago, I saw that the beavers pushed mud up discreetly and as walked below it today, it looked like the beavers were doing the same, simply patching weak points.

Along most of the dam ahead all the grass had not been covered with mud.

I get the impression that a beaver senses a possible weakness without going up on the dam. It begins with one heave of mud, and that might serve,

Or it might have to push more mud up on the dam, especially when the mud it pushes up rolls over the dam.

Of course, it is not so simple as that. Beavers seem to appreciate having small pools of water below that I assume they help to fashion by allowing some water to leak through the dam.

The pool above seems to be convenient to getting to cattails. At this damp time of year, it is difficult to tell when the mud pushed up on a dam is fresh. A paler shade of brown, ironically, is a give away. During dry times, the pale mud is in the process of being baked. I did find some definitely fresh mud.

But I continued to be surprised at how little mud had been pushed up, especially along sections of the middle part of the dam where the water was less than a foot from brimming over the top of the dam.

I paused from studying the dam and looked back at the lodge, and saw that I had found the angle from which to the take the official portrait of the lodge. I was startled anew by how beautiful this pond is and how lucky I am to be able to walk around it at my leisure.

When I turned back to the dam, there was more beauty to see, but also unease. Despite a passing familiarity with this area of over 20 years, I am uncertain as to why the dam is precisely where it is.

Beavers are capable of making long dams like Otter Hole Pond dam and Second Swamp Pond dam, but it seems to me that in making both those dams, a slight narrowing of the valley, marked by large rocks, dictated the line of the dam. What the beaver faced here seems more complex. The north end of the dam cuts the stream off and then I am not sure why they took the line they did across the valley. Perhaps there was an old dam here. I’ll have to study old photos. Or they simply tended toward the west, cheating toward slightly higher ground where they would not have to make the dam as high as the dam to the north blocking the stream.

Already in a state of grace, when I stepped back to get more perspective on how much water the dam held back, I saw fresh otter scats below the dam.

I’ll have to check these in a month because I am not sure of the solid matter in the black mass. Fish scales usually don’t sort out like that.

Another curious thing about these scats was that there was no scratching associated with them. Otters rarely pooped below the dam, and probably it's just because the vegetation is wet and thick below the dam, not easy to scrape.

Back facing the dam, heading north, I took a photo to show that the beavers were cutting cattails below the dam, and I inadvertently took a photo of a buttonbush. There are buttonbushes below the dam especially along the north end, and while buttonbushes can grow in water, I think they mark ground more prone to be dry. So here’s a theory: the line of the dam follows wetter ground where it would be easier for the beavers to dig up mud.

There are larger pools of water below the north end of the dam, more or less the creek bed, and when things freeze up and vegetation dies back I’ll be able to see if the beavers fashioned dams to back up water into the pool, probably.

There are trails over the dam into the pool, a wide one probably made by the beavers,

And a narrow one, perhaps made by the otters.

I suppose it is more likely that otters enter and exit the pond where I saw their scats at the center of the dam. But looking down into the meadow, which 6 years ago was a magnificent pond often enjoyed by otters, I wondered if the otters were actually denning in that meadow. Two years ago I saw evidence of an otter family denning in the grasses below the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam.

Planning ahead for this fall, I had expected a dearth of observations since I would be hemmed in by the hunting season. I didn’t expect this pond to give me so much pleasure. Part of the plan was to compare then and now photos of Shangri-la Pond, which I will do, but not today. I did take photos showing views of the former pond today.

There is still a little puddle left behind the busted dam.

We want back up the East Trail and then as we headed around the west end of the pond, we saw rippling in the water, and then saw the beaver making it. It hunched up and nibbled a twig

and then it bit a small branch off one of the large branches sunk in the pond and carried that over to the nearby north shore of the pond and nibbled the bark off that.

I assumed that this was a beaver that had been on guard for otters. Beavers seem to view me as an ally in that -- otters always over react to my presence. The beaver knew that my walking around the pond more or less otter-proofed it for that day, so the beaver was free to relax and have a bite.

November 10 we went to our land late enough in the day to see the beaver in the Deep Pond. It was a chilly day so we walked down the road to White Swamp first. There the beavers have expanded their foraging to some larger trees where the shore leaves the road, maybe hornbeams. I didn‘t take a close look.

They continue to take willows along the shore, but have left plenty behind.

The hunting and trapping seasons are so relentless in this part of New York State that I don’t want to get too involved with animals here. When the swamp freezes and at least hunting stops, I’ll try to get a broader view of what the beavers have been up to. Meanwhile, I haven’t seen the one beaver on our land for a few weeks. As we walked back up the road to our land, I corrected Leslie when she offered that it was too early for the beaver to come out. I said it liked to come out an hour before sunset, do a little eating and then go back into its lodge. We sat by the dam at 3:45, and, in the far end of the pond, the beaver was out, pulling a sunken branch toward the high slope.

It went directly toward an area where I know beavers had once dug a burrow. It dove, taking the branch and disappeared. There are logs, branches and perhaps mud on the slope above the burrow.

It surfaced five minutes later, sniffed the air and then swam back and forth warily in front of that burrow.

Then it dove back into the burrow, evidently not up to swimming down to the dam, as it often has, maybe because we were both there. It was getting cold so Leslie headed back to the car. I waited another five minutes and then took a photo of its recent heaves of mud on the dam.

I also took a photo of its mud work in the middle of the dam.

It keeps pushing mud up on the edge of this work, also pushing up plants with the mud.

And it is pushing mud up on the grass where there is no imminent threat of water draining out. We went away for a long weekend trip on the 11th and I didn’t get back to this pond until the 16th. During the 5 days we were away, the beaver didn’t push more mud up on those areas it has been building up. I saw maybe one small fresh heave. However it did push mud up on the grass where is unlikely the dam will ever leak.

Even though it was early in the afternoon, I sat in the chair by the dam. I noticed that there appeared to be more mud pushed up on the bank lodge below the knoll, plus there were cattail stalks floating in the water there.

While taking the photo, I heard a splash, like a muskrat snapping its tail. Come to think of it, when we were watching the beaver in the pond back on the 10th we heard the same type of splash coming from the tall grasses along the inlet. Back to the 16th, I saw ripples and then I saw a large muskrat swimming toward the lodge. I lost sight of it and then I saw it running on the land heading to where the inlet comes into the pond. Before leaving, I got closer to the bank lodge under the knoll. It certainly looks like the beaver is well protecting it with mud.

Perhaps it wants two dens to live in, the knoll dam and the burrow in the slope.

November 15 we got back from our trip yesterday, and today I wanted to keep out of the car. So I went to check up on what the beavers and otters have been doing on the island. I waited until the sun came out in the afternoon. I hurried to get up on the ridge north of the pond, currently the best spot for seeing what is going on in the pond. On the way up the trail, I saw that the beavers cut, mostly stripped and even segmented a red oak. It fell across the trail but it is probably not big enough to alarm park officials.

The beavers left a relatively high stump. Maybe while cutting the beaver stood on the trunk of the dead pine tree nearby, but that strikes me as a dangerous way to do it. Beavers are not that agile and they like to get away fast if a tree they are cutting starts to fall. I saw that they had tasted three or four other trees, all oaks I think, in the area.

Then I settled down on a rock and watched but there were neither beavers nor otters out in the pond. I saw what looked like a pile of branches in the pond relatively close to the lodge.

I’m not quite ready to conclude that that is this winter’s cache. The beavers have been cutting oaks, which still have their leaves, and I didn’t notice too many leaves in that pile. When the pond freezes, I’ll know, though I’ll be careful not to get too close. I went through the ice at this pond last winter. As usual I waited 20 minutes for something to happen and then went down to see if there were fresh scats in the otter latrine. I could tell as I eased myself down the ridge that the otters had been there in a big way. There was a line of huge scats on the back on the rock, about foot back from their previous line of scats.

Before I got to the scats, I saw some serious digging in the dirt, thought I must say this scraping seemed uncharacteristic of otters. They usually scrape up grass, or moss, not what appears to be just dirt sprouting a few small green plants.

And I had another distraction before I got to the new scats. First I thought there was more scraping lower on the rock, then with a second look I thought it might be a slide.

There is not that great a drop along the rock here but I like to picture a family of otters sliding there because I am still not sure a family has been coming here. I only heard one otter here, a week or so ago. Of course, one otter can make a slide. The line of new scats only added to my confusion in that regard. When I have seen otter families scat, I have noticed a tendency for mother and pups to scat in the same place, but I usually see a variety of shapes and sizes of scats. Today I saw 6 splats of scat, all large, and all about the same shape.

In the winter especially otters often scat on top of old scats and eventually the pile of scats can get to be 6 inches high. Perhaps there is a group of adult otters visiting the pond, not a family with pups. If we have a snow fall soon, I maybe be able to tell for certain. Meanwhile, I sat on a rock and enjoyed the scats, smell and all, and then I took a photo of each, and I will restrain myself and only share one.

As I sat on the rock, I got my best perspective on the huge scent mound the otters had on the center of the rock.

Then I raised my stare a few inches and saw the beaver lodge out in the pond.

The hallmark of the American naturalist is encompassing extensive if not varied landscapes and great distances. Our least traveled naturalist, Thoreau, puts me to shame. But my continually circling the same piles of poop, and don’t forget the smell does bring me closer to how the neurons fire in the brains of the animals I watch, sometimes gives me an unaccountable brainstorm that explains the otters’ persistent reiteration of the same black smelly theme on various granite rocks. Two summers ago I convinced myself that an otter mother used a rock on the shore of the Lost Swamp Pond as a map of sorts to familiarize her pups with the preferred route to South Bay. Today I convinced myself that the large scent mound on this rock, surrounded by so many healthy poops, is nothing less than a form of otter voodoo directed at the beavers and their lodge which they have otter proofed with logs crisscrossing its top. We think that scent mounds mark an otters exclusive rights to an area. The likelihood of any wandering otter coming into this pond by coming down this ridge is highly unlikely. Ergo, the otters are sticking it to the selfish beavers. I had enough daylight to check the beaver work at Audubon Pond so I left the otter voodoo. Before I left the East Trail Pond, I took a photo of the large tree in the pond that the beavers have been cutting for a few months that finally fell, perfectly for them, square into the pond.

I checked the trail between Thicket and Meander Ponds where I have seen otter scats this summer and fall, but there was nothing new there. The Audubon Pond beavers are maintaining their same level of activity. Indeed they seem more energetic than usual. The big ash that fell flat to the ground toward the pond has been trimmed and stripped, save for about one third in the middle of the tree.

I’m not sure why the beavers are slow to gnaw that bark. Perhaps because it is covered with moss.

Their girdling and gnawing of a nearby and larger ash tree is also impressive.

These are softer ash trees, but trying to cut this one down would be a challenge for any beaver. Not that they shy away from hard wood. Along the shore of the pond, they continue to cut down shag-bark hickories, as well as gnaw on their exposed roots.

I must say that when beavers gnaw on harder wood the sculpture they leave behind is more striking.

The beavers here have gnawed shag-bark hickories in other falls, but this year they are not only cutting them down, but trimming branches, cutting off logs, and stripping the bark of the trunk.

Meanwhile the sun was going down, tinting the beavers’ cache pile with gold.

I went down to South Bay and checked the otter latrine on the grassy slope overlooking the entrance to the bay, and while I didn’t see much new scrapping, I saw some small scats in the grass, not that fresh but new to me.

So an otter was here in the last few days.

November 16 inspired by the fresh otter scats that I saw at the East Trail Pond yesterday, I got an early start and hiked out to see the otters. As soon as I sat down up on the ridge north of the pond, I saw ripples around the lodge. A beaver pulled itself up on the lodge and walked slowly half way up the side of the lodge facing the dam.

It wasn’t bringing up mud, or a branch or log, and didn’t stay up there long. It went slowly back down in the pond, not the least suggestion of a slide down the sloping lodge, and dove into the water. It rooted around briefly and then surfaced below the lodge and got on the side facing me. It didn’t climb up very high on the lodge, and then groomed itself, back and side and head.

Then it went back into the pond, dove, rooted around, seemed to get up on a sunken log and nibble something, then swam back over to the lodge, a few feet away, climbed up on to its grooming spot, briefly groomed itself and then climbed higher up on the lodge.

It didn’t get up to the top mainly because of all the logs the beavers had pushed up on top of the lodge to, in my opinion, prevent otters from getting up there. This beaver showed its lack of agility as it slowly climbed over one of the lower logs.

I’m not sure why the beaver climbed the lodge. Inspecting the otter proofing? Seeing how much more mud had to be packed on it? A brief lookout for otters? It went down into the pond, dove and evidently swam into the lodge because I didn’t see it again in the pond.

Seven minutes after it went inside the lodge, a young buck walked slowly along the dam.

Rather than going down to check the otter latrine below me, I walked down the ridge toward the dam to check another likely spot for otters to latrine and scrape up a scent mound. But first I turned back and took a photo of the latrine where the otters do have their scent mounds just to show how unlikely it would be for another otter to find it.

Then I took a photo of the grassy mossy slope strategically located by the inlet creek and dam. There were no otter scats and no scratching there.

That said, back in the days when otter used the pond that filled the whole valley, they never latrined here. One year, I think, they did latrine where they are latrining now. On my way back around the west end of the pond, I took a photo of the big tree they cut down that fell so conveniently in the pond. They continue to cut off branches, but no stripping of the trunk yet.

Then I checked out the work they’ve doing on the south side of the pond that I could see from the trail. A beaver began making a second cut on a maple that jumped off its cut stump but didn’t fall down.

This is a ploy I use when a tree I cut gets hung up. It’s a way to remind gravity of how it is supposed to behave and to make the tree lighter so I can push it back and out of the crown the tree is hung up in. I don’t think the beavers will get this tree light enough for them to do that. Then I went up the little canyon where the beavers had cut an ironwood almost on the top of the ridge. That relatively small tree had been hung up and Ottoleo and I pushed it down. No beaver had come back to take advantage of our favor. We went to our land in the afternoon and I ended my brief vacation from collecting firewood. I headed down our inner valley to saw two maple that the beavers girdled into logs. Of course, I took a look at the beaver ponds below. They had more water, suggesting that my hope that the hole deep in the dam would be naturally plugged by leaves and other floating litter was coming to pass. The Last Pool had water backing up to the lodge.

The channel heading down to the Boundary Pond was full of clear water.

The upper Boundary Pond had enough water in it to give beavers comfort,

And there was enough water behind the dam for beavers to survive.

But there are no beavers here. I wasn’t seduced into thinking the trails in the duckweed were made by beavers. Cold water is slowly subduing that floating plant; perhaps some ducks are making trails through it.

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