Sunday, November 6, 2011

October 26 to 31, 2011

October 26 The rain came back and in the morning we went to the library where I digitized another 40 old photos, including this gem. I know it was taken in the late summer of 1987 because the blue blur on my belly is Ottoleo in a baby carrier and he was born in May 1987. My niece Elizabeth is with us and she was 7 at the time.

We were standing on the original lodge that the beavers built in what I call the Big Pond. After building that lodge, the beavers there have always built lodges closer to the shore. I did not pay close attention to beavers back then and my recollection is that the dam creating the pond was built around 1976. My guess is that the beavers who built the dam were trapped out after they built this lodge which accounts for all the grass growing on it. Leslie and I often walked on the dam in the spring and fall when we used to visit the island for 2 or 3 weeks and we didn’t notice on-going beaver activity. Then after a few years after Leslie took this photo beavers returned and built up the dam. I’ll analyze this photo later. There are many details to explain, especially how and why the beaver lodge is at the end of a peninsula. I’ve never seen a lodge situated like that since. Any thought of doing that analysis this afternoon ended when the rain seemed to stop and we headed out for a hike. As the rain resumed as we rounded South Bay, we were so desperate for a hike, that we pressed on to Audubon Pond. When we were here a few days ago we saw that beavers were cutting a few trees in the southeast end of the pond and even though they only cut a small log off the end a trunk, I took a photo because the damp trunk and leaves made the beaver cut look so dramatic.

What I really wanted to check here was whether the beavers tried to rebuild this dam below the Audubon Pond embankment that was methodically breached and spread down the valley by humans acting in an official capacity. I didn’t see any evidence that the beavers had started another dam.

I do think the beavers are still going down there. Their old trail down the embankment looked fresh and at the foot of the embankment, now mud since so much water had drained out, I thought I saw fresh beaver prints. I didn’t take a photo because it was raining so hard. However, when I got back up on the embankment I saw that with the water gone in the pond below, I could see two holes in the area where I used to see the muskrats disappear.

The hole on the right certainly looked big enough for beavers to use. And I couldn’t let the rain stop me from taking a photo of the bank lodge on the Audubon Pond side of the embankment where, judging from the growing cache pile, the beavers are planning to spend the winter.

If a growing cache indicates that beavers are planning ahead, little stripped sticks around a lodge suggests that the beavers are content with their new home.

Beavers here haven’t had a kit in about 10 years, and I haven’t noticed any this year, but I haven’t been here that much. Kits do nibble little sticks like that, but so do adults. I headed back down to South Bay to check the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay. I saw a few dry scats here a few days ago and I saw what looked like wet scats today.

Of course it was raining and I faced that age old problem: is a scat fresh or just wet from the rain? To begin with, in the fall, dying leaves can turn black and can glisten like otter scat when they get wet. There was such a leaf in this mixed but also plenty of scat that was new to me. The scat by the clover had was there a few days ago, but not the long smear of scat next to it.

However, I didn’t see any fresh scrapping up of leaves. I usually sit here a while and enjoy the view of the bay where I haven’t seen an otter in years, but it was too wet today and raining, so I went back up to Audubon Pond and walked around it looking for otter scats, which I didn’t see, and cataloging as much recent beaver work as I could safely photograph in the rain. The last time we were here I saw that the beavers had cut down a shag-bark hickory in the southwest corner of the pond, but then I saw no branches nipped off it. Today, I saw that a beaver took one small branch.

The beavers did take some bark above their cut through the trunk, probably stripping some off bark for bedding since there were no gnaw marks down through the inner bark they generally like to eat.

This it not the only shag-bark hickory they cut down. A larger hickory farther up the west shore of the pond is leaning into an even larger hickory. They gnawed down into the inner bark below their cut through that tree.

And they are digging through the dirt and gnawing the root of the large hickory, something they have done here lately in the spring and fall. I should see if anybody has analyzed the difference between the bark of a tree’s roots and the trunk bark.

I didn’t check on their recent foraging in the woods west of the pond, but hurried around to the bench on the north shore where otters often latrine, but no scats there, nor any signs that beavers have been there. However, judging by the muddy water outside their burrow, the muskrats are still flourishing. I soon saw that the beavers had been in the north end of the pond, though not at their old munching flat in front of the bench nor around their old lodge nearby in the pond. They have a well worn trail through the tall grass up to some ash trees a few yards up from the northeast corner of the pond.

Of the beavers I watch, the ones here have always made the most of ash trees and they are gnawing the bark off a tall ash that fell across the small mown field east of the pond.

Then as I walked down the long causeway that forms the east shore of the pond, I saw a beaver swimming slowly out in the middle of the pond. The beavers here have always been quick to come out and check on who is walking around the pond. It was too gloomy to get a photo of the beaver, but the light was perfect for showing the glowing colors of red, yellow and orange leaves still on the tall trees across the pond.

The rain stopped and we went back down the South Bay trail. Leslie headed home and I went up to check the East Trail Pond for fresh otter scats. The last time I was here, there were so many scent mounds and scats on the rock on the north shore of the pond that today it was hard to tell if the otters had been back.

However along the trail east of the rock there was a huge scent mound that I didn’t think had been there before.

And judging from a photo I took there back on the 17th, the otter had scraped more vegetation up on that scent mound. As well as scrape up another one at the bottom of the slope.

Then I had the pleasure of leaning over the many scats in and around the latrine and photographing the freshest.

Taking a close look, the scats looked a bit paler than the last array I saw here, but loose, gooey and, as far as I could see, without fish scales. So I think the otter is feasting on frogs here.

Perhaps the scats are lighter because the otters are eating more mud as they bite into the pond bottom where frogs try to hide. I saw what looked like a trail going up the slope leading to what looked like a hole in the granite rocks half way up the slope.

I went up to investigate and saw that the hole was too small and shallow to accommodate at otter. Of course, I looked for otters in the pond and on the lodge, and saw none. But I did see a long log on the top of the lodge.

That log wasn’t there 6 days ago on the 19th.

As I did then, I took a close up with my camcorder.

I’ve seen beavers do this to their lodge in other ponds and my interpretation has always been that they are trying to make it more difficult for otters to lounge on top of their lodge or dig into it and fashion a penthouse den, which I have seen otters do. Beavers generally tolerate otters in their pond but they don’t like otters there and do what they can to keep them in line.

October 28 As I walked down the rocky north slope of the East Trail Pond to check for fresh otter scats, I heard a big plopping splash just to the right of the otters’ rolling area. That area was baking in the late morning sun but it seemed to be a more dramatic dive than a turtle would make and it was a bit early for a turtle to be out. Then I heard a noise that sounded like heavy equipment starting up far in the distance and then I heard an otter snort from the thick grove of bushes in the pond just off the shore.

I sat down in the shade and waited. That snort helped my ears focus on that growling sound. It came from the grove too, and it sounded a bit like the purring I often hear from groups of otters. Expecting to see a family of otters here, I pieced together evidence to prove that I had discovered them. The snort was separated several yards from the growls, and I saw the wake of something sticking a head out of the water between where I thought the snort and growl was coming from, though I didn’t see the head. But if there were three otters in the water below me why did I only hear one splash when something jumped off the shore into the water? Too soon the snorting and growling stopped. Years ago there was a beaver lodge under those bushes and perhaps there was enough of it left for otters to hide. I kept scanning the pond for any wakes made by an otter swimming under water and then I saw a slow trail of bubbles move toward the middle of the pond which is relatively open.

When the animal blowing the bubbles surfaced, we saw that it was a beaver. The beaver seemed a bit lethargic, doing nothing but swimming a few feet seemingly looking for a warmer spot in the sun and when it found one it sat. In the video clip below, you can hear the otter snorts and maybe you can make out some growls at the --- and --- second mark.

Of course, I kept looking for otters but heard or saw nothing of them, or it. As much as I hoped to see a family here, it seemed likely that today there was only one otter. I walked down and stood above where it splashed and there were enough leaves down on the bushes in the water to see that there is no remnant of a beaver lodge there for any otter to hide in.

If there had been an otter family here, I don’t think I would have heard just one splash and one snort, and I would have seen some commotion in the water as the otters swam away. So I think there was one otter, and that the low rumbling I heard was a beaver growling. Judging from the logs put on top of the beaver lodge, the beavers are keen on keeping the otters off their lodge. Over the years I have noticed that some beaver families seem to delegate to one beaver the task of keeping an eye on otters who come into the pond. So this morning the lookout beaver had kept the otter on the rocks forming the slope north of the pond, where the otter probably wanted to be anyway. When the otter got back in the water, the beaver growled. When ever I’ve been around a pond when both otters and beavers notice me, the otters always reacted to me, while the beavers ignored me and kept an eye on the otters. If this pond was the first we visited today, I would have sat by it longer to see what else might happen, but it was time to go home for lunch. Of course before I left, I checked the otter latrine below me and it looked like an otter had scraped up a couple more high scent mounds.

And I took a photo of the lodge. It looked like the beavers pushed another long log up on their lodge for otter proofing.

A close-up I took with my camcorder is not very good quality but it better shows the beavers’ efforts.

Earlier in the morning we walked around the South Bay trail and saw what must be a muskrat lodge along the shore built around a dead willow branch reaching down into the water.

A few years ago a muskrat built a lodge in the same area that I recall as freestanding and it didn’t survive the November wind storms that momentarily raised the water level in the bay. At the docking rock latrine, I saw some scratching of the grass on the old otter trail up the slope, but no scats. Then as usual, I walked along the embankment of Audubon Pond. When we were here two days ago, it was raining. Today the sun was out and the air crystal clear, so I got a better photo of the cache pile around the new bank lodge the beavers have fashioned in the embankment.

The embankment was made back in the late 60’s from the dirt dredged to make the pond behind it. So it is easy to burrow into the embankment, but it is also easy to dig down into the burrows. To prevent that the beavers have pushed up sticks on the embankment.

They will probably soon start carrying up mud to lard over the sticks. We’ve only had one or two nights below freezing and need more to inspire beavers to mud their lodge. They want it to freeze on, not wash away with the next rain. I think the water in the pond did briefly freeze last night because there was a trail of bubbles in the water going from the lodge over to the near west shore.

The bubbles probably look so orderly in the pond water because a few hours before there had been a thin skim of ice. As I stood above the lodge, I heard a beaver hum from inside it. Then I went back down to South Bay to check the latrine above the entrance to South Bay and I saw some fresh scats.

They are not at all like the scats I’ve been seeing at the East Trail Pond. As I looked at the arrangement of leaves and dead grass and scratching on this grassy slope coming up from the bay, the otters here were very expressive, but no matter the angle I tried, I couldn’t get a photo to express that, nor can I really be sure that there was more than one otter here.

Then I went back up to Audubon Pond and checked out what the beavers are doing in the woods west of the pond. I didn’t go back there two days ago, too gloomy for photos in the rain. A beaver did try to get a log to the pond, but didn’t seem to get very far.

There is very little undergrowth in this woods. Maybe they’ll keep trying. The beavers are gnawing on shag-bark hickory roots near the pond, digging away dirt to get to them. There are many tree roots above the ground in the woods and a beaver found an exposed maple root to enjoy.

As I strolled west, deeper into the woods, I saw that a beaver has resumed girdling a large ash tree.

We have had so much rain in the late summer and fall, that a vernal pool back in the wood is now an autumnal pool. The beavers had cut down two trees around it.

But I didn’t see any evidence that a beaver had relaxed in the pool and nibbled bark off twigs from the trees cut down. It would be interesting to see how the beavers shop for trees to gnaw in this woods. I can discern no method save that the trees they cut down are about 2 to 5 inches in diameter.

They are more likely to be able to haul logs cut from trunks that size, and judging from what I see missing from trunks, they have managed to get some logs into the pond.

As I walked around the pond, I saw no otter scats and no more beaver work until I got to the northeast corner of the pond where the beavers have been active the past couple weeks, maybe reacting to the destruction of their little dam below the embankment. I took a photo of their impressive trail through the tall grasses there.

The last time I had checked, they were working on two ash trees. Today I saw gnawing on a choke cherry tree, including gnawing on its exposed roots.

They are cutting larger ash trees. They are a few feet from the pond with an easy slope down to the pond.

Of course the smaller ash are more likely to fall to the ground when cut.

They strip the bark off the large trees where they fall. Back on the 26th, I took a photo of one that fell most conveniently for that. To get to the East Trail Pond where we had our rendezvous with an otter and a beaver, we walked on the high ridge north of the ponds. There are still golden leaves clinging to the trees but enough of them have fallen to provide clear views of the ponds belong and I couldn’t resist taking another photo looking down on the lower end of Meander Pond where the beavers in the East Trail Pond had spent the winter of 2009-10.

No beavers there now. Leslie continued along the ridge to enjoy the leaves and I headed down to check the trail between Meander Pond and Thicket Pond where I saw some otters scats and scent mounds a few weeks ago. Today I saw a large relatively fresh scat which I am pretty sure an otter left. I might be able to tell better when it dries out since the solid matter in it might turn out to be insect parts not blended frog innards which is what I think an otter must eat in these small interior ponds.

I didn’t see any obvious scent mounds here like I did before, but this scat was surrounded by mussed up dead leaves.

But this open area would be attractive for many species to make a statement. I hoped to see a scat tucked in the trail as I neared Thicket Pond, but saw none. That pond look impenetrable but a the red leaves of a sumac rose above the angry brown tangles of the buttonbushes.

As I reexamine photos taken of this pond 10 or more years ago, I’m reminded that originally this was not a thicket of buttonbushes. Here is a photo from January 1997 when I first noticed that beavers were here -- quite a surprising discovery because the pond was so small.

This was a true swamp with trees in standing water and judging from the photo, back then button bushes did not make the low thickets under the trees. I hope to study of before and after photos of the old beaver ponds, and examine the role of buttonbushes and honeysuckles, two shrubs beavers don’t eat, in crowding beavers out of some valleys. Then I got to the East Trail Pond and disturbed that otter.

October 29 I took a walk around the high slope of the Deep Pond to see what the beaver might be doing over there. It continues to push mud up on the dam, just about covering the poplar logs it positioned on it.

Beavers have a nice way of folding the mud over the dam. I can picture it putting its full body into the effort.

The beaver had not been idle at the other side of the pond. I hoped to prove that the beaver was denning in one of the old burrows there, but I couldn’t. There are fresh trails up the slope.

That path did not lead to a gnawed tree back in the woods, but to some small nibbled sticks at the foot of the shrubs in front of the woods.

It looks more like the work of mice. I have seen evidence of the beaver coming up on the bank here, presumably to groom. Today, I saw the first hint of a scent mound, dead leaves carried up on the bank. And in the water below what looked like many strings trimmed off lily rhizomes.

Awhile back I noticed that the beaver cut a large honeysuckle branch off a bush half way up the slope. Today I saw where it trimmed smaller branches on a bush at the fringe of the woods.

Then I remember the juniper bough it put on the dam, and I found the bush where it probably cut it, not far from the honeysuckle.

As for where it might be denning over here, I certainly didn’t see any start of a cache pile outside any burrow. But the drop from this bank is rather quick. Two feet away from the bank, you are in water deeper than two feet, and it quickly drops to 6 feet. But there did appear to be a trail in the water along the bank perhaps made by the beaver going to and fro from a burrow.

One burrow opened just above the current water level. That looks promising but I suppose the beaver would prefer the entrance to the burrow to be underwater.

By building up the dam, the beaver raised the water level back up the inlet creek. Sometimes beavers have taken advantage of that but I couldn't see any trails through the dying boneset. Plus the flooding kept me from going over to check the bank lodge.

Looking back toward the dam, I got a photo of the new mud wall there.

The last time a beaver spent the winter alone here, it stayed in the bank lodge and had a tiny cache. I can’t remember if it did this much work on the dam.

October 30 it was a good day to relax at the land. I finished my sawing of firewood for the winter and took a break before I start cutting and collecting wood for next winter. We sat in bright sun beside the Deep Pond, and, of course, the little red dragonflies entertained us. As I waited for them to land on me -- I suppose my pants and coat have to heat up in the sun, I watched a dragonfly who had landed in the water and was probably not going to fly again. It struggled sporadically.

A few feet away, I could see the eyes and nose of a frog lurking just below the surface of the pond.

I eventually lost track of both. I think if the frog had eaten the dragonfly, I would have noticed the commotion. Meanwhile I was enjoyably distracted by the flying dragonflies. Of the say 40 flying around us, I’d guess that there were five pairs, that is, the tail of one attached to the head of another.

When not resting, these pairs are laying eggs with the tail of the female in the rear dipping into the water. Consequently the tails of the females can look interesting. In the photo below I think there is an unattached male to the left and a female to the right. The part of her tail just behind the wings is swollen, with eggs, I assume. Her tail is also thinner, for the moment, than the males.

To me the females look duller, almost brown, and the tip of their tail seems to be shaped differently. However, in this photo both tails are quite red, but I think this photo shows a female tail looking open at the end and still wet from being dipped in the water.

The other day, I saw what looked like the corpse of a dragonfly attached and with a death grip on the live dragonfly. Today we saw what looked like a female gripping the male’s tail, and her own tail curled toward the male, not straight back ready for flight or egg laying. Her tail seemed to be going pale, deathly white.

Leslie moved her finger toward the pair. They didn’t budge, but the rear dragonfly cocked her wings up. They flew off with a horizontal flight. I had the camcorder running but I couldn’t tell if her wings were flapping too. On November 1, a pair landed on Leslie and they were mating, with the female grabbing the male’s tail and extending her tail up to the male’s abdomen to receive its sperm.

This female really has the red color drained out until she appears brown. She withdrew her tail, just letting it drop not straightening it. Then they too flew off, and I assume she straightened out, but we didn’t see that. The early morning of the 30th was not dragonfly weather. We saw that White Swamp still had a skim of ice on it.

We could not discern any trails through the ice.

October 31 every morning of late I’ve kept a weather eye to the river and today the wind was light and we headed off in the boat to Picton Island. On those mornings when it was too windy or rainy and we had to make do with a walk along the headland of Wellesley Island, I noticed a patient flock of cormorants on the shoal rocks. This morning there was only one cormorant on the rock and just a couple fishing in the river. Ducks should be arriving to take their place, and on one morning walk we saw 8 common mergansers in the river, but this has been a more active duck hunting season than the usual. We saw no ducks today. Of course, what I was looking for was otter scats. We were last here on September 19 and saw several black but dry scats sometimes paired with scats bleached white by the sun. Going down the northeast shore, we first saw a collection of black but relatively old scats, possibly 3 or 4 days old.

With a few more strokes of the oars, we passed a rock still dripping wet with scats.

Otters had been there this morning, or perhaps just one otter. I kept looking for uneaten fish parts. At this time of year otter pups are catching their own fish but mother otters don’t quickly lose the habit of leaving parts of fish behind for the pups to eat. I didn’t see any on the long rocky shore. Almost every time I’ve been here this year, I’ve seen sticks stripped by beavers and blush to say I don’t think I mentioned it or took a photo of a stripped stick. I saw one small one today.

The more easterly section of this shore is mostly a line of rubble with honeysuckle and a few willows taking route where they can. Then behind that flat strip about 10 to 20 yards wide there is the high cliff of the quarry proper. An easy row down that shore, the quarry ends and the huge granite boulders that form the island reach down to the shore unmolested and covered with mosses and ferns, with pines and oaks higher up and where there is soil to root in. If I was an otter I would hang out here though the quarry provides innumerable places to hide.

I’ve often found otter scats around here, and this past week the otters have latrined here, and probably this morning too, leaving so much scat that I am encouraged to think that at least a group of adult otters were here and perhaps a mother with pups. There was an even spread of scats on a rock close to the deeper water.

Another rock had three piles of scat of varying color and shape. My guess is that the gray color comes from eating gobies. I’ve seen tubular scats off and on for several years and have thought that crayfish parts provide the glue for that. I didn’t get out today and poke into the scats.

Such large scats were probably left by adult otters. I think pups might have been here because there is much dead vegetation washed up on the rocks as well as pine needles that fell from the pines on the rock cliff creating nice places to rest. Around some piles of substantial scats there are small smears of black scats.

I always row down to some large flat rocks that face the west where otters have often scatted and I fancy that is how they claim the shore to the east for their exclusive use. But there were no scats on those rocks today. As usual we motored over to the southeast face of Quarry Point which used to be the prime latrine for otters here. I haven’t noticed much activity there this year. This point is the first part of the island to be warmed by the morning sun which I’ve always thought must be attractive to otters. Perhaps they found other warm rocks. My investigation was interrupted because a sculptor was searching for suitable boulders for a fountain (with permission of the land’s owners). He lives on Grindstone across from the northeast shore of Picton. He has recently seen one otter on the rocks there, an area also well exposed to the morning sun. Seeing fresh scats usually inspires me to paddle out the next morning to see if I can see otters. But the mornings are cold and/or the windy enough to make even going out in the motor boat daunting. In the afternoon Leslie and I went over to the East Trail Pond to see if the otter was still around and to see if a beaver was still out on otter patrol. We sat quietly on the north slope of the pond for almost 20 minutes. I saw some wood ducks by the dam and Leslie saw some wakes around the lodge which she thought were made by a beaver, but she didn’t see a beaver. I checked the otter latrine and didn’t see any fresh scat. I took a photo of the recently made scent mounds.

The upper part of the pond looked well traveled with crossing trails but there is no way to tell what made the trails.

I haven’t checked the dam for a while and looking at from the walking bridge over the inlet creek I saw that the beavers have enough water to maneuver in but I didn’t see any work on the dam.

I got another photo of the lodge, giving a different angle of the otter proofing the beavers did.

When the beavers moved into the pond in the early summer of 2010, I first notice their tree cutting over in this corner of the pond. They are still working here but not nearly as much as they were before nor as much as they are doing now on the south shore of the pond.

I was thinking of walking along, if not on the dam, to see what the beavers have been doing to it. Then at the north end of the dam, I saw that they had pushed up some mud. No doubt they are doing the same at other areas along the dam.

So I pressed on across the old pond on the what remains of the old boardwalk and then headed into the bow hunting zone to see if there were otter signs at the Lost Swamp Pond. Of course I kept an eye out for latrines and trails along the way but saw no evidence of an otter going to and from the East Trail Pond to the Lost Swamp Pond. The last time I was here I tried to cross the valley using the Second Swamp Pond dam but there is now about a 6 foot gap in it. So I walked up the north shore of the Second Swamp Pond. When I came up on the knoll overlooking it, about 200 mallards flew off, leaving a few geese behind.

At this time of year here hunters could just about shoot or trap anything they want. I always hate to send ducks in the air during duck season but I had not heard shots so far today. I was also impressed by the murky water of the pond suggesting that the waterfowl rather stripped the bottom of vegetation. When three beavers families abandoned ponds I watch this spring, I wondered if perhaps they wanted to give vegetation a chance to regrow in the ponds with the idea that the beavers might come back in the fall and live off that vegetation until they reestablished themselves in the pond. I didn’t factor in how ducks and geese would clear vegetation from the ponds that would inevitably be shallower without beavers tending the dam. Waterfowl love shallow ponds. By making their ponds deep, beavers keep food for themselves and deny geese and ducks an easy meal. The last time I was here, a few weeks ago, I noticed the murky, vegetation stripped water at the Lost Swamp Pond and saw about 100 geese grazing in the Big Pond. Today the Lost Swamp Pond still looks like it has been “goosed” of vegetation.

When I came up to the pond today, there were only a few geese, but also three hooded mergansers. Two males were doing some energetic courting of a female. I saw some brief chasing, some flapping up on the toes, so to speak, then a pause in the action, then the more aggressive male flew off right by the female and she flew off with him.

There were some fresh otter scats in the latrine on the sloping rocks just west of the dam.

Not that many, which would be consistent with one lone otter, not a family. The scats were fresh.

So it was easy to assume this is the same otter that I saw at the East Trail Pond two days ago. There were also a few scats in another part of the slope, a grassy area where otters used to scat years ago.

But the scats, while recent, did not look that fresh.

I didn’t go to the Big Pond today which is deeper in the hunting zone. I went along the south “shores” of the beaver meadows, remembering the days when otters could be swimming in any of 6 full ponds in the valley.

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