Sunday, January 27, 2013

December 7 to 16, 2003

December 7 yesterday evening we had a half inch of snow; fortunately it was cold and blustery so when we got to the ponds most of the ice was clear of snow. Indeed the shaped patches of snow gave us something to skate around. On the way we saw a porcupine munching golf course grass, and going over the rocks down to the swamp, I saw hints of porcupine perambulations, but no porcupines. I forgot to mention that yesterday as I walked down Beaver Point Pond, I saw that a porcupine had climbed up and done some nibbling atop the red oak that had been girdled in a beaver-like fashion. So we skated on the Big Pond and Leslie pointed at an impressive trail of muskrat bubbles

and then the disappointed flap-print of a grouse that seems to have walked out for a drink only to find ice, and flew away.

There was still holes of open water behind the dam but no sign that any animal had used them. As we strapped on our skates at the Lost Swamp Pond I saw the beaver cruising in the open water around the lodge. Leslie got closer and the beaver got wind of her and stopped his ice prevention exercise. Fox and coyotes had been around this pond mostly going around the edge, and certainly paying some attention to the muskrat pushups but not digging into any of them.

All tracks converged more at a coyote poop than around a pushup.

They also checked out the high and dry burrow that I saw yesterday

and pawed at a tiny patch of ice that was open.

They didn't go to the active beaver lodge. And there was no sign that the beavers had paraded out on the ice. Of course, there were no otter signs either. I also noticed a small pushup that I overlooked yesterday -- ribbed with delicate beaver nibbled sticks.

Leslie went home and I tried to beat the darkness and continue a tour of the ponds just in case otters were back on this end of the island but had not worked their way around to the Lost Swamp. The Second Swamp Pond was quiet, but when I got close to the bank lodge of the East Trail Pond, I heard loud humming and munching. I noticed that the head-sized hole in the ice at the bank burrow

was not only open but the sticks in it were moving.

One of the beavers swam over there and began munching right under me. I poised the camera hoping it would stick a nose up the hole. I sniffled before it did and it plunged back into the water. I left them in peace and walked across the pond. There was no sign a beaver had come out of the hole or anywhere else. Coming to the pond I saw what might have been fisher prints around the hole, but raccoons were also about and my tracking skills are rusty from disuse. In the gloaming I hurried on to Audubon Pond, first checking the docking rock in South Bay which seemed to be the perfect place for an otter to pause. Thanks to the wind the extent of ice on South Bay was the same as I last saw it. So an otter could swim off the rock right along the edge of the ice. I did see something on the ice but it was too dark to see if it was part of a fish, though looking at a poor photo reveals some red which means it might very well have been a fish, but you'd think an otter would make some marks in the snow somewhere nearby. Still there were no otter prints on what snow remained on and around the rock, only the prints of a smaller animal.

I went up to check Audubon Pond and walked past the drain and then down the spillway trail, back to the bay and checked another rock along the water -- no prints there. A nice sunset glow and I got a glimpse of a fox on the ice walking away from me. The north wind had relented and their was a gentle but chilling breeze at the my back. I also bumped into a small pileated woodpecker along the East Trail. I had been noticing a good bit of strewn rotten wood under dead trees and it was nice to see the perpetrator.

December 9 cold sunny morning with high clouds coming in -- no wind, but too cold to go out in boat. I left my skates behind and headed up the golf course, this time taking my winter route down what I call the second valley. Without snow to really speak of, the valley loses some of its charm and the porcupine wanderings are a bit scruffy on the cold snowy rocks. But it was good to be back. All was quiet though through the woods and across the pond, just small tracks going to the little opening in the ice where the water runs in. I crossed the pond and checked the larger opening below the more copious spring and one minnow darted away, and there were no tracks around it,

and snow has been down around the hole for two days. Then I walked on the ice upstream to see if the beavers have indeed been living up on the Nunn's land all winter. Through the several small ponds I saw tracks of fox, coyote,

raccoon and porcupine, but no sign of beaver. Then, almost to the old road, I saw freshly cut ash,

and a nice new mud and stick dam about two feet high, backing up a small pond with a dam behind,

backing up a larger pond,

with the dam they built last year backing up the largest pond with the lodge still in the middle

with a cache in front of it, also, a cache behind the dam.

Gratifying to see the beavers so well situated, but there was a tug of regret -- all I missed by not being able to come up and see them! I strained to see if there was any otter scats around and found none but it was the worst of days to look for old scat since there was a low layer of white frost everywhere. I took the old road, now just a trail interrupted by the new beaver pond, down to the state park line and then I went over to the Lost Swamp. I could see in an instant that no otters had been around. I crossed the pond and sat on a rock with a view of the open water in front of the lodge, but not too close. In less than five minutes a beaver came out, swam the length of the opening, got a stick and swam back. When I left the house it was 18 degrees and we had a still night so without activity this open water would have frozen an inch or two thick. I took a photo of the next foray, about five minutes later. Again a beaver got a small branch and dove. So with camcorder cocked I walked out on the ice and hid behind a large tree, and waited, and waited. Gave up after 10 minutes, then as I was walking away, I looked back and saw two beavers swimming in the opening. There was a good bit of raccoon traffic along the shore of the pond, at least three. I'm surprised not to see mink tracks. There is also a leak in the dam.

I noticed some ice aprons on stumps near the lodge,

so the ice is slowly collapsing. The leak is loud enough so that if otters were around I would blame them for it. The Second Swamp Pond didn't betray one hole in the ice, though below the dam there is open water. Raccoons had gone along the dam and a coyote had crossed over it. Last year I watched these beavers through December, this year they are quite quiet.

I can see that they have been out across the dam, but probably not for three or more days. Plus how much better it would be if these beavers had showed the enterprise of the old Big Pond beavers and had patched Otter Hole and Beaver Point Pond dams. It is difficult to account for the changes in the pattern of beaver behavior. It almost seems like it is an accident of timing; the moment was missed to keep a patch of pond open and so the beavers revert to plan B rather than struggle to chew out the ice. The East Trail Pond beavers also surprised. I left them two evenings ago with two of them at least chewing under the bank and in the lodge. Today, at 11 am, there were two of them chewing in the bank and lodge. The bit of open ice in the bank might have frozen over. By checking that with a stick I would have caused the beaver gnawing there to panic. Instead I went back up and around the little knoll and then walked around the pond, pausing at the mighty ash they seem bent on felling.

None of the canals seemed to be open, but the northerly one going up to the third ponds had thin ice and could easily be opened. No holes up pond and then I went down Shangri-la Pond, eying the pipes through the dam that I might make take out. As I went down the valley I heard a porcupine scream from the north cliff but couldn't see where it was. There were bubbles under the ice but so uniform that I'm loath to think a muskrat is active, but they are probably there. I went around the north side of Thicket Pond and saw substantial tree work,

probably not fresh as I saw no beaver trail in the snow. None of these beavers, nor those on our land, have come out since this cold spell, which does not more than prove that they are content to try out their cache. But what cache there may be at this pond is not perceptible. Still there is a bit of spring fed open water -- beavers have not been there in some time, no work around it at all. With many questions, I stood before the solid beaver lodge, with frosted apex, and remained speechless.

I walked down the ice of Meander Pond and around the dam and bank burrow there were bubbles and at a small hole. I think they are muskrat tracks, trumped as always by the wandering raccoons. I went gingerly down the meadow of the Short cut Trail Pond and then to the path and down to Audubon Pond and crossed on the ice to the lodge, first noticing that the beaver had half cut down a small ash -- probably a week ago. I've been neglecting this corner of the pond. At the lodge there was a symphony of bubbles all around.

Desperate though this little beaver might be, it is not laying low. Also there are many sprigs of green under the ice and I suspect it will try to survive the winter eating these. The beauty of the shapes of the bubbles frozen in the ice persuaded me not to try to figure out how they were formed.

I sat on the bench, wondering what next when I noticed it was almost noon -- I had been out three hours. So I didn't go to the Narrows and trusted that if the otters had been in South Bay, as I think they must have been, then they would have left scat on the docking rock. And to my joy they had,

and not just a scat or two, but a gobby array of it,

some looking quite fresh

even though often their grayish scat looks instantly aged. The edge of the ice was still at the rock and on the snow covered ice there was a riot of slides

with at least two of the otters tussling. I also saw that the blob on the ice I saw the other evening that I thought might be a fish part was actually a large leaf. The ice on this side of the bay, exposed to sun as well as the shifting water level, was none to safe with many holes in it along the shore. But I hazarded out on it to take a look at a second spasm of otter activity, much like the first.

From there the otters headed away from shore. I thought they might have slid on the ice to the point and then back into the cove, as they often have done before, but as I walked down the trail to the cove I saw no more slides, so just as I theorized, they must be harvesting all they can from the river but the deep freeze makes life in the beaver ponds seem more attractive. As I walked around South Bay I heard a weird screech and thought it might be a variation of a porcupine scream but when I moved into the woods, an angry squirrel hopped away. All in all, a nice four hour winter hike.

December 11 heavy rains last night and temperatures above forty. The rain stopped a little before 2PM, with clouds and fog lingering. I love the light in the wet gloom and headed for the ponds. I avoided the soggy golf course, well knowing I wasn't going to cross the Big Pond on the ice, and went along the TIP nature trail to the first swamp ridge. Just as I got off the trail I noticed a riot of pecked trunks. It even looked like the pileated woodpecker cut down a few rotten trees. Very foggy so no good photo, but the remains should still be there on a drier day. As I walked along the ridge I could hear the water rushing down the creek below me. The Big Pond dam was still intact but water was rushing over it.

I had a devil of a time deciding if the otter scat beside my usual perch was fresh. Needless to say it was washed out, and scat that I knew was a month old looked fresh again. But on the other side of the spillway I saw some scat that I am pretty sure is fresh.

Despite the warmth and rain the pond was still largely frozen, just with two or three inches of water on top of it. There were holes of open water at the dam, as there always have been. I would have liked to see an otter print or slide in the wee bit of remaining snow behind the dam. Crossing the pond along the dam was a slog, but an interesting one as the ground is still frozen so it was water with mud much of the way. The Lost Swamp Pond did not have as much water floating on top of its ice. This pond is higher up the watershed (though a different one than the Big Pond's) so there is not as much water coming into it. Across the pond I could see a beaver up on the ice nibbling away. The open water around the pond was much larger. As I made my way around the pond to get a better view of the beaver, to my surprise, it splashed its tail. These beavers have never been that jumpy and I wondered if it meant they were on alert for otter intrusions. But I didn't see any fresh scat at the latrines. I also didn't see any holes that a beaver might have climbed out of. I sat on a rock by the dam and waited for a beaver to come back out; none did.

But I could see their last meal. I didn't go over to the rock beside the lodge to check for scats because I knew it would bother the beaver. Crossing the upper Second Swamp Pond, I admired the various shades of wet brown and green. There was a good bit of water flowing here and fortunately the little dam I cross had not been washed away -- crossing there saves a lot of walking. The Second Swamp Pond lodge had a bit of open water in front of it, and leftovers scattered all around.

I waited a bit to see if a beaver would come out, none did. As I scanned the open water behind the dam for a beaver head and enjoyed how vivid the beaver work along and below the dam looked,

I heard the rustling of leaves getting closer and a small deer joined me on the knoll, grazing. Then another deer ran up on the knoll, being chased by yet another deer. They all scattered in different directions. The hunt is over, mating continues. I also saw a deer on the first swamp ridge. Plus I saw two more at the end of my hike. Won't be able to access the impact of the hunt until I see how many deer start grazing out on the golf course pawing up the snow trying to get to the grass. I went down to the Second Pond dam to make sure there was open water behind it, and as I approached a mink swam through the water atop the ice behind the dam, craned up to look at me and then fled the way it came. So there was still ice along much of the dam, but where the water was open a beaver had been pushing mud.

It was getting dark when I got to the East Trail Pond and as I checked for otter scat on one side of the dam, one beaver

and then another came out on the ice in the middle of the cache. Close as I was they paid me no heed, but one did go back under. I'm pretty sure there was fresh otter scat on the mossy rock. The water on the ice was so deep the wind began blowing up waves, but I know that water does otters no good and to get under the ice they have to go through the few holes the beavers made. The wind started getting cold, so no otter paradise was developing. What they really want is deep snow to make it easier to reclaim the pond. I checked for scat on the New Pond knoll and found two spits of mucousy white scat, too dark to see the regular scat. So I think the otters took a tour of the pond, and probably didn't stay. I heard a flock of cedar waxwings and heard some pileated woodpeckers, but no close up views of the birds. Not enough light to make them dazzle especially with the rotting wet vegetation glowing every where, all the beauty of a worn out womb.

December 13 cold sunny morning, 15 F, and I headed off to the ponds via the first swamp ridge -- a little north wind made it nice to get into the woods. I decided to check the Double Lodge Pond dam as the old lodges there would be a good place for otters to stay if they decided not to swim under the ice of the Big Pond. There was a bit of open water made by the runoff of all the rain, but no sign that any animal used it. Up at the Big Pond dam all was once again frozen over save for one unused hole in the ice just off the spillway and two holes just frozen over at the spillway.

I was amazed that the ice was smooth. If I was a madman or a scientist I could have gone around and taken photos of where I had taken photos before and seen if there were new bubbles, but I'm not that confident that reading bubbles would get me anywhere. One evidence of the two inches of water that had been on the ice was a dead and large pollywog on top of the new ice.

I did walk out to the upper lodge and took a photo of bubbles under the ice, which when I compare it to a photo taken on the 6th doesn't show much if any difference

and I felt obliged to check the hole made by the spring -- more open and from the refreeze clear to see that it had been even more open. I saw three shiners flee and nothing more in the water, and no tracks around it.

The return of cold weather is not the time animals traipse around checking things out. Still I traipsed on to the Lost Swamp Pond and while the open water around the lodge contracted by two-thirds, there was still a large pool of open water.

I heard hums from the lodge and even some gnawing, but in the half hour I was around, no beaver appeared. I went back out on the ice and around to see the other side of the lodge in case there was a little hole in the ice there. No, but I was impressed with the mud armor on the lodge.

Nice set up these beavers have. I checked the far end of the pond and saw no sign that the beavers had opened the ice there. Much as these beavers get into the pool, they don't seem to travel around much. However there was much grass on top of logs probably left there before the freeze by muskrats,

who now simply eat the same collecting it as they swim under water, a small inconvenience for a rat. Down at the Second Swamp Pond, I expected to see evidence of their coming out at the dam, and there was, but difficult to say when and certainly the ice was claiming all the water they had opened.

At the East Trail Pond all was quiet at the lodge, the little hole quite frozen over, but this dam was leaking more than any other and the pond, I am pretty sure definitely refroze at a lower level. As I crossed along the dam, a beaver plunged out of the bank and into the water -- back into the lodge I suppose. Thanks to the blocking action of a large log behind the dam and an area of very thin ice and some open water formed behind the dam.

I'll have to keep an eye on that. I think there was more otter scat on the mossy rock but it looked as old as all the scat there. However, I wouldn't be surprised if otters were here. Snow is coming so I might soon find out. I walked over the ice of the pond which got thin toward the inlet creek. Thicket Pond seemed frozen solid but I didn't go over to the spring. These beavers are a puzzle. Snow might help to figure them out too. With no visible cache, they have to be interested in getting out of their formidable lodge. I also went down Meander Pond which was frozen like before, but I think there are muskrats leaving bubbles. Of course Audubon Pond was frozen. As I sat on the bench it struck me that the lodge had been redesigned -- branches taken from one end of it and piled on the other. I'll have to study old photos of it. And below is a September 2002 photo with today's:

which might mean the old otter penthouse has been dismantled. When I stood closer to the bank lodge a beaver swam out of it. There were some frozen over holes in the ice too.

The beaver had put a few gobs of mud on this lodge but very little to any real purpose. I crossed the pond on the ice and noticed its depth and here and there loose plant matter just under the ice. Will the beaver survive eating that? The hole in the ice just in from the inlet pipes was open. Obviously a forceful current coming in opened it up. There was a look of a frozen otter slide next to it,

but when I took a closer look, I don't think an otter had anything to do with it. Just the luck of the freeze. Of course there is open water at the drain but no sign of beaver nibbling there, much less otter poop

I did see some goose poop out on the ice more on the middle of the pond. Down at the docking rock I don't think there were any new scats on the rock, but perhaps some on the bank. just a few squirts. The bay is frozen around it and along the shore but there is open water thirty yards out in the bay. I again saw deer, a few in the woods, and four grazing on the golf course at 1 PM. When I stood on the Second Swamp Pond looking at the lodge, I was entertained by a few red squirrels complaining in the cedars, and the pecking of a woodpecker now and then had me straining to make sure it wasn't a beaver gnawing. Ice is a wonder, a great sealant, now the snow will soften its edges and make it more habitable.

December 15 we had eight inches of snow yesterday and last night, careful to get our last skate in, on a golf course pond. Unlike in other years I have kept the outboard engine on the boat after Thanksgiving in order to tour the area looking for otters. This snow provided an excellent opportunity, and with a north wind we were lured out into the river in relative comfort before the chill wind hit. I went to the Narrows first and to my joy there was an otter slide in the snow on the large accessible rock they often visit.

Then we went on to peak into Eel Bay but sloppy ice barred the way. It was too cold to take another route to Picton so we went back to investigate the slide we saw. The otter simply came up made a little turn and went back down into the river. Then we tried to dock at the rocks along the bay but there was too much ice. I scanned for otter slides and Leslie saw two minks on the ice along the shore. One ran away from the other, then ran back. I've seen one there, off and on, for some time, but never two. Going back home the wind was at our back.

December 16 set off on foot for a tour of the ponds -- the snow is easy to walk through. We went to the South Bay trail first in hopes of hooking up with an otter's trail coming into the ponds, but we only saw deer tracks. Then we went up the East Trail where a porcupine was active. We saw tracks in the valley, where it went to a tree, up it and climbed back down and went back the way it came,

and then further along the trail, we saw the porcupine tracks going up into the rocks above the trail. The beast seemed to be poking into likely holes to spend some time.

I thought that of all the ponds the East Trail Pond was most likely to have otters, given the recent pattern of scatting, but only a mink had been through, along the dam, tunneling, sliding west.

There was discolored ice at the cache, but no sign that beavers had been out. In the woods going to the Second Swamp Pond I saw an unfortunate larva.

The ice at the Second Pond lodge cache was also discolored a bit, but no sign beavers had been out.

Finally at the Lost Swamp Pond we found evidence of the beavers' gumption. The opening around the lodge had frozen over, but they had opened ice at the burrow below the rolling area, and a large opening behind the dam

where it appears they worked to repair the hole through it which had led to a bit of leaking.

No sign that otters precipitated this crisis. This is the first time I've seen beavers do such repairs in the cold -- for it was 10F this morning. They also had been up and down the lodge quite a bit, perhaps even bringing mud up, and perhaps some dead grasses too. Beavers generally content themselves with finding stuff to eat, and don't exert themselves with repairs and refurbishing when it is this cold. The Big Pond was quiet save for deer crossing, and at the little open water at the old beaver hole some diving beetles did their might to keep the water open. Going up the second valley we found porcupine tracks crossing below it and crossing at the top of the ridge. None in the middle but that's where there had been much nibbling of small maples.

Last year the porcupine concentrated on one tall midsize tree; this year many little ones. Another porcupine came up from the golf course, a big one judging by the evident high stepping of its track as it left a long trail of pee.

Deer tracks everywhere, a few grouse, and in places plenty of red squirrel tracks. Only one mouse track, and a fox track just off South Bay, not far from where I had seen a fox. No coyote, no raccoon tracks. Coming up from TI Park we smelled a skunk, probably in a nearby log but we didn't investigate.

After lunch in bright sun and temperature warming up to 40 I went off in the boat to see if the otters had been at Picton Island -- seeing them there would help my theories a bit. I went up the south shore of Murray Island and three-fourths of the way up I swerved in to see some slides on a flat rock beside a boat house.

Otters had been there, not just one, but no sign of them taking advantage of any space afforded by human habitation. This was encouraging and rounding the point, Picton looked dazzling and at the point I found a scurry of slides

and here and there one slide out of the water, back along the ridge into the water I saw a long slide down

but since there appeared to be deer tracks coming down to it too, I can't say the otters were playing. There were slides on the rock off the point,

but I didn't see any slides along the jumble of rocks that remain from the old quarry quay. Meanwhile, a large black bird flew off and was probably an immature eagle. Then I had noticed what I first took for two guys in a boat out in the middle of Eel Bay. As I crossed over to the north shore of Murray Island, these two guys flew off and didn't fly like cormorants. As they flew gulls scattered. Well, a pattern emerged as I puttered along the island shore focusing on otter slides and an eagle would fly off a tree and then out over this huge shallow expanse no more than six feet of crystal clear water everywhere

-- happened three times. Mature eagles too. But the slides were the story. On that large rock where Leslie and I had often picnicked in the old days, there were slides up down and around the snow, encompassing quite a large area, and when I stood in the boat I could see scat in the middle of it all.

There was no need to get onto the rock (which was not advisable being alone and with the water relatively deep off these ice fringed and snow covered rocks,) I could see it all. At some points only one otter went up. Sometimes up into the few pines along the shore,

sometimes in the open. Evidently they have no worry about the eagles perched on trees all around Eel Bay, or the otters do all this in the dark. There were no fresh slides at the rock where we saw slides at yesterday, unless the otters just went on the trail we made, which is possible, and I'll still couldn't get to the docking rock. I completed the circumnavigation of Murray Island and saw another otter foray onto a rock,

So I could discern no rhyme or reason to their landings save for the their desire to curve their bellies on snow covered rocks -- maybe, marveling at how soft they've become. And when I turned back to South Bay I saw an eagle fly into a perch on a pine above the Narrows. Two ravens or crows flew off trees when I went through the Narrows. So I am pleased. I know where otters have been, and saw evidence of enough of them to account for the five otters I had last seen in the ponds. Eel Bay is frozen up to the Narrows, a few cold nights will freeze the rest of it, and then if I am lucky some of the otters will find refuge in the ponds I watch, rather than the Picton ponds or Grindstone ponds, the latter being most convenient to Eel Bay.

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