Monday, November 2, 2009

October 1 to 9, 2009

October 1 Cold morning, mid-40’s, cloudy and damp and not the least hint that the day might get much warmer. I headed off to check the otter latrines around the beaver ponds, hoping that after the heavy rains of the past few days, the otters felt compelled to show that they were still around. I went up Antler Trail, and had planned to go down to the South Bay trail and then up between the Second Swamp Pond and Lost Swamp Pond so that I could easily check both in case the otters were actually there. (I haven’t seen an otter in either for about three years.) But I heard chain saws down toward South Bay, probably crews clearing trees away from the power line. I used to brave the noise to pester the crews to plead the case for certain trees, especially the pines, always in vain. So today I changed course and headed to the Big Pond, away from the noise. I saw a doe in one of the small valleys and then when I came up on a rocky plateau, I was amazed to flush two blue jays, several flickers and some sparrows, all seemingly finding something to eat in what looked like dying grass to me. I would expect to find the blue jays under the oaks. I checked the otter latrine at the south end of the Big Pond dam and I saw a string of very fresh scats in the grass.

Otters had just been there, and then I heard a chirp and looked out in the pond. I could see ripples coming from that part of the dam where I heard the chirping, but the high cattails obscured my view.

I crouched down and didn’t have long to wait until a small otter swam tail cocked high in front of me, and then I counted another small otter. Then a third otter seemed to respond to the chirps of the others, swam toward me, periscoping and blowing. I used my camera to get some video, but, not having the hang of using it, the first videos I took weren’t any good. Anyway, between looking in the camera and looking out on the pond, I soon could account for four otters and they all followed the bold adult down the dam away from me and then they swam toward the dam where I couldn’t see them. They were not in a panic. The lead adult began diving for fish and the others did the same. I waited for them to reappear as they fished behind the dam, but they didn’t after about 10 minutes, and I began wondering, were these otters so partial to the wet meadow below dams, that they went below the Big Pond dam to hide from me. Then I saw them fishing up the north shore of the pond. They worked the grasses along the shore, often going so far into the grasses that I couldn’t see them.

I could only account for two otters doing the fishing and I saw one of the pups swim up to the beaver lodge along that shore of the pond. I expected the otters to begin climbing up on the lodge but only one pup did. Two otters fished in front of the lodge. The fishing otters did swim back to the lodge, but didn’t go up on it. Then as they fished farther away from the lodge, the pup jumped into the water to follow. As they swam to the middle of the pond, I lost my view of them. I couldn’t walk on the dam without them seeing me, so I tried to use the tall cattails on the dam to my advantage. I walked below the dam, crossed the little bit of creek there, and then snuck back up on the dam using the cattails as a shield. That worked. The otters didn’t notice me and I could see them. I even got a video showing four otters. While standing there, I thought there were five otters. I counted two otters swimming to the right behind the marsh where I couldn’t see them and three otters, pups, playing in front of me. But the video show an adult going to the right and then coming back and swimming toward the playing pups.

I didn’t get a video of the pups jumping up on each other, but I could see and hear them. This was like old times. This is the time of year the adults try to get the pups to stop playing and start fishing. In two months the pond might freeze over. The pups swam off to the right where I couldn’t see them, but one of the adult fished closer to me, catching no big fish as far as I could see. While I couldn’t see the pups I could hear their occasional playful snarling. Then the fishing adult went to join them. I waited hoping the lot of them would swim to the lodge. Then I could get a count. In ten minutes the two adults swam out, one after the other, but no pups followed and responding to chirps from the pups, one of the adults swam back to them.

I had never seen otters make themselves at home in that neck of the marsh along the south shore of the pond. I kept expecting a procession to the lodge. But there was none, and the chirping and snarling stopped. There are muskrat lodges in the marsh so evidently they were convenient places to rest. When I got tired of waiting I walked back along the dam and took a photo of some muskrat nibblings

And another photo of the fresh scats.

They were attracting bugs -- even a cricket! But it didn’t hang around for a photo.

We went to our land in the afternoon and I took a walk around the Last Pool and Boundary Pond. The beavers are ranging all around the ponds cutting trees, and I still think they are gnawing on the poplar trunk hanging over the Last Pool which is looking very used.

The real action is above in the woods up from the Last Pool where the beavers are shopping for trees and cutting a small ash here

and elms there

And hornbeams everywhere

Always more hornbeams

And more still

And perhaps more to come

There may not be much sense in taking photos of what the beavers cut at this time of year. I should be scientific about it and make a chart of tree types and size and distance from the pond and lodge, but I get too much aesthetic pleasure from taking photo after photo. Down at the Boundary Pond, I am not scientific either, but I am telling myself a story. The adult beavers are restricting the movement of the kits because they are cutting big trees and they don’t want

So can I prove that just by walking around a pond?

No but at least I can better described the problem. The curved tree that is on the right in the photograph is the last tree the beavers cut near the lodge and it fell just to the right of where I’ve seen the kits out feasting on the growing cache of saplings and branches next to the lodge. One of the venerable maples that survived logging over the years because the boundary barbed wire went through is now being gnawed by the beavers.

Are the kits doing this? The gnawing is so indistinct I suspect small incisors are doing it. I also saw some gnawing on roots.

I used to think such root gnawing was done only in the spring. Now I am no longer categorical about beaver tastes. I crossed along the dam, noting that the beavers seem to have no interest in trees below the dam. Last fall they did cut one or two down there. I went up on the ridge west of the pond, where I often sit, and took a photo of the cache pile next to the lodge.

It doesn’t appear to be growing but the beavers try to sink the logs so I am seeing the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Walking up the west side of the channel I saw some fresh work there

And there was another tree just waiting for a strong wind to blow it over, an ash, not one of these beavers’ favorites

Then I saw that the beavers were cutting maples a bit up the ridge, which is very easy to get up.

So far they only seem interested in girdling.

October 2 I headed out in the morning to try to rendevous with the otters at the same time as I did yesterday. I went the same way and this time had a camcorder that a friend loaned to me. I eased up to the otter latrine at the south end of the Big Pond dam but today I saw no fresh scats, and no otters, though I must say the scat looked about as fresh as it did yesterday. Once again I used the cattails as best I could to conceal my progress along the dam and I kept looking up the pond for otters. There were ducks scattered about in the upper reaches of the pond which suggested that otters were not up there fishing. I moved on to the Lost Swamp Pond and came down to the mossy cove latrine and saw in an instant that it had a liberal slathering of fresh scat. Before taking photos I looked around the pond, and saw something swimming to the lodge out in the pond. I got out the camcorder and decided it was a muskrat. Then I looked up in the far southeast reach of the pond and saw the otters. I moved as close as I could with trees as a shield and then tried to record what they were doing roughly 200 yards from me. I only saw silhouettes but that was interesting. The two pups were on the entangled exposed roots of some dead bush stumps,

And soon once again playing with each other and I saw the two adults fishing never much more than 30 yards away from the pups, and frequently swimming to the pups, and judging from the reaction of the pups, feeding them. I would not say that these pups are precocious fishers. Eventually one adult climbed up with them and then the other adult swam over and then swam off to the left, not fishing, and the two pups followed one after another. I still hoped for a third, but I soon saw that only an adult remained on the stumps and seemed to be licking up what the pups didn’t eat, and I bet that adult pushed the pups into the water to follow the other otter. Then it followed and the otters disappeared into the grasses along the south shore where I couldn’t see. Of course I waited and for a moment I thought I saw an otter coming around the strait between the southeast and northwest sections of the pond but that proved to be a muskrat. The last time I saw the otters off Picton Island I saw four, two pups and two adults. Could this be the same family? I used to try to prove that the otters at Picton where the same otters in Wellesley Islands beaver ponds, but the only proof I had was the similarity in the scats in both areas. Now I wouldn’t mind proving that they were two separate families. Seeing how rooted the otters were to Picton, I wondered if one race of otters in the river lived off the river, while another lived off the marshes and the beaver ponds. But come to think of that, the evidently slow development of the pups in the ponda might be explained if these were indeed the Picton pups that are not so familiar with beaver ponds. I used to watch beavers, born in the ponds, that had three months experience in them before they ventured out into the wide river. I went back to the mossy cove latrine to take photos of the scats, some up near the boulder and others close to the shore

The big smear was near the boulder, and indescribable. It's incredible how a poop can flatten out and how it can be so completely peppered with scales and other fish parts.

Then I got a pretty picture, which used to be a staple in my fall gallery: fresh otter scats on colorful leaves

I also saw scats, not quite as fresh, up on the moss at the low end of the sloping boulder

I walked around to the dam and saw three new scats at the latrine next to the dam.

Then down in the wet meadow just below the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam where the otters have been latrining, I saw more fresh scats, and it looked like the otters had made another hole in the grass

Though it strikes me these holes might be less for protection and more for playing hide and seek. There were more scats, fresher and a greater variety around the trickle of water that used to be a creek

Not all the scats were scaly black, some were liquid brown, almost beige

Not that I know what that means. I headed home more or less the way I came and going up the usual trail to the woods south of the first swamp I saw the remains of the strange plant I saw here back in late July

I didn’t know what it was then but a friend checked the books and sent me a photo showing a convincing match of what I saw with a pterospora called pine drops, a plant without chlorophyll. Unfortunately, I never saw it in its prime

October 4 My wife Leslie is getting a hip replacement this coming week which will allow her to join me in my hikes once again, but it means that we will be away from the island and our land for several days, and today, and for the past few days, I’ve been busy getting our houses, big and small, ready for her recovery. At our land I had time to walk around the Last Pool and Boundary Pond once again. Of course, at this time of year, in a pond where beavers are active, a walk around always reveals something new. It would be nice to report that after years of doing this I have discovered patterns but I haven’t. As usual I begin my tour by looking at the poplar crown, and for a while I’ve been taking photos hoping to show new gnaws on the trunk here and there. Now I think there has not been much work at all and I am fooled by that chaos theory of aesthetics, if something has enough complexity, one continues to see something new in it every time one looks at it.

But I still haven’t gone through the laborious process of comparing photos taken on different days. And today the photo shows that there is more water in the Last Pool. There was some fresh gnawing on one of the standing poplars, just a stray gnaw

And the beavers proceeded to take out more saplings, especially hornbeams, just like they did last year. But taking a photo of every small sapling cut is laborious, last fall I counted 400 new stumps. Here is one more for this fall.

I suppose there is a pattern in their taking saplings. As the photo shows, many smaller saplings are not cut. They like a bit of heft. Indeed, I can find smaller, thinner branches left behind. The beavers appreciate a sapling with enough weight to sink. Walking along the east shore of the Boundary Pond channel, I saw trail going up on the west shore, a new trail, haven‘t see it before.

A little farther down the channel, I saw a tree about six inches in diameter, cut down, and at least one log cut off it.

It's not just saplings they are interested in. That half cut birch tree next to the tree they did cut down, has been like that for weeks. I didn’t see any notable new work along the east shore but I got a better photo of a cut tree leaning onto a tree with gnawing on the trunk, but not enough to bring down the tree.

So, does this represent beavers realizing that by cutting the tree that the other trees leans on that they’ll bring down two trees, or does the fact that they haven’t finished cutting tree suggest that they don’t have a clue as to what is going on? I thought I saw something new at the dam, more of the woody muck that forms the bottom of this pond pushed up on the dam.

I’ll have to keep an eye on that. The beavers may be dredging again preparing for winter. I went up on the ridge above the lodge and didn’t see any new work there despite the flurry of activity a few weeks ago. Here is an indication that the recent rains have prompted the beavers to work more up pond. On the other hand, they cut some ironwoods on the ridge. I’ve often seen ironwoods cut and not trimmed or segmented. (My theory on that is that at first cut an ironwood seems quite juicy but then seems stringy, hard and dry. Of course, I have no idea of what the inner bark tastes like.) From the ridge, I could get a good photo of the growing cache of saplings beside the lodge.

Farther up the Boundary Pond I saw that the beavers are stripping the trunks of the elms they just cut down.

And the ash tree right along the channel, in that favorite spot of theirs to nibble sticks, is now down.

Trying to see these developments through a kits’ eyes is interesting. For weeks they followed the adults to the end of the Last Pool to enjoy a fallen tree trunks. In the last few weeks, trunks have been cut down all along that old route up pond. What must have seemed so orderly is now a maze of distractions. The beavers are working on the lower ridge, now three maples are in the process of being at least girdled, if not cut down.

Then I got to the area where that new trail off the channel led. The beavers cut a few hornbeam saplings which they took away, and a red oak sapling which seems to have been cut and left on the ground.

Then I looked for a photo to take showing that the Last Pool has more water after our recent rains. You can no longer see under the root crossing the channel that the beavers had burrowed under.

And the Last Pool itself is no longer just a V of mud marking narrowing channels.

As I left the Last Pool, I saw that a big poplar right at the northwest corner had a few gnaws on it.

Will they cut another poplar before winter?

Back on the island we finished our chores early enough for me to go out and look for otters. I went to the Big Pond first, and while I saw a few small rolls of fresh scat added to the string of scat I saw a few days ago

I didn’t see the otters out in the pond, like I did a few days ago. But before I saw otters in the morning. I was out after 3pm. Still I had high hopes as I went to the Lost Swamp Pond. As I came down to the pond, both a heron and a cormorant flew off it. But there were no otters on it. I could see that the cache pile beside the lodge in the southeast end of the pond has grown

So beavers are in the pond adhering to a pattern I noticed a few years ago. They live off the grasses in the lower end of the pond in the spring and summer and then move up pond closer to the willows and osiers for the winter. But I know of only two beavers in this pond this, far less than the usual number that winter here. I didn’t see any new otter scats at the mossy cove latrine, and I saw only two at the dam latrine.

They were up on the rock which commands not only the Lost Swamp Pond

But also the Upper Second Swamp Pond and the meadow below it where the beavers have been scating.

I didn’t go down to check those latrines. We had a good bit of rain and I needed to keep my shoes relatively dry today (because I planned on taking a long walk in Montreal tomorrow when I took Ottoleo back to school.) Plus I really had a feeling that the otters were around. I would love to see the otters in this marshy meadow, but I don’t want to scare them out of it. I walked along the shore of the Second Swamp Pond, then waited, and no otters appeared. A large flock of geese flew low over me and then when I went back to the Lost Swamp Pond, to see if the otters had finally come out, I saw geese all around the far lodge where I expected to see the otters.

I walked down the survey line to the Big Pond so that I could walk behind the lodge on the north shore of the pond. I think the beavers have moved to a new lodge up pond along the north shore, not easy for me to get to yet. I expected to see an otter latrine or two in the grasses around this lower lodge, but I didn’t.

Could I be watching otters that are shy of beaver lodges? Crossing the Big Pond dam I took a photo of a nearly cut cattail that looks like beaver work

I think I took the same photo weeks ago, but it’s worth seeing again.

October 9 I got away from Syracuse where Leslie is getting her hip replaced, and on a drizzling chilly afternoon took a quick walk around the Last Pool and Boundary Pond. Of course there is a virtue in letting nature direct and instruct you, but I had no time for that. And one advantage of having learned those lessons from years of patient hikes is that in a pinch I can go right to those spots where I quickly tell what the beavers have been up to. And today I saw some big news, the beavers are about to cut down another poplar/ash tree.

This one is in the northwest corner of the Last Pool, right on the trail the beavers have used to get other trees, that merges with a trail that I use. Before starting to gnaw on this poplar the beavers had variously girdled and gnawed four other poplars all just north of the Last Pool.

The beavers dickered with the other poplars for months, but are gnawing through this one quickly, and thanks to the heart wood being a bit rotten, may have already cut enough.

A strong wind might blow it down. I can’t say that the recent rains re-flooded the pool inviting the beavers to cut down another poplar. We really didn’t get that much rain, though it was drizzling as I hiked.

The beavers are also taking saplings around the Last Pool and left one behind

Not sure why they so often leave a sapling behind. Perhaps an adult leaves them behind for a kit to grab and haul back. I continued around the Boundary Pool and soon saw fresh gnawing all around. Just like last fall, they are especially cutting hornbeams about three inches in diameter. It’s easy to see their shopping strategy as they ignore trunks that are too big

And those that are too small

For now. They cut a birch that fell conveniently crown facing the pond

And they gnawed that crown off and hauled it all down to the lodge

They don’t seem to relish elm as much. One that fell conveniently across the main channel has not been stripped much.

And the bottom of a conveniently sized maple trunk bobs along the east shore

Perhaps it’s a case of a beaver losing track of it because it is now not as easy to swim over there thanks to the lower water level. They are working on a trio of trees nearby, in deeper water.

There is not too much activity around the dam, and still no work below the dam. The deep channel coming down to the lodge is too convenient -- why haul logs up stream? From the west shore I took a photo of the lodge and growing cache of saplings

and took what will probably be the first of many close-ups of the cache. This is always a deceptive shot because it doesn’t reveal the many sapling the beavers sank underwater

They need to get this food when they swim out from the lodge under the ice, and this pond may freeze in a month. No time to sit in my chair on the ridge, and it was rather wet from the drizzle. I saw that they cut another ironwood down on the west shore of the pond.

I had hoped to hang around until a beaver came out, but it was raining.