Friday, December 25, 2009

December 13 to 20, 2009

December 13 I headed off to the beaver ponds to look for otter slides and enjoy any other tracks along the way, though it was a gray day when tracks in the snow don’t leap out at you, and none but the deer seemed about. I soon saw that there were no otter signs around the Big Pond dam, and the pond was an expanse of gray ice with circles of black ice of varying size. The only open water were little patches where the water was bubbling over the dam. I found that I could walk on an ice and could sort of get a muskrat eye’s view of the muskrat lodges

Silly thing to say. Their eyes would be just above water. The area around the lodge on the north shore, that I don’t think the beavers are using, showed a pattern of recently open water that suggests something was swimming out from the lodge and keeping that bit of water open for awhile, probably muskrats.

I didn’t see any otter slides in the ice. There was a large area of black ice around the lodge up pond that the beavers are using, though their cache certainly looked like spindly stuff, osier twigs and such.

That should mean these beavers will be out a good deal this winter. I turned back and took a photo of the expanse of ice I walked up.

Quite a liberating feeling, though a this stage of the freeze one has to walk with care. I walked along the boundary line to get to the Lost Swamp Pond. That’s an area where we usually see the rare rabbit tracks that we see on the island in the winter. None today. The Lost Swamp Pond ice seemed firmer than the Big Pond ice. And along the south shore of the upper end of the pond, I saw a trough like design in the ice,

to remind me of what I was looking for. Farther up the pond I saw other patterns that even looked more like four otters pawing and sliding over the ice.

There were less fanciful things to look at showing how animals survive in the winter. I could see muskrat leftovers around the edge of what had been open ice before the last grip of cold.

Muskrat leftovers warm the winter. As I headed around the peninsula toward the dam, I saw some duck tracks in the ice showing what perhaps was the last bit of open water suitable for a duck.

Where I last got a good look at the otters, 5 days ago on the lodge by the dam, there was a good deal of black ice, where there had been open water, but no easily seen otter signs -- like scats on the latrine by the dam.

However, heading west from the black ice moving toward the lodge in the middle of that portion of the pond, I saw an otter’s trail etched on the ice.

It curled toward the lodge in the middle of the pond, which looked hospitable enough, but the black ice around it didn’t show any tracks.

This was encouraging and at least I headed down to the Second Swamp Pond with more discriminating vision. No longer did I need smears of fresh scat to excite my otterly imagination! But I didn’t see any semblance of slides in the ice of the Upper Second Swamp Pond. The bubbles under the black ice around the lodge abandoned by beavers suggested that muskrats were using it.

And down on the Second Swamp Pond, I saw about the same thing. No hints of otter slides, but bubbles under the black ice around the lodge below the knoll.

And there was a hole through the ice at the edge of the lodge, big enough for an otter, but I saw no scats in the nearby ice and snow.

For the sake of argument, if you will, I followed patches of black ice as if they were a trail made by an otter bumping its head up through the ice, back when it was thin. Then I got distracted by a muskrat lodge and checked its environs out to see if there was another trail of muskrat bubbles.

Not really, and I saw fleck of blood, still bright red, on the side of the lodge and then beside a hole dug into the lodge, with red blood to match inside that hole.

I stuck my camera into the hole to reveal the innards of an animal.

I made some vain attempts to get what remained of the carcass out of the little hole by trying to use beaver cut sticks like chopsticks. Then I saw a bit of remains on the ice below the lodge.

I cut through some of the intestine walls to reveal digested vegetable matter, not fish scales. Something had killed a muskrat inside the muskrat lodge.

There was plenty of otter scats on top of the lodge, as the photo of the top of the lodge shows. So I stared hard at the scats to make sure there were no bits of muskrat in them. The other day, I think I saw what killed the muskrat, the mink I saw dancing along the ice, going right by the little lodge. But there was another story to follow -- obviously the otters using these ponds like to scat on muskrat lodges. When I had seen them in the Big Pond, I thought they always disappeared onto or in the muskrat lodges along the south shore. So I headed back to the Big Pond to check all the muskrat lodges for otter scats. Along the lower end of the marsh, there is a line of three lodges. I couldn’t get too close to the first because the ice around it cracked and looked thinner and had bubbles underneath, probably where muskrats are living. I didn’t see scats on top of it. But the next lodge, nestled quietly in the snow, had scats all over the top.

I found scats on most of the muskrat lodges and on one I saw scats, the freshest I’ve seen, outside a small hole dug into the lodge.

These grass muskrat lodges are not that commodious inside, but otters can den in tight quarters. Then as I walked up to one of the lodges up on the south shore, I saw that I was walking on the faint impressions of otter slides.

As I got closer to the lodge, I saw that snow on it had been mussed up. However, otters didn’t do that. I think a fox or two left the yellow green pee and small prints in the snow.

I suppose fox are attracted by the height of a muskrat lodge, quite convenient for marking. Muskrat lodges are made of grass and in the winter at least that attracts deer. I saw where a deer nuzzled into the snow on one of the lodges.

And I kept seeing faint otters slides, two patterns of prints and slides side by side along the south shore. Then out in the middle of the pond, I thought I could see the slides of four otters, though they hardly show up in the photo below.

Since I was so close to the smaller pond above the Second Swamp Pond, I walked up to see if there were any otter signs up there. I saw deer trails chopping up the snow around a compromised dam.

I think this is a case of a dam simply being worn down by the periodic floods down this valley. I didn’t see any otter scats or slides. There are ponds farther up the valley which I will check some other time. Going back down to the Big Pond I checked all the other muskrats lodges for otter scats, and the two beaver lodges. I couldn’t get close to the lodge where the beavers are denning now, but from where I looked I didn’t see any scats. I saw scats on the old beaver lodge and most of the other muskrats lodges. I took photos which should help me figure out how the otters tour these lodges, if the otters come back and scat on them some more. The hints of slides that I saw suggested that the otters scooted everywhere. Did they do this on December 8, the last day I saw them, when the ice was thin and likely covered with snow? If so I think I would have seen a good deal more breaking of the ice caused by otters swimming under it popping up to get some air. They must have made the tour one cold morning just when the ice was thickening and hardening, but I am on thin ice speculating about that.

December 15 cold dreary day with a deep freeze on the way and we went to our land to pick the last of the Brussels sprouts and kale. Then as I walked around the Last Pool and Boundary Pond, a beautiful, gentle snow began to fall. I walked around the Last Pool and found it very slushy around the pond but the ice on the pond appeared solid. No beavers had come off the pond since the snow to get up to the many birches and hornbeams they have been cutting and stripping. I haven’t walked down the east shore of Boundary Pond for a while so I saw some new trees cut down that were probably cut before the snow and freeze. The uncharacteristically bushy crown of a hornbeam just cut down had not been touch

even though that tree is roughly at the hole by the downed birch that the beavers have kept open, temperature permitting, where they’ve trimmed the crown of the birch.

Of course, when the temperature get low enough, say around 20 F, a roaming beaver might not make tracks on the snow. Nearby I could see where porcupines had cut hemlock branches out of some trees that fall on top of the snow cover, and there was no porcupines up the trees and no porcupine tracks around the tree.

The pond is losing some water as parts of the shore have more leaves than ice. I had noticed beaver trails in the ice along the east shore

but I hadn’t come over to take a closer look. It looks like a beaver broke the slush and ice but not to get on shore. I could see that they nosed up and a bit out of the pond to resume gnawing on some old work. I can picture their slow motions in the cold -- even the kits probably tone themselves down and get in synch with the season. Down behind the dam I saw some small hemlock boughs, with some twigs stripped. Looks like the beavers took advantage of what the porcupines cut high up in the hemlock crowns.

The dam seems to be leaking more -- freezing and thawing will do that.

West of the lodge the beavers continue cutting trees that, if they fall right, will provide convenient meals during the winter.

That said, they are not cutting those trees with dispatch. In the photo above you can see how they stripped the bark, and in the photo below they seem to be making two separated cuts into the trunk of the ironwood.

Meanwhile the beavers are feasting on twigs cut off of their cache. Their leftover are all around a large pool of open water west of the lodge.

Because the pond had widened so much with the recent rains, it has become difficult to walk up the west shore of the pond. Today, I could finally walk on the ice which solved that problem. And I could get a new perspective on the main channel marked by black or clear ice and some bubbles.

But the channel didn’t look as active as I expected it would be, which is a testament to the beavers’ ability to live off their cache of food.

December 17 0F at dawn, warmed up to 5 by 10am, well, not exactly warmed, as the northwest wind picked up. Still, Ottoleo and I hiked to the Big Pond. There had been some light snow during the night so tracks were legible but I couldn’t say conditions for tracking were good because it was so cold. We crossed coyote and fisher tracks on the way -- single trails of each. We saw deer tracks but no deer. The Big Pond was completely frozen and white with snow save for a patch of open water where the dam has its biggest leak.

A mink trail went up to and along the dam, though not into that hole.

We back tracked the trail and saw that the mink had toured the muskrat lodges, but didn’t dig into any of them.

Not sure what the mink expected to find during a night so cold. Then we ran into coyote tracks, though I kept wanting to squeeze them down to fox tracks.

Over thinking tracks is dangerous. The left trail might be a fox, the right a coyote. Then up at the lodge it looked like a mink joined the parade.

I could have nosed over the beaver lodge looking for fox pee, but that is the active lodge and I’ve learned my lesson too many times not to get too close. Going up to the woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp, Ottoleo predicted we would flush a grouse, and we did. Then I predicted we’d flush another and we did, though not as soon as I thought we would. The grouse were about 30 yards apart. We had slowed down because I am pretty sure we saw some rabbit tracks, as well as the trail of one fisher. I couldn’t get a good photo of rabbit, fisher, and grouse tracks merging. The Lost Swamp and Second Swamp Pond, for that matter, both seemed colder, I guess because they are more exposed to the northwest wind. So just when we should start getting warmed up, we started feeling cold, and prone to jump to conclusions. As Ottoleo walked up to the beaver lodge by the dam, I told him he was tracking a coyote

but now that I looked at the photos I took it sure looks like a fisher trail.

I might be on to something interesting here. A week or so ago I saw a fisher trail go up to the iced over pond, but no tracks on the ice. I have tracked fishers on the ice between islands out in the river, but generally when they go over frozen beaver ponds they keep near cover. On a warmer day I will have to seriously track this fisher. I saw where its trail and a mink went into an exposed muskrat burrow. I stuck the camera in and the photo showed nothing but dirt. I couldn’t say that anything spent the night there. We went down to the Second Swamp Pond and I showed Ottoleo the dug out muskrat lodge where I saw the muskrat remains. Today the hole was rimmed with feathery ice and Ottoleo said he saw a puff of vapor coming out.

So we didn’t put our hands in. The mink track coming to the lodge continued on by it, and no tracks around the hole. Whatever might have been inside, it was warmer than we were, so we headed back home. As walked back along Antler Trail up over the plateau, walking into the sun with the wind at our back, we finally warmed up.

December 19 cold continues, with an east wind, but the east wind is not bad at our land. That thought and sunshine lured us over and we are glad we went. I walked down Grouse Alley and had more canine tracks than rabbit tracks to sort through. Trails crossed the valley, going up and down the ridges, and it is likely that the neighborhood dogs made them. Three or four of them follow through our fields and woods as the lady leading them walks down our road. Then when I got down to the Last Pool, I saw smaller canine tracks characteristic of coyotes and they were heading up and down the valley, which is not the route the dogs take. Despite the coyote trails, there were rabbit tracks on the ice, too.

I don’t recall seeing such boldness in rabbits. Not only coyotes, but owls patrol these ponds. I suppose it is a testimony to the booming rabbit population, though one rabbit coursing back and forth can make it look like there are many rabbits about.

One has to patiently follow the tracks, and I generally don’t have the patience to follow rabbit tracks. One rabbit did browse along the edge of the ice.

and I saw a trail going up a gully that, I think, three rabbits used.

Deer also came out on the Last Pool to nibble the twigs in the crowns of trees the beavers had cut.

Of course, standing on the ice, I also got a different look at the beaver work in and around the pond. I walked down the middle of the pond, following the coyote tracks,

hoping to find a hole where beavers climbed out, but all was frozen over and looked like it had been for sometime, even around the lodge and cache,

save for a patch just west of the beaver lodge. A beaver evidently got out on the ice because I could see wood shavings around the base of a nearby tree.

The photo I took of the cache makes it look like coyotes made tracks to eat the wood.

I’ll be curious to see if the beavers cut logs off the trunk ends of the saplings they hauled into the cache before they exhaust the twigs in the crown.

In deep ponds the beavers’ idea seems to be to sink the trunk leaving the twigs accessible. Here the beavers angle the twigs down into the shallow pond possibly providing meals under the ice, though the ice froze so thick and fast the tastier parts of the saplings might be locked in ice. The coyotes went up and over dam and there was a hole in the dam probably made by a beaver and it looked like something plodded briefly on top of the dam.

Then I heard Leslie calling me from afar and headed that way in case I was missing something. Up in the field above the ponds I saw more rabbit tracks crossing the valley. The coyotes coming down the valley dug at least three holes, one fairly big

Not sure if they got anything. Then I picked up Leslie’s prints and followed them to the little pool of water, now frozen and snowed over, at the upper end of the valley. There I saw coyote tracks dancing all around and in one corner of the pond, dancing around a dead frog.

It had been bitten a bit, but still largely intact.

Obviously that is what Leslie wanted me to see. Were the coyotes digging for frogs in the field? I continued up to the Teepee Pond and First Pond and saw where the coyotes trotted around the former.

We were both glad we braved the cold wind. Tracking seem to warm us, I guess by firing the imagination.

December 20 I headed off mid-morning to check the beaver ponds, with the temperature just above 20 degrees. The cold night, however, left the snow too icy for good tracking. Old tracks, including my own, had grown flabby and what tracks there were during the night were scarcely registering. Given the continued cold I had no reason to expect that beavers or otters had been out. It was warm enough to go off following a fisher but all the way to the Big Pond, I didn’t notice any fresh tracks. At the Big Pond I checked the hole behind the dam and it was still open due to the flowing water and a mink had been by,

but it didn’t track over to the muskrat lodges. I did and admired the way the muskrat who built one lodge combined rolls of grass with grass stalks -- if that makes any sense.

About five years ago there were two active springs in the pond on the upper south and upper north shore where beavers had gotten out from under the ice during the winter. I walked over to them today and both were iced over save that the one on the north shore had a vague trickle of water into the pond

This spring stopped “working” when the beavers left the pond for a couple years and moved to ponds up the valley, which explained why the springs kept the pond open at that point. They cut down the grasses and cattails and dredged channels. Once the beavers left, the cattails and grasses cut off the flow of water. No signs that the beavers had been around either spring. I decided that the ice was so thick that it was safe to walk up to the lodge where the beavers were staying, and I was curious to see if there was any otter scats on it. My theory was that the beavers were trying to keep the otters off the lodge, which is why I often saw a beaver out in the pond when otters were there. I saw one scat, which doesn’t show up in the photo below.

I headed for the Lost Swamp Pond and searched for more rabbit tracks in the woods, and I did see one trail and took a passable photo

I also saw some rabbit poop along one trail, but no foraging. I took advantage of thick ice to inspect the muskrat lodge in the middle of the pond. The ice was clear and bubbles spread out everywhere under the ice, and there were fox tracks in the snow.

Up on the snow, there was a pile of fox scats, I think, already turned white.

Up at the active beaver lodge, there was a greater parade of bubbles under the clear ice.

I couldn’t make any sense of the bubbles. Judging from the bubbles the beavers have swum underneath to the cache, but the ice just around the cache is opaque.

However, I did see some stripped sticks frozen in the middle of the ice, which suggests a beaver out there munching on thin ice a week or so ago and his leftovers were captured by the thickening ice.

Looking along the shores of the pond I couldn’t see where beavers were cutting bushes or trees for the cache, and there were no well worn paths. I followed a slight pathway up the small ridge between the southeast and northeast sections of the pond. I did see where the osiers had been nipped by a beaver.

I only get over to the northeast section of the pond in the winter, so I got my first look at two new muskrat lodges. As I stood next to the larger of the two, I heard something slip into the water under the ice. Since no mink had dug a hole into the lodge, I assume it was a muskrat swimming below. Unfortunately, the ice was opaque.

I’ve stood on the ice looking over many a muskrat lodge, and this was the first time I had ever heard anything swim away underneath the ice. No telling where the muskrat swam, probably just to the lodge nearby. Evidently minks and muskrats play a game, that, of course, can turn deadly for the muskrat. The minks dig into the lodges and the muskrat if it is awake and well can swim to the next lodge, which explains why there are often so many lodges in a pond. Of course, by the end of the winter, minks and coyotes might have dug into every muskrat lodge. I continued along looking at other muskrat lodges and saw one that was a curious combination of rolled up grasses against a large tuft of grass stalks that had not been touched by the muskrat.

Was it was only half built, or cleverly disguised, or merely covering a nose hole in the ice that might afford a desperate muskrat some relief, or happenstance? There was no clear ice around the lodge or dam so I couldn’t check for bubbles that muskrats or even otters, not to mention beavers, might have left. I did see the melted out tracks of the animal whose fresh trail I had seen two days ago that puzzled me. I first thought a coyote made the trail, then I thought a fisher did it. That set up a theme for the remainder of the hike as I followed possible fisher tracks that seemed to go where I had seldom seen fisher tracks before. But standing at the Lost Swamp Pond dam, there was a more immediate thread to follow. That dam was still leaking and I had to see if that served any animal’s purposes. There was no evidence that anything took advantage of the leak to open a hole in the ice behind the dam. And nothing dug down into the dam to make the hole larger. And nothing seemed to be taking advantage of the water opening a sliver of the Upper Second Swamp Pond. There seemed to more open water than the flow would make on its own where the stream entered the small pool of water above the Second Swamp Pond proper.

I looked around for animal tracks but only saw that a deer crossed the stream, as they had up at the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam. I checked out a muskrat lodge where the stream entered the Second Swamp Pond proper, nothing stirring there nor at the lodge where I had found the remains of the dead muskrat. Both had a generous array of old otter scats. There was a hole in the ice behind the dam where the water flowed over the dam and it looked like something, probably a mink, slipped out of the water.

Down at the north end of the dam, where, if the water was a little higher, there would be another leak over the dam, I saw a hole in the snow going down to what leaking. There were mink tracks around it.

I also saw that trail that I had decided was made by a fisher coming to the dam and I back tracked it to the bank lodge below the knoll, where I saw a circle of tracks, which I don’t think is what fishers do out on ponds, but what do I know. Coyotes and fox do act like that. I didn’t pick up any fisher tracks in the Fisher Woods. I saw a porcupine trail coming down from the rocks east of the East Trail Pond dam, walking along the dam, and them up the slope to some well gnawed maples. I walked up to the old Shangri-la Pond pond where half of the dam had been washed away in the spring. I took a photo to show the melancholy state of the old pond.

There is one small pool of water, now iced over, that remains because that is where the beavers dredged and made their cache pile for two winters. A mink had raced across it, suggesting that there is some life left in what remains.

As long as I can remember there has always been a sheet of ice allowing some easy walking down the canyon, even for the seven years that beavers didn’t use or maintain the pond. The catastrophe last spring has ended all that. It was difficult to walk up and over the all the knobs of grass and old tree trunks embedded in the ground. I picked up a fisher trail, another sign of life. No doubt about this one, it dodged around trees. I lost it in Thicket Pond where despite the spring keeping some water open there were no signs of activity. I have been convinced for a while that the beaver that was there in the early summer had left long ago or joined the Meander Pond beavers. And down at that pond, I saw that beavers had been up on the ice recently cutting sticks out of the crown of a fallen tree now frozen in the ice.

And looking up on the slope, I saw that two huge red oaks were well on their way to being cut down.

With the pond so well frozen, I could walk up to the lodge above the channel the beavers used to get to that slope. They haven’t come out yet where a spring keeps the northeast extreme of the pond open. The beavers had had holes in the ice surrounding the lodge

And it was easy imagining them crawling out on the ice and then walking on it to find bark to eat.

Of course, most of the time they walked over to their well stocked cache.

I doubt that one could find a cache stocked with such a variety of trees and shapes of logs and sticks.

Looking at it, one can almost taste the bark. I finally was able to see how they stored the cherry saplings which they had been concentrating on cutting in the last month.

Standing next to the lodge, I could hear some humming coming from inside. As is to be expected, in the cold, even these creative beavers are confined to a small circle of activity. The end of their south canal where they had been coming out to shop for trees was now frozen solid with five inches or so of ice.

A few days above freezing won’t weaken the ice’s grip on this pond. It will be interesting to see how the beavers manage.