Monday, December 20, 2010

December 9 to 19, 2010

December 9 we hiked out to check the beaver ponds on Wellesley Island to see if those slides I saw on South Bay meant that otters have moved back into the ponds. Once again it was a cold day, but the sun was fully out which prompted me to once again take a photo of the muskrat lodges in the Big Pond with the active beaver lodge in the background to the left.

Last winter the otters used several of the muskrat lodges as latrines and even have dug into some, though usually the minks do that. Today there was a mink trail on the snow on the pond heading out toward the lodges.

I probably could have followed but the first step onto the ice is always tentative and dangerous stepping off a dam. When I tried to get on the pond ice it creaked too much. By the way, there were no signs of otters, and because of the cold the holes that had been in the ice had frozen over. At the north end of the dam we saw some more fresh tracks and one of the animals was certainly a muskrat, probably both, though the smaller tracks could have been a mink.

We pressed on to the Lost Swamp Pond, and saw no otter signs there. We did get onto the ice since it was easy to step on from rocks along the south shore. We only saw a mink trail along the shore next to the rocks just west of the dam.

And the mink didn’t seem to wire the dam with its tracks as it did the other day. The gaps of open water there then all looked frozen over today.

It was a cold morning with the temperature stuck in the teens. So we walked down the south shore of the Second Swamp Pond toward South Bay. Usually I see coyote tracks dancing on the snow covered ponds early in the winter, but so far we had only seen a solitary trail here or there in the woods. I picked up one of those trails and we soon saw that two or three other coyotes joined up and on the mossy ridge south of the old Beaver Point Pond, now a meadow, we saw the tracks left by the frolicking coyotes.

Not sure why they weren’t out on the pond ice as usual. Along the rock dens of old Otter Hole pond we saw porcupine trails and then fresher porcupine trails coming from the Porcupine Hotel.

There was also a large trail in the snow with the leaves below it all stirred up which was obviously made by deer.

But we think we saw coyote tracks there too, and I saw some green pee which could have been from a fisher. The trail crossed the creek flowing down to South Bay which was now where it was easiest for these animals to get a drink. Even South Bay was iced over today. However, we were cold and didn’t walk up it.

December 10 we went to our land in the afternoon as the temperatures were warming up, almost 30, with a threat of some sort of precipitation. Of course the first thing we did was check the Deep Pond for new otter slides and scats. I went to the high bank where I first had to take a photo of dead frog on the ice and the trail it left in the ice during its last struggle. I missed seeing that the other day, distracted by otter slides, but Leslie did see it.

It looked like something had taken a bite out of it. An otter? Then I looked fresh otter signs. Holes in the ice that were open two days ago were now iced over.

So the old slides up on the bank weren’t revisited. However I saw two new holes. One coming through the ground out of an old beaver burrow.

And the other into the ice nearer the inlet creek. There were new slides coming out of that hole, but the otter didn’t venture far from it.

The odd thing was that there was no scat about, only one squirt that I saw the last time I was here. The inlet creek was still flowing but the area of the pond that it had kept open was now mostly frozen over, so I don’t think the otter was doing much there. I walked up the creek a bit to where it was easier to cross and saw no otter slides. Looking at the inlet from the other side I did see anew slide from the inlet over to the bank lodge under the knoll.

The otter came up on the shore on the east side of the knoll, perhaps rolling a bit, but not scatting. The hole at the foot of this activity looked frozen over.

Its trail went up the knoll. And after I took a photo of the otter’s big prints,

I followed and ten feet up the knoll, I saw a huge pile of otter scats.

The otter, or otters, came up here to scat. I am not sure how many, because obviously one otter is big so when it comes up in the snow it does enough plowing to remind me of what a pair of smaller otters can do. However, I haven’t seen two slides together, except here. One slide came up from the pond to the that scat pile,

And then a little bit toward the center of the knoll there was another slide coming up and down, with another array of scats at the apex.

Of course, that one big otter might have just come up twice. I have never seen otter scats up on the knoll, which I am pretty familiar with. Of course, I have seen and continue to see evidence that otters climb up small slopes and rocks to scat, but never negotiating such a thicket of honeysuckles to do so.

The general theory is that otters scat on prominent places to mark their possession of the pond warning away other otters. No roaming otter is likely to enter the pond from over the knoll. This almost seemed to be a case of an otter trying to conceal its scat! Well, I would like to meet this interesting otter, or otters. There is a hole below the knoll at an entrance into the bank lodge.

However, I had almost stood on the bank lodge when I went up the trail and didn’t here an otter inside. I also checked on the beavers at the Last Pool, and saw that while they did not come out of the pond, they did open the ice in front of their cache and dine.

It looks like they stayed in the water and gnawed the logs up on the ice.

There were two other areas where that had broken the ice, and where the water froze again forming clear ice.

There wasn’t much work at the other hole closer to the cache and none at one that was in the main channel heading down the pond.

I took a close-up of the snowy lodge with the snowy cache in front of it,

and then headed down pond, but not on the ice. As I stood on it, I heard too many cracks and creaks. I thought that since the beavers had opened the ice over the main channel that they might have swam down it under the ice and broken out at the their old lodge or the dam, but I didn’t see any evidence of that. The pond is losing water which means that the thin ice along the shore is breaking and falling onto the newer ice below.

Since it was a warming day, the ice was fissuring as I stood there, with such vehemence that for a moment I thought an animal might be trying to break out, say that muskrat I heard under the ice before. When I came down the east shore of the pond, I saw a wing mark in the snow, just one wing,

Then on the way back under a big pine near where I saw a wing print, I found a big collection of poop. The photo below shows about a third of them.

Evidently turkeys were roosting in the pine, but I didn’t see any turkey tracks near the tree -- I had seen some up on the Last Pool. Then I got to work, cutting down the big dead ash tree I’ve been working on for a few days.

December 11 it began to get warmer on Friday and the snow began to slowly melt. By the time I headed off to South Bay this morning, I expected that most of the snow would be gone at the latrine overlooking the entrance to South Bay. Of course I checked for action at other old latrines and found none. I saw two eagles perched on the edge of the South Bay ice and then I saw a mature eagle fly off a tree. In short all three few away. Then I went up to Audubon Pond and walked down the embankment where it was easy to see that beavers had not come out of Audubon Pond and gone down to the little pond below the embankment. Nor were there any otter slides on or holes into the ice of Audubon Pond. It looked like there was a large area of open water next to the lodge just off the north shore of the pond. But before checking that, I went back down to South Bay to see if otters had revisited their latrine above the entrance to South Bay. The wind and warmth had beat the edge of the ice well down the bay.

There was a fresh poop at the latrine, but not from an otter.

As I walked over to the latrine, I saw coyote tracks heading to the latrine, and it pooped a little bit up from where the otters left theirs.

There were also deer tracks in the snow. No otter slides and the snow melted where the otters had been.

I was able to get a good close-up of the scats they left. I think I can see some crayfish parts in it.

I went back to Audubon Pond and along the west shore noticed that a beaver resumed gnawing the edge of the old girdling of a cluster ash trees next to the pond.

No beaver tracks in the snow or frozen over holes in the ice. I had noticed a few weeks ago that a beaver cut a tree up in the woods along the west shore. They’re cutting two more.

I’ll have to check recent journal entries, but I think I have been keeping close watch on this pond. I last checked the park bench on the north shore, where otters like to scat, on November 30 and there was nothing new. Then the snow and cold began to reign after December 3, and I am pretty sure no otter had been in Audubon Pond since then. But today I saw new scats on and around the bench,

which means otters must have visited between November 30 and December 3. I took a close up of the scat since it was easy to do, I was sitting right next to it.

I made sure those two pale elongated features were not seed pods. They were made of bone material, but I have no idea from which part of which fish they come. There were no signs that beavers had been active around their lodge, despite what looked like open water near it.

There was a frozen over hole in the ice near the bench

There were blades of grass on the ice around it, so muskrats may have used it. While I didn’t see any signs of a beaver coming out from the pond to visit the ash trees cut on the north shore, I did see another ash down and segmented and the ash they first cut down trimmed some more.

I only think there are two beavers, which may account for how little foraging I am seeing here. Indeed I soon realized that what I thought was open water around the lodge, was all iced over. I finally noticed that the wind was blowing and that I wasn’t seeing any ripples there.

There were more signs of muskrat activity along the causeway that makes the east shore of the pond. a hole in the ice in front of a big pipe. I saw blades of grass around there too.

In the afternoon we went to our land and didn’t see any fresh signs of otters in the Deep Pond. I also sat by the Last Pool and thought I was hearing a beaver making noise under the ice, but evidently not. No beavers appeared and I heard no gnawing from under the ice or the lodge. I was just hearing the pond respond to the warmer weather.

December 16 on Sunday 12th the thaw we were experiencing reached a crescendo with rain and wind. I came down with a cold and counted myself lucky because it was not a day to be outside. But a fever set in and to make a very long story short, I nursed my cold and fever for the next four days. Meanwhile outside another cold front roared through, freezing the ice on South Bay but enough wind persisted to leave open patches of water along the south shore. We’ve never seen that before. I found that having a fever, cold and sore throat makes standing in the cold wind quite unpleasant. Today I was well enough to take a short tour of our land. The beavers certainly could have been active during the thaw last weekend, but the cold was severe enough to keep the beavers subdued. Today it finally got above 20F long enough to make coming out from under the ice an option for beavers. So much to say that I didn’t expect to see any signs of new beaver activity around the Last Pool. I could walk on the ice so I could get closer to take a photo of the cache and lodge.

I think the gnawing in the foreground is old work.

But I think gnawing in the back of the cache just in front of the lodge is new to me, most likely done on the last night of the thaw because there certainly weren’t any signs of beavers breaking the ice.

I took a photo of the lodge looking from the east and from that angle two it was interesting how the chaos of sticks almost camouflaged the lodge.

In the winter I am used to walking on unobstructed ice and standing on that flat to contemplate the mysterious mound of logs, mud and snow where the beavers live. A rabbit had been out on the ice but I couldn’t see what it was after, if anything.

I walked down the east shore about half way to the dam and decided to try the ice which supported me with only a few creaks and cracks. There were no signs of beavers getting out from under the ice there. The lodge which had been so full of life the past two winters looked small and cold.

The pond has leaked enough so that the ice has settled a bit behind the dam leaving some gaps in the ice but nothing had nosed in or out of them.

I walked up the broad white mall enjoying the new perspective on a scene I studied through the heats and mosquitoes.

Now it seemed all mine -- since no tracks were on the ice there, but, of course, it was not at all lively. From that new perspective I saw some old beaver work I had not noticed before,

And as always the gnawed birches begged to be photographed.

I slowly went down to the Deep Pond and on the way saw all kinds of tracks on the road, turkeys in the main but also a muskrat.

We she came yesterday Leslie saw possible fisher and bobcat tracks crossing the road, but she couldn’t’ find a trail. The snow is too light and spotty for good tracking. Except on the snow covered ponds. A coyote or two or three had been on the ice of the Deep Pond.

There were no signs of otters around the knoll where they had been scatting,

Nor around the inlet or the high slope where they had also been.

Of course, otters don’t have to come out from under the ice to survive a string of cold winter days and nights.

December 17 we drove over to South Bay and checked the ice for skating and for tracks. We had a dusting of snow in the night, enough to cover black ice but not ruin skating. The snow must have fallen when the coyotes were active because their tracks were not distinct. The trotted up the north shore, maybe three of them. We went up to Audubon Pond where there were no signs of anything having been out and about, not even coyotes. I took a photo of the small pond below the embankment so I could get a gauge on the extent of beaver work there,

if the beavers ever get back down to work there while the snow and ice cover the ponds. Then we went down to the otter latrine over the entrance to South Bay. No signs of otters having visited since I was last there.

The ice begins to extend into the channel of the Narrows, but the open water is close enough to invite otters cruising along to get up on the ice and come down to their old latrine.

But this latrine may now be a bit difficult for an otter to climb up. The rocks below it are coated with ice.

We walked down the shore before getting back on the ice, and so I saw how fresh the beavers’ last gnawings on a willow tree look.

That work is at least a month old. While otters get around on and under the ice, unless we have a major thaw breaking up the ice in the bay, beavers won’t be able to get to this gnawing until the spring. We came back late in the afternoon and skated on the snowy ice of South Bay.

December 19 yesterday we had lake effect snow for most of the day, heavy at times, but because of the warmth of the southwest wind much of snow melted so this morning we had at most two inches of fresh snow. It was relatively warm this morning and if we had some full sunshine we would have had more melting but there were clouds most of the day. The snow was very good for tracking, though up on Antler Trail, I was distracted by the genuine article. Three deer stood in the gentle snow staring at me. They ran off along the ridge and I continued across the ridge following the trails of two or three deer -- every winter I’m reminded that we learned this trail from the deer. I also picked up coyote trails which seem to go here and there in orderly fashion. All looked quiet at the Big Pond dam and water was no longer draining through the high hole in the dam. There were small gaps in the ice behind the dam, but it looked like all were frozen over.

I didn’t walk along the dam to check. There were no tracks there luring me on and I was anxious to walk up the pond on the ice and finally get a close look at the muskrat lodges and the beaver lodge up pond where I think the beavers are denning. No minks or coyotes had toured the muskrat lodges so I could get photos of them all, before the inevitable violations by digging predators.

I found some coyotes trails up pond but mainly just to cross the pond, none visited the muskrats lodges or beaver lodge. The beaver lodge looked as it usually does -- not enough sticks proving beavers were inside, but enough sticks around the lodge to suggest that a couple of beavers are inside, just like last year.

While getting on the pond was easy, getting off wasn’t. As the water had drained out from under the ice, that left thin ice up pond along the shores and when I plunged through I found wet mud underneath. Of course, I kept an eye down for rabbit tracks in the woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond but there were none to be seen. It was easy getting on the Lost Swamp Pond and I followed a coyote trail all the way up to the beaver lodge in the southeast end of the pond and it joined a few more coyote trails which, as usual, led to some circles of stamping.

There has been some activity around the lodge, enough to show where there had been a large patch of open water on the north side of the lodge and a smaller hole on the southeast side,

But I didn’t see any evidence of a beaver being up on the ice, no trail or gnawed sticks left behind. Coyotes had walked around the lodge but not up on it. I walked back down the pond to the dam and on the way marveled that the old lodge in the middle of the pond is no more, at least no part of it peaks above the ice. One pair of geese will be nonplussed in the spring; mink will miss a refuge, muskrats a ready den, beavers lost the oldest lodge in the pond and I lost the set for some of my best otter videos. I assume the beavers dismantled it, not sure why. It will be curious if some animals still use it as the water level lowers under the ice, and I saw that the water level will lower because there is a hole in the dam.

Indeed as I walked on the pond toward the dam, I heard severe cracking and even felt, I thought, a sudden tilt down toward the dam -- which prompted me to get off the ice quickly. This appears to be a new hole in the dam, at least not the same as the last one.

When the snow melts I’ll be able to gauge if it is the same as the last big one of a few years ago. Anyway, for the moment, what is more notable is how few signs there are of otters here or elsewhere in the pond. There were no scats about and no slides going away from the rough circle of sloshing right around the hole.

It was easy to see some otter prints in the ice.

When I first notice a big hole in the ice, the rushing water makes it seem so immediate that I assume it just happened, and then I look around and notice that the ponds below show a good bit of ice gray-soaked with water. So from thinking it just happened, I begin to wonder if the hole has been gushing so long that it was an otter who made the hole in front of the lodge way up pond. Last year shortly after the hole appeared at the dam, otters broke through the ice at the muddy spring in the west end of the pond. I walked over there but saw no signs of otters having been there. I headed down to the Second Swamp Pond and found it very difficult to get onto the ice. So I went down to the dam. On my way I noticed what I thought was a large bird on top of a dead tree in the pond. I immediately thought it might be a shrike, then it emitted some rather peaceful calls unfamiliar to me. I took a photo and a short video, and was quite surprised when I blew up the photo to see that it was a bluebird:

This is our year for seeing bluebirds. This is the first one here that I’ve seen in a year or two; and on recent trips we saw some in Birmingham, Alabama, and Northampton, Massachusetts. There were no signs of activity along the Second Swamp Pond dam, strange that I didn’t see mink tracks anywhere. Going through the Fisher Woods, I saw a fisher’s trail going the usual way, down the ridge, across the meadow, veering this way and that at any downed tree trunk.

The prints were not fresh. At the old East Trail dam, I picked up some porcupine trails and one led right to a huge pine tree. Of course, I was more interested in the new East Trail dam and I went up the ridge and then slid down the rocks expecting to find beaver trails in the snow and indications of how the beavers planned to survive the challenges of winter. But there were no signs that the beavers had been out. I could easily walk on the pond behind the dam. Beavers had not cracked the ice there. The dam holds back just two feet of water or so which could almost freeze solid, so I think, unless the beavers keep come channels open -- but what do I know.

Then I walked on the pond over to the lodge behind the dam, and the ice finally cracked warning me away. I assume that around the lodge the fresh snow does hide some recent holes in the ice. The lodge looks very solid but I didn’t see as many branches stored for the winter as I thought I would.

However there are buttonbushes crowded around the lodge, not that beavers eat them, but they might be obscuring what they’ve collected. Of course, my not seeing signs of beaver activity is a testament to how snug and prepared they are. I walked the length of the pond and still saw no signs of beavers having been out after the ice and snow. Back when this was the upper part of the huge East Trail Pond, the otter families returning to the ponds from the river would often come to the upper part of the East Trail Pond first. Many an otter pup was raised in this pond. The otters made a hole in the ice at the bottom of a cliff on the north shore just below a swirl of granite that still strikes me as a portal to another dimension.

No holes there today, yet. Meanwhile I was getting fatigued, still recovering from a bad cold. So I went the shortest way to South Bay. Through the woods I saw some fresh fisher trails

And followed them as far as they went my way. Fishers are the best animals to track as they are always jumping about something interesting. In this case scratching up or maybe even biting the stub of a rotten stump.

And fishers seem to think with their bodies, following their trail you can almost hear their thoughts. For example they made a circle around big rotting birch trunk

yet didn’t seem to stop and pee as if they were doubtful about doing so. Well, not fascinating conversation perhaps but in the woods on a snowy day you want such erratic equivocation, log jumping, from thread to thread, pulses of energy.

The snow did not ruin skating on the bay, some easy shoveling could clear paths. Walking past the point, I noticed the beaver work there again and the exposed willow wood was yellow enough to match the yellow lichens on the granite.

Good to be back in the swamps, and it seems there will be some good tracking this winter.