Wednesday, January 6, 2010

December 28 to 31, 2009

December 28 we were away for Christmas and we missed a mild thaw helped along by a lot of rain. Then it snowed early this morning and we woke up to an inch of snow and then it snowed two more inches. I headed off at around 1pm with Ottoleo and Justin and we decided to go across the golf course and get our first look this winter at the rock strewn cliff that forms the big valley that goes down toward the Big Pond. But not yet across the first green we were stopped in our tracks, Ottoleo literally as he slipped on ice under the snow and fell. We also saw larvae sprinkled evenly across the snowscape, some just wiggling and others seemingly dead until you poked them and they curled up. Most of the larvae were not quite an inch long and black

There were a handful of greenish larvae about two inches long what reminded me of sawfly larvae.

And we saw at least two varieties of smaller crawlers about a half inch long, one a bright green and the other rather dull. At first I thought the larvae had escaped the evident flooding of the fairway and green and then crawled up on the snow, but then we saw plenty of specimens on the snow on the higher ground. Anyway, in 15 years of frequently walking across this golf course after snowfalls, I have never seen anything like this. I sent Ottoleo back to get Leslie who I knew would like to see this and we trudged on seeing larvae until we got to the woods. We also saw four deer race off and turkey tracks that meandered around. That suggested they were eating larvae, but if they did, they still left many behind. Since the snow had been on the ground for just two hours, we didn’t expect to see many tracks, and, in the woods, we didn’t. Porcupines are often the first out after a snow fall but not this soon. So today, the valley where we’ve seen so many porcupines in the winter, over the years, was just a pretty sight. Taking this route to the Big Pond is convenient only when the pond is frozen, and it had been well frozen when I left on the 22nd. Now I worried that the rain and brief thaw left a few inches of slush. But it was only tender at the edges. Given how solid ice had been, I didn’t expect to see many holes in the ice that animals might have used. After a snowstorm a good sign that an area had been open water is that the ice has no snow on it. There were circles of clear ice around the lodge the beavers are using, and a small hole of open water.

But I didn’t see any tracks or woody leftover frozen in the newly formed ice. We were able to easily walk down the middle of the pond and saw a couple more of the inch long larvae on the snow in the middle of the pond. We also saw a spider and a centipede.

As I approached the hole behind the dam where I had seen mink tracks a week ago, I heard something plop under water

And as I walked toward the dam, I heard it swim under the ice along the dam. I assume if it was a mink I would have seen tracks around the hole -- how could a mink not resist getting out on the ice? -- and I didn’t. So it was probably a muskrat. We walked over to the Lost Swamp Pond along the boundary line. Of course there were no rabbit tracks, yet, and we flushed no grouse. There was a nice patch of open water at the muskrat lodge. I could see the wind rippling the water. No muskrat munched grasses on the snowy ice though.

There was a larger apron of snowless ice around the active beaver lodge, but a less active open hole. I think it had almost frozen up again.

My guess is that there are fewer beavers in this lodge than usual, maybe just two, which accounts for the lack of activity. I noticed something last week that I forgot to note. Not far from the lodge I saw a good bit of vegetation under the ice. To survive this relatively treeless area, the beavers seemed to have adapted to eating more leafy vegetation. Maybe they will live off that this winter. I led the lads over the knoll between the two eastern ends of the pond. There was clear ice around the lodge by the dam and bubbles underneath.

And there was open water behind the dam, say four feet by two feet, and mink tracks in the slush.

There is still a good flow of water from this dam and that has kept a stream of open water here and there flowing down to the Second Swamp Pond dam. Here is a place where animals might find succor

But until I got down to the dam I didn’t see any signs of animals being about either before or after the snow fall. For example, there were no trails impressed into the slush which an animal foraging yesterday might have left. Down at the dam I saw fresh mink tracks going down into a hole it dug into the dam.

I expected to see it come out either at the open water at the stream spillover, or at the hole I’ve seen minks use at the north end of the dam, but no signs of the mink there. There were no tracks in the Fisher woods and the porcupine had no come out to walk over the East Trail Pond dam. I did see another small maple close to the stream that a porcupine had been stripping. Then I saw a mink running along the far side of the small pond. It went up the small stream coming down from the northeast and then ran along the shore to the a fallen trunk near the jumble of rocks east of the dam. Ottoleo and Justin saw it looking at us, but I couldn’t. We headed on toward Shangri-la Pond and then saw it walk over the dam behind us to a hole in the ice. It slipped into then out of the hole and reared up to look at us.

Then it slipped back into the hole and back out again, then down again and this time it continued along the dam. I started taking video when it was far away and ramped up the magnification. As it danced over the ice getting closer to us, I forgot to adjust the focus on my digital camera, so the video clip I got of its almost coming to my feet is a bit blurry.

Mink are generally curious and never afraid, but I’ve never seen such nonchalance before. I tried to get a still shot of it and did.

Then it began sniffing around the old boardwalk

and as we slowing walked along, it hid under that and when I walked over the spot where it had disappeared, I heard it slush into the water below. I was surprised it came over toward us because I saw tracks indicating it had already circled that way. I wonder if it was hoping our being over there scared up something it had missed on its first tour. I tried to lead the boys up Shangri-la Pond and soon realized that the recent rain had filled in all the burrowing channels the beavers had dredged into the meadow before they left early in the summer. I plunged deep a few times. I expected Meander Pond to be our best chance of seeing beavers and while there were no signs of beavers coming out at the spring in the northeast corner of the pond, there was a hole into the ice by the lodge that was well open

and judging from the fresh trails in the slush and leftovers left at the edge of the hole, a beaver had just been out.

Then we heard something swimming underneath the ice of the main channel, but since it didn’t roil the water in the hole much, I thought it might be a muskrat. As we walked around the lodge we saw a beaver trail heading up to the easy slope north of the pond below the granite cliff

Of course, the prints were hot fresh, and I kept looking around for a beaver lumbering about.

The beaver had just been up and gnawing on two red oaks,

getting well into one.

Ottoleo noticed two green stains in the snow. Beaver poop has the color and consistency of sawdust but there is a yellow goo associated, I think, with anal secretions and perhaps that stained green on the snow.

No reason for a beaver to mark this area. It may have been butt down while it was gnawing and over exertion got its juices working. A beaver had also walked up above these trees and I didn’t see anything that it gnawed, and a beaver had wandered down the slope to the lower section of the pond, and there in the middle of the channel leading to the lower pond there were two holes in the ice.

A beaver had been up on the ice around the hole munching. Trappers usually cross two stick into the water where they put a trap allowing them to more easily break the ice if the hole freezes over. It looked like a beaver stuck a big log in the hole, perhaps for the same reason, or maybe just to gnaw on. I didn’t pull it out to see if it had been gnawed.

The beaver trails led down to the dam and as he headed down there, Ottoleo saw a beaver in the wallow below the dam. The beaver didn’t notice the three of us and moved down the wallow, which was streaming with water, quite a rush, really, and the beaver followed the flow down into the meadow. Then it heard or smelled us because it turned and charged up stream, leaping off the little mud dam that forms the wallow, splashing into the water, and I couldn’t tell if it was swimming or running up toward the dam of the pond.

Then stopped short when it saw me.

I talked to it in a calm voice since it seemed to be a stressful situation. However, I didn’t hear any hissing nor did it lift its chin or brandish its tail as alarmed beavers are want to do. After Ottoleo and Justin moved over to get a better look, it slowly walked up to the dam, brooking the water rushing out of a hole in the dam

And then it calmly climbed into the hole, and after a few moments of trying to enlarge it, disappeared into the hole.

While I have seen holes in dams clearly made by and used by beavers to get in and out of a frozen over pond, most recently at the Deep Pond on or land, I have never seen a beaver go through the hole. Recently I have been trying to think through our human obsession with beaver dams and ponds which, along with the lodge, define the animal for us. I am thinking that the dam and pond are just incidental to the beavers’ extension of its burrow. Yes, the beavers surround themselves with circles that we can’t ignore, but they care primarily about a dark line, or lines, wet “burrows” radiating from their dry lodge burrow or bank burrow formed by channels, canals, and in some case holes through dams. I got a video clip of the beaver going into the hole.

Ottoleo was off to the side and could see the beaver’s hind feet for a minute or so, then the beaver pushed into the pond, signified by a gush of water coming out. There’s no doubt in my mind that the beaver made the hole in the dam, and judging from how slowly it got into the hole, I think it made it from the outside. There were tracks in the snow going down to the hole

The tracks also went over the now frozen over burrow in the low bank nearby and the beaver had wandered over to the small stand of shag bark hickories and took a bite out of one.

We followed its trail down past the clump of cherry saplings that had just about been cleared

And down to a lower clump of saplings where it had just cut some and left one with just one more bite needed to free it.

There were drag marks in the snow down to a path through the meadow back up to the pond.

If I did not know this beaver family so well, having followed it for several years, I might have assumed that this mid day tour after a snowfall was a desperate attempt to find more food, but I think it is indicative of how well the beavers have been living off their cache. Given how thick the ice had become from a week cold, I expected the beavers to make a hole in the dam to lower the water level making it easier to move under the ice and break out from under it. Thanks to the spring in the northeast end of the pond, I think only the severest cold could completely freeze the pond. The beavers will always have a way out, so the hole at the dam is a convenience making it easier to get those saplings up to the pond. This family has been through a good deal. Two years ago the matriarch was killed by a falling tree and this spring their dam in Shangri-la Pond failed twice, the second time so catastrophically that they had to move to Meander Pond where they still managed to raise at least one kit (I probably won’t be able to tell how many beavers are here now until March thaws.) We continued on to Audubon Pond where we could walk on the ice by the lodge. I was explaining to Ottoleo how the beavers have moved from the bank lodge back to the lodge in the pond after the pond was drained, and how I thought they might be moving back, and then we heard a beaver gnawing in the lodge out in the pond right next to us.

I didn’t scout the pond carefully but I didn’t notice any holes around the pond that the beavers might be using. I continued on to the otter latrine over the entrance to South Bay. Since the snow had ended just a few hours ago I didn’t expect to see otter slides anywhere, but I was impressed at how the ice ended just at the latrine.

I’ve noticed this before. At two places where the ice in the bay commonly ends temporarily before it the bay completely freezes in January, the otters have their latrine. That’s probably a coincidence but maybe the otters are tuned in to the depth and currents in such a way that they know these things. Since they have survived these drastically changing conditions year after year, I ascribe to otters super powers and even took a close look at the bold melt patterns on the sheet of snow and ice

wondering if giant otters made them.

December 29 just below zero in the morning and it didn’t warm up much. When I headed for Meander Pond at 3pm it was nine degrees, but sunny, and as long as I stayed out of the sharp northwest wind, it wasn’t bad. Most animals were not as foolish as I and had not been out since the light snow we had early last night, but, of course, I saw deer trails. And up on the granite plateau I saw a hurried two by two trail that was too big to have been made by mice. I think an ermine had been racing in the night under the almost full moon.

It was too cold to be distracted by tracks and I stuck to my purpose which was to see how the holes the beavers made in the ice at Meander Pond fared through the cold night. As I expected the hole near the lodge had frozen over,

And thanks to the hole in the dam lowering the water level, the new ice formed a few inches below the old ice. I’ve never experimented myself, but I assume that makes it easier to break out of the hole again. I saw the tracks of a coyote that had been on the pond. It didn’t bother the lodge where the beavers are, but it did dig into the old lodge nearby,

Not sure why it did that. Maybe the muskrats here use that lodge too. The holes down into the lower end of the channel froze over too and are now snow covered. Thanks to the strong north winds, the snow has been drifting all night.

Of course, what I really wanted to look at was the hole the beavers made in the dam. Water is still running out of it, but there was no sign that beavers had come out of the hole.

Looking closely, it certainly looked like a beaver could easily squeeze through the hole, and today the water wasn’t rushing out and the water level of the pond looked rather low.

Then I checked out the marsh below, which is the direction we saw the beaver heading yesterday before we disturbed it.

I didn’t see beaver tracks but I picked up a mink’s trail which was promising until it completely disappeared into a jungle of cattail stalks that even a beaver couldn’t easily pierce. I headed over to the clump of saplings that a beaver had been clearing and followed its trail from there and found a more or less straight and easy path back to the pond not ending in any hole in the dam or pond.

Evidently the beaver I saw yesterday was exploring the possibility of making a trail directly to the hole where it could push and pull in saplings for storing under the ice. I decided to head back over the South Bay ice which was quite stunning visually as the orange sun went down,

But northwest wind that made the snow swirl chilled me to the bone.

December 30 we finally got over to our land, having been away for nine days, and of course I headed down to Boundary Pond to see what the beavers there have been doing. There was more snow at our land, say three inches more than the two inches on the island. It was evidently embraced by some lake effect snow bands longer than we were on the island. I followed the trails of two dogs up into the wood flanking the road, and again saw dog tracks crossing the valley, so I think those were the neighbor’s dogs on their usual romp as their mistress walked along the road. There were deer tracks on the Last Pool and once again a deer nipped at the twigs in the crown of a birch the beavers cut down.

As I continued onto Boundary Pond, I picked two coyote trails on the sides of the channel. The coyotes, however, didn’t neglect marking a stump at the edge of the channel.

The beavers’ holes around the lodge were all frozen and snowed over but the beavers had cut down the ironwood they had been gnawing and its crown fell right into the cache

Even the coyotes had to walk over to check that out

And then they had walked up on the beaver lodge, but didn’t put their noses down the vent hole.

There was a frozen over hole behind the dam and something had recently been out there, not a beaver, perhaps a muskrat, but I didn’t see any tracks venturing beyond the wallow below the dam.

While this pond looked relatively dead, I could hear humming inside the lodge and a slosh of water as one beaver swam out. I walked back the way I came in and then went up the valley where I finally saw some rabbit tracks punctuated by plenty of poop.

No porcupine trails yet. I’ve been veering off to check under the hemlocks where I usually see them in the winter. They must be up on the ridges. Meanwhile Leslie had gone down to the Deep Pond and saw a frozen over hole in front of the lodge under the knoll.

While deer and coyote, or dogs, were interested in the hole, we think a muskrat must have opened it up during the thaw.

December 31 comfortable day almost 30 degrees and I headed out in the morning to do some tracking. I didn’t let myself be diverted by possible fisher tracks until I saw one heading down the ridge toward the first swamp valley where I have twice tracked fishers to dens or cache, but I didn’t follow the fisher’s dramatic run right down the steep slope.

I back tracked the fisher and saw how it gave a rock outcrop a wide berth even though there was a porcupine huddled next to the rocks.

I have grown skeptical of the notion of fisher predation of porcupines. Perhaps the fisher went by well before the porcupine got there but judging from the talus slope of porcupine poop I doubt it. And if this fisher had any yen for porcupines, I think it would have at least veered over, like I always do, to check rocks for porcupines. As I took its photo the porcupine crawled into a narrow hole but couldn’t get its tail all the way in. The porcupine was quite brown, not the usual black and gray. I was surprised to see the hole behind the Big Pond dam frozen over.

After one very cold night, we had two relatively warm nights and days, but not above 32 degrees, the magic number for thawing ice. Early this morning the coyotes killed a deer on the ice of South Bay. Ottoleo saw seven eagles vying for its remains. I certainly didn’t see evidence of a coyote stampede to or from the kill. The coyotes on the Big Pond stayed along the edges of the marsh. They didn’t even sniff over the beavers’ lodge, and the hole was frozen over there too.

I flushed one grouse from a pine tree as I walked through the woods to the Lost Swamp Pond. Plenty of squirrel tracks and digs.

There too the coyotes had kept to the shore of the pond. One had squirted on a doughnut of snow around a feeble stump.

They didn’t venture near the muskrat lodges nor the beaver lodge where the holes in the ice were frozen over.

I walked along the shore north of the lodge and saw where a coyote had nosed into the bank but there were no holes made by beavers trying to get out. Coming around the point I picked up a mink trail that went to a muskrat lodge I never noticed before. I always thought the muskrats just had a burrow under here. The mink dug a bit into the lodge, but didn’t get inside.

The ice on the pond side of the lodge was brown stained suggesting that muskrats had been mucking around under there.

There was a hole of open water at the dam, half the size as before and it didn’t appear that anything had used it. I walked on the ice of the Upper Second Swamp and even the inlet creek had just about frozen over, but there was a ribbon of flowing water through the grasses, but no tracks going to it.

The Second Swamp Pond was frozen over and I didn’t see any signs of life until I got down to the dam. The mink did not use the hole we saw the other day. I saw its trail almost tunneling through the snow around the cattails

And it went down the hole in the snow it has been using that is near the hole the beavers made in the dam a few years ago.

I am pretty sure there was no mink trail coming down from the Lost Swamp Pond but I expected the mink trail at the Second Swamp Pond to head over to the East Trail Pond, and I was right but first I had to sort through two or three fisher trails. I followed a pair looking for a tree that might be serving as the fisher bulletin board this year. The tracks led to some scuffed up leaves and a slide in the snow.

The slide gave a brief impression of an otter slide which often has two small parallel troughs a body width apart from each other. Fishers generally don’t slide in the snow so I wonder if one fisher briefly dragged another.

It looked like there were lines in the troughs made by claws. Now, looking at the photo, there appears to be a slight stain in the snow, so maybe a fisher was butt down and pushed back with its hind legs. Fisher tracks went off in three directions from this area and mink tracks headed over to the creek. I followed the mink across the creek and then it must have gone up the ice on the creek because I didn’t see its tracks in the snow until I got near the dam. There I saw three mink holes through the snow down to the dam

There were the usual porcupine trails along the dam. I scanned the trees the porcupine has been scraping bark off but there were no porcupines on board any of them. The mink tracks circled the pond and went along the board walk periodically slipping under the boardwalk. That trail seemed to end at the little rivulet that flows down from the west end of the East Trail Pond meadow. I imagine that the Second Swamp Pond and East Trail Pond meadow is territory enough for a mink. I headed up to the Thicket Pond and then moved along to Meander Pond. The spring in the northeast corner of the pond was still keeping the ice open there, but I didn’t see any evidence of the beavers coming out there.

However the beavers had been out since I was last here and there was a hole in the ice close to the lodge, but not right next to it, and a trail coming out and going along the channel and then back.

Then I saw a trail heading over to the north slope where the beavers took a few bites out of the crown now frozen in the pond and they went up the slope to gnaw on the big red oaks. If history is any guide these beavers will cut down one or two of the big red oaks as they have done here before and in Thicket and Shangri-la ponds almost every winter.

I could see drag marks on their trail back to the hole near the lodge so they hauled something back.

The drag marks led to the hole in the ice. A beaver hole in the ice looks warm, like a full belly, which for beavers is what it signifies.

The water level looked to be four or five inches under the ice. A beaver had walked over the frozen over hole near the lodge and then continued around the lodge

and up to the red oaks they had been working on the a few days ago. However I didn’t see any evidence that they cut more on the red oak. Indeed there were no beaver tracks down on the lower pond or coming out of the hole in the dam. I walked back toward the south end of the pond, pausing to get a view of the north slope from behind the hole the beavers are climbing out.

On the southeast part of the pond, I saw coyote trail with a not unusual vortex, if you will, coming off the mainline. Chasing its tail?

Up on the little ridge south of the pond I saw more small trees the beavers had cut. I had seen the two smaller cuts but not the larger. They haven’t even tasted any of the big trees here. Perhaps they think they are too far away from the pond.

This may be the area they eventually do most their foraging if a thaw enables them to open a hole at the end of the south canal. If they get desperate they can eat through the ice. Looking around at other small trees they cut, I noticed an easy way down to South Bay through a gap in the ridge. On the other side of the ridge I picked up a fisher trail that seemed to head toward the rock outcrop, and even from afar I could see a spread of porcupine poop.

But the fisher did not veer over to check the poop. If that fisher even thought about eating a porcupine, wouldn’t it at least wander over for a sniff?

Of course maybe a fisher can smell the absence of porcupines from yards away, but a fisher trail is always a zig-zag. I simply don’t think they have any interest in porcupines. As I walked down to South Bay I saw where the fisher trails intersected the porcupine’s trail. It had walked almost all the way down to South Bay and the fishers had walked parallel to the bay shore. I crossed on the ice over to the peninsula. Ice fishermen had invaded South Bay and I prefer not to see them if I can avoid it. In the woods on the peninsula, I soon picked up a bold fisher trail along the downed tree trunks.

And it led to a spot of blood on the trail which, on a close look, appeared to part of the remains of something the fisher ate, but I couldn’t tell what.

Then I noticed another fisher trail coming down another fallen log leading to the blood spot.

I must say the tracks on the long trunks leading to a spot fresh blood excited me. The second trail seemed to have been made by a smaller fisher. I think it is a bit early for fishers to be mating. The two fisher trails only merged briefly and I didn’t see any signs of commotion left in the snow. I lost the trail I was following in a confusion of more trail. Since the fishers generally don’t go out on South Bay, they come in and out of these woods, making circles as they do. I saw trails leading down to the cattail marsh and then bumped into some commotion around a huge tree. Again leaves had been scraped up.

But I shouldn’t jump to any conclusion. I don’t recall seeing this other winters, but I’ve only seriously been tracking fishers the last two years so I am a novice at it.