Friday, October 15, 2010

October 8 to 13, 2010

October 8 on a windy day that turned the river into white caps, I walked around South Bay to check the otter latrines there. I didn’t see any otter signs in the lower latrines. I veered up to check Audubon Pond. The water level rose with all the recent rain and water is pouring down the big caged drain, despite beaver efforts to make a mud barricade around it. I didn’t see any new beaver work but I didn’t go down the embankment to take a close look. Then I went back down to South Bay to check the otter latrine above the entrance to the bay. This is not a good time to look for otter scats since leaves and pine needles have fallen and are falling everywhere. But, swept by the strong wind, this latrine was easy to inspect and I saw three faint trails in the grass coming up from the rocks and water below,

Where each ended there was a generous scat completely composed of crayfish shell bits.

Given the direct trail up from the water, to exactly where otters often scat, I think there is no doubt that otters left these. I strained to find a black scat with fish scales but saw nothing else. Then I went back up to Audubon Pond and walked around it. I saw no otter scats in the old latrines along the west, north and east shores. Nor did I see any fresh beaver work there, or nibbled sticks floating in the water. The mud had even settled in front of the muskrat burrows on the north shore near the park bench. However, I could see muddy water around a burrow on the east side of the causeway forming the west shore, where I saw a muskrat kit eating grass back in June. I went back down to South Bay and then headed up to the Lost Swamp Pond walking along the south shores of the old beaver ponds, now meadows, where I used to watch otters raise their pups most years between 1996 and 2003. That’s a humbling reminder to me of how things change. Even the Second Swamp Pond where I continued to see pups between 2004 and 2006 is draining away since beavers haven’t tended the dam for two years. I saw otter signs there last year but am not so sure otters will use the pond this fall and winter. However, the Lost Swamp Pond is brimming with water. I went directly up to the dam. If otters had been there I expected to see the spread of blacks scats from the mother and two pups I saw there a few weeks ago. Instead I saw scats laced with crayfish shell bits, much like the ones I just saw along South Bay except that they were quite dry and white.

The scat pictured above was in the dirt below a flat rock where I had seen piles of black scats a few weeks ago. There were dollops of dry scat up on the rock, too.

Some of these seemed to have more fish scales in them, though thanks to the recent rain all hints of the black goo usually holding fishy otter scats together had been washed away.

Up closed to the pond water, I saw two scats that were black. They didn’t seem fresh but they certainly weren’t here the last time I inspected a few days ago.

The beavers have been tending the dam pushing more muck, more than mud, up around the area where otters breached the dam last winter.

However, as I walked around the west end of the pond, I didn’t see any fresh beaver nibbling. That’s where they had been collecting and stripping little sticks. Over at the mossy cove latrine and the rock about it, I didn’t see any new otter scats and just about all remnants of the old scats had been washed away, though this area was graced with many brown pine needles which perhaps obscured old scats. Of course, I sat and looked around for a spell. I heard a kingfisher, but not much else moving perhaps due to the brisk wind. The water level was high, which made it difficult to see what was going on around the lodge in the southeast end of the pond, but it looked like some branches had been sunk south of the lodge, perhaps the start of a winter cache, but I’ll wait to see it in calmed conditions before jumping to that conclusion.

As I crossed the Big Pond dam, I sent a dozen ducks, black ducks, I think, into the air. Then I saw a muskrat browsing the vegetation just sticking up out of the pond.

I had expected water to be flowing over the full extent of the long dam, but it wasn’t. I soon heard why. There was a roar coming from the principal section of the dam. I headed that way, dry all the way, until I got to the flood coming out from a hole in the dam.

I could see, but not photograph, animal trails coming over the dam, and I immediately thought that a muskrat might have breached the dam. I got over the flood and then heard and saw that the hole I had blamed an otter for making in the dam was open once again. When I got to the otter latrines on the south end of the dam, I saw fresh otter scat.

This was black scat, with no crayfish parts.

I moved over to the principal latrine, and I could see that the water behind the dam was churned up. Otters had just been here.

Just like a few weeks ago when I discovered an otter family here, there seemed to be new scats every where I looked. None had crayfish parts. One looked a bit like a scat I had just seen at the Lost Swamp Pond -- very scaly and a bit dry,

But most were black, moist, with smaller scales, like the scats I saw a few weeks ago.

One was out on a little grassy porch jutting out into the water.

And this time the otters had scatted about 10 feet up my trail that comes down to the pond.

This was quite exciting. I can make the case that in the last two days I saw evidence that there are three groups of otters in my range. I think the otters on Picton Island are the largely still intact otter family I tracked last year. Then one or two otters, primarily eating crayfish, worked South Bay and got up to the Lost Swamp Pond. Then when the mother and two otter pups headed back to the ponds, to avoid the crayfish eating otters, likely males, they went to the Big Pond. There are two ways to look at the holes in the dam. Pups rooting for fish parts might have dug them by mistake, or at least weakened the dam enough for a hole to form, but I prefer to think that the mother made the holes as a calculation to make it easier for the pups to find fish. I saw this once before at the beginning of October in 2003 at the Second Swamp Pond dam. Usually otters confine their hole making to the winter when the ponds are frozen. Unfortunately, hunting season has started, fortunately only bow hunters on the island, which makes it more tedious keeping track of things. But I am getting too old to hike at dawn, still insane enough to kayak at dawn now and then. I think I will try to get out on the river more until the water gets too cold. The invasion of gobies, a bite size fish that seems to go everywhere in the river, has seemed to make life easier for bigger fish, as well as cormorants and maybe osprey. Maybe they are making life easier for otters as well, but I have to start catching them myself and see if I can identify their innards in the otter scats. Last year I refrained from trying to track the otters in the beaver ponds until hunting season ended in December and had good luck seeing them and they stayed in the ponds for the winter. Let’s hope the same thing happens this year.

October 9 We spent the morning at the land and I checked on the beaver activity. After the poplar the beavers cut fell into the pond, I noticed that they piled some sticks up on one of the moss islands that seemed to have a hole through the middle of it. I first thought they might be building a lodge, then decided that they were just dredging a deeper channel through the pond and piled the sticks in the channel up on the island. Then after the rains deepened and widened the pond, I noticed a mounding of muck and sticks on another moss island. I never saw a beaver go into these mounds, nor come out. But last time I was here I noticed stripped logs outside the first mound of sticks. Today I saw that a leafy branch was near it.

I sat down on a rock to give a listen. This year the beavers in this pond have not been shy about humming and whining when they are in their lodge down in the Boundary Pond. But for the few minutes I sat there, no sound came out of the pile of sticks in the Last Pool. There is more water in the pond which makes it more difficult to get a photo of the second pile they made in the pond, and even to get a sense if they have cut much more off the poplar.

The water around the poplar was muddy suggesting that beavers have been around it. Walking around the pond, I noticed that the trail going up the west side of inner valley was also muddy. But I put off walking up there until I had walked around the pond. The trail going up the ridge to the east was not muddy, but it looked like it had been used since I was last here. So up I went, and I did not have to go far before I saw some stripped poplar twigs along the trail. Then half way up I saw a thin poplar log on the trail.

So one beaver at least had been up and brought something down. I keep looking at the trees on the ridge, and not one has been gnawed by a beaver. Until today, I had not gotten a sense that the beavers had used the vernal pool, now filled with water, that is up on the top of the ridge, as a place to gnaw on the logs and sticks they were cutting below on the east slope of the ridge, save for a few stripped twigs. The pool was just part of the trail from the pond to their work. Today I saw cluster of stripped sticks,

suggesting that a beaver parked there and nipped and stripped some of the branches it brought up from the east side of the ridge. But while I am certain that a beaver has been up the trail since the last time I was here, I didn’t see any obvious new work farther down the trail on the east side of the ridge. I think I saw where it cut the log that I saw on the trail. I tried to find a way to walk along the west side of the ridge so that I would angle down to a good spot to see if beavers were out napping along the lower east shore of Boundary Pond. But I miss-angled and wound up along the east shore of the pond.

As luck would have it, there was a beaver napping but it slipped into the water before I could get a good look at it. I did get a photo of its bed. I was surprised to see that there was no evidence of the beavers here recently doing any nibbling, though there seems to be sticks to strip.

The beavers have been pushing what they can up on the dam to make it higher

Even a little hemlock bough which won’t do much good.

I hate to write about beaver dams in a way that suggest that I know more about dam building than the beavers. Take my observations as humble opinions: it seems like the recent work is in a less deliberate style than their previous work on the dam. Then the beavers seemed to work sticks into the muck they pushed up. Now they seem to raise the dam with muck alone.

Perhaps they’ll soon weight the new muck down with logs. That is the lodge in the background in the photo above. Why would they want to raise the dam when the beavers don’t seem comfortable in the lodge, as evidenced by one or two of them sleeping on the shore every day? However, it seems to me that enough of the lodge is above the water line to accommodate several beavers.

My trouble is that as I get older, or call it more experienced, I too quickly try to turn what I see into narrative, move from observation to history too quickly. The rain and rising water level at this busy time of their year is cause enough for all the beavers have been doing, but I keep thinking that the death of the kit was a turning point in the life of this family, and that the adult beavers are staying out of the lodge to avoid the accident that killed the kit. Not that I have much of an idea of what killed the kit. I sat in my chair half way up the ridge west of the pond, and I heard a good bit of whining from the lodge, three different pitches, suggesting that an adult, yearling and the surviving kit were all awake, but none came out of the lodge. The deeper water in the pond has made it more difficult to keep track of the logs behind the lodge that the beavers have stripped. It looks like some of the poplar logs could have been brought down here, but everything is too deep in water to be sure.

I didn’t see any new work as I walked up pond on the ridge west of the pond, and then down to the Last Pool shore. Walking up the well worn trail heading above the pond to the northwest, I saw a cut oak sapling in the middle of the trail.

The beavers going up this trail didn’t continue up to the area where they cut and carried the red oak, and several maple saplings. They veered off under some pine branches and found a clearing where they cut several trees mostly oaks and left some half cut.

Their earlier work along this ridge had been by fits and starts. Each day I inspected I saw one or two things freshly cut. They didn’t beat around the bush here. They cut four small entangled trunks in a day or two instead of spreading the job out over a week or two.

That said, there is a relatively thin oak trunk on the ground, that they could easily segment and haul away, but they haven’t gotten around to that.

I had thought this holiday weekend would find us at the land most of the time. But I drove up to Montreal to get Ottoleo and his girlfriend so the beavers will continue all this work without me trying to see them in the evening.

October 11 I took Ottoleo and Marlee around the beaver pond at the land to show them what has happened since they were here in mid-August. The rains have stopped so the pond is a bit lower. The pile of sticks in the Last Pool is looking more and more like a lodge. The lower water helps as well as another leafy sapling parked beside it ready for stripping.

While I was explaining things, Ottoleo saw a large crayfish crawling in the wallow. I bet it came down from the pool in the upper valley using the rivulet that still has water flowing in it.

It only had one claw and perhaps lost it in a fight over territory and set out to a new world. Or did it come up from Wildcat Pond, going against the flow? I don’t think a settled resident crayfish would be up in arm like this in the middle of the day. Ottoleo was quick to take advantage of the lower water to hop on the recently downed poplar trunk and walk out into the crown of the tree. I could get a look at the other pile of sticks and dredging that also looks like it could be a small lodge, but there are no cut branches around it.

Even with Ottoleo standing next to it, nothing stirred from inside. Of course, a beaver holing up here wouldn’t need to haul in branches, since it would be right next to the poplar. Looking down from the trunk I could see that the beavers had done a good bit of gnawing on the poplar, but the bigger branches have not been cut.

We went up the trail to the top of the east ridge. The poplar log that had been there was gone. A beaver cut a small tree relatively close to the pool on top of the ridge, though you can’t see the stump in the background of the photo below.

There was no major new work below the ridge to the east, but I was too busy explaining things to take a close look for new work. We walked along the ridge hoping to get a look at a beaver on the shore. On the way I saw some gnawing on a tree that beavers would get to by going up their trail from the middle of Boundary Pond. It looked like fresh work.

As we approached the lower pond several ducks flew off and perhaps because of that the beaver that had been lying there was up and alert -- or perhaps with three of us creeping up on it….

Looking from above, the beaver’s dry fur blended well with the leaves on the ground. Along the shore between the beaver’s bed and the dam there was a pretty good size poplar log.

A beaver could have hauled this down from the poplar they cut up the ridge down here. I’ll have to go up the trail and check the next time I’m here. We walked across the pond on the dam and then up the west ridge, then up the trail going northwest from the Last Pool. No obvious new work there, but I didn’t take a close look. Going back on the trail along that ridge, I was showing off what we call the “ripple rock” and I saw a porcupine up on a tree in the background.

Nice hike on a beautiful day.

October 12 I thought it prudent to stay out of the state park, now open for bow hunting, during the holiday weekend. Today after lunch, I headed up Antler Trail and then over to the Big Pond dam. I took my camcorder since I had concluded that an otter family was using the Big Pond. I paused on my way to the dam, but not because I saw otters. About a dozen mallards were spread over the lower part of the pond, and then as I stepped up to the dam and the mallards flew away, a heron joined them.

When I stopped at the otter latrine, a wood duck flapped out of the marsh. It looked full grown but couldn’t seem to fly. With feet dragging it flapped around the grasses to where I couldn’t see it. Then I bent my head to the latrine. When I was here four days ago there were several scats in the grass, which meant I had to be careful as I tried to identify new scats. The last time I was here there was one scat on a low grassy mound, now there were three.

But the new ones weren’t especially fresh. Four days ago there were two just dug holes in the dam and a good bit of water had drained out exposing an apron of mud behind the dam. If otters had just been there, I should have been able to see their prints. Nothing jumped up at me, perhaps there was a hint of an otter print.

A beaver had repaired an earlier hole in the dam, then the otters, I think, dug it open again. This was the same place where the otters made a hole in the winter, and it is relatively deep, say two feet under the top of the dam. Water is still flowing out. Meanwhile a bigger hole toward the middle of the dam has run dry because the pond level is now lower than the hole. I saw prints in the mud apron near the hole and saw that muskrats had been there, but not a beaver or otter.

I found walking along the dam easy, which is not good news since it suggests that several hunters had been walking there. I kept looking up at the pond and finally saw something moving that wasn’t a duck; a muskrat dove, surfaced and then went into the lodge along the lower north shore of the pond. Four days ago I found crayfish laced scats at the Lost Swamp Pond which I theorized were from roving male otters, not the otter family I think is using these ponds. So I expected to see signs that the otter family had resumed utilizing the pond after the males, as is their wont, moved on to other hunting grounds. But I didn’t see any new otter scats, neither at the mossy cove latrine nor the latrine on the west side of the dam. However, water was leaking out of the dam, in a hole a foot or two down right at the spot where the otters made a hole last winter. This was perplexing on two accounts; when I saw new scats four days ago there was no hole and the beavers then and now have been pushing mud up on the dam.

I wondered if the area jutting out from the dam had been pulled away, but saw that it was an extra pile made by a beaver over where the water seemed to coming out through the dam a foot or two below the surface of the water.

My guess is that an otter came up from below the dam and dug out a hole making it a difficult repair job for the beavers until the hole gets bigger and is more apparent to the beavers as they work behind the dam.

And when I stood on the dam and looked below, I thought I could make out a trail in the vegetation coming up to where the water flowed out from under the dam.

More perplexity: I don’t think roving male otters would put a hole in a dam at this time of year, only an otter family would do it, like they just did in the Big Pond, to make it easier for the pups to catch fish. But where were the recent scats from the otter family which had been plentiful here a few weeks ago? I walked along the top of the dam to get a better view of the beavers’ gobs of mud, and saw a fresh beaver print in the mud,

but no otter signs there. But on the rock next to the lodge just behind the dam on the east end I saw some scats, not crayfish laced, but not fresh.

There is a strip of short grass behind the rock next to the lodge, and when I saw otters here a month ago I saw them run behind the rock, probably scatting on this flat grassy area.

So, perhaps the family came back after the males left, but shied away from their usual latrines but dug out a hole in the dam! Or, they started foraging in the ponds below the Lost Swamp Pond and thought it might be nice to get more water flowing through them. I don’t think I will ever figure this out, but, of course, it would be helpful if I saw the otters here. Despite not seeing fresh scats I did sit by the pond for 25 minutes, my old rule to give otters a chance to materialize. I could study the lodge in the southeast end of the pond and try to remember if the mass of branches just south of the lodge was old business or the beginning of this winter’s cache of food. It certainly looked like a cache and judging from September photos, I was right.

I also watched the ducks swim back and forth across the pond, usually in groups of five or so, and not seeming to do much eating. Biding their time, I guess. When I walked around the west end of the pond, I was startled to see what looked like fresh otter scat, black and dripping wet, but I saw seeds in it and decided it was a raccoon scat that seemed much looser than usual because it had plopped into the water.

Since I take all my theorizing seriously, I studied the ponds below the Lost Swamp Pond dam, but I saw no otter signs. I went over to the East Trail Pond and instead of crossing on the old boardwalk through the meadow, I walked along the ridge south of the pond to see if I could get another perspective on what the beavers were doing in the upper end of the pond. I could just see water snaking through the meadow but no signs of dredging or damming.

But farther up the meadow I could wade out through the grasses and see where the beavers were making their stand.

It looked like the beavers were both dredging a channel

and then bending it into a dam.

The water dammed up was high than the water puddling below the dam. But looking up pond from the dam, all I could see were flooded grasses -- no channels or beaver work,

But there was a lot I could not see because the vegetation was so high. The ponding I saw did not look too deep, not much more than a foot. To survive the winter the beavers best have some deeper channel. As I walked up beside the meadow, I kept craning my neck and climbing up on rotting downed tree trunks but I couldn’t see the new lodge that I knew was there. I did see where a beaver gnawed briefly on some red maples.

We’ll see if these trees are rejected or if a beaver will cut them later.

Beavers lived in this pond for several years, leaving in 2005, so there are not many choice trees around. I’ll be curious to see what these beavers do, and the pond is not in the hunting zone so I can give it my full attention.

October 13 we spent the mid-day at our land, and I did chores, checked the beaver pond and then sawed some trees for firewood. As usual the walk around the beaver pond was engrossing. Since I no longer see the beavers going about their business, my imagination devours the signs they leave. Thanks to lower water level and better light, I was able to make a better argument that the beavers are indeed building a lodge in the Last Pool. They are not just leaving a few leafy branches in the pond but they are lining up the saplings and small trees they cut with their trunks lying in the pond parallel to each other.

That is how they arranged their cache the previous two winters down in Boundary Pond. However, I don’t think the pile of sticks close to that cache is their lodge. The other pile more toward the middle of the pond is larger and is growing.

Though farther away than the other pile, it is still convenient to the cache.

But when I get close to what I now think is a lodge, I don’t hear any reaction from beavers inside. As usual I went up the trail from the Last Pool onto the top of the east ridge. I saw that a beaver nipped a sapling on the way up or down. Then I saw that a beaver girdled two small entwined oaks a few yards off the vernal pool on the top of the ridge.

This is a bit confusing because the beavers coming up here have been cutting down every tree then begin to gnaw. The gnawing on these trunks looks rather delicate.

Has the kit made it up to here, or am I mistaking porcupine work for beaver gnawing? If the latter, why didn't the porcupine do some gnawing higher up the tree, or any other tree in this area? I walked along the top of the ridge down to see if a beaver was in the “nest” on the lower east shore of Boundary Pond and also to see if the poplar log I saw in the pond the other day had been cut from the poplar up on the ridge. I did see a beaver, and then I went up to check the poplar. There was no new gnawing on it, though a poplar log was cut off the end of the one branch a week or so ago. I scouted around to see if there was other new work up on the ridge there and was surprised to find some cutting new to me.

Since I have not been religious in checking this area, I can’t be sure when those logs were cut, though not hauled down the ridge. I suppose I will have to visit this pond on the night of the next full moon. I went halfway down the ridge to get a closer look at the beaver, once again, one adult, but I decided not to get close enough to bother it. I went back to the middle trail up the ridge and went down that. I wanted to look at the beaver hut again to see if a beaver might be there. I took a photo and compared it to old photos and it appears that nothing has been added to the pile of sticks since mid-July. Then I checked the work along the small ridge west of the valley above the Last Pool. Working along the gentle slope up the valley, I saw that they trimmed and partially segmented the relatively large tree that I saw they had just cut when I discovered the work in this area a few days ago.

Then a few more yards up the valley I saw stumps of larger trees that I don’t recollect seeing before.

Then as I worked my way up to where the beavers first started cutting trees here a few weeks ago, I kept seeing the stumps of saplings that I don’t think I saw before

But I wondered if this might just be a case of my being able to see more because more leaves are down on the high trees and there are fewer shadows hiding what is happening on the ground. But in the woods closer to the valley I saw some girdling on a tree that I knew was new work.

This must be the area where the beavers are getting those small trees with straight trunks that they are putting in their cache in the Last Pool. In preparing for the last two winters that they spent in Boundary Pond, the beavers cut hundreds of straight trees, mostly hornbeams, that they lined up along the channel going up pond from their lodge. Perhaps they are cutting trees now not so much for their taste as for their straight trunks, a style of caching that I have not noticed in other ponds. Other beaver families I’ve observed seem to sink branches and logs helter skelter, perhaps because their ponds were deeper, had muddy bottoms and they were not so dependent on one channel that was difficult to dredge. Beavers shape the land, but the land also shapes the beavers’ works. After lunch, I went into the woods to continue sawing an old maple that fell last winter. When I start sawing, I usually grouse to myself about how much easier it would be with a chain saw. I could do work that takes me a week in a matter of hours. But with all that noise and violence, I wouldn’t be a part of the forest. Today I was reminded that there were more than beavers to watch. Two chipmunks raced about the under the brush, almost running over my feet. The one being chased seemed to make all the squeals, and was smaller than the one chasing it. Then when they both went under the larger end of the trunk of the tree I was sawing logs off, I heard a chuckling cooing noise. But then they came back out to resume the same crazy chase with the same wild squeals.