Tuesday, December 14, 2010

December 3 to 8, 2010

December 3 we had two days of rain and strong winds. Judging from the amount of water I bailed out of the boat today we had almost 2 inches of rain. We also had a dusting of snow this morning. There was a bit more snow at our land, but still just a dusting. We got there just before 9 am and I immediately went to check the beaver pond hoping that it had iced over in the night and that I might be better able to see where the beavers had been active. But it evidently didn’t get that cold last night. Indeed it looked like parts of the pond were in the process of freezing. I could see a little slush here and there. I approached the pond by walking down the Ripple Rock trail and there were no signs that beavers had been back up that in the last few days. The trail was quite wet so I couldn’t see if anything had been dragged down it, but I saw nothing new cut and a sapling leaning against a tree a week ago was still leaning on the same tree. Of late where the Ripple Rock trail meets the valley, I’ve walked over and checked work around and above the vernal pool on the east side of the valley, but today I went directly down to the pond along the west side of the valley, scowling at work on birches that I was not sure was recent. The other day I noticed some tentative girdling on a maple near the pond. Today I got a closer look at that and some gnawing on an ash closer to the pond.

The beavers seem to relish these barks in different ways, going after the maple with careful gnawing,

And somewhat stripping off the bark of the ash.

Is that the same beaver addressing different trees, or two beavers showing different styles of eating? I moved down the west shore of the pond, where there has been so little browsing by the beavers on shore, just to ascertain that they still are shying away and then I turned back and took a photo of the cache dappled with snow,

facts on the ground, in water in this case, lightly brushed into an abstraction. I walked around the upper end of the pond, so I could get closer to the lodge and walk down the busier east shore, which is also easier to walk down. Looking up the valley I saw a cut birch that if it wasn’t very recently worked on certainly looked like it was.

Birch wood blazes on dark winter days. I also saw that the beavers just cut down an elm. They had cut many elms last year, but this is the first in a while

Water was streaming down the valley.

And making a wider flow as it found the pond

The beavers must feel rather secure in their fat black lodge. They seem to be careful to keep one side of the lodge clear of stored branches.

Then I headed down the east shore. The beavers didn’t girdle any more beeches. But their recent stripping along the base of twinned birches just off the shore of the pond was easy to see.

Clearly one beaver at least swims and forages down pond. Of course I took a close up of that work.The color is hard to resist.

Yet looking at it, the recent work shows up in three shades, if not four, and the old work in two or three. A beaver has almost cut down a smaller tree nearby and out in the pond.

There is more water in the pond, which is easiest to gauge at the little hut they made back in the summer along the shore. I used to be able to walk out to it. Not today. It is now no longer a hut on the shore but what might pass for the start of a new lodge out in the pond.

But there is no signs of beavers using it -- as I saw one do once after a heavy rain in September. Back then their new lodge was not so commodious as it is now. With my next steps I checked the trail up the ridge and then when I turned back and looked out in the pond, I saw ripples everywhere. Since there was no wind, I looked for a beaver. I didn’t see one but I think one swam over from the shore or dam into the lodge behind the dam, and I just missed seeing it. Certainly beavers had been to the dam recently, I could see leaves and muck pushed up on it at several places.

I walked back up the east shore, and found, once again, that backtracking yourself is always instructive. I saw a big hornbeam log next to the pond and two stumps of just cut hornbeams that somehow I missed seeing when I walked down that shore.

I continued up the east side of the valley, and got the impression that the beavers had not been up there in the last two days. Perhaps all the rain drew their attention to the dam. I continued all the way up to Teepee Pond where I collected the remnants of the pile of firewood I sawed in the summer and took it down to the car in the wheelbarrow. Then I went back to my current sawing project in the woods south of the Third Pond.

We got home before lunch and by then the sun was out and there was still no wind so right after lunch I bailed the boat, and we motored out to Picton Island. As we went through the Narrows we flushed an immature eagle, and then as we approached Quarry Point, we saw a mature eagle perched on one of the trees.

It flew off as I neared the point. Thanks to the low calm water, it was easy to hop out on the island. I saw a couple recent, but not fresh scats, on the low patch of grass, then hopped up on the higher patch and saw a nice spread of fresher scats on the grass.

Behind, a little farther up in the grass, I saw fresher scats still.

Now I could bob about and finally get a close up the of the freshest scats.

These were gray and thick with scales, and I have still not proved that these are from gobies. One scat looked to have been rolled on by an otter

I should be able to identify those scales -- if I had any guides or experience in doing that. The still lush grass did not looked scratched up, which distinguishes this latrine from what I see around the beaver ponds on Wellesley Island.

Not that I am drawing any conclusions from that. After all, I think the otters here are the family that was at the ponds last year when there was a good bit of scratching. Indeed, it was a bit remarkable to see so many scats so evenly spread out over so large an area without any focus of activity like digging or scent mounds.

There was also a good bit of old scat, and at first glance I thought they might be laced with crayfish parts, but on closer look, I couldn’t see any bits of orange or red or claws.

Perhaps this late in the season otters get smaller crayfish who haven’t developed their color yet. I keep telling myself I have to learn more about crayfish. All of the recent scats gave no hint of having crayfish parts. I saw several stringy squirts.

I have been wondering why the otters that so freely scat on the rocks close to the shore on the other side of Quarry Point so seldom scat on the rocks here. I did see one scat on a rock high up in the grass,

But none on the rocks down along the shore. Today it dawned on me. Sitting up in the grass in the sun is so attractive, it only makes sense to scat on rocks when, like on the northeast shore of the point, there is no grass nearby. I rowed over to that shore, and made a close inspection of the rocks, in the eastern end of where the otters used to latrine, and saw no recent scats on the rocks, and most of the old scat had been washed off by the rain. Going back through the Narrows, we saw a good bit of porcupine work high up in the trees on the Wellesley Island side. A porcupine had half stripped the bark on a small pine at the pinnacle of the cliff.

We didn’t see many ducks out in the water, just a pair of mallards and a group of four female and immature common mergansers in front of the boat houses.

The short day was still so fetching and colder weather on the way, that I was soon off again. This time to the East Trail Pond hoping to catch a beaver coming out of its lodge as the sun went down. I went up and over Antler Trail, around South Bay and then up the East Trail. I didn’t have to worry about the direction of the wind today, but all was quiet at the pond. I could see what the beavers had been up to. The downed tree that I kept them from trimming a few days ago had been trimmed a bit and the trunk cut.

I expected more trimming and much bark stripped off the trunk. It must be a red maple which beavers usually don’t attack with much gusto. The lodge in the middle of the pond looked larger, and more stripped logs were around it.

On the top half of the photo above, you can the new front in the beavers’ work. They are cutting trees along the south shore of the pond, and I think I could see that they had built up the dam over there. I waited until 4:05 for the beavers to come out. None did, so I headed home, first taking photos of their work along the west end of the pond. Having stripped the three trees they cut and that fell into the pond, two more are about to be cut and a large tree is being girdled.

Up in the woods to the west, one ash has been cut and blew down, another is leaning and another has a few more gnaws to go and it will be teetering.

They also cut and girdled a cluster of smaller trees.

Needless to say there is a good trail to this area. I looked back, but no beaver was coming up it.

December 5 a cold front moved in with many clouds obscuring what weak sunlight we have at this time of year. We moved wood into our porches yesterday and this morning, and this afternoon we got over to our land. I checked on the beavers, not venturing too far because this is the last day of deer hunting season and we could see the vehicles of hunters on our neighbors’ land. I walked down Grouse Alley which I thought the beavers had forgotten and was surprised to find a small pile of twigs on the trail,

And one hornbeam twig completely gnawed.

We had a dusting of snow early this morning, too late to reveal tracks. The snow not only made it difficult to see what the beavers did last night, but I forgot how to set the camera for snow shots and so the photos I took today were a bit out of kilter. The pond was iced over and perhaps the few areas of clear ice show where the beavers were last active. I did see stripped sticks under a near patch of clearer ice.

It was a bad enough day to take photos, even if I had the camera setting right. I checked the trees that had just fallen near the pond and saw that the beavers had trimmed and gnawed more of the elm.

And it seems that while doing that they found several sapling worth cutting and taking to the cache.

There was no hole in the ice on the side of the lodge where the beavers are doing their eating. I did see a stripped stick frozen in the ice,

perhaps a beaver’s last bite last night. Then I went to saw some wood, though it was too cold to work for long, the type of day when you can work up a sweat on your brow but your toes never warm up. Just as we were about to leave, a neighbor who is not a hunter drove by and said other neighbors were searching for a wounded buck that seemed to come into our land. They followed a trail of blood but then the blood stopped. Unfortunately the deer crossed the beaver pond on our land. We went to the pond to see the trail and soon saw the footprints of the trackers. They probably won’t bother the beavers but I’ll have to be vigilant. Beaver trapping is open until mid-April. Then as I was standing by the Last Pool, I heard something gnawing under the ice. Given how shallow the pond is there, it must have been a muskrat taking advantage of a half inch of air between the bottom of the ice and the water of the pond. Not sure why it was gnawing the ice. When beavers are under thin ice like that they break the ice from underneath with their body.

December 6 we went to our land in the afternoon on another cold cloudy day, with light off and on snow. There is now almost an inch on the cold ground so we could see turkey tracks on the road where we parked the car. I headed off to check on the beaver pond and going down Grouse Alley I did not see any evidence that a beaver had been out of the Last Pool. There was a small hole where a trail entered the pond, but nothing had used it.

And there was no broken ice around the main pile of winter food in the middle of the pond.

Walking around the upper end of the pond, I saw that the snow on the pond provided a contrast to the winter pile of food there.

Of course the lodge next to the pile is obscured by the snow. No holes in the ice around that cache or the lodge. I walked down the east shore of the pond, toward the dam, and saw no holes in the ice, but did see rabbit tracks along the shore. Maybe a rabbit was looking for a hole to get a drink of water.

At the dam, I saw the largest patch of gray ice on the pond, but no hole. The gray suggests that the ice is thin and that beavers could break it easily if they get the notion.

But after collecting food for the winter, and eating as much as the can all the while, the beavers are probably at their fattest, and might be enjoying a break and a long rest before they start managing the pond for the winter.

December 7 we had three more inches of snow last night, and the day continued cold and cloudy with a few periods of light snow. Deer hunting season has ended, and I have been looking forward to this day as a chance to look for the otters in the beaver ponds. Last time I was out there, briefly a couple week ago, judging by the scats, it seemed like they were there and had been there a while. However, just after a snowfall of three inches early in the season is not the best time to go tracking. That said, 13 years ago, in 1997, Ottoleo, then 10 years old, Leslie and I took a walk along South Bay after six inches of fresh snow and saw otter tracks and followed them and saw two otters playing in the snow in what I called the New Pond just a few yards up from South Bay. Today, Leslie and I headed up Antler Trail and then took our usual route, of late, to the Big Pond. From afar I could see that the pond was not completely covered in snow which meant we might see holes in the ice that animals used. But when we got up to the area on the south end of the dam where the otters usually scat, there were no signs of otters having been there or the pond.

I even dusted the tree trunk and other places I know otters scat. There was an old scat on the trunk and given all the rain we had last week that is a good sign. But scanning the pond I saw no suggestion of otter slides in the ice or snow. Meanwhile the upper leak in the dam hasn’t be repaired.

Water keeps flowing out which will keep ice open above and below the dam so otters will probably have a way in and out of the pond most of the winter. Today, I saw a mink’s tunnel in the snow there. (I saw that after I took the photo above and the wind was too brisk and our footing too precarious for me to take off my mittens and take another photo there!) The beaver lodge up pond seems to be occupied. At least there is a winter pile of sticks beside it. With the snowfall the many muskrat lodges in the pond stood out.

Up at the Lost Swamp Pond there were no signs of otters either. I brushed off that area of the rock about the mossy cove latrine where otters often scat and there were no scats there.

But the pond was a wonder of shades and shapes caused by the wind blown snow.

But I didn’t see any otters slides or hints of slides and no holes in the ice, except small ones just behind the dam, not used by animals.

Not even by the mink that did tunnel in the snow on the shore and dam.

Then we headed for the East Trail Pond where, knowing that while I probably wouldn’t see otter slides, I could admire the recent beaver work. We went via the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam which a mink wired with trails after its usual fashion.

And I took a look at the Second Swamp Pond where I have not seen any otter signs all summer and fall, but last winter, otters spent some time in this now shallow pond.

We looked for fisher tracks in what, during the winter, I call the Fisher Woods, but saw none. We did see that a porcupine was active, as always, in that area feasting on the lower trunk of a sugar maple

And then sampling two bands of bark high and higher up the tree.

I walked up the ridge west of the East Trail Pond dam and then scrambled down the rocks to get a close look at the beavers’ work on the south shore of the upper part of the pond they are using. Beavers had been here for many years and then abandoned the pond abruptly in 2003. The beavers here now, who have demonstrated their survival skills by wintering in Meander and Thicket ponds and restoring Shangri-la Pond until their new dam failed, have mastered the art of bringing down big red oaks. They found two to cut right next to the new dam they are making in the middle of the old East Trail Pond.

There were no signs of the beavers having been out while the snow was falling, not even behind the small dam

I am not sure if the ice is gray behind the dam because the beavers had been active there. More likely they kept channels of ice gray around their lodge.

I speculate that the Last Pool beavers on our land are content to rest in the lodge for a couple days and munch what they can get under the ice. They have a grand cache of winter food. But I think these beavers will be on the edge of starvation all winter because the pond is so shallow and most of the tastier smaller trees were cut years ago. That said they didn’t waddle up on land and work on their several projects along the south shore, which includes resuming gnawing on a trunk that other beavers gave up on 7 years ago.

They are also stripping the bark of a big red oak that blew over years ago.

Some of the trees they are cutting look rather old, maybe sickly, like what may be a shag bark hickory pictured below.

They cut another large red oak at the end of a canal to a point and it didn’t fall down.

These beavers are used to that but, as I learned last winter at Meander Pond, beavers do waddle out from under the ice and check on the big trees still hanging in the air, so it must be disappointing.They have a couple more hangers in the woods at the west end of the pond but they are small and they might be able to cut and wrestle them down.

Walking along the slope south of the pond I saw quite a grove of young pines.

Hope I live long enough to see some of them grow tall, but the ever foraging deer might prevent that. I had planned to take the whole tour today and go to Audubon Pond and check the South Bay otter latrines. But having seen so few tracks so far, only deer, two minks, and surprisingly few squirrel tracks, I decided to make that inspection tomorrow. I did walk far enough up the trail to get a photo of the ice cover on the north cove of South Bay.

So, winter is here.

December 8 a cold but sunny morning, and day. It never got above 20 F. I went up and over Antler Trail and paused first at tracks on the snow covered granite outcrops that I thought might be big enough for a small fox.

Then I saw that the “small fox” made a wee tunnel in the show.

I saw even more mouse tracks on the next outcrop.

Why are mice up here on these rocks in this cold and snow? Otherwise I saw deer trails, but no tracks of coyotes, fishers, or porcupines, yet. I only saw deer tracks along the South Bay trail until I got far enough up along the north shore to see three otter slides out on the South Bay ice angling to or from the point in South Bay.

I couldn’t see any continuation of the three slides on the ice, nor on the shore below me. I didn’t any signs of otters visiting the docking rock latrine. Up at Audubon Pond, I didn’t see any signs of otters either, nor had the beavers been out. I took a photo of the pond below the embankment where just before the freeze I think the beavers were gnawing a tree that fell conveniently along the dam the little pond.

Then I headed back down to South Bay hoping that the otters who made their mark in the middle of the pond also visited the grassy slope that I’ve long called the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay. When I got back down to the bay I saw that there was new ice extending out to where the bay properly begins, and that there appeared to be slides on ice and holes in the ice, most partially frozen over, that could have easily been caused by otters bumping the ice as they swam below it.

But there were no slides bunched together, and where they got relatively close that didn’t resemble the knot of slides I saw down the bay.

Fortunately to relieve any doubts that something else made the slides and holes, otters had just been all over the latrine above South Bay.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed. Three or four otters ranged all over the latrine. This was not just a quick come up and scat visit.

Indeed one circle of grass was so dry that I think an otter or otters probably spent a couple hours curled up there.

Everywhere there was a riot of tracks and scats. The former were rather smeared over but the scats were easy to see.

There was also a nice crisscrossing of slides on the ice below the rock below the latrine.

Unfortunately the snow on rock was too tramped down in some places and melted in other places to show if any otters slid all the way down the slope to the ice. So, which otters were there, the family of three or four with pups born this year, or the gang of three or four that I saw at Picton Island that I think might be the family that spent last winter in the beaver ponds on Wellesley Island? The three slide down pond in the older ice are probably two or three days old which explains why I could see no continuation of them. The mother with two pups might have made those slides. Families typically keep close together. The fresh slides and scats up pond were probably made by a group of otters roughly the same size and all old enough to move about independently. I had another way to test those ideas. On my way home I walked out as far as I could on the point in the middle of the bay, and I saw no signs of otters there. My guess is that the family was out on the ice before we began to get snow. On the way home along the South Bay trail, I saw a beautiful deer in the woods

And another one farther along. After lunch we went to our land. It was too cold for the beavers to venture out, though turkeys had walked down the valley.

And it was almost too cold to work. On my way down to a big ash tree I was sawing, Leslie said she saw signs that a muskrat was in the Deep Pond. So since moving keeps you warm, I took a break from sawing to walk around the Deep Pond. Leslie had seen the muskrat sign on the low west shore of the pond. I approached the high east shore of the pond where there are several burrows in the bank, most with an entrance under the ice. I looked for holes muskrats might have made in the ice along the shore, and instead saw that an otter or two had made holes in the ice and slides up in the snow of the bank.

The otter or otters came up at four points along the bank, fashioning their biggest foray outside one of the newer bank burrows.

The action there made it look like two otters had been about. But I only saw one scat which up on the bank above that hole.

I saw two slides going up into the grasses and woods around the pond and I think I was seeing a slide going up and back, not two otters venturing up pond. I also saw slides around the open water formed by the water flowing in, but not as much activity as otters usual exhibit there in the winter.

I think that’s because it is a good bit shallower there than in other years, a lot of silt accumulated there last spring. I walked back around the pond to the dam to see if I could figure out how and when the otters came in. I saw older slides going over the dam down to the outlet creek.

And I saw one sure slide, and possibly another, going across the creek. But when I walked up to the road, which had been plowed, I couldn’t find any slides on the other side. So otters may have been in the Deep Pond for a few days. They didn’t just come in with the snow. This is more exciting than seeing otter slides on South Bay. I have seen signs of otters here in a couple years, and seldom so much activity, but not quite the scale the otters achieved when they seemed to go everywhere on our land and forage in every pond big and small.