Monday, January 3, 2011

December 20 to 31, 2010

December 20 In the midst of doing farflung errands I got a chance to check our land. I walked down to the Last Pool and found about an inch or two more snow there than on the island. It had been warm enough for beavers to break out from under the ice, if they wanted to. Evidently, they are quite snug in their lodge as there were no signs of them having come out from under the ice. Of course, looking at the lodge and cache it was easy to distinguish what I was seeing, but in the photo the usual simple outlines are blurred into a deep winter scene.

What will this look like when we get a couple feet of snow instead of just three or four inches? I didn’t walk down to check the dam but went up through the Hemlock Cathedral toward the Deep Pond. I was curious to see what tracks might be up there, and I only saw two porcupine trails. I have the impression that there was more hunting then usual here at the end of the deer season. At first look, the snow on the Deep Pond looked undisturbed,

Then I saw that an otter had come out of the hole in the bank coming up from an old beaver burrow into the bank.

There were no tracks leaving hole, but the size was right for an otter, the brown stain characteristic of an otter’s hole, and the last animal to make tracks there was an otter. So I am pretty sure an otter is under the ice eating fish at its leisure. No a bad life. There was open water in the pond where the inlet creek comes it, but thanks to silting, the pond is very shallow there and not too attractive for fish or otters.

When I crossed the inlet creek I found several turkey trails going up and down.

December 21 a cold calm first day of winter and if my trail didn’t end at a hole in a dam just made by otters, I would have headed off expecting a featureless hike. But even before I got to the dam, I noticed that the deer trails were well beaten. While there seems to have been a good bit of hunting at our land, there seems to be plenty of deer on the island. And coyotes, too. So I could follow deer trails all the way to the Big Pond, and once there, and on the ice, I picked up the trails of three coyotes, at least, evidently dancing around together here and there on the ice.

There was an open hole behind the dam and I could see mink tracks near it. I didn’t go close enough to be sure since the ice along the edges of this pond is iffy. At the north end of the dam, the coyote tracks veered up into the grasses just where a mink made a tunnel into the snow and ice of the pond.

I continued on to the Lost Swamp Pond passing no remarkable tracks, not that I would have let myself be detoured from what I expected to see. And yes, the pond ice had collapsed and the otters had taken advantage. I came down to the south shore of the pond and saw that the otters had come out from under the ice where the water drained away.

Although they scampered all around the hole they seemed to make a point of scatting on a clump of green grass.

Although this gaping hole was right below the mossy cove and mossy rock latrines, the otters didn’t go up there.

Back on the pond ice, in the confusion of prints and slides I could easily make out one adult and one pup,

And I think there was at least one other pup. There was another gap in the ice at the beavers’ old and ill maintained bank lodge.

I managed to ease myself out on the ice and survive one long cracking of the ice, fancying I could feel the ice settle a bit under me. I looked back at the latrine and could see the gap in the ice that formed along a dead tree trunk lying in the the pond.

There was no way to tell how many otters had been out but I think it is clear that there were more than three. There were no clumps of grass to poop on here so scats were spread out on the ice, including some stringy reddish brown scat.

I couldn’t get right up to it but I am pretty sure it is scat and not part of an intestine. Then I began back tracking the trail of the adult otter which crossed the pond and had come down the north shore of the southeast expanse of the pond. I kept expecting to find a trail looping up from the dam, but as I continued walking east I found only one deviation from the more or less straight trail. The otter went right up to the grass and left two little scats.

I think that is where there are some burrows into the bank. I know otters had been around there last winter. That spot is almost even with the lodge in the middle of the pond and there, I didn’t see any signs of an otter.

I could see a beaver gnawed stick, but it looked like coyote tracks were around it so perhaps coyotes had been playing with it.

I crossed over the little hill between the southeast and northeast reaches of the pond, still expecting to see an otter trail going east, but I didn’t. So, my guess is that the otter went under the ice all the way to the east end of the pond and then came back on top of the ice. It is remarkable that the pups did not follow. Last winter the family never seemed to separate, staying together until May, so seen in that light this pre-mature separation is promising. I should get some far ranging trails to track this year. On the way to the dam, I enjoyed a muskrat lodge braced by a dead shrub. Thanks to the otter, the lodge may be high and dry underneath the ice but there is a nice pool of water in front to the lodge.

Not a bad set up, as long as the otters stay away. As I approached the lodge by the dam, I saw that the ice dropped down on the shore where there have long been muskrat burrows.

I saw a mink poke its head out of one gap and then duck back into the hole. I approached slowly and then the mink darted from gap to gap. Seeing that a mink was there, I wasn’t sure I could credit the tracks I saw in the snow there to otters, nor could I get too close to that thin ice. The beaver lodge also had gap around it

I suspect that if otters had been out there, I would see more mud on the ice. Meanwhile as I continued walking to the dam, the pond ice kept creaking but held firm. My photo of the hole in the dam shows why. In general the pond ice was about 5 inches thick, thick enough to hold me and thick enough to stay firm where it settled down in the diminishing water of the pond.

That said I was glad to get off the ice. As for the hole, I couldn’t tell if it was any bigger; water was gushing out two days ago and continues to gush out.

The otters don’t seem to be going up on the ice there but they certainly went up to their latrine on the rocks and grass.

Here again the otters seemed to dance around one point, a granite rock in this case, and let fly.

The otters did not go below the dam, as far as I could see. Also, as far as I could see looking from the dam, the otters had not gotten out from under the ice at the far west end of the pond, as they usually do in the winter. I eased myself down on the ice and walked down there without too much creaking -- the farther from the dam, the less the ice creaks. Then I saw a line of mud on the ice,

And yes, the otters have been out of a gap in the ice there, but only venturing a few yards from the gap.

Seeing this gives me the impression of otters having great fun, a dance of freedom,

And yet it’s obvious that their dance of freedom lasts a few minutes, and then they seek refuge once again under the ice where they will spend hours and hours.

I was able to get a nice close up of one scat, riddled with fish scales

Last winter I saw slides up on the ice here, but the otters seemed shy about scatting on the ice. I only saw one or two. I headed home the way I came, marveling that if the otters had not left their slides and scats on the pond ice, it would have been a very dull hike.

December 27 we went away for Christmas but on the day before we did, the 22nd, Ottoleo toured the neighboring islands in the boat. He said he saw otter slides around Quarry Point on Picton Island, as well as on the north shore of Murray Island, and also on Bluff and Maple Islands. The slides were not all equally fresh but struck him as all exhibiting the same energy, suggesting that the same group of otters moved from island to island. Since I saw otter slides around the Lost Swamp Pond on Wellesley Island on the 21st, I think we can conclude that, as I have long thought, there are at least two groups of otters around. It was relatively cold while we were gone, indeed, bitter cold when we got back yesterday. There didn’t appear to be any new snowfall while we were gone which meant that there was only a couple of inches of well tracked snow. I headed off in the early afternoon, braving a brisk north wind, as the temperature edged up to 20F. I headed to the Big Pond along Antler Trail and saw three deer on the ridge along the south side of the first swamp. The deer had trails going all over, and I saw plenty of coyote trails too. Last night while sitting in our house, we could hear the coyotes howling out in the woods. At the Big Pond dam, I saw that a mink had popped in and out of the holes in the ice along the dam,

But no otters had been by and no water was leaking from the dam. The mink may have continued up to the muskrat lodges up pond but I couldn’t see its tracks amidst all the tracks of coyotes who visited some of the lodges.

I didn’t see any digging into the lodges so the coyotes were probably sniffing out the urine left on the lodge by other coyotes. As I got close to the active beaver lodge in the upper end of the pond, I saw where a turkey had landed,

And saw that it strutted over to the twigs of the beavers’ cache that stuck out through the ice, at least I think that is what the turkeys were eating. There seemed to be the tracks of several.

The photo suggests that there were also otter slides around the lodge, but while I stood there those “slides” appeared to be well worn trails of turkeys and coyotes. The beavers made a hole in the ice near the lodge and had collected several twiggy shrubs at the hole.

Of course, I appreciated seeing such clear evidence that beavers are using this lodge, but this is a bit early for beavers to be breaking the ice and going out to get more food. It is a testament to how small a cache of winter food they had collected in the fall. I followed their trail to the shore of the pond and saw a hole in the ice there where, I think, a beaver came out, though one could make the case that it was an otter slide.

But I didn’t see any otter scats, prints or slides in a typical pattern. I didn’t go up on shore to see where the beavers cut the shrubs they collected since it was about 20 or 30 yards to where there were any shrubs. My guess is that they cut a type of willow but I didn’t strain to make a positive identification which is difficult at this leafless time of year. I headed to the Lost Swamp along the surveyed line and saw old tracks that may have been made by a rabbit, which, for 20 years now, are relatively rare on the island. But most of the coming and going in those woods were by turkeys. Over the past five days the Lost Swamp Pond collected a nice array of tracks but I followed the otter slides that I saw five days ago, back tracking them.

When I first saw them I didn’t find where they started, having much else to see that day. I had supposed that an otter went up pond under the ice, broke out and came back on the ice. Well, maybe. Today I saw that the tracks came from the grasses at the foot of a hill forming the north shore of that section of the pond.

I poked around the grasses and saw no more tracks and no hole. I continued walking around the pond and over where the main channel should be, probably now a little ditch under the ice since so much water has drained out of the pond through the hole the otters put in the dam, I saw two holes in the ice with tracks all around.

I could easily see that most of the tracks were made by coyotes but there was mud around the hole and a few slides coming from the holes. Coyotes wouldn’t got in and out of the holes. So even though I didn’t see any connection between the slides at the holes and the slides going down the pond along the opposite shore, it was evident that an otter came up pond and broke out from under the ice. I walked back down the pond along the south shore, and just before I got even with the lodge, I saw slides coming out from the south shore, once again with coyote tracks all around the slides.

I followed them back to a hole in the ice along the shore and there were several otter scats on the snow outside the hole.

Meanwhile some animals had been around the lodge, coyotes probably, but I suppose an otter or beaver might have poked out.

There certainly wasn’t any evidence of a beaver getting up on the ice and going off to collect more food. I think the beavers here, probably just two, principally live off the under water vegetation in the shallows around the pond, and now that much of the water has drained out of the pond, they can stroll around and easily get to logs and twigs under the ice. Beavers don’t need sunshine and fresh air, so to speak. Then I went down to where all the action had been several days ago. While it is possible that the otters came out of the hole on the south shore near the lodge back on the 21st, I think I would have noticed all that commotion. I do know that the otters came out on the ice where holes developed as the ice crashed around a nexus of dead shrub trunks. Plus there were coyote prints all around.

The otters didn’t ventured far from the hole, but they left quite a few scats.

So I think they’ve been out here more than once. And I think they’ve been out again at their latrine in front of the old beaver bank lodge on the south shore of the pond.

And the scats here looked relatively fresh,

But there were no slides going off from the hole, which looked pretty well frozen, though with bubbles under it. So I don’t think the otters were out today or yesterday. Where ever the ice hung up on old tree trunks, there were or had been holes in the ice and I saw where an otter came out around one pedestal of ice.

However it wasn’t a compulsion of the otters to break out everywhere. I didn’t see coyote tracks around those otter prints, however coyote tracks were all around the latrine the otters used at the far west end of the pond, and there were also some small coyote poops.

I am not sure if the otters had been out again here, probably. Are the coyotes stalking the otters or just enjoying eating bits of undigested fish left in the otter scats? I walked along the roly-poly ice toward the dam and saw that an otter came out from under a big slab of ice still hung up on some dead tree trunks.

The impressions in the snow give the impression of otters coming out and one or two putting their chins in the snow up on the ice ledge, something that it is easy picturing an otter pup doing. I tried to get a photo of the hole in the dam to show the light on the other side of the hole, but I couldn’t quite do it.

The hole is quite big and as long as there is open water behind the dam, I don’t think otters will have a motive to dig it deeper. But once we get a week of below zero weather perhaps the otters will dig some more. Looking down at the hole from the bank, it doesn’t look like the otters come out there now,

And no otter revisited the otter latrine on shore there. Nor are there any otter tracks or slides behind the dam. I gingerly walked on the ice over to the beaver lodge next to the rock on the east end of the dam. The last time I was here, I saw a mink around the holes in the ice east of the dam. Looking at the lodge from the west, I couldn’t say for sure that otters had come on the ice there using the gaps left as the ice collapsed around the lodge, but it certainly looked that way.

Looking at the lodge from the east, it was easier to picture the otters romping on the ice.

However, there were plenty of coyote tracks, too. I saw some otter scats on their usual latrine up on the rock but it is possible that coyotes simply uncovered some old scats. There is a gap in the ice between the rock and the dam and there were mud stains on the ice there which is a good sign that otters come out there, but I didn’t see any scats.

I walked down the inlet creek and onto the Upper Second Swamp Pond and saw no otter slides down there. Last year otters did get under the ice there, but last year that pond had had more water. This year it never got more than probably six inches deep. I continued down onto the Second Swamp Pond. The water flowing out through the Lost Swamp Pond dam had opened the ice on the ponds below, but now that the outflow is greatly diminished the open water has iced over.

Last winter otters had come down and flourished under the ice here but this pond had been deeper too. Not much pond here for anything to flourish in under the thickening ice.

Tracking conditions in the Fisher Woods were not good. I crossed over a porcupine trail at the old East Trail Pond dam. Then I walked across that frozen pond and tried to find a good way up to the new dam. I made it without incident and once again was surprised to see no beaver made holes in the ice behind the small dam. Then I walked up to the lodge and not seeing any holes there either, I ventured too close to the lodge and both feet fell through the ice. The water came well up my thighs. Of course, the water felt relatively warm and I felt like a complete idiot. Fortunately I was able to climb up on the ice, and got back on safer ice without incident. I took a photo of the hole I made, less for the record than to make sure my camera did not get wet.

I am loath to keep a record of the holes I make in the ice. This is not the first. I seem to take a plunge somewhere every winter. In the photo above the hole looks farther from the ice than it actually was. I really had no business standing where I was. Of course, I knew that it isn’t a deep pond, but it is deeper than I thought. The ice was only two inches thick while in the Lost Swamp Pond it is at least 6 inches thick. The ice is thin there because the beavers have been swimming there under the ice. The best rule is to never go on the ice near an active beaver lodge, and, if you must, it is best to wait until the beavers fashion their own hole which will give you an idea of what channels around the lodge the beavers are using. Of course, my legs got cold. I took a beeline home which meant crossing South Bay on the ice. That exposed my legs to more wind. Fortunately, it was not quite cold enough for the pants to turn into hard ice. So I made a little better time than a Tin Man would have.

December 28 a quiet, cloudy day with temperatures just below freezing. We crossed the ice on South Bay and didn’t see tracks until we got to the north shore, a coyote trail and then three or four mink trails.

Of course one mink could have been going around in circles. They almost looked like rabbit tracks but all the prints were of equal size. The rabbits hind paws are larger than the front. We went up to Audubon Pond and didn’t see many signs of activity there, a deer trail and nothing else. As we crossed the ice we saw an eagle flying which looked quite white and then as we walked up toward the Narrows, Leslie, who took the high road, saw four eagles. I got there in time to get a photo of one, perched on a tree, and rather tame for an eagle.

Of course, I went down to the otter latrine in the grass above the rocks at the entrance to South Bay. Despite the ice on the rocks, there were coyote tracks on the snow there.

I was hoping the otters that had been touring the islands, judging from Ottoleo’s report of slides on Murray, Picton, Bluff and Maple, had also visited this latrine, as some did a couple weeks ago. While the bay was completely ice covered, a broad channel around the headland of Wellesley Island was open to the Narrows probably kept open by the persistent north wind we’ve had on the coldest nights. There was a large swath of clear ice from the open water to the snow covered ice of the bay, and there were various marks on the ice that almost suggested foraging and sliding otters, i.e. small holes and long discontinuities, but I really don’t think otters had been there.

Near the shore, below the rocky point, there was poop on the ice. I have never seen otter scats on the ice like that, and there are still geese around and they do poop on the ice, plus we had just seen four eagles and some big smears of white on the ice might have been from them.

I continued on the Narrows trail and checked the low rock along the Narrows where otters scat now and then. I saw coyote tracks there so maybe otters had been there and the coyote prints covered theirs and their scat. In the afternoon we went to our land, and I saw that the beavers were still snug in their lodge. I walked down to their old lodge and got a good look at the dam. I didn’t see any holes anywhere but caught the odor of sulfur dioxide which comes from stagnant water under the ice so there must be a little hole or two somewhere. There were a few rabbit trails crossing the pond and one stopped to nibble a mushroom at the base of a dead tree trunk.

I hiked up the ridge and through the Hemlock Cathedral heading toward the Deep Pond. When I got out from under the hemlocks I saw rabbit tracks all around as they were feasting on the woody plants sticking out of the snow. There were healthy piles of their brown ball poops and even red pee here and there.

Then I took the long slope down through the woods to the Deep Pond. I went to the hole the otter had been using and saw the something had covered it.

I have seen this happen to holes beavers had made in a bank beside a pond, but there is no beaver here. About 10 feet away there was a new hole in the bank but it was mink size, not otter size.

So has a mink moved in to where an otter had been, and patched the bigger hole? I walked around the pond and saw another mink-sized hole into the ice at the edge of the pond. But I saw no otters signs, which means I didn’t see any signs that an otter left the pond. Not much I can conclude about all this except maybe that probably only one otter visited the pond. Two otters would have made more impact up on the snow and ice of this small pond. One otter could easily find a comfortable niche in the bank and not bother with coming out into the light of day.

December 29 another cloudy day and the temperature climbed a bit over freezing. In the early afternoon, I headed off to check on the otters in the Lost Swamp. Of course, I went across the Big Pond on the way. Nothing new at the dam, and most of the coyote and turkey tracks on the melting snow are fading away. However, there was a new set of woody shrubs in the hole the beavers made next to their lodge.

I could see more gnawed sticks in the snow too. And then looking at the hole from the other side, I saw a long stripped log.

At the same time the water in the hole was frozen and I didn’t get the impression that a beaver had been sitting on the ice gnawing on the log. Maybe the log had been there before and the melting snow revealed it. I followed the beavers trail up the nearby slope forming the north shore of the pond. It is thick with little dogwoods and willows and I saw that some had been nipped recently.

At first glance, a slope of shrubs like this looks like an inexhaustible feast for beavers. Yet in recent winters in this pond and the Lost Swamp Pond, I’ve seen piles of twigs like this that the beavers collected during the winter that were never eaten, and in those years that the beavers collected more of these twigs, they had fewer if any kits. There were several beaver trails to follow up the slope and the one I chose, most to the west, didn’t lead to more substantial fare. It did get me onto the trail to the Lost Swamp Pond, my primary destination. I went up the east end of the pond first and didn’t see any fresh signs of otters up there. With the snow melting I could see more of the scats outside the otter hole on the south shore of the pond, but there was nothing new there.

Likewise, I saw more but nothing new in the other latrines, though I had to take a hard look at the area behind the hole in the dam. I could see slides up on the snow but I think they were old and the melting snow just revealed more. (It is a strange phenomena that slides in snow and ice can momentarily look bolder as the snow and ice melts.) However, it looked like there was a trail of bubbles under the ice that might be new. A mink could have done that, too.

On the whole, though, it looked like no otters had been out there , no new scats that I could see, not that they scatted much here to begin with. I walked down the north shore, picked up a short mink trail that ended where there was a half eaten leopard frog.

I continued on to the otters’ latrine around the gap in the ice at the west end of the pond, and saw nothing new there. I took a hard look at the latrine in front of the old beaver bank lodge and the array of scats on the ice looked the same, and the ice under the ledge of raised ice looked unbroken.

I began entertaining the thought that the otters had left the pond by going out the east end of the pond, the only area I haven’t investigated. Then I heard a splash in the water below me, then I heard an otter growl, and then a crack of ice and some otter snorts as if it got its nose in the air and was sniffing me. At first I stood still, hoping I might see the otter. No. I went up on the bank, heard some more ice cracks, but no otter appeared. Then I walked down on the latrine again which elicited no reaction from the otter. I am sure I only heard one otter. I looked under the ice ledge as best I could and could not see any holes in the thin clear ice under it. As I continued around the pond, I was counting my luck at hearing the otter or otherwise I’d think the otters had left. Then a bit farther up the south bank, I saw two new holes in the ice with otter slides and scats outside.

Both were new, so even if I had not heard the otter, I would have concluded that otters were still in the pond. I went home the way I came, and all was the same.

December 30 the weather has turned mild and a thaw is beginning. I took advantage of the warmth to work on sawing the big ash tree I cut down into logs. Of course, I took a break to check the Deep Pond to see if there were any signs of otters. I saw that a mink had crossed the pond

Leaving such deep tracks in the snow, I imagined that it had carried across something it had killed, and taken it to a hole along the edge of the pond where there are muskrat burrows and a beaver burrow.

I walked around the high bank of the pond and saw no signs of an otter coming out from under the ice, and no signs of an otter leaving the pond. I did see a vole scoot into a hole in the snow high on the bank.

Outside another mink hole along the low shore of the pond near the inlet, I saw two dead frogs.

The smaller one had been chewed enough to bleed; the bigger looked intact.

Over the years I’ve seen several frogs left behind by minks and otters, but, of course, I would never see ones they completely ate. There was no sign of anything in the small patch of open water behind the dam. And the Last Pool and Boundary Pond looked unchanged.

December 31 we went again to work at the land. During the night all the snow melted on the island and almost all the snow was gone at the land. I checked the Last Pool to see if the beavers had come out, no.

With the snow melting, the cache pile stood out better. I took a photo of the lodge from another angle, showing the pile of sticks they collected first.

The melt was collecting at spots in the pond,

But I saw no holes in the ice. Down at the Deep Pond more of the snow was gone so I saw no tracks. I did see that the dead frogs were gone outside the mink hole, and the mink hole was gone too. No signs of otters.