Saturday, November 12, 2011

November 2 to 8, 2011

November 2 I tried to get to the East Trail Pond soon after the sun began warming up the sloping latrine that the otter or otters have been using there. The wind was coming from the southeast which made sitting above the northwest end of the pond the place to be, theoretically. But as I sat high on the ridge, I saw the tricks the wind can play including coming down the valley to the west and even gusting from the valley to the north. When the wind get over 15 miles an hour, it plays through the valleys seemingly willy-nilly, or put it this way, all these segmented curving granite ridges lure the wind every which way. Not that my wafted scent alerted any animal out in the pond. I sat long enough to see that there were no otters or beavers out. I did see a wood duck in the pond right below me. A small flock of cedar waxwings flitting in and around the kept me entertained. I slid down the hill and took a photo of where I had been sitting which was right behind and above a small truncated white oak that the beavers had started to cut down.

Then I checked the otter latrine and got the impression that the otter had not been back here. At least there were no new scats. I took a photo looking from below the latrine hoping that would provide an illuminating angle on some of the otter scent mounds.

Then I took a photo looking down on the biggest scent mound, hoping the bright sunlight would better define its heft.

Standing closer to the pond, I took a photo of the winterberry bushes, though the waxwings had flown off.

Satisfied that an otter was not around nor a beaver on watch, I walked around the pond and took photos of the trees the beavers have been cutting, which I have neglected to do the last few times I was here. The photo below is not very good. The trail the beavers had made angling up the ridge is quite dramatic and the major attraction for the beavers is not the tree they are girdling to the left of the trail but another girdling job almost at the crest of the ridge.

The sun was shining right where the beavers had girdled the trunk, actually making it harder to appreciate, in a photo.

These beavers first came up this ridge last year in the fall and then throughout the winter. No trips up during the spring and summer and beginning a month or so ago, they started coming back up. But most of their recent work is on the south shore of the pond. They did a magnificent job of stripping one long narrow trunk that fell square down pointing directly at the pond.

As a rule, I think it is foolish to try to tell the age of beavers by the way they gnaw trees, but seeing three deep cuts in the trunk just a few inches apart, encourages me to think that there may be a couple kits here.

I have been writing about beavers and sharing it on the web since 1999. Thanks to the growth of the web and increased interest in beavers, my observations have become more and more irrelevant. And, it seems to me, almost unpalatable because they deviate so much from the accepted wisdom about beavers. It is indeed possible that my observations have become too focused on this one beaver family that I have followed for 10 years more or less. Beavers are supposed to feast on fast growing softwoods, and have an eye for smaller trees which are easily transportable and used by beavers to make and repair dams and lodges. But this family has a taste for girdling the largest oaks and maples in the surrounding woods.

It makes a good bit of sense for beavers to girdle and eventually kill large trees because it is to the beavers’ advantage to open the ground to sunlight and give other vegetation, including small softwoods, the chance to grow. Next to the girdling of the big tree, there was a cluster of smaller trees, two ash and two maples. It will be interesting to see if all four are cut.

A maple the beavers have been cutting for about a month, that I sat behind one evening while waiting for the beavers to come out, fell parallel to the pond and along the top of a small granite cliff, not the most convenient place for beavers.

But judging from the branches that they cut and stripped, the beavers worked easily enough along the edge of the cliff.

It would be fun to see them trying to cut the remaining branches.

The beavers resumed gnawing on side-by-side maples. Hard to tell but judging from the color of the gnaws, this may be the third time that the beavers resumed gnawing these trees, last year, this spring and now.

Beavers generally make steady progress in segmenting the trees they cut down into logs. Here are three photos of a maple they cut back in late September. On the 28th it still had a leafy crown,

By October 5th the leaves had been eaten off the tree,

and now all the branches are cut. I don’t know why the beavers didn’t gnaw bark off the trunk

Farther down the pond toward the dam, another maple that fell into the water seemed to have gotten the same treatment.

Perhaps the beavers are reserving the trunks of these trees for gnawing in the winter because they are closer to the lodge. Beavers cache branches by the lodge, but never enough, in such a shallow pond, to kept them fed. Speaking of the cache, the vegetation out in the pond is dying down and I think I am seeing a cache pile growing a few yard south of the lodge.

I strained the editing to get that photo of the cache which puts the pond in an unflattering light. To make up for that I took a more artistic photo showing beaver work, the pond, and the beautiful ridge north of the pond.

Finally I checked the dam which is well built up along its south end. This is quite an engineering marvel since it transverses the widest part of the valley. (The old dam, which backed up water that covered maybe three times the area of the current pond, was built across the narrowest part of the valley.) So I don’t second guess these beavers, but I can’t figure out why they don’t start building a dam below this one.

Other than this general build up at the south end of the dam, they seem to be building up the dam in smaller segments where I assume the trouble spots are.

I’ll try to walk along the dam before the pond freezes. It would harder for the beavers to make repairs, if I mis-step once ice forms.

November 3 we worked at our land today and the first thing we did was walk down the road, for exercise, where we saw that beavers had cut more or the willows between White Swamp and the road.

There were nips at two spots along the shore.

Given the low angle of the sun, I couldn’t tell if the water out in the swamp was muddy.

There is a pipe under the road draining a small pond of water surrounded by willows, the low point of a big pasture that 80 head of cattle keep well trimmed. There was a pat of mud above the pipe on the swamp side that a beaver might have pushed up. But there were no signs of beavers being in the pond on the other side of the road. Back at our land, I checked on what the beaver at the Deep Pond has been doing. The beaver has pushed up more mud and expanding the wall of mud beyond the gap in the dam that it had to first patch.

The mud wall is growing beyond the gap in the middle of the dam, too.

This beaver hasn’t made its mark as a tree cutter or a log hauler, but it is up the highest beaver standards when it comes to pushing mud up on the dam.

It appears that the beaver is dredging up plants with the mud it heaves up, which must help stabilize the mud.

I haven’t checked the bank lodge under the knoll in the southwest corner of the pond. It is difficult to get to because I have to climb up and over the knoll to get a good look at it. In the summer I usually approach from the other direction and hop over the inlet creek, but that area is flooded a bit now so getting there that way is not so easy. Parting the bonesets along the west shore, I saw a small pat of mud up on the shore.

However what trails there were through the grasses along that shore didn’t lead to any beaver work. Deer and raccoons also pass this way. I managed to get up on the knoll and found that I didn’t have to work my way through the dense honeysuckles to get to the other side. Enough leaves were down so I could see that the beaver had pushed mud up on the lodge.

That suggests that it is denning there now and planning to spend the winter there.

November 4 we are on the southern shore of a large island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River and when there is a north wind we can be fooled into thinking that there is no wind at all. Once we went around the headland, we could feel the wind, cold wind because the temperature was about 40 degrees, and I steered the boat so we went up the lee shore of Murray Island. When we rounded the Murray headland we faced the white caps but managed to get over to the lee shore of Picton Island. The wind along the northeast shore of Picton was not that strong but conditions were not good for rowing along that rocky shore. I puttered past where the otters left fresh scats when we were here the 31st, and didn’t see any new scats there. I saw new scats on a rock in the same area they latrined before, but they weren’t bunched up as so many were on the 31st.

Unable to get close to the scats, I wasn’t really able to characterize them. As I steered the boat around Quarry Point, I thought I saw a trail up through the grass to an old otter latrine. We have finally had a few below freezing nights and I wondered if the cold was making those latrine on the south shore of Quarry Point more attractive to otters. Those rocks get warmth from the sun in the morning that the north shore never gets. We docked the boat and I hopped up the rocks to the grassy ledge. I got a photo of scratching up a trail,

But I didn’t see any otters scats nearby. This mossy area retains its green but most of the ledge had dead grass falling over with no signs of otters going through, and no scats.

When we got back into the calmer water behind Murray Island, we realized South Bay would be calm too. So we docked on some rocks just below the otter latrine at the entrance to South Bay. Up on the grassy ledge I saw a trail coming up from the water, and scratching down to dirt. But there were no scats.

I followed the animal’s trail higher up the slope and saw some more scratching that combed the grass and moss.

In a pile of dead leaves below the scratching I saw the glint of grayish, scale-laced scat.

So an otter was here. Then we continued up the ridge (never seen any evidence that otters do this,) and enjoyed the mosses on one of the most beautiful rocks on the island. Two kinds of mosses predominated, sometimes sharing the same knob of rock.

The top of this ridge is formed by a roll, a rib, a wave, a snake, a magnificent stroke of ancient wisdom….

That we always enjoy walking down.

Then I checked on what the beavers have been up to around Audubon Pond, and, as always, kept an eye out for otter scats, but I didn‘t see any. As for beaver work, they cut down an ash in the woods west of the pond that fell directly toward the pond.

The beavers seem to prefer stripping the bark off the trunk rather than cutting all the branches and taking them to the pond.

They also stopped trying to take a large maple log they cut to the pond, and instead are stripping bark off the trunk where it lays.

They seem to be paying less attention to these woods and concentrating on a grove of ash in the northeast corner of the pond. Here they are cutting smaller ash and taking branches and logs to the pond, going down a gentle slope.

That said, they are stripping the bark off two larger ash trees here, that conveniently fell for both beavers and humans.

This man-made pond is too well kept and doesn’t support as much wildlife as beaver-made ponds. The state park people mow the grass on the south and east sides of the pond. The woods on the west side keep down undergrowth which leaves the north side where beavers might shop for smaller things to eat. There are a few cattails in the water, but the shore is relatively dry. Beavers evidently don’t eat asters. So to survive the beavers cut down trees, even shag-bark hickories. Where ponds are surrounded with dense vegetation, the beavers’ foraging patterns make an impression. I can get a feel for the beavers’ likes and dislikes. But here the foraging seems more humdrum. In the southeast corner of the pond, the beavers had cut one maple and taken a few logs to the pond. One large log remains on the slope.

And the beavers cut another maple nearby, and have begun segmenting that.

We walked along the embankment to get back to our boat. The cache pile in front of the bank lodge along the embankment seems to have a few more branches on its outer edge.

While these cache piles are designed to feed beavers during the winter, I’ve often seen kits eating in them at this time of year. It is important for them to fatten up for the winter. That I don’t see any nibbled sticks in the cache is another indication that the pair of beavers here don’t have any kits. There were some stripped sticks on the other side of the lodge, away from the cache.

Probably leftovers left by an adult.

November 6 I took a hike with Ottoleo and Chris Baird out to the East Trail Pond. Heading over Antler Trail we were diverted by picking ticks off our pant legs. Then along the South Bay trail Chris scratched trees with holes hoping to lure out a flying squirrel which he did earlier this year. Since the beavers and otters have been so active at the East Trail Pond, I expected to have plenty of show to tell about. So I had, and with the smell of fresh otter scats to accompany my lecture.

Otters had just been there, and given the number of new scats and their size, I think there must have been more than one otter.

There was another huge scent mound up on the rock. Since I was with others, I didn’t make a close study of it. Perhaps an otter combined two neighboring scent mounds into on. Plus I have difficulty picturing how an otter makes such a mound beyond raising ground litter with its churning hind legs. How does it shape the mass or is it accidental?

I took advantage of having human bodies around to help put the otters’ work in perspective.

Their better eyes also helped. I opined that there were probably not fish to speak of in the pond, and Chris saw one wiggling below us. Then we turned our attention to what the beavers have been up to. Looking at the lodge, I keep thinking I am seeing a cache pile, off to the right in the photo below.

In telling the history of the East Trail Pond beavers, I mentioned their dramatic sojourn in Shangri-la Pond just over the ridge. So before showing the beavers’ recent lumbering on the south shore of the East Trail Pond, I took the “boys” (30 and 24 years old respectively, MS and Ph. D. students respectively) over to what remains of the beavers’ works in Shangri-la Pond. The lodge remains in relatively good shape.

The beavers used logs from some very old lodges in the upper East Trail Pond for bracing their dam and, I assume, building their new lodge, but they didn’t come up to this empty lodge which is only about 50 yards up creek from the East Trail Pond. After a brief history of the dam which failed catastrophically twice in one month in 2009, we went across the East Trail Pond meadow on the boardwalk. I thought the three of us crossing on or below dam might damage it. Going up the south shore of the dam, I noticed some new girdling of a small oak up on the ridge.

To our surprise, a good bit of the well shaded south side of the pond was still frozen. Ottoleo tapped into it and found it about ¾ of an inch thick. We could see ice breaks consistent with a beaver busting the ice with its head.

While I hope there is a kit or two in this family, I must say that the bubble trails we saw under the ice and the few cracks in the ice that we saw could be done by just two or three beavers out in the pond.

However, there were interesting bubbles under the ice seemingly going into an old burrow that while probably made by beavers had been used by otters when they used to raise their pups here years ago. Of course, muskrats could also use the burrow.

However I have never seen any otter scats or muskrat poops around this burrow. Beavers typically have an auxiliary den. So a beaver probably left the trail of bubbles. Meanwhile a flock of waxwings were perched on top a dead tree on the shore of the pond, seemingly oblivious to us.

Then I showed them the beaver work heading up the slope south of the pond. Comparing photos from the 2nd and today shows how much bark stripping the beavers had done on the maple that fell parallel to the pond up on a rock ledge.

As you move away from a beaver pond you usually see that beavers prefer to cut smaller trees. A beaver demonstrated that by starting to cut a small oak growing out of a larger one.

But after I shared that lesson, Ottoleo pointed out that a beaver had tasted two of the bigger trunks.

So who knows what these beavers, who like to cut large trees, will wind up doing. The last tree the beavers cut up on this slope was a small one.

It was easy to push down, so we did the beavers a favor. We’ll see if the beavers come back to finish the job.

November 8 meanwhile the beaver at our land continues to bolster the dam and slowly spreading mud along the whole length of the dam.

There were two interesting things on the dam, a granite rock about the size of a softball pushed up by the beaver and caked with mud,

And a frog which got up on the dam by itself, and on this cold day, was not disposed to move no matter how close I got to it.

We saw a frog on the dam here four days ago

Today the frog was sporting some green.

This has been a warm fall, but the pond could be frozen over in a few weeks.