Thursday, November 27, 2008

January 18 to 24, 2007

January 18 we went to the land and I cut some logs, entertained by plenty of tracks on the way. Deer ventured on the pond ice

in search of water, and got some slush at least

Rabbit tracks and poop were everywhere

and the paths of a rabbit and a deer crossed

which looks so significant and means so little, save the difference between a gliding gait and a gathering jump of little paws.

January 19 we got an inch of snow late last night, wet snow that hugged the trees, warming snow, and good for tracking. I went out at two and headed over the ridge to South Bay, aiming to check out the beavers at Thicket Pond. There were perfect squirrel prints everywhere, but I can track those right out side our door. I flushed a small deer on the other side of the ridge, and then followed its tracks at least until it took me to a deer trail. I'm still working on this alternate route over the ridge. In deep snows, deer are the last thing you want to
follow, unless you fancy low hanging pines and tasty thickets. But this trail did indeed take me on an easy route; then a chickadee, hairy woodpecker and loud pileated woodpecker led me on my way; and then I picked up another deer trail that showed me an easy way down the ridge to South Bay. Deer don't crisscross down ridges, like I usually do, but they have a way of flowing straight down a hill that is relatively safe and easy -- at least in this case. On the South Bay trail I only saw more squirrel tracks. Still no porcupine and no fox tracks today. I put off
checking otter latrines until after I checked on the Thicket Pond beavers, because in the winter beavers come out in the day. A cold front is scheduled to move through, the wind had picked up, but it was still about at the freezing point. I sat in the wet snow atop the rocks southeast of the pond and listened for gnawing. A few trees knocked a bit in the wind. I walked around the pond checking the holes in the ice that the beaver used last time. All was snowed over. With the wet snow, I could see the lodge looming in thickets.

Still not safe enough to go onto the ice and get a closeup photo of this lodge. Then at the end of the canal, or almost to the end, in the northeast corner of the pond, I saw where beavers had come out and gone on shore

I waited down wind for about 10 minutes since the trail in the snow looked fresh, but no beaver appeared. I did see that a trail extended way up the ridge north of the pond. I had penciled in staking out this ridge, late in the winter, when beavers were desperate for food. Why go up there now? But before
tracking the beaver, I hovered over the hole in the ice, since thanks to the lapping of the water, I could sense a beaver's approach before it could sense me. But nothing stirred.

The beavers had come up and gnawed on a small white oak they cut down a month ago, and so this proved the wisdom of the beavers' habit of not completely stripping the bark off a tree soon after they cut the tree down.

Then I contemplated the trail going higher up the hill. I decided to walk around the rest of pond to make sure the beavers didn't come out somewhere else. Ice had not formed over the spring in the northwest corner of the pond but the
beavers didn't take advantage of that.

There was a small hole in the ice behind the dam, but no beaver nosed out. I went up to their burrow on the south shore, but saw only seamless snow there. Then I went back to the trail up the ridge.

Judging from the drag marks on the trail, a beaver brought down a smallish branch. The trail went straight up and then curved to the left, like the beaver was after something in particular. I expected to stumble onto some significant bit of lumbering and instead found the trail ended at a mid size
twin-trunked red oak, but that wasn't even gnawed. There was a twig stuck in some rotten wood next to it.

As far as I could tell the beaver came up this far just to collect a few twigs. This point was a good 50 yards from the pond. Then I walked down the ridge a bit, and tried to get a photo of the whole pond with the large lodge in the middle

I've noticed that beavers, and muskrats for that matter, like to go the extra distance at times to get their food. In this case, I think the beaver wanted to proved that the new conditions, ice and snow, in no way diminished its ability to get up to the farthest point of its fall foraging. And this beaver didn't even seem that hungry. Itseemed like the gnawing on the white oak next to the pond was just a fueling stop for the launch up the hill. I'm still penciling in coming back here later in the winter to see a beaver pull down some real snow raking
crowns. I stayed up on the ridge and found the park trail and took that to Audubon Pond. No tracks on the ridge, and none on the pond either. The beavers here were content to forage what they stored under the ice. But I think there are only two beavers here, while I think there are at least five in Thicket Pond, maybe more, considering how big their lodge is. I heard a hawk. There were no otter signs at any of the latrines along South Bay. The west wind had broken all the black ice that formed on the recent minus zero night. The water level is very high and even
where there is ice, the water is overflowing it along the shore and opening holes which I hope will be inviting for otters.

And then where the willows reach out over the bay, the ice below seems as quirky as the old tree above it and here too are holes where an otter could surface for a breath of air and a quick slide in the snow that would make my day.

As it was, on my way back over the ridge to home, I discovered a spider tracking me, deep in my boot print.

It scurried away as I photographed it.

January 20 In the early afternoon of a cold, sunny day, I headed off to check the beaver ponds. No porcupine on the golf course today, and nothing new down the second valley to the big pond, save that a porcupine headed into the rocks higher up in the valley. A porcupine seems to have many decisions to make. In such a jumble of rocks two roads never diverge in the snow. At least four holes into the rocks confront the porcupine

and a dozen more further into the pile.

As I came out of the valley, I tried to aim myself to the Upper Big Pond. I followed deer trails through the thickets, switching back and forth, and then I saw a tree the beavers cut next to a smooth dome shaped rock and then just
beyond I saw the pond.

I picked up the beavers trail, only used by the deer so far since the snow, and then off on another path I saw a swath of beaver lumbering.

The work seemed relatively fresh, done in the late fall, but nothing recent. The beavers feasted mostly on white oak. They cut elm and ironwood, but haven't stripped them much. I took the path to the pond and got another photo of the lodge.

No evidence at all of the beavers trying to get out on the ice. I followed the path to the southeast corner of the pond and bumped into what looked like a long canal, probably dug this fall,

that led to a more extensive swath of lumbering. Again, this was not recent, but here they found several ash trees which they stripped and segmented with gusto.

I eased onto the ice and headed out to check some stomping out on the pond and it proved to be coyotes romping about.

I saw the tracks of three coyotes going off the dam back on the pond

and a good many coyote tracks along the dam. The leak in the dam slowed down considerably and the ice had sunk down a good bit.

I think the beavers themselves did this to give themself more breathing room under the ice. I calculated the the active beaver lodge on the Lost Swamp Pond was just over the ridge, and I was right, and then I calculated that I could cross that pond and, walking straight, get down to the active lodge in the Upper Second Swamp Pond. Tnere are three active lodges within a couple hundred yards of each other. I should measure this out -- but today wasn't the day. As I came down a frozen canal in the marsh south of the lodge on the Lost Swamp Pond,

the pond looked easy to cross. Then a few yard out onto the pond, my boots sunk into the snow and found slush. I went to patches of bare ice, thinking that, since they were not insulated with the icy snow that they would be solid. The first steps were but then I sunk into the ice a few inches down to slush. I probably could have made it but, I hate that slush. So I walked down to where I know the old dam was and crossed there. Then to get across the northeast spur of the pond, I walked up to the narrowest point. No sweat. Then I walked down to the lodge on
the Upper Second Swamp Pond where, just as around the Lost Swamp Pond lodge, nothing had stirred.

I tried the ice of that pond and finding no slush made my way across. Since I was lining up beaver lodges, so to speak, I decided to go over the high ridge to the Third Pond where if the beavers made a lodge at the burrow I saw one swim out of, then that lodge would extend my straight line of lodges! This was silly thinking, and, as it so happened, it got my bowels churning and I relieved that at the foot of the next ridge. One needs to lighten the load as much as one can when going over snowy ridges. As I came down the north slope of the ridge, I picked up a porcupine trail threading the rocks on ridge

I checked for a den and was surprised to see fresh poop inside and some reddish pee outside the smallest of possible dens. It had barely enough ledge to cover a small porcupine.

I got down to the pond and saw that the beavers didn't make a lodge outside the burrow and there were no signs of their using the burrow. The lodge well down on the pond below, to the east in this watershed, had a long cache outside it.

I noticed some tracks on the far side of the upper pond that could have formed a slide. I checked and saw, what I expected, just coyote traffic. These animals move too far too fast to track. As I debated which way to head home, I crossed a fisher's trail

and this is an animal worth tracking even for a short distance because they are not shy about marking the territory. I followed the trail up the hill and was chagrined to find that the fisher had checked out the same porcupine trail that I had noted -- why didn't I notice the fisher tracks? A fisher is a mustelid like an otter and has the same senibilities as an otter in the route it chose over the ridge, more or less straight up and down.

I think otters do that to get as high up as soon as possible so they can slide down at any provocation, a reason that won't work with fishers because they don't slide in the snow. I found one definite marking -- a spot of green urine, at the base of a tree.

At another tree I didn't see any mark but the fisher did make a right angle turn as it nosed by the tree. Fishers often walk on tree trunks. This one didn't but it did go up to a tree the beaver had cut down, stepped up on the trunk and then jumped off and changed directions again.

As it headed down the high ridge north of the Upper Second Swamp Pond it was not far from my tracks coming up. The fisher took a steeper angle. I was pulling for it to have headed west, my usual route home, but it went east, and then,
much to my embarrassment, it went right over the area where I had left my mark, so to speak.

I had rather looked over that area when I had been forced to pause there, and now I realized that the fisher went by after I had done my business. The fisher was back-tracking and escaping me and studying my scat, although I must say, it didn't even break its stride as it passed what I had left. Humans are not that interesting to a fisher. I headed down to the Second Swamp Pond dam and saw no activity there. The ice on the pond is beginning to collapse -- otters would do well here.

I crossed the dam of the little pond below the Big Pond, though it is hardly a dam anymore. Water flows right through it. I walked down the ridge to the south. I had seen a porcupine around there in the fall and wanted to see if I could find its tracks. I didn't, but I did pick up another fisher's trail and it sniffed around likely rocks where a porcupine might den.

Coming over the ridge after 4 pm I flushed nine deer, four on the north side, five on the southside. The deer are herding up, even though the snow is not that deep. The deer seemed small and quite warm and beautifully brown in the snow at twilight.

January 21 the wind was calm in the morning, and while it was just below zero at dawn, it climbed to six by 9 am and I went out and bailed the ice and water out of the boat. There was much ice fog on the river and skim ice, so we decided to row a bit around Goose Island to see what conditions were like. As I rowed around the east end of the little island I saw that, as they usually do every winter, an otter or two had gone up on the rock.

We determined that motoring on the river was possible. So I drove the car up to the gas station, and once back in the boat, that warm gas soon had the engine purring. So off we went. Let me say, this was a somewhat foolish trip. There is no boat traffic on the river on Sunday and if our engine quit in the cold or the ice surrounded us, we would be on our own. We went around Goose Island and headed west to see the otters next stop.

The headland of Wellesley island was protected by ice that extended to Grinnel Island, so we had to head west along side the main channel, thread some ice around the small islands out there and then head north in the open water between Maple, Murray and Picton islands. We saw our first eagle when it flew off a lone tree on one of the islands near the channel. We flushed a few ducks on the way, and then between Maple and Picton we sent waves of ducks into the air. They were either buffleheads or goldeneyes. Skittish like the latter but no whistling when
they flew. There were surely five hundred ducks, and Leslie and I both agreed that we probably saw a thousand ducks. Then as they ducks flew off, eagles began appearing from all sides. The one thing we did not want to do was stop the engine so as we moved all fowl about us moved. There was no steady wind so some went south some flew north. Two eagles seemed to make a serious attempt to capture one of the ducks that didn't fly off. Then getting into Eel Bay

we were diverted by the large duck that flapped and flapped and couldn't get airborn. We thought it might be a loon that didn't head south soon enough. But then we were distracted from it by five eagles that flew off the pine trees at Quarry Poind of Picton Island. I had been scanning the shore looking for otter slides and saw none. There were some tracks at the Picton Island latrine, but not from otter.

I slowed the boat at the point and then we saw three eagles remained in the pines two immature ones. So I tried to photograph them

and then we saw two more eagles in pines a bit to the west. I had the boat going around in circles and everywhere we looked we saw eagles flying! At least 14 all totaled. Perhaps this congregation of eagles made the otters shy of going to their usual latrine at the point. That was my only scientific observation. The rest was pure excitement. We went back the same route we came. Colder with some wind in our face but all the birds were gone, save for one eagle we saw perched on a tree on the southeast end of Grinnel. At home we were as giddy as the ducks, but promptly clipped our wings, nestled in blankets and had hot stew for lunch.

Two hours later duty called me back outside. The otter slide on Goose Island had been made before some ice formed around the island last night. In other years, when I saw a slides on the island, I saw otter slides in the Narrows and in the latrines in South Bay. So I had to check to see if the otters had visited those sites before the ice formed last night. There were fresh tracks all around South Bay of every animal, even fisher, but not the particular ones I study: no signs of otters, beavers or muskrats. It looked like a raccoon came down for a
drink at the old dock.

A mink hopped about the old docking rock.

I puzzled over what went up the creek flowing down from the Audubon Pond drain. I usually see mink tracks here, but the tracks were too big for a mink. The tracks had the two by two pattern of a raccoon

but a close look showed a paw that looked a bit more ferocious, more claw and less toe, and raccoons don't usually drag their feet.

I wondered if it was a porcupine scared into the trot. I saw a typical, tight, churned up porcupine paths, coming down the ridge

and directly down to the bay, probably trying to get a drink of water.

Coyote and fox tracks showed me the way to the otter latrine at the entrance to South Bay. I went up to the rock where I often sit at the point and saw that a fox had come up to scope the same view

and no sign or smell of it marking the rock I was sitting on. On the boat trip in the morning I couldn't tell if there was open water between Murray and Grinnel islands. Now I saw that all was iced over, the Narrows too.

The black ice there has often allowed me to count long lines of perch swimming under the ice going from South Bay to Eel Bay. Today I saw a line of perch that just kept coming.

Looking at that bounty I have to ask myself why otters would want to scoot along the snow and ice where no meal can be found, just for my entertainment. But are they getting to these perch, and exactly how? Some boathouses and docks must afford perfect perches from which to pounce on the fish. But how much energy can an otter spend chasing fish in the winter? Wouldn't they prefer the confines of a marsh or beaver pond to fish in? I went up through the valley to Audubon Pond and admired the energy of the deer pawing through the snow to get to the red oak acorns.

Only in the winter does this litter of dead leaves actually look like a meal, though deer, squirrels, raccoons, turkeys, etc., have been scraping up leaves for a few months now.

Only coyotes had been around Audubon Pond, prancing down the causeway

and then frisking or fighting on the pond ice.

I should be looking for one with a broken left front foot. I often think of that coyote I saw swimming.

January 23 with snow predicted for the afternoon, I headed off in the morning to see what new tracks might be out on the ponds. No sign of the porcupine on the golf course. Up on the ridge a raccoon peaked into the old porcupine
den at the base of dead tree. Perhaps it's now a raccoon den.

The raccoons have kept up their trails at the top of the second valley down to the Big Pond. Going down the valley I only crossed one porcupine trail and that not fresh. I took my new route through the brush directly to the pond above the Big Pond. When I left the house the temperature was just below 20. At the foot of the valley I began noticing snow fleas, evenly dispersed in the snow, not crowded into old tracks yet. So I think they just let fly and they seemed pretty jumpy on the snow. Where ironwood seeds had fallen on the snow I saw a zigzag of tracks, from mice or voles I should think.

The warmth was condusive to taking a closer look at the beaver work on the south side of the pond. The trunk of the big oak they cut was interesting. The two tones of the cut wood shows that the beavers returned recently to finish a cut they started some time ago.

I tried to get a photo showing the beavers' taste for white oak. The crown of that tree had been taken and the crown of an iron wood, and the rest of the tree for that matter, had not been touched, even though the ironwood was much
smaller. There was also a smaller elm nearby that had been cut down but not nipped.

That said, the beavers left one oak log hanging -- just one more bite would cut it!

The beavers cut several larger trees farther back in the brush. Then as I walked toward the pond I saw that they cut a series of small trees

-- willow, I think.

By the book, they should be doing the opposite, cutting the small trees away from the pond and only cutting the large trees near the pond. If I had sure knowledge of trees, I could inspect the cache around the lodge and get a better idea of the beavers' shopping list.

Plus one could calculate their construction methods, which wood is favored to brace the mud on the lodge? But I'm too old, or too young for that. I'm most curious about where the beavers will come out from under the ice. At the end of a canal? at the dam? right at their lodge? I went up pond to see if there was any weakness in the ice. None that I could see. I went almost as far as the lodge they used last year, which looked rather deflated.

I assume they raided it for sticks to use to build up the dam and on their new lodge. While the ice of the pond is collapsing there were no holes at the dam. No new coyote prancing. I headed over the Lost Swamp Pond lodge, and there was no slush today so I walked around the east side of the lodge, a view I don't get in other seasons.

In the fall I got the impression that the
beavers arranged sticks on top of the lodge to make it less
comfortable for otters. With a closer look, I still think they
indeed might have done that. It looked like a rather sharp roof.

I continued on, down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond lodge, where all was snug. As I walked out on the pond, I was surprised at how much the ice had collapsed behind the dam.

One winter I blamed a collapse on a hole the otters put in the dam, but this collapse was clearly the result of leaks all along the dam that the beavers never repaired during our rather soggy fall. I walked below the dam as far in as I could and saw wet ice and flowing water all along it -- not a case of one or two holes letting out a torrent of water as was the case in other years. I walked down the Second Swamp Pond and saw a muskrat pushup over in the grasses on the south shore of the pond.

When the otters made their under water escape while the RIT students watched, they swam into those grasses and now I see that the could have found a refuge in the muskrat pushup. Other than gawking at the snow fleas, I had an uneventful hike over the ridges to the Thicket Pond. Here was the best chance to see a beaver out on the ice. I did see a hole in the ice, that obviously had been used.

Beavers can't go out when it is too cold for fear that the hole might ice over while they are out. Yesterday the temperature got in the low twenties. No reason for a beaver to tremble at that. I could see that the oak that had been the object their gnawing looked more used. The trail beside it looked

and it continued up the hill, but only as far as a red oak, which a beaver tasted. If their behavior in Meander Pond last winter is any guide, they will soon cut down this red oak and stripped it.

I continued around the dam. There was open water at the spring in the corner of the pond but no beavers took advantage and I was surprised to find that here too the ice collapsed behind the dam. I saw one narrow hole, but nothing had been in or out. They still haven't started gnawing the trunk of the big red oak they cut down. These beavers have too much to eat. Seeing the holes in the collapsing ice, unforced by beavers, persuaded me to not try to get on the ice and closer to the lodge. As I walked away from the pond, heading down to South Bay. I heard what sounded like the call of small elephant. I stopped but heard no more. I walked back toward where I heard the noise, and saw deer, fox and fisher tracks. A mystery. I also saw fisher tracks coming up from the end of South Bay. No otter slides though. I went out to the willow lodge on the point, and found fox tracks and fisher tracks. I got a strong whiff of odor and saw a squirt of pee, I think from a fox, though a fisher was hoping around the same area.

Only the fox went out to the willow lodge. The water level of the river is at early summer levels, extremely high for this season. Good news for any beavers in this lodge. Plus the ice along the shore was getting flooded by rising water whipped by the west wind. I think I could see a little hole in the ice under the willow limb, but no sign that beavers had been out, nor otters.

As I headed home it began to snow so I was in the woods at the snow fell, best place to be. I peered down to see if the snowfleas exhibited any consternation as the snow pounded down -- no.

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