Thursday, December 11, 2008

January 9 to 17, 2006

January 9 yesterday Leslie reported seeing otter tracks coming down the inlet creek and into the Deep Pond on our land. She back tracked them up the inlet creek and discovered a few pools of water up that way that might have
interested otters. It seems that creek curves around and an otter might portage a bit and get back to White Swamp which is where the Deep Pond drains into. We planned to go over first thing this morning to see what the otters might have done, but it dawned cloudy with a bit of freezing drizzle. After lunch the sun made an effort to come out, the temperature stayed below freezing, and we all drove over to the land. On our way walking down to the Deep Pond dam we saw what looked like slides on the Third Pond, but first things first. We continued to down to pick up the trail of the otters. An otter came out at the dam, scatted, and went down and nosed into the outlet creek, but came back to the Deep Pond. Over where the shore of the pond is a steep slope there were otter slides up on the slope

as well as crisscrossing the pond. There were no slides side by side so if there were two otters they were cruising a bit independently of each other. There were no major latrines, not like the last time Leslie saw signs of otters here back on New Year's eve, just some scampering around every hole in the ice.

And there were no slides going back up the inlet creek. An otter trail did come up the slope and head up the high ridge toward the lonesome pine - a climb of 40 or 50 feet up.

Ottoleo followed that trail, and Leslie and I took the usual route up to the Third Pond. We passed the otter's trail heading into the brush along the rivulet coming down from the Third Pond. Ottoleo was in the thick of it trying to sort out what the otter did in there. Up at the Third Pond we saw blood on the ice just behind the narrow dam.

I don't think there are fish in here, probably not even pollywogs, so the otter might have gotten a bite of frog. From there otter slides went over to the muskrat mound and to the open water in the opposite corner of the pond. Leslie
picked up a trail heading up the scrubby valley coming down from the ridge where the lone some pine is. The otter easily negotiated the alleys between the small trees, not so easy for us, and didn't veer up the rocks to the lonesome pine, but continued up to where the lay of the land went back down to the Deep Pond.

The otter went down about ten or fifteen feet, then turned back up, climbing the gentle slope and then down another wooded valley that led down toward our garden by the road. As we headed down there, we bumped into Ottoleo who
followed another otter trail that went from the Third Pond up almost to the garden. The otter sniffed some scat left on a mound of grass by a fox or fisher.

Both the trail he was following and the trail we were following looped back on each other and went down to the Third Pond which sits about 50 yards below the garden. And at that looping back was the only time there were otter tracks side by side.

Leslie leaned to there being two otters; Ottoleo thought there was only one: I couldn't find any sure evidence for two. Indeed I think the same otter made the two loops going out from the Third Pond. The eight prints left by each stride seemed too close together to have been made by a full grown otter. So here is a possible narrative: two or three otters came in on New Year's Eve, went up stream, and one juvenile otter came back to the Deep Pond and then up to the Third Pond. This
goes against my theory that families don't break up until late in January when the mother's hormones kick in for courtship and implanting the eggs that will will born in April. Maybe the warmer January has accelerated this process. We'll check this
otter again tomorrow -- we might get a little fresh snow tonight -- then a few warm days and perhaps a good old fashioned January thaw. After this adventure, we headed up to the other end of our land and Ottoleo and I cut down a large dead ash,

and Ottoleo scampered up it as soon as it crashed down,

and we even cut off the first log. We also saw a plethora of rabbit and squirrel tracks, and ignored them with our nose to the otter trail, but some owl tracks, with a possible capture of a vole, at least rated a photo.

Obviously the two turkeys walking past the owl tracks weren't there when the owl swooped down onto the snow.

January 10 another cloudy day, but warmer, above freezing, still with the snow so icy there was not that much melting. We spent half the morning in chores around the house so we went to the land to check on the otter in the afternoon. In the late morning I took a quick hike through the ponds, well behind the raccoons, foxes and coyotes who beat me to everything I wanted to check out. A raccoon sniffed into the still empty porcupine den above the golf course.

Porcupines had crisscrossed the valley down to the Big Pond, and the fisher tracks were up on the plateau. I avoided taking photos of the porcupine dens and pee stains, until I got to the den just above the Big Pond. There was a trail of poop, with one poop ball about every foot or two from the next,

and I wondered if this indicated how fast the porcupine was moving, or just nonchalance. Once again I looked around to see what it might be eating and noticed a good bit of work in a large maple, I think, about 50 yards away. Again there were turkey tracks on the Big Pond, but not as many as before, only two turkeys. Then I picked up coyote tracks that went to the hole in the muskrat mound.

The deer head in the surveyor's trail was gone, but no tracks there to indicate what might have taken it. I looked down at the active lodge in the Lost Swamp Pond and there didn't seem to be much activity. Warmer temperatures and rain are on the way so with luck I will see these beavers. Over at the dam I saw blood again.

There was a mix of raccoon and mink tracks there. The mink tracks went back down to the Upper Swamp Pond and I went down there to see if they still had their hole in the ice, but that was frozen and frosted over. I walked down the Second Swamp Pond ice. While the ice in the Upper Second Swamp pond has collapsed severely, there is no sign of collapse in the bigger

I headed out to the edge of the South Bay ice which was quite striking as the water washed over the collapsing ice there.

I also saw the otter slides I saw a few days ago,

and it looked to me like some of them were heading out toward the open water. Clearly the otters didn't go to the pond. All the snow is off the rock latrine so I could study the scats recently left by the otters. A gray scat with
fish scales was close to a brown scat with crayfish parts.

Then there were some fish parts and it was difficult to tell if they were undigested or never eaten.

And on my way to the South Bay latrine, I checked Audubon Pond. As I walked across the South Bay ice, four seagulls were cleaning up some of the mess left by ice fishermen, but that is a daunting task, and gulls don't take beer cans.

When we got to the land we went right down to the Third Pond. I predicted that the otter would come out and poop, recouping its strength and not do much exploring. At first look there were no slides, then I saw more brown on the snow
above the dam, and then we saw a fresh black scat just up on snow on top of the embankment several feet from the hole behind the dam,

A few feet beyond that, still on top of the embankment, were two large black scats,

one of them bigger than my hand. It was difficult seeing prints but we are pretty sure the otter didn't go anywhere, but back into the pond -- though the holes in the ice hardly looked used. I took close ups of the scats

which don't show any scales.

The otter must be eating frogs, pollywogs, and perhaps salamanders that seemed plentiful in this pond this year. Could a pup have made all these poops? I think so because there is no way an adult otter could operate in this small pond and not make a bigger impression. There are two possible dens in the pond, the beaver burrow in back of the pond and a muskrat mound near the road side of the pond.

There was not even a hole in the ice near the burrow, and while the otter slid near to the mound yesterday there was no evidence that it had gone in, but perhaps it was curled up in there. I can't imagine it will stay in the pond for long. We also checked the Deep Pond where there was nothing new.

January 12 we couldn't check on the otter yesterday and since we last saw scats on the snow, the temperature has mostly been above freezing, and there was quite a flood through the Third Pond dam.

However, the icy snow around the Third Pond dam was still firm. I saw an otter print in the snow that we didn't notice two days ago.

The scats we saw two days ago had melted down into the snow. The two large scats had merged

and looked so liquidy that it looked like an otter had added to it,

but there were no prints up on the bank. Down at the Deep Pond there were no signs of any otter activity, save for the old scats that were revealed as the snow melted. At the latrine beside the gap in the dam there was one scat still up on the icy snow,

that looked fresher than the others.

So perhaps the otter left on light paws in the icy snows at dawn.... As the snow melts around the garden I see piles of vole poop

and marvel at how and why they stayed in little frozen chambers long enough to leave so much behind.

January 13 The thaw continues and this morning the sun shone bright. We went to the land first and saw no otter signs at all, thought, despite the thaw the icy snow was firm on the Deep Pond dam. By the time I set off for a tour of the beaver ponds on Wellesley Island, the clouds moved in, but it remained
warm, above 50 degrees. Tracking was impossible but old poops were revealed. I thought the porcupine spent but a brief time in the tree trunk above the golf course, but the snow revealed an avalanche of poop.

Under several tree there was an array of poop bombed down on the snow from birds roosting in the trees.

I went down the first valley to the Big Pond, no tracks to be seen, but this valley has little porcupine activity, just raccoons. A January thaw rarely melts the ice on the beaver ponds, though water can flood over the ice. But since there has been little rain with this thaw (that is supposed to come tonight) there is just a quarter inch of melted water on top of the ice. Of course, water was rushing out through the dam,

and crossing it was not easy. I saw what looked like the remains of a grayish poop on the snow.

No idea what might have left it. No sign of minks or muskrats taking advantage of the opening in the ice behind the dam. As I came down to the Lost Swamp Pond, I saw a beaver out on the ice beside the lodge in the southeast corner of the pond.

I didn't walk up the ice to get close to it. There didn't seem to be much open water around the lodge. I assume the beaver was nipping the twigs in the cache sticking out from the ice. I crossed the pond on the ice, which seemed firm
enough. Wet ice is very slippery and falling leads to a soaking. I was careful. No animals fashioned any holes along the north shore and behind the dam, nor did the small areas that remain open because of the flowing water looked used, though I didn't make a close inspection. In other seasons it is difficult to see beavers in the Upper Second Swamp Pond because of the vegetation in and around it, but in the winter, a beaver on the ice should be easy to watch. None were out to today. At the south end of the dam there was a hole in the ice with little beaver bitten sticks
floating in the water,

but there was no evidence that beavers got up on the ice. I carefully crossed the ice and saw three old otter slides in the ice.

I love this phenomena allowing me to relive those exciting days of tracking that can seem so long ago. Then I could see where beavers had just gotten out on the ice next to the lodge.

As I walked along I noticed the curious way the beavers placed a stick on top of their lodge; probably an accident, but I have a feeling beavers do this to warn otters off their roof.

I continued down the north shore of the Second Swamp Pond. Last winter the otters favored this pond, but there was no sign of them, not even any holes in the ice near the lodge and auxilliary lodge. I scanned the trees for the little porcupine but didn't see it or any new porcupine work. I pressed on to Meander Pond and once again missed the beavers. It was more difficult assessing the most recent work because the snow was gone.

It's possible it had just been covered up before. As I approached Audubon Pond, the last beaver colony to check, I thought I saw a beaver up on the ice just in front of the bench. That any beaver was out in this deep pond goes against my theories, and that spot in front of the bench wasn't where I'd expect to see a beaver -- no trees to eat around there. As I moved closer the animal dove into the water and when I got to the hole, the grass stalks about suggested that a muskrat, not a beaver had been using the hole.

The snow was gone from the latrine above South Bay and the ice on the bay had retreated 50 yards or so. I was surprised by several things around the latrine: first some fish bones and skin

up where otters had been, but also under where eagles roost. Then I saw a scat that seemed rather fresh,

especially when compared to the array of old scat nearby on the slope.

Then at the latrine next to the willow that I suspect otters might den in, there were duck feathers revealed by the melting snow, with old scats right next to them.

Do I credit otters or eagles for eating a duck? So, as the snow melts, the otters world which I thought I was about to understand, gets more complex. I walked down the South Bay trail and eventually crossed the ice on my way home. No animal signs on the wet ice as I sloshed along, pausing once to enjoy the sunset.


January 16 the thaw ended with rain, freezing rain, two inches of snow, zero degree cold and a strong north wind. All the elements conspired to keep us inside for two days, save for a few walks around town. The bitter cold and wind chill didn't faze the golden eyes and mallards; many swam in the rippling water below Goose Island, and a mink made an appearance on the newly formed ice between us and the island. Today the wind died down and the temperature climbed slowly into the teens. We went to our land first and walked down to the Deep Pond to see if there were any otter slides in the still fresh snow. At the bottom of the hill on the road where it bridges the pipe that channels the creek that drains the Deep Pond, we saw three otter trails heading down stream

and one heading up toward the pond. Up at the pond we saw where an otter scated on the dam,

but we didn't see any clear trails heading down the creek. I walked around the pond and toward the knoll saw a couple of holes made in the ice that had refrozen. Outside of one hole was a large well picked fish jaw.

I assume the otter just brought up this old fish jaw, that had been eaten last year. There was one slide in the ice and snow heading toward the inlet.

There was some scuffing at the latrine there, and a small scat. The cold had even frozen the inlet creek, and the scuffing in the ice and snow did not make a coherent story. Continuing around the pond we saw where the otters had broken out from under the ice near the old beaver burrows on the north side of the sloping shore.

One otter had come up on the bank, and we saw the slides of at least two otters on the ice and snow on the pond. There was no clear indication of how many otters had been up at the pond, or if it was a family or group of males. In
assessing slides coming into a pond, it's always possible that one is from an otter who finds it doesn't belong, and it sniffs the scents claiming the territory and quickly leaves. And I should add that compared to the generous scats we've seen here
and at the Third Pond, these fresh scats were quite anemic. We crossed the road and tracked the otters down the creek to White Swamp. This creek is rather shrubby and it wasn't clear how many otters recently went down it -- at least two. They made a latrine

at a clearing beside one of the wider parts of the creek.

We haven't been down here in years and were surprised to come upon a beaver pond. There were some recently cut trees around the pond, but no recent work on or around the recently formed ice, and the little dam did not look well tended.

We saw otter tracks below the dam and on the shore of White Swamp some otters had scooted over a grassy mound, and made a latrine on the nearby shore.

Obviously during the recent thaw otters had been here and fished in the open water along the edge of the swamp. We went back up the stream along the other shore, looking for where beavers might be living. Then we noticed a hole in the
ice behind the dam with very fresh otter scats on the ice around the hole.

The otters had been there this morning. There were slides on the pond too, and I think they came to the hole.

We continued up pond and up a valley that curves around to another gully going down to White Swamp. We saw no more signs of otters, and only some cut saplings, nothing too fresh. I don't think beavers are active in the pond, though of
course it was their activity which made this area attractive to otters on a more consistent basis then in other winters.

Of course, I had to check South Bay to see if the otters came in off it. Most of the lower bay had ice well crusted with snow, not promising for tracking. I picked up the bold trail of some coyotes. Then I veered up to check Audubon Pond. The water level rose during the thaw and refroze with much snow and scabby ice on top. Then I went back to check the latrine at the entrance to South Bay. South Bay completely froze over and ice extends between Murray and Grinnell islands and out to Maple Island, inviting smooth, clear ice too, with ice crystals
collected on top waiting for a wind to blow them away. I went down to the edge of the ice, less to see if otters had been around, then to see how thick the ice was. I saw a fissure at least two inches thick. Too dangerous for skating. If otter
slides were to be seen they had to be where this new ice met with the old snow covered ice shelf, and, sure, enough, otters had been there. Three otters evidently swam under the old ice, found a hole below a large willow, got back on the ice and scooted toward the channel.

I couldn't find any evidence that they came up on the shore, mostly rocks there, or onto the willow. It struck me that these thick trunked willows, leaning over the water, mark where water from springs drips into the bay, keeping the willow ever growing and the ice easy to break.

So these old willows along the shore might signify something important for otters in the winter -- possible open water. While it certainly seemed that as the thaw ended the otters headed out to the river again, I thought I should check the lower end of South Bay and the interior beaver ponds because tracks might not have registered on the crusting ice on much of the bay. But I saw no otter tracks on the bay. Back on shore I was delighted to see the tracks of a raccoon that paraded up and down a log.

It also sniffed into every hole at the base of a tree -- and there were not a few. As I moved inland, I ran into fisher tracks, as well as fox. But there were no signs of otters. These ponds had much melt water on them when the freeze came along with snow, and the result was rough, snow crusted ice, bad
for tracking. I checked the dams and lodges and all the places otters have gone in other winters, and there was no sign of them. I must say the ponds looked cold and bleak,

but with the woods and valleys, alive with tracks, especially porcupines crossing the gullies, that I tarried as long as I could in the gentle winter afternoon.

January 17 another cold night but with the promise of a warm-up into the high 20s (with clouds as part of the bargain) we went to the land. Before we worked on wood, we went down to see if otters might have come back up to the pond,
or if one had never left it. There was nothing new at the pond (a pileated woodpecker flying high over head cackling at us is old hat) save that a fox found and toyed a bit with the other part of the skull of a long dead pike.

As the cold freezes any running water, the flow down the creeks diminishes enough so that layers of ice form above what water still trickles through. Quite beautiful,

but not inviting to otters. There was a bit more open water where the creek runs out of the pond. Then I walked down to White Swamp to see if the otters came out of the hole behind the dam. Didn't look like it, as a layer of thin ice blocked the hole.

I could see running water though. There were no new scats behind the hole. I noticed scats below the dam.

They were frozen solid and I assume they were there yesterday but I didn't see them. I also noticed some recently gnawed logs worked into the dam, so I think beavers did work on this dam during the fall, and perhaps the otters breached
it this winter. I continued down to White Swamp to get better photos of the otters' set-up. During the thaws the great rush of water down this valley kept a large expanse of water (for this time of year) open so the otters could fish in it.

The black ice suggests that this water remained open after the snowfall Saturday night. In our experience the huge White Swamp stays pretty well frozen over most of the winter

and the otters work the shores where creeks run down. I also got on the other side of the mound which they made a latrine of. If the next thaw lasts long enough it might be worth our while to sit on the high ridge on shore and see if otters come out here again.

I suspect they are still lying low in the beaver pond where we tracked them yesterday.

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