January 26 Last night it turned cold and two inches, almost, of snow fell. The morning was cold and cloudy then the clouds eased off and it was sunny, calm, with a deep blue sky. This was the type of winter day we expect to get. Also at this time of year I expect the otters to start moving about, racing up and down the steepest rock hills and going from island to island and through all the ponds. The families begin the throes of separation and in the process the mother gives the pups a last lesson on the advantages of all the corners of the world they grew up in. The mother needs to separate in preparation for mating and giving birth to the embryos she has been carrying inside her for almost a year. So on such a calm day as this I've learned to expect excitement. But crossing the snow covered ice of South Bay we saw two trails left by coyotes crossing the ice much like we were. But in the main, the snow was trackless.
Once we crossed the bay, we walked up the trail, checking Audubon Pond before we went out to the latrine above the bay that the otters have been so faithful to in their periodic visits. But the snow didn't excite the otters to visit
The water between the islands mostly froze over, not that the new ice on the bay looked that firm.
Indeed when the wind picked up in the afternoon most of the new ice was broken.
In the afternoon we went to the land, hoping the otters might have toured the ponds there. But we only saw the tracks of a mink going to the Deep Pond and a deer poking around the edges of that pond. We walked down the creek to White Swamp. The water ran swiftly down the creek which didn't seem to attract anything. A mink nosed about the dam just above the swamp.
We went out on White Swamp to look for tracks and in the small portion we walked over we only saw a coyote's trail.
We looked for a beaver lodge, and found only a well hidden, and large muskrat mound.
However, we saw some fresh beaver work on the shore. Some gnawing at the base of the trunks of trees at the foot of the ridge.
Two had been cut, falling down into the swamp and some of them had been trimmed.
How different all this will be in a few months.
January 27 We had another cold night, but it warmed up in the morning almost to freezing and a strong southwest wind rattled the ice that formed in the night. I headed to South Bay via the TI Park ridge, which was uneventful until I walked on the trail at the end of the bay. I noticed the tracks of a small porcupine crossing the trail a couple times. I scanned the trees and saw nothing and looked over toward the old outhouse where porcupines often den. Sure enough, a little porcupine was making its way toward me, roughly following the tracks already in the snow. It poked about a bit in the leaves but moved steadily toward me. The wind must have blown my scent right toward it, and when it was about 50 feet away it stopped and even reared up a bit as if to sniff the air. It paid some respect to my presence and veered off its old trail but still crossed my trail and angled toward its old trail. This was a small porcupine and had some trouble getting over some logs on the ground.
I kept waiting for it to taste, if not climb, a tree, but it seemed more interested in sniffing the snow on the ground. Then it seemed to gnaw a little bit at the foot of a large red oak, but it hardly made a dent in the bark and instead worked the snow around the tree.
I didn't hear it eating anything but it must have been sipping... what? tree dandruff? I looked at other trees on its route and on several of them I saw scars of tasting.
This was a gentle lesson on a porcupine's day, quite a counterpoint to the porcupine's usual forthright demonstration of its appetite. I continued on, hoping otters were about, but had to pause where the trail came up to the creek. A vole or mouse created a labyrinth in the snow.
I saw two tracks coming to that point which suggests this might have been a bit of courtship. I don't recall ever seeing such complexity before. No signs that otters came across the bay, and nothing new at Audubon Pond, save that I
picked up a trail that led toward where I was going, the Narrows. I couldn't be sure if I was following two foxes or two fishers. I decided the former, and assumed this was their mating ritual. There were at least three episodes of marking a log,
and I must say, the photo of that seems to make the tracks look more like a fisher. The animals didn't go down to the Narrows, though a coyote did. I didn't see any otter signs there, and admired the chaos of ice being broken and blown through the Narrows.
I walked along the shore to the otter latrine at the entrance to South Bay, the ice all around was breaking, groaning, quite lively. But no signs of otters.
January 28 warm, sunny breezy day typical of late March or even early April; hardly a January thaw because this year snow and cold are the exception. We have brief storms and freezes. I was joined on my hike by Jeff Hanna, a good photographer and Murray-islander not familiar with the Wellesley Island swamps. We headed across the golf course a little after nine, wind at our back, the snow all gone. An owl, I think, flew off the large oak along the second fairway and flew into the woods beyond the golf course, second time I've seen it fly off that tree. There was still some snow in the woods. I saw some possible fisher tracks but they were heading for the golf course, not fisher territory. Deeper in the woods, where I'd expect to see fisher tracks, raccoons had made a highway with their tracks,
save that there seemed to be no rules of the road, as tracks went back and forth on top of each other.
As we went down the valley, the raccoon highways widened.
Most of the tracks were going across the valley but not a few, as usual, were going up and down the valley. Then we saw the tracks of one coyote, then some blood, hair, dragging,
more blood and a dead small doe, probably killed last night.
It looked like it had been attacked at its tail. There was a hole where the tail was ripped out; and then a huge hole in the belly.
It looked like one front leg was broken. Judging from the blood in the snow the deer had been dragged around a bit, but the head looked peaceful. So fresh was this kill that the crows had not gotten to its eyes.
Of course there were coyote tracks all over but perhaps just from one coyote stamping around. I didn't see may tracks coming to the carcass from either end of the valley.
What I usually see down this valley are porcupine tracks. The deer carcass not far from the den one porcupine had been using. But there were no tracks in the snow today. Evidently having so many predators and scavengers sniffing that carcass was unnerving. At the foot of the valley there was one faded porcupine trail. There were no tracks the rest of the way to the Big Pond, save for turkey tracks. No porcupine tracks to or from the den in the rocks just above the pond. Then we turned down to the pond and there was a large flock of turkeys strutting across the pond.
And they left the only tracks that we saw on the Big Pond. We went to the lodge two dams up and I was surprised not to see any beaver tracks on the snow. It looked like there were more sticks collected.
I'll have to walk around this small pond. They must be getting out from under the ice somewhere. As we walked back down on the Big Pond, I saw some commotion on the ice which proved to be a pile of small coyote or large fox poops, one with a bit of blood on it.
Then we checked the lodge in the Lost Swamp and Upper Second Swamp ponds and there were no signs that beavers had been out recently. We walked up the East Swamp Pond and then I had the bright idea of showing Jeff Shangri-la Pond with its stunning cliffs. Our last hope of seeing a beaver was in Meander Pond and sure enough the ice of the canal was open and one beaver was gnawing sticks, first behind a log so it was hard to see. Then it came closer to us and fished out a nice chunky log.
The wind was in our face, but the whirr of cameras or something finally alerted the beaver. It looked at us and didn't take long to dive under the ice with a half splash of its tail. I could see the bubbles under the ice, and saw them stop. The beaver turned around and swam back to the open water, retrieved the log it had been gnawing and dove with that. The beavers in this pond hate to be distracted. We sat on a downed tree chatting about what we saw, and the beaver swam back into the open water again, took a look at us, and swam back under the ice placidly. They have just about stripped the red oak they've been working on,
and have yet to touch the red oak, about the same size as the other one, that they just cut down.
I showed Jeff Audubon Pond and then the marsh in South Bay where, I hope, we'll photograph otters in the spring. As we walked down the South Bay trail we forced an immature bald eagle to relocate. The snow on South Bay had melted
making for poor tracking there.
January 29 cloudy, cold with rain threatening. I split ash logs at the land, but, of course, checked the Deep Pond for otter scats first -- nothing happening there. Back on the island, just before the rain came, sleet as much as rain, I went out to check the deer carcass. There was a flock of geese on the 7th fairway and a larger flock of turkeys, as well as two deer, on the 3rd fairway below the big flat rock that angles down from the hidden and elevated green. That steep rock which has spoiled the round of many duffers proved to be the turkeys avenue of escape. They scampered right up it. It was raining too much to get the camcorder out. The deer carcass had been turned around, and ripped open more.
Some of the bones had been chewed into pieces and some skin turned inside out.
The broken bone in the foreleg had broken through the skin.
The eyes were still not pecked out. There were bloody raccoon and coyote prints around the carcass. The rain picked up and I went home impressed at the feast. The wonder is why the coyotes don't kill more deer, and perhaps the lack of kills suggests that this deer was only caught because it broke its leg during the chase.
January 31 we woke up to a half inch of ice yesterday, which began to melt at 10:30, and then it rained, and that eventually turned into another little ice storm. This morning there was less ice, and as it warmed up, it snowed a little over an inch. It remained cloudy, calm and just above freezing. When we got to the land in the afternoon we were surprised to see a fresh muskrat trail that began at the Third Pond, not far from the muskrat mound there, with a spot of green pee, too.
The muskrat followed the trail of water flowing down into the pond.
I was moved by the sweep of the grass revealed by the melting snow, reminded of the power even a weak winter like this has to impress. Most of that rivulet was frozen over, and the muskrat kept a steady walk on the ice, tail dragging in the snow. As that ditch petered out, the muskrat moved over to the drainage ditch along the road and then crossed the road and went down to Val's pond.
It's likely this is the muskrat who built and lived in the mound, weathering a brief visit from an otter. But since we haven't had a constant snow cover, can't be sure. I've never seen a muskrat drag its tail so much, but usually I see them trekking in drier snow. Meanwhile down at the larger Deep Pond there was no activity, but I wouldn't expect to see tracks just a few hours after the snow fall. However, there were not a few squirrel tracks, and at the southwest corner of the Teepee Pond there were squirrel tracks with flecks of blood.
I back tracked as best I could to see if the blood came from a fight, but didn't come upon the remains of a squirrel dust up. Then I picked up the trail of a small deer and followed that a bit before, like the chickadees in the briars and bushes,
I simply enjoyed the warmth and, for the last day of January, humidity.
The plants in the valley glowed like they were ripening.
Down on the slope to the Deep Pond near the road I saw the rabbit browse low on the stalks
of a glistening plant that seemed to be growing under a soft dew.
I went up the gulley to the Hemlock Cathedral and saw two trees that had recently been gnawed on by a porcupine, both were up on the ridge. Strange how it is so much easier to see porcupines on the bitter cold days. Tomorrow I'll
look for otter tracks in what snow that remains. I also rowed around the island, scarcely any ice in sight. The bottom pocked white with the remains of busted shells. Where there was long grass, like the grass in the field, it was impressed down by the current that always seems more unrelenting in the winter because so few things, like my feeble boat, challenge it. I should add that as I went around the island I set off three waves of golden eyes. Not to worry, they have the whole river to graze in this winter. Our neighbor inadvertantly dropped a fish trap in the water and caught a mud puppy. We found a dead one along the island last winter. I'll have to get down to the dock with a bright light at night and see if I can see another.
February 1 I include this entry in the January journal because today the snow promised good tracking which was rare this January. The morning was sunny, below freezing, with a light wind. I saw the tracks of the little porcupine crossing the South Bay trail and not far beyond the tracks of a female fisher. But the fisher was heading west and the porcupine east. I would have tracked the fisher's tour of the woods on the peninsula that goes out into South Bay, but I wanted to get to otter latrines on the south shore of the bay before the sun melted all the snow there. I must say I expected otter trails coming into the beaver
ponds. It is about time they come back in, but there were none. And none up at Audubon Pond. At first glance the South Bay ice looked unmarked but I walked down to where the snow remained, and there were the slides of probably three otters.
I got the impression that they swam under the ice and came out at the hole in the ice below the large willow and then scampered over the snow until they got back in the wide water. These otters are acting like it is still December, and if they tell time by how frozen up the bays of the river are, they are right on time. So much for my theory that hormones kick in at this time of year and impel otters to frantic racing throughout their territory. I walked along the rocky shore to see where they might have scatted. A comfortable shelf of moss had some old scats. The fresh scats were on the flat rock that juts out into the bay where the outlet creek from Audubon Pond flows into it.
Some of the scats are quite loose, almost all liquid and others are tubular which I attribute to their eating crayfish. And a close up photo of as a scat I messed open revealed part of a crayfish claw.
On my way up to the latrine at the end of South Bay, I paused to admire a lone deer browsing up on the ridge.
Quite a unique photo for February when deer usually yard up in large groups, and are seldom alone,
and rarely browse under trees where the snow is usually deep and firm, if not half ice. As the deer left I got a snapshot of its white flag flowering over the green moss.
Back to the otters. It looked like at least one came up on the ridge where the grass is and mussed up some leaves and left a small squirt -- as if it was practicing making a scent mound. Down on the rock next to the water,
I found a nice array of scat, again, some quite liquid and others quite dry.
One of the dry was choc-a-bloc with crayfish parts.
One of the softer scats had a yellowish green hue, almost like the otters had seafood salad. But with a closer look I could see that the color came from the soft shells of the crayfish. I saw a crayfish antennae embedded in the scat.
I need to know more about their life history. I sat a while in the warm sun but didn't assume that the otters were attracted to same warmth. I assume the best time to catch crayfish is at night and I assume the otters were about when
there was no sun, and all warmth to them was crawling on the rocky bottom of the bay. Then I turned my attention inland. The steady draining of Audubon Pond ruined the set up the beavers had in the northwest corner of the pond. There is still a hole in the ice made by water flowing in, but the pond has retreated, probably several yards in from the hole. No signs that the beavers came out anywhere else. The Meander Pond beavers could have been out; the end of their channel was ice free. I could see where they had come out and made a trail in the snow
to their old work and the new red oak crown.
They have already begun cutting another large tree, a maple,
and have also taken out a number of small trees. As I walked along, at the end of the pond where they did all their harvesting last winter, I saw that the root of a red oak had been stripped.
A porcupine could have done this, but no matter, the point is, an exposed root at this time of year must seem quite a treat. Usually I see roots stripped like this in the spring. On my way through the other ponds, where the beavers have caches next to their lodge, I didn't expect to find much lumbering, but I did expect to see tracks in the show around the lodge, and for the first time this winter I did. The beavers were out in and around their cache at the Upper Second Swamp Pond lodge
and laid tracks down to the dam,
and from the open water up toward the Lost Swamp Pond dam. No tracks going very far away. The Lost Swamp Pond dam continues to leak, but the ice level is dropping in an orderly fashion.
This convinces me that the rapid, rolypoly collapsing of ice is characteristic of a large otter hole dug deep into the dam. Run-of-the-mill leaks, at least in a wet winter like this one, don't cause a catastrophe. The hole around
the Lost Swamp Pond beaver lodge has doubled, but no tracks of beavers on the ice.
Prepare well for the winter, and when they are out of the lodge, beavers will never have to take their back feet out of the warm water -- well it is always above freezing. Then I picked up deer paths through the dogwood jungle and got over to the Upper Big Pond, where I had been perplexed by not seeing evidence of the beavers eating their cache. Today I found the evidence. There was a parade of fox and coyote tracks to the lodge but I could also see where the beavers made a hole in the ice, came out and ate their twigs, and a few thicker logs.
I could sense some movement in the lodge, but the hole in the ice had frozen over and I didn't expect beavers would be coming out. As I went down to the Big Pond, I noticed a good bit of open water where the water flowed into the pond, but no signs of any fish in it coming to get air. Once again there was no sign of the porcupine in the rocks just above the pond, but there were more porcupine tracks crisscrossing the bottom of the valley I usually take home. But there were no porcupine tracks up toward where the deer carass was. I followed a thick trail of raccoon tracks and pictured them leading right to the bloody rib cage of the deer, but to my surprise, except for one scapula
and a few balls of hair, the carcass had been carried away. Around the bloody bone I saw some coyote prints. Searching the jumble of rocks nearby for where a fox or coyote might have parked the remains is a project for another day. So
all seemed right with the world, and clouds began massing in the west, no major change in this strange winter yet. Meanwhile at the land, Leslie saw a trail of a muskrat going back to the Third Pond, and the tracks of two smaller muskrats on the ice of that pond. No otter slides at the Deep Pond.