Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January 19 to 23, 2010

January 19 the piddling thaw continues, sometimes fog but never snow nor rain, which, while it doesn’t make for good tracking in general, means that conditions in the swamps don’t change too much, so it is easy to compare new activity with old, if there is new activity. I headed to the Big Pond along Antler Trail, following the usual deer trails, and then up on the rocks of the plateau I saw that canines had pranced down a circle of prints.

And on a neighboring granite outcrop I saw more canine tracks and what looked like nips of yellowish brown hair.

Did some foxes have a tussle? Down at the Big Pond dam, I was relieved to find that I could walk on most of the brown slush, though didn’t hazard getting too close to the dam. From where I was I could see that the old leak in the dam was keeping some water open behind the dam, but that nothing seemed to be taking advantage of that, (those depressions in the brown ice are my melted old footprints.)

As I walked along I found some slush so I eased my way over to the north shore, and walked up to check the nearby lodge. I had wondered if the beavers, who’ve shown so little activity of late, might have moved down to it. There were two holes in front of it but no sign that anything had used them, at least not a beaver.

I also human footprints that were not mine, probably someone scouting a place to put a trap. I didn’t see any signs of traps, like crossed sticks and wires. Up at the lodge the beavers have been using, I didn’t see any signs that they had been there, nor any other human than me.

This is puzzling. I never got a feel for how many beavers are in this pond, but I did see one often out in the pond in the afternoon and anytime the otters were around, which suggests to me that there was a crowd of beavers in the lodge. However, I didn’t see much tree cutting around the pond, but beavers here seem to have adjusted to living off cattails, grasses and osier and willow shrubs. On my way to the Lost Swamp Pond, I crossed tracks left by an ATV. Thank goodness for the slush on the ponds that kept the infernal machine off. No tracks uglier than an ATV’s. I walked down to the otter latrine at the west end of the pond and noticed that otter trails now cut over to the feathers of some hawk or owl kill. The otters had not gone there the other day.

But I didn’t see any other evidence of recent activity. The mud and grass emerge as the snow melts off it. Hard to read what is happening. I didn’t see any signs of otters up at the dam and though there is a wide hole of open water in front of the lodge by the dam, there are no signs of otters using it.

I decided to continue walking around the pond. In other winters when otters breached the dam here, they feasted in the pools of water under the ice up in the northeast section of the pond where there is an old beaver lodge on the edge of the pool formed when beavers dredged out dirt to accommodate their winter cache of branches. On my way up there I saw that a deer, I think, had taken a bite out of a muskrat lodge and seems to have spat out a big gob of grass on the ice.

There was no activity on the ice in the northeast end of the pond, and I think if there was otter activity under the ice I would see some wrinkles from it. I crossed over the small ridge to check out the southeast end of the pond, and saw that, because of the water draining out of the pond, ice had collapsed around the lodge leaving the gaps that if not open water could easily be opened to allow a beaver to get up on the ice.

But there was no sign that any beaver had been out. I saw plenty of bubbles under the ice here a month ago, and over the years the beavers wintering here have been prone to come out during a period of thawing. I walked back down the north shore of this end of the pond, since the middle of the pond looked a bit slushy and I know where an old dam crosses the pond under the ice and the snow remains firmer there. As I got near the point of the peninsula, I saw that something had been over at the small muskrat lodge. I fell in behind what I thought were coyote tracks

And then puzzled over why the coyote dug a hole in the ice and not into the muskrat lodge.

Then it dawned on me that otters had broken out from under the ice near the muskrat lodge! I checked those “coyote” tracks again and saw that the trail they made extended only about ten feet from the hole. I thought I could see groups of small and large prints, suggesting that the otter family I had been watching had come out here. However, once again, there were no scats. I’ve never seen otters who have been so shy about scatting on the ice. In the fall, these otters were quite partial to muskrat lodges, so I trust that experience brought them here and not their hunting for muskrats. But what possesses the otters to operate in such tight spots? The pond was probably no more than a foot deep here before the water froze. Otters in general don’t seem to prize fresh air and sunshine in the winter, and these otters seem to shun it. On my way back to the Big Pond, I turned to follow the ATV trail which used the old road now completely grown over. The trapper came to check the lodge and then drove back. Hopefully, this was a holiday enthusiasm and not the beginning of a second career. Some people have moved in on the island who match the profile of the typical overweight “sportsmen.” I walked along the Big Pond dam and saw that a mink had fashioned a series of holes down into the dam.

It dug down into the soft mud and grasses, rather than use the patch of open water right behind the dam.

As I noticed before, the mink goes back in the wet meadow below the dam -- though I must say, I haven’t seen sparrows flitting about there as I had earlier in the winter.

In the afternoon we went to our land and just in case a beaver was out on the ice, I walked in along the ridge. But looking down at the lodge, I didn’t see any beaver out in the sun.

I think beavers had been out because there were more of their trails into the cache. They had cut some off trunks extending up above the ice.

I assume they took the log they cut back to the lodge, and they also gnawed the remaining log a little.

The photo above was at the far end of the cache and they also did some gnawing at the side of the cache near the lodge. They are also gnawing on the trunk of the ironwood they cut and that conveniently fell down almost on top of the cache.

The turkeys had been all over this area too, but I only saw rabbit tracks along the end of Grouse Alley close to our cabin.

January 20 evidence that a trapper scouted the Big Pond the other day reminded me that over the years I’ve been careful to get out to the ponds near South Bay after a long holiday weekend in case any ice fisherman got up the gumption to also do some trapping. It snowed last night about two inches and kept snowing lightly off and on all day, not good conditions for tracking. But after lunch I decided to do my duty. I saw two deer off Antler Trail, one rather large. I looked for fisher tracks but everything but deer tracks was smudged over by the fresh snow. I went up to Meander Pond the same way I left it the other day. I don’t think the beavers had been out there again. There was not much new snow in the woods. I followed the trail they used to drag out branches and found that while it went over the pond a little, it generally was a direct shot back to the lodge going over the slight ridge between the south and central portions of the pond.

I looked to my left and saw that the beavers had cut deeper into the ash trees on the north shore of the pond that they were gnawing two days ago.

The next strong north wind might blow down one of the ash trees. Seeing that reminded me to look over to the north shore, and sure enough, the north wind blew down the red oak the beavers had been gnawing to a point. Unfortunately for the beavers, the oak is hung up in other trees.

I followed the beaver trail to the hole they made in the old lodge. When I discovered the hole the other day, a beaver had just disappeared into it so I didn’t look too closely. Today I all but stuck my head into it, and it didn’t seem to cut into the living chamber of the old lodge but rather into the side of the lodge perhaps making it easier to slip into the main channel of the pond.

I headed over to the new lodge and while I didn’t see any fresh tracks outside the hole of the old lodge, it was easy to see that a beaver had been out of the hole next to the new lodge.

I crossed over on the ice above the channel several yards to the right of that hole, and noticed a smaller hole over the channel, and then walked back to get a photo of the fresh trail coming out of the hole by the lodge.

that curled toward the red oak that almost fell down and so sure I was that it went all the way up to that tree, that I didn’t notice that the trail abruptly stopped. It was as if a beaver came out to see if the wind had blown over the red oak, saw that it was hung up, and went back to the lodge. Pure speculation. But the beaver didn’t go up to the tree. I did and saw snow on the top side of the tilted trunk, so the tree fell before the snow started falling last night.

The tree appears to be nestled in a group of red maples. Perhaps if the beavers cut one, the red oak would come down too.

I don’t think beavers think like that. I headed to the dam to check the hole in it and didn’t see any trails on the ice to it. Then as I was standing on the pond behind the dam noting that the sapling that had been lying outside the hole was now gone and that the flow of water coming out of the hole seemed stronger than the other day (from the thawing, I assume) I saw a beaver coming up the trail to my left that the beavers had made to get to the alder saplings by the edge of the meadow. When I saw the beaver go into the hole back at the end of December, when Ottoleo and Justin were standing with me, after charging into the wallow, the beaver was rather deliberate, evidently calculating its chances against the three of us. This beaver started trotting as soon as I got my camera out, and in a few seconds it dove into the water and then through the hole. I got a blurry still from the video.

I took a photo of the hole in the dam

and the pools of water below that were fed by the rushing water. I saw that the beaver had gone straight down into the cattail meadow.

But I followed the trail I had just seen it use.

And saw that it hadn’t been over with the alders. It is in the process of cutting down two small ash trees in the meadow.

Meanwhile I didn’t see any signs of any other humans bothering these beavers. Mission accomplished, I headed home as the snow picked up.

January 21 we walked up the golf course in the early afternoon, forcing some twenty deer to leave it. Heading up into the woods we found that the cold night made the snow easier to walk on and made for excellent tracking. We saw the clawed tracks of a snowshoe hare

heading up onto a granite knoll,

Then we passed porcupine and fisher tracks.

We saw big fisher prints patterned next to turkey prints.

Seems silly singling out what for the animals themselves must be more mundane than we can conceive, no walk in the park for them, perhaps their unregarded etching of their duty to survival, and as far as I could see, unrewarded, but I never follow them far enough. Leslie continued tracking in the ridges and high valleys. I headed down the second valley and onto the Big Pond. The porcupine had been out from the tumble of rocks along the valley, but for the first time in a few years, I had to hurry. If the otters had headed out of the Lost Swamp Pond for a long trek, I had to follow them. I did have to stop and take a photo of evidence that a porcupine was once again denning in the low boulders just above the Big Pond.

I couldn’t see it down inside the den, but it is a deep hole. It was easier to cross the Big Pond, maybe an inch of brown slush here and there. I checked the hole beside the lodge where I thought the beavers were. There were a few bubbles under the black ice of the pond, first sign of life there in a while.

Heading through the woods to the Lost Swamp Pond, I saw a rabbit trail crossing my path, and a few rabbit poops that had been dropped along the way.

I’ve never seen so many rabbit tracks here in the winter. I didn’t follow the trail. Otter doings were just a head. First I checked the hole outside the little muskrat lodge at the point. An otter had been out again, making a slide a few feet long perpendicular to the ten foot trail they left the other day and then making several smaller slides parallel to the old trail.

But there were still no scats around the hole. And even though the otters had been out again, the hole they came out looked like it had collapsed. Here is a close-up of the hole on the 19th

And today

So either the ice collapsed or a muskrat filled in hole. I assume the former since this area is shallow when the pond is full. Then I walked up to the lodge in the southeast end of the pond, and saw that the otters had been out there too, but again, not venturing far, and I couldn’t see any scats. I couldn’t get too close because of the slush.

I crossed over the little hill of the peninsula to the northeast corner of the pond. The ice was better there and I walked over toward the back dam that's up there to make sure the otters hadn’t made a hole in the ice there. No fresh otter tracks at the main dam, and I am not sure what made the smudged over tracks next to the hole, or if they could properly be called tracks and not just the way the slush disposed itself as it froze.

The stream of water coming out of the hole seemed greater. Looking down at the Upper Second Swamp Pond, I saw what looked like otter tracks on the pond around the open stream of water. First I checked the otter latrine at the west end of the pond and saw that there was nothing new there. Then I saw the scatless forays the otters made on the ice of the Upper Second Swamp Pond.

I dare not get too close, but I could see that they seemed to go a bit farther from the water than they did at the holes they came out of at the Lost Swamp Pond. Of course the opening into the Upper Second Swamp pond is much larger than the other openings they’ve used. Hard to tell if the area was all open when they came out or if they broke holes in the thin ice,

It looked like the latter. Then I saw a hole in the ice behind the dam, and it was easy to see that the otters came out there too.

But as far as I could tell they didn’t come out of other small holes behind the dam -- minks have been “wiring” their in-and-out trails there all winter, and there were no signs at all that the otters went below the dam and down into the meadow where they had frequently latrined during the summer and fall. I headed back via the lower end of the Big Pond. I saw that coyotes paid a visit to what I think is the vacant beaver lodge.

I’ve never pulled together all my notes about this, but I don’t think coyotes invariably climb up on occupied lodges. Two winters ago coyotes killed a beaver lodging here so it probably bears rechecking by them. Down at the dam I saw that a mink was still active and made some designs in the nearby snow either with its tail or something it caught.

January 22 another cold night so we had perfect tracking at our land. I ignored the usual rabbit tracks in Grouse Alley but when I got near the Last Pool, I saw fisher tracks. We haven’t seen fisher tracks here for the last couple of winters so I paid attention to these. I found a perfect pattern of tracks

and then followed a trail which simply led me in a circle around the Last Pool! There was no trail heading down to the beaver lodge, so I left off tracking the fisher and went down to see what the beavers had been up to. There were different logs around the patch of now frozen but once open water so the beavers had been out and about, and there was a grand confusion of trails going every which way.

There was nothing new up on the ridge. Then as I headed back on the pond to pick up the fisher’s trail again I saw what struck me as the trail of a bobcat crossing the pond just behind the dam.

The gait looked like a bobcat's and so did the prints which registered well in the snow. I edited the photo to throw the print into more relief.

The bobcat simply crossed the pond and then went up the ridge, at a rather steep place. I went back to the west side of the pond and lost the trail up in the ridge. Well, I decided not to follow -- for the last few winters we’ve been able to track a bobcat. I went back to track the fisher. I soon saw that there were at least two, even factoring in going back and forth. And the trail had the usual fisher twists and turns

But I didn’t see any green pee or scats. But here is my theory on fishers at our land. I think a sheep raiser not far away, not to mention farmers with chickens, have either been trapping them or poisoning them. Consequently, unlike on the island, where fishers have been contending for territory for several years, fishers moving into our land are probably finding virgin territory, hence less need for marking. But that’s a lot of supposing. The fishers I began tracking forced me to wend my way through the thickets of the meadow and then off my usual trails and up on small ridges, not into porcupine territory but into areas where rabbits might den.

Anyway I got some exercise and another view of the land, a fisher‘s. And perhaps noticed what a fisher wouldn't: how beautiful a wall of moss can look in the snow

January 23 another cold night and sunny day, and the rise in the temperature was offset by a stiff northeast wind. We headed to the Big Pond via the Antler Trail. We crossed a couple of fisher trails in the woods close to Thousand Island Park and saw mainly coyote trails on the ridge above the first swamp --perhaps one fisher trail there. The Big Pond was easy to walk on but the few holes in the ice remained frozen over and there were only two coyote trails on the ice demonstrating a brief pas deux, not the stampedes we’ve seen other winters. Going to the Lost Swamp Pond via the boundary line I could show Leslie the old rabbit trails, and there were some fresh grouse trails. High above some ravens or crows were trying to drive off a hawk. I checked the hole by the muskrat lodge first not expecting to see any new otter activity since the hole seemed closed the other day. Nothing new. But since all the slush had frozen into the pond, it was much easier walking on the pond and I was able to get close to the lodge in the southeast end of the pond. Getting close I could get a much better feel for the otters' race around the lodge which, I guess took place two or three days ago.

The outer trail was twice as wide as the trail inside it, giving the clear impression of an adult and a pup.

The trails closer to the lodge merged too much to get a clear sense of the size of the otters who made them. My first impression of this family was that a mother with two pups had another adult helper, but then the last time I saw them, I thought maybe the mother had three pups. I checked the other holes that the otters had used and saw nothing new at them. Since I was at the west end of the pond, I went over the ridge there down to the Second Swamp Pond where I expected the otters to visit since they had moved in the Upper Second Swamp Pond the other day. But there were no signs the otters came down and I checked close enough to the lodge under the knoll, the dam, and the muskrat lodges the otters scated on in the fall. It’s hard for me to believe that the otters can get enough to eat just hanging out in the Upper Second Swamp Pond. But what do I know? The pond was dry much of the summer but that might mean it has a good store of insect larva and hibernating frogs. Anyway it didn’t appear that the otters had been out of the holes behind the dam, but I did get a better photo of where they had been out.

And they hadn’t been out along the area the inlet creek had been keeping open -- it was mostly frozen over today. I figured that there had to be more to their life in this pond than what I had seen so I walked toward the upper end of the pond and I saw where there had been a hole into the pond, now frozen over, and something had pawed up on the edge that could have been an otter.

Then I saw a hole closer to the south shore of the pond where otters had been out and that had bubbles under the ice,

and that hole was close to an old beaver that certainly looked to be in good enough shape to house otters.

So the otters do have a bigger world. I walked through the brush back to the inlet creek looking for otter trails coming down from or up to the Lost Swamp Pond. But I didn’t see clear trail. Since otters can’t fly, they must have come down in the water of the stream.

Hard to picture them scampering back up to the pond just in the stream. What looks like tracks paralleling the stream look much older than the tracks I saw otters make on both ponds. I headed back home via the Big Pond and the second valley going up the ridge, more or less tracking Leslie who went back as I checked for otter tracks. I saw that coyotes had been busy on the south shore of the Big Pond, sniffing over the muskrat lodges

And there was a bullhead head in the snow. A coyote must have dug up what an otter left, and perhaps dug it out of the grasses molded by the muskrats for a lodge and used by the otters for dining on bullheads Then I saw that the porcupine denning in the rocks just south of the pond had been out and left a nice trail of yellow pee in the snow.

I checked the den to see if the porcupine was in. No. Leslie had gone up over the ridges and I tried to follow then a deer trail seemed more alluring. Surprised not to see any fisher nor porcupine trails but I began to work up a sweat and was intent on getting home.

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