Tuesday, January 12, 2010

January 2 to 10, 2010

January 2 The last four days of 2009 provided good conditions for tracking, but the light snow and fog of New Year’s Eve presaged a gray, melting New Year’s Day, warm enough to slush the snow but not warm enough to expect beavers to open up holes in their frozen ponds. It snowed last night giving us two inches of new fluffy snow settling lightly on the two inches we already had. Since it was snowing in the early morning and got rather cold in the night and was barely above zero at dawn with a brisk northwest wind, conditions were still not good for tracking. But more snow was in the forecast, up to 8 inches starting tonight so I might not have good tracking conditions for a couple more days. Since it was too cold to track far, I decided to poke around the spruce woods and meadow south of the Big Pond where I had seen interesting fisher activity other winters. The other day I had seen fisher tracks heading down that way. I had a pleasant poke around -- always warm protected by the stubby spruce trees - but I didn’t see any signs of fisher activity only deer tracks.

I meandered up the meadow, dodging soggy areas and got up to the Big Pond dam where all was still frozen until I got too close to where a mink went into the snow over the dam

and I crashed through the ice into a few inches of water. The mink tracks had been made during the snowfall last night suggesting that it was out in the night. The tracks continued down into the meadow, not along the dam. I walked up past the muskrat lodges and saw no mink tracks around them, and the snow around the active beaver lodge was featureless.

I forgot to mention that when I was here the other day, I heard a beaver making noise inside the lodge, not exactly a hum, more like snore. No noises today. As I headed along the boundary line toward the Lost Swamp Pond, I saw fresh grouse tracks and then rabbit tracks and two trails left by a hare. One crossed the trail I was on

and the other, well, I found myself walking behind it realizing that I couldn’t match the six foot long bounds of the hare.

Its leaping allowed me to see the hint of claws in some of its prints.

This is the most rabbit activity we’ve seen here this early in the winter. I didn’t check the active beaver lodge up in the southeast end of the Lost Swamp. I stayed on the boundary line, more or less, over to the dam. No open water there. Then as I headed down to the Second Swamp Pond I picked up a fresh mink trail. I learned two interesting things from it. I followed to a little opening under the rocks that form the south shore of the pool at the east end of the long pond.

When otters frequented this pond, I thought they found a burrow here, and I have looked for it before, but this is the first time I saw it.

The mink just went in and out of the hole and then dashed through the meadow and it dawned on me why. Sparrows were flitting about, several of them. There was an older mink trail going down pond which I picked up when I saw that it dug into the muskrat lodge by the channel.

The batteries in my camera and replacement batteries succumbed to the cold after I took the photo above so I was unable to record the mink tracks around the bank lodge along the north shore below the rocky knoll down pond. Of course, one mink going up and back can make several trails but perhaps there were two minks gadding about. There were three trails going down to the dam and then down into the meadow. I didn’t find a trail heading up to the East Trail Pond dam. I went up there just to make sure the porcupine had crossed along the dam since the snow stopped, yes. I scanned the trees it had been working in, but saw no porcupines up in them. Set off by the gray sky it would have been a good time to take photos of their work. Then I suddenly realized I was a cold, so I headed home, not tarrying to track. I didn’t see any fisher tracks in the Fisher Woods but saw a possible faded fisher trail between the Second Swamp Pond and the Big Pond. I saw deer but they were begging about the houses in Thousand Island Park.

January 4 we went to the land just after lunch where there was about a foot of snow but since it is fluffy stuff I could easily get around. However, fluffy snow is not good for tracking, plus the snow has been more or less constant and there was light snow falling as I walked around. So rabbit tracks were blurred and it was not easy to distinguish between coyote and deer tracks. I saw trails going up and down the slopes of Grouse Alley and couldn’t be sure if they were made by browsing deer or coyotes sniffing out rabbit holes. I hadn’t seen any porcupine trails this winter at our land and they are easy to spot in fluffy snow so I looked for them as I headed down to see if the beavers had gotten out from under the ice and snow. As I stepped onto the Last Pool my old friend the barred owl flew up from a lower to a higher perch. I was able to get a few steps closer as I snapped photos

Then it turned around, leaned down at me, and flew right over my head and off into the woods to the southwest. I admired the gentle snow folded over the old beaver gnaws

I walked under the hemlocks along the east shore and finally saw a porcupine trail coming down from a hole in the rocks half way up the ridge

And ending at some small hemlocks on the flat.

I think I was mostly seeing deer trails on the pond, that mostly veered under the hemlocks.

There were trails around the lodge but not up on it, as a coyote would do.

And it looked like some deer went over the middle of the dam,

And, most interesting, it looked like deer stamped a hole in the ice next to the lodge.

They know that the combination of the beavers keeping the ice thin by swimming under it and the deepening snow keeping the top of the ice soft makes it easier to open a hole in the ice. I could hear beavers mewing inside the lodge. I bet they will soon be out and about on the ice.

January 5 It started snowing after dawn, a light but accumulating snow, which didn’t help tracking conditions. I decided to cross South Bay and check Meander Pond. Last week coyotes killed a deer on the bay. Ottoleo saw quite a congeries of eagles picking at the carcass. Today, it was easy to see that the remains remain interesting to coyotes. There were tracks to it

and quite a bit of stamping around it

Part of a leg was still bloody from the coyotes’ gnawing.

I followed one coyote trail over to the north shore, wondering it I’d see a poop along the way -- no. I picked up deer trails along the shore. I also ventured onto the bay to see how slushy it might be under the snow. It got rather wet toward the north shore. It was still easier walking there than on the ground where the snow was deeper. I trudged up to Meander Pond, almost working up a sweat. I continued to see deer trails, and squirrel trails and perhaps one fisher trail. Not a day for tracking. No sign that the beavers came out of the hole in Meander Pond dam. Some water continued to dribble out.

A deer had walked around the pond but nothing else. If a beaver had been out in the last few days there would have been an impression in the snow. And I saw a fairly deep trail coming out of the hole in the ice near the lodge.

Judging from how closed and snowed over the hole looked, a beaver had not been out recently.

The beaver trail did not go far. A beaver came out, walked about ten yards and returned to the hole.

I walked over to the north shore where there appears to be two springs. I took a photo of the one in the southeast end of the pond the last time I was here. Today I admired an opening, closer to the lodge, where the red oaks trunks that the beavers feasted on in the winter of 2005-6 crisscross.

That winter they didn’t need to put a hole in the dam and simply kept the channel under the ice clear to this area where it was easy for them to keep a hole open. Breaching a dam is not something beavers always do in the winter and my guess is that they think of it as a response to potentially dire conditions. This year the ice formed quick and thick and then there was rain and melting over Christmas weekend. I’ve never seen beavers repair such a low and wide hole in a dam during the winter. The beavers probably don’t mind not having plenty of water though I suppose it might keep the lodge warmer and it might make it easier to ultimately break through thick ice as insulating snow on top and water below weakens the ice. Much could be learned by sitting in a dark lodge with a beaver and having a long talk on pertinent topics in engineering. To get back to South Bay I went the same way I did the other the other day over a gap in the ridge that led past a rock outcrop where I saw porcupine poop.

Today I saw a porcupine facing the rock under a ledge. I didn’t get too close so as not to alarm it.

I didn’t see any fisher tracks nearby as I did last time. Rethinking my doubting that fishers ever hunt porcupines, I should note that once a porcupine is in a pile of rocks, or just facing a rock, a fisher would find it impossible to kill it. So why check out porcupine dens at all? Enough people had walked on the South Bay trail recently that it was easy walking on it up to Audubon Pond. I only saw deer tracks on the pond and one mink trail along the west shore of the pond. I headed down to the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay and the latrine was a smooth blanket of snow and there were no signs of otters out on the bay. As I approached I heard crows and saw a black bird on the edge of the ice. I assumed it was a crow but when I sat down and it flew off, I saw that it was an eagle. When I sat the sun almost seemed to be coming out, then it began snowing again.

I walked back down the South Bay trail far enough to check another ancient porcupine den at the bottom of a huge oak, and sure enough there was a porcupine inside.

I saw a pileated woodpecker fly over head and when I got down on the bay at one of the willows, I inconvenienced a chattering hairy woodpecker.

January 6 we went to our land and I checked on the Boundary Pond beavers. I guess the snow is about ten inches deep, often more in places. That appeared to be enough snow to limit the activities of rabbits, and even seemed to keep the coyotes and dogs away. And there were no deer tracks to follow as I walked down the middle of the Last Pool and Boundary Pond. I couldn’t resist taking another photo of a birch the beavers cut and gnawed now framed by the snow.

There were no tracks up onto the beaver lodge. I couldn’t hear the beavers inside but their vent hole atop the lodge was wide.

I got a whiff of the rotten egg pond smell, so common in the winter. There were no holes around the dam so it must come from a hole in the ice next to the lodge.

This hole seems to be getting bigger but it doesn’t look like the beavers have anything to do with it. The deer come to and their hoof beats most be keeping it open. I find it rather strange the not one beaver has come out to take a walk around in the snow. I started to head up the ridge taking my usual route but I found that was too steep in the deep snow. So I angled up an easier path. When I got to the crest of the ridge I saw a deer, soft and brown, in the soft white snow. It stared out me from under a pine tree and bowed its head. I turned away demurely and bowed my head, and the deer ran up into the woods.

I walked up under the tall hemlocks of what I call the Hemlock Cathedral. Because the snow is only about three inches deep there, there were more deer tracks and I saw quite a criss-crossing of porcupine trails. A small porcupine took an easy route down into a nearby gulley,

while a large one seemed to plunge over the ridge.

A raven flew over me making some fantastical machine-like noises. Thanks to our neighbor the butcher there are bald eagles around but so far no struggles between eagles, ravens and crows has spilled out into the skies over our land.

January 7 we’ve been getting a few inches of snow everyday, but not yesterday so today I planned to head out to do some tracking. But first I cleared slush and snow out of the boat. At this time of year there is plenty to watch on the river. There must be 300 golden eyes diving over Granite Slate shoal whose whistling flights prompt us to scan the sky for eagles, and we usually see one hovering high above the ducks, and sometimes big black backed gulls joining them. The two swans that had been in South Bay have been iced out, so to speak, to where we can see then from our porch. There are enough mallards around to make themselves heard and one furtive goose lurking around our dock. There are mink trails everyday in the snow going from the swimming cove up to a house across the road. I frequently see a muskrat diving in the water off our docks. When the sun came out, for the first time this year, I was tempted to stay home and roast in our glassed-in porch. But duty called and I hiked up antler trail made easier because deer had used the same trail. On the north end of the granite plateau, I flushed two deer out of beds right on the edge of the woods, catching the sun but near to cover.

I crossed down into the fisher territory in the woods along the outlet stream from the Big Pond, and didn’t see any fisher tracks, nor coyote tracks, just deer tracks. The snow on the pools made by the creek was not deep so I walked up on them. At first glance I thought the easy walking would continue on the Big Pond and that I could follow the deer trails on the pond

But I found that the deer and then I had about three inches of slush to contend with. I veered to the south shore of the pond where the snow was a little deeper but no slush. Then I crossed over at the narrowest point in the pond and went up the north shore to check the lodge. There I found two ghostly holes in the ice near the lodge, but no indications that beavers climbed out of the holes or even that they made them.

I headed over to the Lost Swamp Pond along the boundary line, through the woods. I followed deer tracks and crossed grouse tracks, no rabbit tracks today. Then I saw spot of fresh blood on the snow with small feathers and breast down peppered on the surrounding snow.

This was under one of the red pines where a raptor or owl might roost, so my first thought was that what I saw on the snow were the drippings, so to speak, of a bigger bird's meal. Then I saw what looked like ermine tracks coming up to the feathers.

Of course, an ermine may have just come over to smell the blood. However, the snow is deep enough for an ermine to tunnel through it. I saw more of its tracks as I continued on, or were the tracks below large enough to have been made by a mink?

As the snow piles up, one has to think subnivean and I find that quite difficult. Obviously an ermine can hide in the snow and then pounce, but when it darts through the snow can it keep up speed and sensibility enough to snare a sparrow? I soon had deeper quandaries. As I approached the pond from the south I get a good view of the dam along the north shore. I could see a nexus of deer trails over there. Then I looked over at the lodge in the middle of the pond, not being used by beavers now, and I saw a gaping hole beside it. I could see deer trails heading over there, but there was more. The hole in the ice looked like otters had slipped in and out of it many times, and that the otters plowed the snow a few feet around the hole. But the sure sign of otters, a black scat in the snow or ice, was not to be seen.

Otters don’t have to slide up on the pond -- there is nothing for them to eat on the ice, but when I see otters using a pond in the winter, I usually see their slides on and around the pond, and they usually visit the dam. The activity at the dam was also somewhat equivocal. There was a small hole in the ice right where otters traditionally have dug a hole through the dam, and as the water gushed underneath me it sounded like something had widened a hole to get more water flowing out of the pond. But while the snow around the hole was plowed for a few feet, again, there were no scats. A trail that led to other holes on along the dam looked like a mink trail.

Looking as close to the ice I could, I fancied that there might be some scats covered by snow and I thought I could make out an otter print in the ice.

I eased my way along the dam to where the deer had congregated. No sign of otters being there, but there were more mink trails

And one went neatly over the dam into a tunnel into the snow below the dam.

There was no otter-like activity around the lodge by the dam, which I knew the otters had used in the fall, but I saw another hole in the ice out along the shore of peninsula in the middle of the pond. Again, I saw a hole in the ice with its lips rubbed brown in that way only otters do, but the plowing around the hole only extended a few feet

Save for a plowing slide from a larger hole in the ice to a smaller one. That looked like an otter trail, no doubt about it.

These holes were near where the muskrats had been denning in bank burrows just a month ago. I didn’t see any muskrat signs, but I did see a mink trail coming out of a small burrow in the nearby bank.

Is it possible that muskrats were the animals slipping in and out of the holes? I certainly counted several muskrats in this pond a month ago. That would account for why I saw no scats but while muskrats do go through the snow, I just don’t think they have the weight to make the wearing down and pounding down in the snow that I saw. I didn’t see anything to indicate there was activity like this up pond, so I headed down stream to see if the otters took advantage of the flow of water out of the pond. I noticed that a few feet of snow around the stream had been washed away, so the hole in the dam had been widened a few days ago causing a good rush of water.

But I saw no signs of otters or anything else down on the Upper Second Swamp Pond, except some snowed-over trails that looked like what minks would leave.

Down on the Second Swamp Pond there were not even faded tracks. Well, time may tell a different story, but the evidence today suggests that otters have been popping out of holes in the Lost Swamp Pond, but I sure wish I had seen a scat. I got another indication that the flood of water downstream took place a few days ago because ice refroze on the upper section in just that classic way that sends boots crashing through into the mud. Water came over one boot but not up to my knee. While the sun made the air temperature comfortable, cold wet feet added to my fatigue from walking through snow and slush, so I headed home. I skirted the spruce groves below the Big Pond where the snow was not so deep. I saw that a couple of fishers had been through. The snow on the tree trunks was too high to invite them to do their usual strut on downed trunks. Even a brief bit of tracking got me feeling like a fisher, swerving over to trees and making abrupt turns. Good hike. More snow on the way, can’t wait to see what the Lost Swamp will look like the next time I come out.

January 9 very cold night, then a cold day, but sunny, so we went to our land, more or less to see what isn’t happening, since the cold and deepening snow -- 15 inches? -- limit activity. But right where we parked the car on the road -- next to our compost pile, there were porcupine trails, wide and deep in the snow, and crossing the road and going past the compost into the bushes.

I headed down to Boundary Pond where the deer no longer tread. The photo below sums it up, little has changed,

Which adds to its peacefulness. The only active animals on the snow were the mice

And I thought they’d be content to burrow under the snow.

January 10 below zero in the night and ice fog left fat snow crystals on every tree and bush. But the morning was cloudy so the affect wasn’t as brilliant as it usually is. I headed off to check the Lost Swamp Pond for otters when it was just five degrees but afternoon snow seemed a possibility and I didn’t want any fresh otter signs around the pond obscured. I wasn’t distracted by deer beds and fisher trails. I had to conserve my energy in case the otters headed off in the deep snow and I had to follow. Despite two, below zero nights there was two or three inches of slush under the snow on the Big Pond. I saw no holes in the ice, and no new trails on the pond. And there were only deer tracks in the woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond. At first glance the pond did not look like it had been a busy place. Deer seemed to be avoiding the slushy snow. There were only a few trails. I checked the beaver lodge in the middle of the west end of the pond where the other day I saw a hole in the ice and signs that otters had been out. The hole was frozen over and there were no snowed over otter signs, certainly not the scat that I longed to see and that would confirm that otters were there. Then I walked over to the hole that had been near the north shore of the peninsula. The hole was just about snowed over. There were mink trails nearby but not to the hole, an indication that the minks did not make or much use the big holes. The slush on the pond along the way to the lodge by the dam was alarming, but the ice below held me. There was a new wrinkle at the lodge. The ice had opened a bit in front of the lodge and it looked like an otter had nosed around the snow there. But given the state of the ice, I thought it would be foolish to get too close. Plus I saw that the rim of the hole in the ice just behind the dam was brown suggesting that something had been in and out of it since out last snow a two nights ago. (The ice fog “snow” did not extend into the interior of the island.) So I eased my way along the dam, past recently used mink holes and slide and found pretty convincing evidence that at otter had recently been out of the hole. There was a semicircular slide in the snow around the hole

and otter prints in the ice around the hole.

I saw a bit of fresh blood on the ice

But no scats! Heretofore in my years of tracking otters, it seemed that an otter couldn’t resist the urge to scat in the snow outside the holes it used to get under the pond ice. The dam continued to leak and while I could easily see that a mink had been over the dam, making some neat tunnels stained with mud from its scooting along,

I didn’t see any otter slides below the dam. I walked down to the pond below and only saw a few mink trails. I didn’t continue, as I usually do, down to the Second Swamp Pond dam. It was obvious that the otters weren’t going there. So if they weren’t following the logic of their foraging during the summer and fall, I trusted that they must be following the logic of foraging under the frozen Lost Swamp Pond. So I went back there and walked along the north shore to the west, remembering the many times otters had opened and used holes along there. This winter minks hadn’t even been there. Then I went to the west end of the pond where, thanks to a little spring, otters had often found it easy to make a hole in the ice, even though I have never seen beavers show any interest in making holes there during the winter. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear but a little otter playground spilling out from under the ice and onto the snow.

They had broken out, and judging from the dirt on the ice, dug out, at two places.

Here at last I saw some scats, one rather huge and others curious looking so that I hope I can probe into them on a warmer day.

I hope that there are four otters using these holes. The amount of scat doesn’t suggest that but here, at least, the amount of pawing and rolling and scratching does. I got an indication of the possible playing of otter pups. There was a hole into the snow forming a tunnel in the snow flanking a long log.

I stepped back and took a photo of this latrine in relation to the dam some 50 yards away at the top of the photo below.

Right next to the otter activity there was a depression in the snow with bird feathers scattered about.

The air began feeling warmer, wind was picking up from the south, so I continued exploring the old otter routes under the ice. Close to the shore the slush wasn’t bad. The otters didn’t break out at the muskrat lodge where I saw them in the fall, but one otter at least did come out of a hole near the beaver lodge. I don’t think this is the same hole that the beavers had made next to their lodge, which had been frozen over the last few times I have gotten out here. The otter made a trail through the slush heading to the north shore, and then turned back.

I didn’t feel like braving the slush to get closer to the hole, and seeing this explained to me why the otters haven’t been scooting over the pond -- they don’t like the slush either. I did get a close up photo of their trail.

So the beavers had some company. I felt like I had accomplished something and to conserve energy I backtracked myself until I got to the Big Pond dam. Climbing hills in the snow is most fatiguing and I remembered that in other winters I avoided the ridge south of the stream that flows from the Big Pond to South Bay, by walking along a small seasonal rivulet that comes down from a meadow that my Antler Trail crosses. Other animals had gravitated to this convenient valley in the cold: at least two porcupines, an ermine

And a fisher, if not two or three

This will be a good place for tracking fishers when snow conditions get better. And there were deer “highways” crossing the valley and deer trails that I could follow as I headed up to the meadow. Flanked by cliffs hanging with long icicles, this would be a nice place to watch deer, too.

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