Friday, January 15, 2010

January 30 to February 7, 2009

January 30 we are snowed in, not that we can't get around, all the roads are plowed, but the stories we follow are not along roads. We got six more inches of snow on top of the foot or so that we
had, which adds up to about 20 inches in the fields and woods where we walk. Plus the young carpenters who used to promptly race their snowmobiles across the golf course, providing easier access to the valley going down to the beaver ponds, are now
contractors with growing families and snowmobiling is a sometimes weekend pastime. But the sun lured me up the Antler Trail, though by the time I got up and over it, another snow squall moved through. At least it wasn't bitter cold, just comfortably in the upper 20s. Usually I don't pay attention to tracks on the civilized TI Park side of the ridge, but I couldn't be picky today, so I enjoyed the squirrel tracks going from tree to tree.

A deer danced along the ridge too, making an abrupt stop and turning -- don't know why. The top of the ridge was quite covered with not a track to be seen. I slogged to one depression in the snow wondering if a deer made its bed out in the open, but the best I could make out, the wind sculpted out a hole at the foot of a granite boulder sticking up on the plateau. Then I followed the trail of a deer who followed the depression that was my last trail through the woods. I knew I couldn't go far and I didn't want to get trapped into having to climb hills to get back, when I might be tired. So I decided to take my usual route down to the South Bay trail and then walk along that trail back to town where the roads were plowed. Snowshoeing in two feet of snow is slow going, unless you find tracks. So I veered off my trail to where a porcupine sometimes dwell. Not out. But a I saw where a deer leaped up the ridge coming up from South Bay and dashed over to where I expected the porcupine to have its den. I saw more trails over there, all deer trails, but seeing their leaps and line enlivened my shoes. I slid down the ridge following their tracks. When I see the tracks of leaping deer in the snow, I always assume that they heard me coming and fled. But then it struck me, that in snow this deep leaping was the best way for small deer especially to get about.

I paced the length between two crash downs in the snow and found that the leap was about 14 feet in the air. That's pretty close to flying in these conditions. Not that all the deer were leaping. I saw an angle made by the trail of a
leaper and a plodder

and the plodders did make a highway that other deer, and I, could follow. And these highways could seem quite orderly, affording a following deer with a series of 90 degree turns to make.

There were also two areas, almost side by side, where several deer seemed to have stamped around.

I didn't see anything especially tasty in the area and no signs of anything eaten. I wonder if this is where some deer bedded down for the night and where they might have stamped about to get the snow off their backs and maybe keep
their blood circulating -- not that it was that cold during the night. Coming down to the South Bay, I decided to prolong my trek long enough to find a mink trail. I saw what I thought might be one coming down from a rock up from the trail

but the trail didn't lead to a tunnel showing the usual velocity of a mink, so it might have just been the trail of a squirrel who went out, started feeling it was sinking too deeply into the snow and turned back. The trail back to
civilization held fewer diversions than the woods, but I made it without too much sweat.

January 31 we had another three inches of snow and it was zero degrees at dawn. When we went to our land it had warmed up to six. After digging out a bit, we walked down to the Big Pond and staring at the white pillowed pond wondered why any beaver or other animals would venture out of warm holes. I thought of going down to White Swamp to see if the otters broke out of their holes, but the margins of marshy swamps can have daunting drifts and snowshoes can rather bog down in three to four feet of snow. So we just
headed off on the trail from our house going down Grouse Alley. That the little porcupine came out and plowed a trail gave us courage

but that is a lightweight porcupine. Outside our cabin we saw a mouse trail high in the snow above the pounding progress of a rabbit.

Going on our old trail was easy, just about a foot of snow. We often see rabbit tracks but I don't take many photos of them until I see them heroing about in conditions like these. We haven't seen porcupines back in their usual dens along Grouse Alley and maybe that is why rabbits have moved into the
rock dens.

These cliffdwelling rabbits didn't have far to go for food. Well gnawed branches were just outside their holes.

And there was easy access to hemlock trunks down just off our old trail.

The rabbit activity ended once we got by the holes in the rocks. Then we saw two trails going up to the Hemlock Cathedral, one clearly a deer, and Leslie thought the other was a coyote's. I headed down to the Boundary Pool lodge,
sure that the beavers had not come out, but what if they had? They hadn't, the vent hole on top the only sign of heat within the snow covered lodge.

The pond was almost featureless save for the impressions of my old trails across it. And no signs of porcupines coming down the ridges on the sides of the dam. The ravens were about, and chatty, and we heard a chickadee giving its fee-bee call in the bright sun. Spring is on the way. We went home and as it clouded up in the afternoon, and with a veil of light snow as a blind I sneaked along the shore to see if I could get a photo of the swan, perhaps two, that I saw swimming in the open water yesterday. I saw a good flock of golden eyes and common mergansers

but no swans.

February 1 the temperature got above freezing which, with deep snow, only presents problems. Fortunately, it is the weekend so there were snowmobile tracks on the golf course. It was relatively easy trudging on them save that the snow stuck to my snowshoes. There were snowrolls to look for, thanks to recent strong winds but they were rapidly melting. The snowmobile trail left me at the edge of the woods, and then my work began. On my way down the second valley to the Big Pond, I saw a faded trail left by a fisher

This is the first sign of fishers I've seen in this area which usually is a major venue for them. Going down the valley I kept my eyes up, hoping to see a porcupine high in a tree, but I had to content myself with contemplating wide trails now well rounded by the melting. However, with eyes up I did see a red squirrel dash down a tree and disappear into a hole in the snow at the base of the tree. I walked over and saw that it had three holes to choose from.

The ridge was molded with snow

and at the usual places there were trails going up the ridge so smoothly that it gave the impression of an animal much more ethereal than a porcupine moving about.

Just outside the holes to its den there was a tickling hint of the animal moving about

and down at the base of the pine tree that its been harvesting there were bold lines of pee and a suggestion of a porcupine about its business.

As usual there was a long trail down the ridge, and one across the valley and up the opposite ridge, only this time I could see some bark eating up in the crown of a small maple half way up the ridge.

My original plan was to head back after seeing the porcupine trails, but, going down hill, I thought I could go farther and I got the great notion that I'd find less snow on the Big Pond and then be able to make it down to the trail I made to the South Bay trail and then take that trail back to plowed
roads. When I got to the little uplift of rocks above the meadow around the pond, I saw where the deer stamped about

and the meager meal they got for their troubles.

Then I launched myself on the Big Pond, got about 20 yards out, then sank through six inches of snow and began sinking into I know not how many inches of slush. I made an abrupt U-turn and headed back the way I came.

February 2 we went to the land today to see what advantage we could take of the slight thaw. As usual I walked down to the Deep Pond first. I passed some possum tracks going up to our mulch pile. Then down at the bottom of the hill, almost to the pond, I thought I saw some turkey tracks going up off the road into the deep snow. But then I saw twigs and trails of dragging twigs in what snow remained on the road.

The beavers had been out. So I looked back at the activity along the ridge and saw that a beaver had been cutting maple saplings.

Looking over the plowed up ridge along the pond side of the road, I saw the trails the beavers made

and the trees they cut.

I climbed over the ridge, snow four feet deep, and got down on the beavers' trails

which led me to a big hole at the base of the dam.

I got as close as I could but that didn't reveal much, just a hole with some water dribbling out.

There was a good bit of activity in the snow around the hole and up on the pond, but as far as I could tell, that was, once again, from the hopping and pecking and flapping of big birds.

I have never seen beavers breach a dam so low. I'll have to think about when they did it. Judging from the state of the little rivulet below there has been no recent rush of water out of the dam

So I think the breach was begun a few weeks ago and the water dribbled out rather than rushed and that just yesterday, the beavers finally broke out through the hole. I thought these beavers would have to get more food and they had discovered things to harvest across the road back in the fall, so it makes sense that they'd go back there, but it is worrisome, especially if they cut a tree down that crosses the road and the town crew discovers it first. They did gnaw into one tree big enough to cause a problem.

Of course, scouting all that out was easy. Next I headed down Grouse Alley toward the Boundary Pond. Our old trail made it easier but the snow still stuck to the snowshoes. The possum made it up to Grouse Alley too and left the trail I and other animals had used and looped around toward a tree, not sure why.

The birch trees are shedding their seeds, or so it seems, speckling the snow.

Nearby snow fleas congregated in deer prints and my prints. The rabbits in the porcupine dens in the rocks are still hopping about, especially between two holes into the rocks. It looks like one might be jumping up to get at the low hanging hemlock branch.

And nearby a rabbit has girdled a sapling.

Down at the foot of a hemlock rabbits have been eating there was a spot of blue pee.

This is supposed to arise from their eating buckthorn berries and bark, but I didn't see any nibbling on the few buckthorns nearby. Continuing down to Boundary Pond, I noticed that a deer used the snowshoe trail. And once again, as I
saw back on the island, the deer come in perpendicular to the main trail, as if traveling along a grid is the way to manage deep snows.

I find myself doing that, once I notice a trail, I walk directly to it, rather than angle toward it. The beavers in Boundary Pond have still not come out, which surprised me, and there was no noise from the lodge.

They must be in a stupor. A deer, not a coyote, walked close to the lodge. The two porcupines living on either side of the pond, haven't been down their usual ways either, but they could have gone up the ridge. I saw what looked like just cut hemlock boughs on the snow. I looked up the trees but didn't see any porcupines up there.

I went back the way I came in, and this time, going down Grouse Alley, I saw where snow rolled down the hill.


February 3 we took our snow shoes over to South Bay and followed a snowmobile trail across the bay. That was easy and it was too cold for any slush. Then we waded up into the deep snow along the
shore and set out for Shangri-la Pond via Meander Pond where there was the best chance of seeing a beaver peak out in the 20 degree sunshine. It was slow going but just a few yards into the woods we saw a fisher's trail, which was good to see.

It came down from the ridge, but unfortunately the going was too tough to even think of tracking it. A few yard farther along we saw another fisher trail, perhaps the same fisher, and we could see that at some places the snow had been firm enough to support the animal.

We were not that lucky. We followed the now faint trail I made a week or so ago which made the snow seem a little firmer. We looked for excuses to stop and the asters were well worth looking at as they seem to bloom with their fuzziness.

And Leslie expressed her admiration for a stand of shag-bark hickories.

There was no beaver action at Meander Pond and the snow molded a blanket over the trails and hole I saw here a week ago.

As we pressed on toward Shangri-la, I gave Leslie something to think about: should we return on the trail we made coming in, or circle back to the bay? Circle back, she said. There were deer trails here and there and it may have been two or three deer that made a trail to a water hole at the east end of
Meander Pond

but why wouldn't coyotes want a drink. We didn't go over to check. The deep snow helped to frame some bird nests often hard to see wedged into a low shrub

Just as the ice formed, a tree the beavers had been working on blew down at the west end of the pond. The beavers never trimmed it so I was surprised to see that beavers had cut some of the branches.

The last time I was here, a week ago, I walked on the other side of the tree, and was rather tired so it is possible I missed seeing the cuts. There was no evidence that the beavers had a hole in the ice near here, or walked on the pond to get to it. Strange. To get down Shangri-la Pond, I followed a deer trail along the shady south side of the pond. At one point the deer tunneled into the snow at the foot of the ridge with its nose, and found some grass.

There was a small hole in front of the beaver lodge, but I am pretty sure a deer made it, perhaps by accident. The ice must been thin there. I didn't get close enough for a good photo or to be sure a beaver didn't make it. I've learned my lesson, I hope, about getting too close to beaver lodges at this time of year. Down at the dam there were no signs that beavers had been out, but a mink had used a hole in the ice of the little pool below the dam.

Meanwhile, Leslie changed her mind and we went back on the trail we made out. Wise decision. We theorized about the inactivity of the Shangri-la Pond beavers who over the years in this and other ponds have such a record of exploit in the winter. We decided the death of the beaver a year ago may explain their inactivity. There may only be three beavers in the colony, and the beaver that died may well have been the most adventurous of the lot, and leader of the winter forays.

February 5 It turned very cold again, below zero in the morning with little warming and a north wind. So yesterday we watched the ducks in the river, and saw the swans again. Today the conditions were almost the same but we wouldn't be denied. We drove over to our
land and headed off onto White Swamp on our skis. The middle of the swamp was easy to ski over, and Leslie headed across the swamp to check on the active beaver lodge on the far shore. The edges of the swamp were well drifted with three feet of snow in
many places. I plowed along the shore to check the otter holes. Because of the last snow and drifting, all their old holes would be covered if they didn't manage to keep them open. And at the latrine on the mossy bank, I saw that they came out of the middle hole again

and the east hole, where they've done most of their scatting, and there was another bit of scat there.

However, there was not as much plowing around as the last times they had come out. As I plowed along, I saw what from a distance looked like an otter slide coming down the ridge, but when I got closer I saw that a deer made the trough.

The last time we were here, we saw where the otters dug out from under the ice at the base of a shrub. No sign of that today. However, I think an otter came out from under the ice at the opening where the creek comes down from the Deep Pond. The last time I saw the depression I thought large birds had strutted around, perhaps taking advantage of what the deer had wrought. Today there were no tracks coming into the area, but what made tracks in the area was certainly not a bird.

In the middle of the radiating short forays in the snow there was a nice round hole like an otter would make.

However, there seemed to be very little space under the ice, no more than six inches. Well, I should be content with the lessons the otters teach me. For years they amazed me by living under the ice of one beaver pond for several weeks. Now they're showing me how they made a winter home in a mile square swamp. I didn't go back the way I came, no advantage on skis through deep snow. I headed out to the center of the swamp and circled back to the car. Unfortunately I had to go into a stiff wind. Leslie made it to the beaver lodge, and reported that there was nothing new there. We saw coyote tracks but they tended toward the humps of snow where we dare not go. I took advantage of the deep freeze to take a close look at the hole the beavers made through the Deep Pond dam. I even took a stick to see how
far I could poke it in. To my surprise the hole was unpokable. With the couple inches of water now frozen, the beaver might have had a hole five inches wide

but I can't say the I really saw it, and the photo above doesn't show it. I'll to hope to see a beaver use this hole! But there is no doubt that one did, and I tried to get a beaver eye view of the snow it plowed through.

I also can't wait to see how shallow the pond is. The ice level is certain low behind the dam.

But that embankment where the birds dance is still backs up a good bit of water. I didn't walk over to the pond to check the area outside the burrow. From a distance everything looked under the snow blanket over there.

I also checked the porcupine dens in Grouse Alley where rabbits have been living. No sign of any fresh activity, though I did see a lot of buckthorn berries on the snow, perhaps the inspiration for the spot of blue rabbit pee

February 6 up into the 20s today, damp with a light snow in the morning. I had just about decided not to check any ponds and then the sun showed signs of coming out and I knew I had a snowshoe trail all the way to the Big Pond. So off I went, perhaps an otter finally moved into the Lost Swamp Pond. Up on the ridge above the golf course, I found that a porcupine moved into the hollow at the foot of a dead tree trunk that porcupines have used at least sometime in the winter for about the last ten years.

That was good to see. The porcupine wasn't in and I didn't see any work nearby. A trail went farther up the ridge and another trail went down the flats skirting what will soon become a large vernal pool. I had to stick to the straight
and narrow path I made a few days back and could only track the porcupine with my eyes. Coming down the second valley to the Big Pond, I hoped to see fisher tracks but I couldn't discern any in the confusion of deer tracks. The snow has been compressing and is not that deep in the woods any more. Chugging like a train down my old trail I could keep my eyes in the trees. It looked like the porcupine had widened the girdles it made high up in the pine tree next to its den.

The trail was fresh from one hole in the snow bound rocks to the base of the tree.

I began to fancy that I could see a ball of quills up there but as I stepped away and looked up that fancy passed. There also seemed to be more girdling up in the next pine down

and the big oak, I think, next to it. The porcupine seems to have an easy time with the bark of the big white pine, but has to content itself with the limbs of the oak.

The trails around those trees did not seem freshened. The snow on the Big Pond was not deep at all, and there was no slush, so I danced across the pond and highstepped into the drifts along the edge of north shore sedges. Once it was easy going again in the woods, I looked hard for rabbit tracks but didn't see them. I think it's been two years since I've seen some here. The snow blanketing the Lost Swamp Pond had not been wrinkled by otter slides, even though the pond ice had collapsed in many places, roughly lowering into slush where the channels in the pond still slowly flow -- or so I think.

A photo of the now too high muskrat lodge browsed by the deer best shows the rolypoly relief of the pond.

I have seen this pond like this before in the winter but every other time I knew there was a family of otters coursing around and feasting on fish stranded in pools under the ice, and there was a family of beavers keeping holes wide as they foraged for winter snacks on the shore and then fell into a pattern of often rather heavy lumbering. This winter there are no signs of otters or beavers. But all is not going to waste. I saw a mink trail coming up from the Upper Second Swamp Pond

and darting down into the hole in the fractured ice behind the dam

The snow on the Lost Swamp Pond was still deep and slogging through it was slow. I looked down at the Upper Second Swamp Pond and there were no signs of beaver activity down there. I had accused the beavers there of making the hole in the Lost Swamp Pond dam to keep a flow of water down into their pond so there would always be open water. There is still a slight flow of water from the dam, enough to make a small circle of open water just below the dam, not at all convenient for the Upper Second Swamp Pond beavers to use.

I back tracked to the Big Pond and then walked down to the dam and saw the tracks of a pair of coyotes, I think,

and then the tracks of two or maybe three deer.

At least they seemed narrow than the tracks I attributed to coyotes. All the tracks were a mush of slush at the bottom, no toes to count today. All tracks led to the dam, but there were no holes in the ice and snow there. Meanwhile Leslie went to the land and saw the beavers out below the Deep Pond dam
cutting saplings. She saw one crawl into the dam through the low hole at the base of the dam. I have to try to get a video of that.

February 7 a major thaw began today. As we drove into our land we even had a brief rain shower. Since it just got over freezing there was not much melting yet. We walked down to the Deep Pond dam hoping the beavers would be out again but they weren't. I took photos of the
cutting they probably did yesterday, a path to a tangle of cut saplings, not all of them taken out

and from the road we could look down at the stumps of larger trees and a large one in the foreground had been just cut and taken away,

evidently back into the pond through the hole in the dam because we didn't see it littered about on the trail back to the hole.

The hole looked as small as before, but used. I never before got such a sense of a pond having an anus, n.b. I've long considered beaver ponds, especially in the winter as being living things, breathing and excreting, though I hasten to add that here I didn't smell the characteritic rotten egg smell of a
leaking dam. A beaver also made a short foray up into the deeper snow beside the dam and evidently didn't like wading through deep wet snow and turned back

I went out onto far enough to ascertain that there were no other holes in the pond that the beavers were using to get out, not even the hole I made in the ice above the inlet creek. Then I set out to see if the Boundary Pond beavers were stirring. Along Grouse Alley I saw another spot of blue pee, not far from other spot of it.

And there appeared to be more rabbit nibbling here and there.

But no major new work. At the end of Grouse Alley I saw a mink or ermine trail coming up from the valley below

and as it jumped from my snowshoe trail back onto the deep snow, the mink or ermine made a striking impression.

I think this was probably an ermine, so, unlike a mink, it was white on the snow. Down on the pond, I saw the bark remains that a woodpecker left under the crown of an elm the beavers cut weeks ago.

A porcupine crossing the pond almost left a trough big enough to be a beaver's but it headed up the west ridge and came from the hemlock grove,

where there seemed to be more cut hemlock boughs on the snow under the trees.

I stood near the beaver lodge and strained to hear signs of life -- none. We are supposed to have a thaw that will last for several days. If these beavers don't come out soon, I will be worried. I saw deer prints sinking deep through the snow down to ice that indicates that there is very little water
left in the pond.

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