Wednesday, February 24, 2010

February 9 to 21, 2010

February 9 We got to our land at around 10:30am and we realized that of late we’ve always been coming in the afternoon. I noticed that with the sun higher in the sky, I got a much better look at the trees in the woods and noticed two dead ironwoods ripe for cutting. Leslie took me up to the gully off the Turtle Bog where she saw some rabbit remains. Less remains were there today but enough to photograph.

She thought it had been killed and picked apart by a bird, since there were no canine prints around when she first saw it. Today there were some. We’ve made half hearted attempts to clear a narrow trail through this gully to connect with our trail along the Turtle Bog.

So today I cut some honeysuckle and buckthorn so getting through might be easier this spring. I also brought out an ash log good for firewood. Then I headed down to the Boundary Pond beaver lodge to see if, at last, the beavers have broken out onto the pond again. No, but when I got close to the dam to see if they had made a hole there, I heard a beaver gnawing on ice, or wood stuck in the ice. The noise was loud but what the beaver was doing under the ice made no impression on the snow that I could see.

I was rather close and I think the beaver heard me. I heard it head back to the lodge, perhaps walking on bottom because I didn’t hear the slosh of water -- though beavers can swim very quietly. Meanwhile I heard some hums in the lodge. I walked below the lodge to make sure the beaver hadn’t gnawed a hole through the dam. No.

I ambled around looking high into the trees, until Leslie called my attention to a nest in a low bush in the Third Pond that was filled with swamp milkweed seeds.

February 10 the big storm to the south just gave us a warm east wind and as long as we could stay out of that we had a pleasant hike up to check on the beaver ponds. We walked up the first swamp valley and were struck by how yellow many of the small spruce trees were.

This looked serious since some of the smaller yellowing spruce trees looked nearly dead. Up at the Big Pond dam, as the snow on the dam slowly evaporates, I can see that the hole the mink made into the dam went through the dam.

I don’t recall ever noticing the minks oriented so much to foraging below the dam. There was not much doing on the Big Pond. Leslie was amazed at how big the muskrat lodges are. Usually deer and coyotes whittle them down, so to speak, during a hard winter, but not this year. Then we checked the Lost Swamp Pond and at first look there seemed to be nothing new there. But Leslie thought a print on the ice next to the hole just behind the dam looked bigger than a mink print and it was next to the trail of a mink bounding from the hole.

I assumed it was a raccoon’s but she inspired me to take a closer look below the dam. There I saw a striking blossoming of ice where the water splashed as it tumbled down the dam.

Looking down the course the water takes, I saw a tunnel in the snow that looked wider than mink would make, and freshened with moisture and mud.

That made me think otters did come up to the dam recently. But looking back at the hole in the ice behind the dam, it really didn’t look like anything used that to squeeze under the ice, though I didn‘t probe it with a stick to make sure.

We went down the creek to the Upper Second Swamp Pond and kept seeing possible otter troughs in the snow, or did raccoons come through? Finally we saw a fairly convincing otter print on the ice encrusting a stick crossing the creek.

We moved on down to the pond still seeing signs of activity but nothing in the snow or on the ice to prove otters had just been around.

A good size trough seemed to resolve itself into a mink tunnel in the flanking meadow.

Since the water drained out of this pond, the ice behind the dam and above the main channel through the pond has collapsed, so the otters couldn’t have repeated the forays they made several days ago. I saw one possible trough going up toward the old lodge they used for a den when they were here before, so we walked up there first, and finally saw sure signs that an otter or otters had been back.

However, there were no signs that they went back into the old lodge. Then we walked gingerly along the gaps formed by the ice angled up so that it showed a half foot thick slab of ice. And it looked like something did dash up on and dash right back.

Mink or otter? Judging by the stamping at the point of the triangle formed by the collapsed ice, it was an otter.

We went to the dam thinking we saw otter trails, but they all proved to be my old boot prints. Leslie headed back home and I explored below the dam to see if I could see any sign that otters went up the creek coming up from the Second Swamp Pond. I saw scuffs here and there but nothing certain. I did see what might have been keeping the otters under the ice so long, dead pollywogs

And dead sunnies, all small,

frozen in the crusty ice along about a ten yard stretch of what had been the creek.

Most of the dead seemed to be pollywogs

I saw some spots of blood here and there but none of the fish or pollywogs looked eaten. Often when water freezes the things swimming in it panic and try to escape flipping up on land or, in this case, forming ice. Perhaps this gives some indication of how much food is available for the otters as they forage through the pools of water under the ice. Then as I walked down onto the relatively large pool of water that forms the almost separated upper part of the pond, I saw what looked like the slides of four otters to a hole in the ice.

However, when the snow dissipates or melts, old tracks are revealed and given that the hole the tracks led to looked almost frozen shut, I suspected that these were old tracks that the otters made back on January 29 or 30 when they moved down to the Second Swamp Pond. And I didn’t see any signs that the otters came out of the holes in the upper part of the pond proper, their most logical escape route. So how did otters get into the Upper Second Swamp Pond? I ask questions on my hike, but don’t necessarily answer them. I always trust that I will eventually see more tracks that will answer the questions. I checked all the places where otters had come out on the Second Swamp Pond and saw no signs that otters had been out in the last few days, last several days for the holes closer to the dam. I decided I better take a closer look at the dam. So I climbed up on it and saw some holes into the pond, and through the dam and down into the marsh below that looked like freshly used holes,

with widths to suit otters

Plus set off from those muddy holes was a hole in the snow rimmed by feathery ice crystals that gave the impression of hot bodies and heavy breathing down inside the hole.

I walked below the dam looking for otter slides and troughs, and saw none. I took my beeline route home and kept my camera in its case, until walking along Antler Trail up on the granite plateau, I saw a rock that looked like it was alive,

Whether a blooming flower or beast with strange pink saddles, I couldn’t tell. I thought my observations were done for the day, but when I got home, Leslie told me that she had seen signs of otters coming out of a gap in the ice near the bank beaver lodge in the southwest end of the Lost Swamp. So after lunch, I went out again and only paused to watch the many deer and turkeys run off the golf course

Until I got to the Lost Swamp. Then I went over to the bank lodge and saw the small spurt of otter tracks up on the snow and ice.

This was like most of the other otter forays out of holes in the ice that I had seen in the last few weeks. No slides, just some brief stamping of feet, and no scats left behind. I walked down to the west end of the pond where there was a similar gap in the ice and where the otters had come out a couple of times two weeks ago. Sure enough the otters had been out there, too, and it was easy to see that more than one had been dashing around in the snow.

I walked over to the shore and took a photo looking from that direction, showing how the otters broke more ice back into the pond.

As they had raced around in the snow, one otter, probably the mother, left some slides.

If I wasn’t so tired by the hiking, I would have tried to sort out the trails though I could see that it would be difficult to make any sense of it. I went up to the dam. Standing on the pond ice, I could get a picture of the breach the otters made in the dam.

And I saw another little hole behind the dam on the east end of the dam. From a distance it looked like otters might have come out there too.

So evidently as the otters came up to the dam from the Upper Second Swamp Pond they found another hole that they wiggled through to gain access to the dam. But I was still puzzled at why I couldn't see clearer signs of their leaving the Second Swamp Pond.

February 12 cold night, sunny day, no snow. I headed up the golf course then down the first valley and over to the Big Pond dam and up the pond -- nothing new to report. As usual I went to the Lost Swamp Pond along the surveyor's trail, and flushed three grouse. Given the pattern the otters have established, I didn’t expect to see any activity outside of the holes in the Lost Swamp Pond where they had been out two days ago. And there was none. I took a closer look at the smaller hole I saw on the east side of the dam. I had thought that the otters might have peaked out of that when they came into the pond, but I only saw mink tracks.

There were trails going to and from the nearby beaver lodge.

As far as I can tell, the otters haven’t nosed out of any holes around the lodge at any time this winter. I walked up to the northeast end of the pond and then over the slight ridge to take a look at the southeast end of the pond, where the otters had been the last time they were in this pond, two weeks ago. There were few signs of activity on the ice there, certainly no otters had been out.

I back tracked and then walked over to the Upper Second Swamp Pond where there was nothing new. Nor was there much new to see on the Second Swamp Pond, not even at the several holes into the dam near the spillover in the middle of the pond. I did see mink tracks down at the north end of the dam

where the minks had a hole down into a bit of a flow below the dam -- when there is water flowing. I had to admit to myself that the hole I’ve been calling a mink hole all winter, is as big as the holes in the middle of the dam that I attributed to otters.

So, maybe the otters didn’t fish along this dam. Since we are going away for a week, I wanted to get over to Meander Pond to see what the beavers have been doing. Since the snow was not deep, I had several routes to choose from. I took the high road, so to speak, over the ridges. It was probably getting up to 20F, just warm enough for a beaver to come out. I crossed over on Thicket Pond and then came down on the north side of Meander Pond where I hadn’t been for a while. The other day I saw that a beaver came out of a hole along the main channel and headed up toward the red oaks on the north shore. One red oak had been cut enough to fall but it got hung up on some red maples. Just after that half fall, I had seen a beaver trail coming out from a hole near the lodge and going toward the oak and then stopping and going back, as if the beaver was checking to see if the oak was down. I saw the same thing today. A beaver came out of the hole along the channel, then stopped and turned back.

While I’ve long thought that beavers had a plan in their foraging, I also thought it was willy-nilly enough so that they didn’t count on one tree falling; that a beaver would periodically go up to an area where it has been working, and if a tree finally fell, well and gnaw, if not, it would find something else to cut and collect from the area. For example, today on the way to the red oak and saw how well the beavers had trimmed a smaller tree.

Maybe these tracks prove me wrong, maybe beavers do count on big trees falling, anticipating the taste of just that one big tree. Sad thought, I hate to think of an animal’s life as filled with disappointments. The hole the beavers had made down into the channel had frozen over. I headed down to the dam and while the lack of snow below the hole in the dam meant that I couldn’t gauge how many times beavers had been in and out, the hole did looked well used.

I walked down to the ash trees they had cut down, and saw that they had trimmed all the branches out of the crown.

That is pretty impressive. I could almost follow the beavers’ thinking: well, if the red oak didn’t fall, the white ash will have to do. I went back to the hole and followed the other trail the beavers have made, up to the trees north of the dam. The trail seemed more worn than the last time I was here, and there are marks left by the branches they dragged back,

But I couldn’t really see much new work. They had raised their girdling on a white oak up another foot or so

And must have cut and completely trimmed and hauled off another smaller tree. I walked down the north shore of the Shortcut Trail meadow to get down to Audubon Pond, remarkable to be able to do that in mid-February, but nothing remarkable to see along the way. I know there are at least two beavers in Audubon Pond but no sign they had been out from under the ice. I did see the trails of two minks who had raced around the pond.

Call this the winter of the racing minks. I crossed the ice of South Bay, and headed home.

February 21 we were away for a week and came back yesterday afternoon as an inch or two of snow that fell in the night or morning was melting away. However I had hopes that it stuck to the beaver ponds which would give me a clean slate for tracking this morning, as I tried to figure out what the otters have been up to for the last week. Unfortunately, just as I left the house at 9:30, it began to snow lightly. So I hurried along Antler Trail toward the Big Pond. I saw a few deer leap away in the distance, but didn’t pause to admire them, and didn’t look for tracks. I got up to the Big Pond dam and saw that all my old tracks on the pond were just about covered, but not quite -- obviously there was very little snow while we were away. I didn’t see any fresh tracks and the new snow covered all the old holes along the dam. I walked up the pond along the north shore so I could inspect the old beaver lodge there -- perhaps some coyotes had been on it, but not last night. Then as I approached the beaver lodge in the upper end of the pond, I saw a hole in the ice at the base of the lodge

and tracks coming 90 degrees around the base of the lodge

That didn’t look like a beaver’s way of addressing the snow and I suspected that an otter had moved into the lodge. About three weeks ago, I had seen what I thought were signs of a lone otter breaking out of the ice behind the dam, but I soon saw that this was a probably a break into the ice. I saw the tracks of four otters heading to the hole next to the lodge.

Since this was snow was freshened yesterday morning, these were fresh tracks. I tried to get photos of the otter prints so I could better visualize the animals. The otters I have been watching have been shy about sliding on the snow, and so it seemed with these tracks,

just one slide and the otters didn’t drag their tails. It was more difficult than usual to get the sense that I was once again seeing the tracks of a mother and her three pups.

If these were the same pups, it seems like they have been growing. I backtracked the otters to see if they came from the Lost Swamp Pond, where I last saw signs of the otter family a little over a week ago. Their tracks became more indistinct at the upper end of the Big Pond, but I did see another hole they went into

And there were parts of a fish, a sunny, perhaps as big as six inches long

Although I didn’t check to see if these were the remains of one fish cut in half or parts of two fish. The tracks continued up to the upper dam where there were more holes in the ice.

I continued to see otter prints, but I wondered if I was also seeing some raccoon prints. Still there were some unmistakable otter troughs.

I was on private property but if I had seen bold tracks leading me on, I would have followed, but I didn’t see any tracks on the snow of this little pond, so I headed over to the Lost Swamp Pond hoping I might see otter tracks there that were almost as fresh as these on Big Pond. I headed up to the beaver lodge in the southeast end of the pond. No hole went into the ice there, but over toward the north shore, I saw several holes in the ice, six close together.

I couldn’t be sure that otters made the tracks between the holes, but I thought I could see the trails of four otters coming up from and back another hole.

That these otters refuse to scat outside the holes they use is very inconvenient. I thought I saw some scat around one hole, but it proved to be some tears of grass.

I stuck my camera into a hole -- perhaps I could photograph some under ice scat, but instead I got a relatively bleak vista with no real signs of otters living under there.

But there they must live, for several days at a time before coming out on the ice. It was easy to see that there is plenty of air to breath under there. I looked for more holes into the pond. On the other side of the peninsula, the south shore of the northeast section of the pond, I saw where the ice had dropped down, with a hole in the slush. No signs that otter used it.

However I saw that something sizable had come out of a small hole at the edge of an up thrusting layer of ice next to the lodge by the dam.

Maybe just one otter came out there, not the usual crowd. Down at the nearby dam, at the hole in the dam and the ice behind it, there had been some commotion on the ice but these tracks seemed more snowed over.

I checked the holes the otters had used before at the west end of the dam, but no saw no fresh signs of them being there. I went down onto the Upper Second Swamp Pond and here too I saw possible otter signs, a muddy trail going from hole to hole in the ice and snow.

I think if raccoons or minks were doing this there would be tracks up on the snow. I don’t think raccoons could get under the ice comfortably and minks wouldn’t track that much mud. That said, I didn’t see any sure otter trails going up the creek to the Lost Swamp Pond dam. By my theory of otters, the mother should pick-up the pace of moving around with her family, reacquainting her pups with their territory before she abandons them for this year’s mating. I headed down to the Second Swamp Pond and didn’t see any signs of otter being down there. Then I set out for Meander Pond to see how the beavers there had fared. On the way the porcupine work up on the ridge south of the East Trail Pond dam attracted me. Over the years the porcupine here hasn’t been so voracious usually leaving enough bark for the maples to survive.

Once again I approached Meander Pond from the north shore. The snow is half gone on this slope. I’ve been ruing the beavers’ bad luck in having the red oak they cut hung up in trees. But they do have other red oaks on the ground, which they seem to be ignoring.

I didn’t see any holes in the ice near the lodge. I did see one small seemingly unused hole above the channel as I walked down to the dam,

a reminder of how easy it is to fall through the thinner ice where the beavers roam. It looked like a beaver had gone up the trail north of the dam, but I couldn’t see any fresh work which I find strange. I don’t think beaver would eat the grasses at this time of year. The hole into the dam was stained and well rounded, sure signs that the beavers are using it.

I stuck my camera in the hole again and got a nice photo, though it doesn’t show any signs of beavers going along the ice frozen below the cover ice, nor where the open water of the channel leading up to the lodge begins. But there are stripped sticks frozen in the lower ice.

I followed the trail to the ash trees the beavers have been working on, and saw that they didn‘t strip the bark off the trunk of the large healthy ash they cut, but pushed on and cut another half rotten ash.

They seemed to have found good branches on the old tree and they cut several.

I walked up the south shore of the pond and saw no signs of beavers getting interested in that area, though a couple tall ash trees just need a little more gnawing to make it easy for the wind to blow them down. As I went over the ridge down to South Bay, I saw a patchwork of porcupine gnawing in the tree crowns. This porcupine seems to have a sense of conservation. I didn’t see any fresh porcupine trails, nor any fisher trails. No tracks on the South Bay ice and snow either.

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