January 24 we went to the land and I showed Leslie the fisher and bobcat tracks. Of course we looked for fresh tracks and maybe saw one fresh fisher trail. We saw some rabbit fur on the snow,
Under a pine tree. Since we didn’t see any other tracks in the area, we thought an owl might have caught a rabbit and picked it apart up in the pine trees above us. We saw the usual coyote tracks, and two spots of blood on the snow.
Perhaps the coyotes were digging out frogs. I always try to keep tabs on how beavers help feed other animals, and a couple weeks ago got a photo showing how the deer browsed in the crown of a birch tree the beavers had cut down in the fall. Today I saw by their tracks that rabbits had been browsing in the same crown.
Elsewhere, the new wrinkles today were raccoon trails down on the Last Pool and Boundary Pond.
Often their last out in the winter, but once out, they become the most persistent. After a cold night, I didn’t expect to see beavers out in the cold morning, and we didn’t, but it looked like they had collected some twigs around their hole yesterday.
And maybe they came out of the hole that the deer had made in the ice beside their lodge.
It looks like the hole had been open then froze as black ice revealing bubbles below, only one small stick left on the ice though. I climbed up to the Hemlock Cathedral to see if I could pick up the possible fresh fisher trail we saw. But I could only be sure about coyote and deer tracks. Walking on one of the frozen bog ponds, I saw that the thaw revealed deer and coyote tracks etched into the ice.
January 26 yesterday we had about two inches of rain, but it ended in time to give as a brief but glorious sunset. The wind was howling, and it had cleared the river of ice. Over at the swimming cove I could see ice remnants rocking in the waves, and orange clouds hurrying east above the white caps in the channel.
Usually, our January thaws end with a brutal drop in temperature accompanied by snow squalls. But this has been a warm winter and the temperature just dipped below freezing and we had a flurry or two that left a dusting of snow on the bare ground. I headed off to see how 50 degrees and two inches of rain changed the beaver ponds. I went via Antler Trail to Meander Pond, admiring the rush of water coming down to South Bay from the second swamp ponds.
I approached Meander Pond from the south and with the snow all gone the beavers' recent work up on the little ridge south of the pond looked fresh, especially the measuring out of a small downed trunk for segmenting into logs.
The beaver probably did that weeks ago but I did see another small tree cut along the way back to the pond that did look new to me. But I’ll either have to start keeping careful notes or simply assume that after a thaw all beaver work is old unless you saw the beaver do it. Without snow around them, the two ash trees the beavers have been cutting looked like they had been worked on.
But looking at the photo I took a few days ago, it is apparent that beavers had not been back to the trees. I headed down to the dam to see how the hole the beavers made into the dam fared during the rush of rain and melt, and it seemed to be the same save for the water below spilling over the banks of the wallows the beavers had dug.
I think the beavers have been working down here, because the two ash trees they had been cutting are now down and they started cutting two larger ash trees.
I only saw one branch that they trimmed off one of the ash trees and took away. These didn’t look like the healthiest trees, and this family of beavers is just developing a taste for ash trees. Usually after heavy rain and a thaw, beaver ponds get a little ragged especially along the shore and behind the dam, but Meander Pond looked solid enough to walk on. I didn’t see holes in the ice until I got near the beaver lodges along the main channel.
It didn’t look like beavers had just been out of the holes, but I dare not get too close. There were holes all along the channel, and that is the one deep part of the pond, probably three feet deep now after all the rain.
So from afar, I admired a pile of stripped logs right beside the lodge
Can’t helped but be impressed with the lumbering these beavers have done. I decided not to walk across the channel. I studied the north ridge and none of the large trees had fallen. Now that the snow is gone I decided it would be easy to take the trail over the ridge to get to the East Trail Pond dam. Yes, it was easy but I couldn’t help but feel a little lost. Snow creates a new level of sensitivity; one sees comings and goings; a thaw gets you back to the eonic tale of erosion. Well
that is a bit harsh. But I couldn’t see the porcupine trails along the East Trail dam and I can’t be sure the fishers raced through Fisher Woods. I went to the knoll above the Second Swamp Pond lodge and studied the ice around the porous old den to see if any animal had been using it.
Don’t think so. At least not an otter which is what I was looking for. Unlike Meander Pond which is about at the head of a watershed, this pond, through which two other large ponds drain, had a good bit of water on top of the ice. Makes for a prettier picture but no fun to walk on.
I wanted to walk along the dam anyway because that’s where the otters would likely go if they moved down here. The dam was leaking generously and sufficiently undermined by minks and muskrats that I plunged through mud into water twice.
But no otter signs. I angled up to the Lost Swamp Pond and saw that there were no otter signs around the west end latrine,
and on the Upper Second Swamp Pond
The hole through the dam looked larger but the rush of water could do that alone. The snow is also unveiling old otter scats. On the mossy slope just west of the dam it looked like the scats had turned the moss a deathly red
But a little farther up the slope I saw the same red moss without any scats around.
The pond ice looked to unsafe to walk on. There was no water on the pond ice but the ice I saw along the shore looked very thin.
I didn’t walk up to the lodge in the southeast end of the pond, but from what I could see, there was no open water around it. The Big Pond had even less water on it
And I soon wished more had puddled because the dam seemed to be floating in water. Below the dam water was coursing through the cattails, and the ice behind the dam was thin, so I had to leap from mound to mound to bridge the leaks through the dam.
I had grown familiar with them in the fall, and today I saw muskrat poop piled on some of the mounds. I saw those in the fall too and assume they were old marks. In the afternoon we made a brief stop at our land, during a snow squall. I got down to the Boundary Pond and saw no signs that the even greater thaw had prompted the beavers to open up holes in the ice up from the lodge, as they did last year.
or even behind or below the dam
And I couldn’t be sure if they had been out of the holes next to the lodge
Kind of a pointless investigation but beautiful sights to see.
January 27 it got back down into the 20s last night and stayed cold today. The frequent squalls made snow dust and then blew it away, so there was no promise of good tracking. But I thought I had to get out to the holes next to the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond lodges where the beavers had been to see if beavers were still there. I walked up the golf course with a strong wind at my back, got some respite going through the woods to the Big Pond (the porcupine was in the den at the base of the rotten trunk above the golf course), and then when I stood next to the Big Pond
lodge to take its photo, the enormous wind at my back almost blew me down. I almost wished the pond ice was slushy again because I would have felt more rooted. As it was, the pond ice was easy enough to walk on with no slush. Looking at the lodge from the south, looking through the twigs of the cache extending up through the ice, it didn’t look like any beavers had been out.
But looking at the lodge from the north I could see bubbles under the frozen ice over the hole
Something had swum out from the lodge under the ice. That something had headed up pond, so I walked that way but saw no signs of anything coming out from under the ice. There is open water below the upper dam. I went through the brush over to the Lost Swamp Pond and I didn’t see any signs of beavers cutting anything either on the Big Pond side or the Lost Swamp Pond side. And the ice around the Lost Swamp Pond lodge looked like it hadn’t yielded to any pressure from beavers.
And the marks the otters made around it had been erased.
The depressions and blacker ice seemed as likely to have been caused by the ice dropping due to the hole in the dam, than to beavers doing anything. I do have a theory that in large ponds beavers can stay under the ice for most of the winter. Usually the beavers here do break out, but then the beavers here had large families. There might be only two beavers here now. I walked along the peninsula down to the muskrat lodge the otters used. The hole beside the lodge was now closer to the lodge
I stuck my camera in it, but the photo I got wasn’t too revealing. I walked along the north shore of the peninsula -- out on the pond ice which seemed firm enough, and I saw where something dug out a little hole pushing some turf out on the ice -- a mink did it, I bet.
And there was a good size patch of open water outside of where the muskrats are denning.
I do admit these seem like lame discoveries, but with wind howling and sometimes snow spitting at me, they seemed to be like precious signs of life. After I saw that there was nothing new at the dam, I walked down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond going on the ice where I had seen otter signs outside the very old lodge tucked in the grasses along the south shore. There was open water, but no signs of anything using it.
I saw even more open water out on the pond, but, save for one bubble under some ice, no signs of activity around it.
I walked down to the dam, and the holes in the ice behind it looked unused. Where the water was leaking out, there were generous patches of open water. Here I saw some life, a fresh raccoon trail to the water.
Then I went up to the Lost Swamp Pond dam. No animal signs there but I could see how the water rushing through the hole had washed the mud away down to the rocks the beavers had pushed up as they had made the dam to stabilize it.
Now all the snow had melted off the otter latrines near the dam, and I saw many more scats than I recollected including some white spongy scats. One seemed old and frozen but another was soft to the touch.
A fresh sign? Perhaps time will tell. I checked the west latrine and then, through a serious snow squall, down to the Second Swamp Pond dam. No signs there. I took a route home that avoided the soggy Big Pond dam. At the end of Antler Trail I saw two small deer racing away through the white out squall.
January 30 two days ago we got 7 inches of lake effect snow with a cold northwest wind on its heels. Yesterday it was below zero in the morning, sunny but the wind didn’t let up. Today it was minus 10 at dawn but the wind died down, and when the temperature got above 5 degrees I headed across the golf course to see if the otters showed themselves during the bitter cold. I didn’t expect to see any beaver signs. The last time we walked up this way on a normal winter’s day, we saw a porcupine high up in the crown of a tree lining a fairway,
stretching for a bite. Despite the cold, the porcupine was up in the tree still, gnawing away, though it didn’t look like it had stripped much bark in the tree.
I tipped my hat. Porcupines don’t shy from the bitter cold. If there had been fisher tracks to follow I would have continued on to the Big Pond by going up over the rocks, but there were none so I went down the valley where I was sure to see some porcupine trails. I only saw one, in the usual spot, coming out from the tumble of rocks on the east slope of the valley. A red squirrel, I bet, was using a smaller gap in the rocks as a den.
I’m just guessing about the squirrel tracks. I’ve never made a study of where red squirrels go in the cold. The porcupine denning down in the rocks just above the Big Pond had also been out, and its trail curved far into the woods.
It looks like that since they live alone porcupines respond to the cold by moving about. Earlier in the winter the insulating snow made slush on the pond ice, but thanks to the wind, this recent snowfall had been thinned out and there was no slush under the 2 or 3 inches of snow on the ice. I saw the usual coyote tracks, and mink tracks. A mink or two
all but dug into a muskrat lodge on the south shore of the pond, perhaps it did get into it. I didn’t disturb the beauty of its plowing and tunneling by probing. A mink had also gone up and over the lodge where I think the beavers are.
The winds rather featured this exposed lodge. I don’t know what to make of the bare ice, but think it had more to do with the wind than any activity of the beavers under the ice. On the way to the Lost Swamp Pond, I didn’t see any rabbit or grouse tracks, just the trail of a deer or two and a squirrel or two. On such a cold day, I have an excuse for being lazy in picturing who left the tracks I saw. One’s imagination has to be fired. There was no reason to take a photo as I toured the Lost Swamp Pond. Otters had not returned to any of the holes they made in the ice over the last month. Water still coursed out from the hole in the dam, and there was a small hole in the thin ice behind where the water flowed, but nothing had used it, not even a mink. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of skin-like snow, which invited a dozen clichés to describe it. Was it protean or aged? Baby fat or wrinkles?
From afar, it did not look like otters had been out on the Upper Second Swamp Pond.
That’s where I saw the last signs of them. There were tracks but from afar it looked like drifted over deer tracks and perhaps some fresh mink trails. Then down at the dam, I saw a trough in the snow wider than a mink would make. An otter had been out behind the dam.
I walked to the next hole and saw another trough
That seemed to widen as a trail in the snow came from the cut of once open water in the middle of the pond.
Did the otters merge to get into the hole into the dam? There were also mink tracks along the dam, smaller than what I thought were otter troughs,
But could the larger troughs have been made by merging minks? Well, I had never seen mink trails behave like that, but what I saw would be typical for otters. I headed back toward the source of the tracks and looking back toward the patch of once open water, I saw that if I decided that the tracks were made by otters, then I could account for the four otters I had seen here in the late fall.
Indeed, I could tell more stories. It looked like one adult trail and three juveniles which, if so, distinguishes these otters from the ones I saw at Picton where I had the definite impression from my sightings that there were two pups. And I could tell another story, the adult track looked older than the pups’ tracks and so perhaps what I have observed in other years was taking place. The mother was preparing to abandon her pups, so she could go find a mate, by racing off while
they slept challenging them to follow her. But I was still dogged by mink tracks. I could explain some away. I saw a fresh mink print inside an old otter trough.
But then I saw a supposed otter trough dividing in a way to suggest that it was made by two minks making parallel trails!
But wouldn’t the feet of a racing otter pup make two lines that converged and drew apart? To start the otters’ story, I went back to where I thought they might be denning, in an abandoned beaver lodge tucked back along the south shore of the Upper Second Swamp Pond. I saw otter troughs there, adult size, I’d say.
Then I went back to the dam to see if the otters went over it down to the much larger Second Swamp Pond. Going over the dam, I was reminded that minks had indeed been there too. There was a hole in the snow that would not accommodate an otter.
Then I saw a wide trough, otter size, breaking the snow as it headed for the iced over channel, and also to a hole in the ice.
Could an otter fit into that? Then on the ice of the channel, I saw a raccoon print. More confusion. Was a raccoon making the troughs?
Then I saw scraping prints on the ice that looked like an otter’s doing.
Needless to say, my imagination was fired. And the late bitter cold served me well. I could walk on the ice. It was thick enough to support my fat winter weight. One otter at least veered back into the snow making a nice trough.
as I continued down along the channel, I saw a brief but classic otter slide.
I knew I was following otters. The trail crossing the slide was made by a deer. Then the trail went briefly cold until I looked down onto the wide snow covered pond and saw that the otters got under the ice and then did what they had done up in the Lost Swamp Pond, broke out from under the ice through a hole they probably made themselves.
It is possible that one otter alone was involved, but the trough and romping around the hole certainly look like the work of more than one otter.
The fact that I couldn’t discern individual prints suggests that there was a crowd of otters. To continue my story: the pups rejoined their mother and all were overjoyed to be together again, even though they were apart for just a few hours. No otter slid across the surface of the pond. Over at the old and now porous beaver lodge under the knoll along the north shore of the pond, I saw where an otter or two had been out
And on the west side of the lodge I saw a trough coming out of the old beaver canal curling off from the lodge.
Here it looked like perhaps only one otter was involved. I wondered if the otters used the muskrat lodge over toward the south shore. No, but on my way there I saw they made another hole in the ice
And once again a crowd of them seemed to have come out.
Then I checked the dam and saw that the otters ignored that.
However, I made a wide arcing hike below the dam to make sure there were no otter trails leaving the pond and I saw none. Meanwhile it hadn’t exactly gotten warm and I was a bit tired. Admittedly the otters just moved about 200 yards from one pond to another, but my mind had been racing, if my feet hadn’t been. I headed back through the woods toward the Big Pond and out of respect for my energy level decided not to pick my way through the spruce groves looking for fisher and rabbit tracks and instead I took the easy way across the Big Pond just behind the dam. I noticed a pair of coyote tracks going to the south end of the dam, which was typical, but I thought I saw the tracks going to a hole in the ice behind the dam -- not typical at all.
Then I saw that an otter had made a hole breaking out from the dam.
This was totally unexpected. I had not seen signs of otters here since the ice covered the pond in mid-December. I walked a bit behind the dam but was too spent to give the pond the inspection it deserved. Was this one of the family of four? The mother making another escape? Or another single otter? I’d like to think the latter is the case. But its behavior is so similar to what I’ve seen. More perplexity which is usually the case with tracking otters.
January 31 we got over to our land today, a chance to see what activity there had been during the bitter cold. Although it was relatively warm when we got there, in the 20s, it had been no higher than 10 degrees for the last three days. The cold did not deter the porcupine that has been more or less browsing around our house. I could see its trails up into the sandstone rocks of Grouse Alley, like being under our house was too cold and it was looking for a deeper rock den.
I didn’t discover any den up in the rocks, but thanked the porcupine for directing my attention up to the rocks that look remarkably green in the winter. Strange verdure. I saw one deer trail down on the Last Pool, and no coyote tracks. The only sign of beavers was the vent on top of their snowy lodge.
I took a photo of some of the stripping and gnawing they did on a tree they cut in the late fall.
Do beavers dream of this while they are snug in their lodge during the winter? I walked back under the tall hemlocks on the east shore of the pond. I didn’t see signs of the porcupine coming down the ridge as I had often seen earlier in the winter. I did see some rabbit tracks. Usually rabbit tracks come by the bunch, but these trails looked a little furtive, like a rabbit was staying under the warmth and cover of the hemlocks even though the fare was meager compared to what was available in and around the meadows.
On the cold moonlit nights we’ve been having was it especially dangerous for a rabbit to be out in the open? I don’t recall ever seeing the tracks of browsing rabbits in an area that seemed so sparse to me.
Then a few tracks seemed to tell a story of rabbit fright -- I could almost see it leaping toward the safety of the rock slope riddled with holes suitable for dens.
I continued up to the Teepee Pond and saw a few more deer trails. Not many rabbit tracks out in the open. Our neighbor the butcher had just dumped some remains and many ravens and crows and three eagles were investigating. The eagles were flying above me but I couldn’t take a photo because it was snowing. As we drove out we noticed that the crows and ravens, about 30 of them, were around the dump. The eagles were roosting in a tree across the road from them.