Tuesday, March 9, 2010

February 22 to 28, 2010

February 22 we got over to our land -- after being away for ten days. It was still easy walking through the snow and the fresh inch that fell on the 20th afforded some good tracking. Rabbits were active along Grouse Alley and I saw a spot of reddish pee.

Will the rabbits eat buckthorn this easy winter and leave some blue pee, or has this winter been too easy? A porcupine is still trimming the smaller hemlocks along Grouse Alley. Down on Boundary Pond, a porcupine finally crossed the valley, leaving its stately treads.

With the weather being relatively warm most of the time we were gone, I expected to see signs that the beavers had been out, and I did.

They reopened the hole several yards from the pond, leaving a big half gnawed log in it -- perhaps intentionally to help keep it open.

And they reopened the hole right next to the lodge which, judging from the amount of stripped sticks and logs around was the main focus of their foraging.

They cut an elm tree not far from the lodge, which fell conveniently on the pond. They’ve trimmed the crown.

My theory is that they’ve refrained from cutting this tree until this time of year when it is most difficult getting around. I walked around the lodge and saw that they made another hole right at the base of the lodge facing the dam, but it didn’t look like they had been out of it recently.

The last time I was here, I heard a beaver gnawing under the ice right behind the dam, and I fancied that it might be digging out a hole there, but today I saw no signs that the beavers had any interest in getting out near the dam. There is not much water in the pond -- we’ve had a dry winter and there is probably not much depth of water behind the dam. The water is in the many channels that the beavers have dredged in the last two years. To get some of the logs they’ve been gnawing, a beaver went all the way up on the ridge to the west of the pond, and cut some maple saplings.

Imagine how taxing or exhilarating that climb must seem to a beaver who has been huddled in a dark lodge for a couple months. I continued heading west toward the Deep Pond. I passed very few tracks. Leslie came to our land yesterday and saw a muskrat coming out on the ice from a hole behind the Deep Pond dam. I approached from the opposite side of the pond, and didn’t see any muskrat holes over there. However the hole behind the dam was rimmed with grass pushed up by the muskrat, what a luscious bloom in the bright white winter landscape!

Leslie said that green bloom wasn’t there yesterday, so the muskrat has been busy clearing out channels below and perhaps coming up on the ice and munching on the grass it pushes out. There were bird tracks around the hole and behind the dam.

When Leslie saw the muskrat yesterday, she also saw a bird that seemed interested in snagging the rodent. Then I continued west, and a bit north, and went down to White Swamp to see if the otters had come out of holes along the bank that they’ve used the past several winters. No sign of them, and not many other tracks, perhaps a coyote or two. Then on my way to the road, I saw deer tracks heading to a rather large patch of what had been open water, now lightly frozen over.

Don’t recall seeing that other winters. Walking back along the road to our land, I saw a neat mink slide down into the woods.

February 23 We had two inches of wet snow in the early morning which quickly started to melt. I headed out to see if the snow inspired the otters to peak out of their holes in the Big Pond. I went via Antler Trail and seemed to be following coyote tracks all the way, even out onto the Big Pond.

The otters had not come down to the dam. However a mink had been active there, using holes in the south end of the dam

And the north

Usually minks scamper quite a bit in the open air, but this one seemed content to stay under the ice and snow. I headed up to the upper beaver lodge where I saw otter tracks two days ago. I followed coyote tracks. Sure enough, at least one otter came out of the hole to nose around in the fresh snow.

But, as usual, it didn’t venture far from the hole. I saw prints next to the hole and I must say they looked a bit like coyote prints but they are not rounded, and it wet snow otter prints look plenty wide.

I continued up pond to see if an otter came out of the holes up there. At the hole where I saw the half eaten sunnies, I saw that a mink came out, but not otters.

The other day I was pretty sure otters had come out at the upper dam, certainly no signs of them coming out after the early morning snow. I walked onto the Upper Big Pond and over to the lodge where beavers wintered three years ago. No otter holes around it. I went back onto the Big Pond and checked the spring along the north shore between the upper dam and active lodge. There was a good sized slice of open water and I could see some rippling in it.

Sure enough there was a swarm of little pollywogs and sunnies, and judging from the number of dead fish, their swarming was little more than a dance of death. This spring hasn’t attracted fish like this for a few winters, and in those other years there were more living than dead fish to see.

No signs of otters, minks, raccoons, or birds feasting on this. Perhaps oxygen deprived fish are not that tasty -- though in other winters, I’ve seen both raccoons and minks wading in for a meal, but never otters. I walked back down to the lodge where I saw otter tracks, and looking more closely thought I could use the scattering of prints to imagine how an otter half went up and around the lodge.

I find it curious that these otters don’t seem to roll in the snow nor scat in it. I walked over to the Lost Swamp Pond, not expecting to see otters, but since I also saw otter tracks there the other day, even though I am pretty sure the otters had moved from there to the Big Pond, I wanted to make sure, and maybe a beaver had come out. No otters nor beavers. All was snowed over, though I didn’t go down to the dam where a mink might have come out. I went back to the Big Pond and walked over to the south shore. In the fall, the otters had seemed partial to the muskrat lodges over there. I first went to the smaller spring along the south shore, and saw that minks had pranced around and through that,

Making a nice hole into the ice, entry to rest of the pond.

I checked the half dozen muskrat lodges between that hole and the dam and saw no holes made by otters or minks. A deer or coyote dug a bit into the largest of the lodges,

But didn’t seem to get much satisfaction out of the exercise.

February 26 a rather weird winter storm went up the east coast. We had a day of lazy snow then melting temperatures. Then at night a brief blizzard that coated all the trees and crowded all into soft shapes, and then that began to melt in the night and was half gone by dawn. Meanwhile closer to the ocean and well to the southeast of us the temperatures stayed colder and some places got over two feet of snow. It seems that the low pressure off the coast was pulling warmer air from ocean over a band from Montreal and around to us, while bringing colder air from the west to the south. Other storms have given us a brief play like this, then the cold front roars through usually dumping cold snow on the many inches verging on slush. We got to the land and Leslie started tapping trees. I headed down to see how the beavers responded to the wet snow and melting snow -- this is the first real moisture we’ve had since the thaw a month ago. As I left Grouse Alley and looked down at the Last Pool, I was briefly startled by what looked like a dance of tracks around a tree, and then I realized it was just impressions from the wet snow that clung and then dropped from the branches.

I tried to avoid the slush in the pond which forced me off the ice to where the snow was deeper on the ground. Despite the melting, in the woods and on the pond, the snow is almost a foot deep. I only saw few deer trails until I got down near the lodge and saw that the small hole set off about 15 yards from the lodge and the larger hole next to the lodge were about as open as they were before the wet snow.

There was a fresh beaver trail going from the small hole up the ridge west of the pond, so the beavers are still harvesting up there even though climbing in the now wet snow is probably a bit harder than climbing the dry snow last week.

I put off climbing the ridge and got as close to the holes as I dared. The wet snow makes for slush which makes me nervous standing on ice. There was a nice thick log across the small hole, not sure if it was the same log that was stuck in the hole a few days ago, probably not since that log had been half gnawed and this one wasn’t. Twigs were peaking up out of the hole too.

The larger hole had fewer logs in and around it than before.

From where I stood I couldn’t see any activity near the dam, and it didn’t look like a beaver came out of the hole on that side of the lodge, but I thought I best walk around to be sure. There were no trails in the snow to the trees the beavers cut on the other side of the cache. Maybe going up the ridge is easier than wading through the slush on the pond. When I got to the dam, I looked back and saw that the hole was snowed over. As I walked back up the pond, I wondered what it would have been like if I had been out here at 11 pm last night when the snow fell thickly and stuck everywhere. Were the beavers out then trading their womb of logs and muck for the womb of a wet snow? At the end of Grouse Alley toward our house, I saw that a porcupine had sampled the bark of a pine tree trunk in several places.

I can’t resist taking a photo of porcupine work in a pine tree. We went down to the Deep Pond where the wet snow is collapsing the ice. The muskrats had not come out of their hole.

February 27 we had a another few inches of wet snow that began melting as the temperature climbed above freezing. My plan was to walk across South Bay and check on the Meander Pond beavers but there was a foot slush on the bay, so I contented myself with walking along the headland and marveling at the lack of ice. The channel is clear as far as the eye can see,

This means the ducks are not concentrated where the current picks up, which during most winters diverts us as we sit on our porch. I saw two male mergansers flanking a female, and saw a male golden eye throw its head back. Usually I see such courting en masse. We went to our land to collect sap -- not a famous run yet but a beginning. I headed down to check on the beavers. The slush in the middle of the pond was even deeper. Despite the warmth we had not seen many snow fleas. I started checking the stumps of the trees the beavers cut in the fall. The snow fleas are often attracted to the sap that oozes out of the stump. However, this year, not many of the stumps are oozing. Was the winter too dry? But then I found an ash stump darkened with sap and snow fleas lined up on in, more in regimental fashion rather than their usual pell mell.

I fell in behind a deer trail and in a few hoof prints saw a scattering of snow fleas.

I found it easiest to walk along the east shore of the pond, under the hemlocks where the snow doesn’t accumulate as much. But to cross the lower pond to check the beavers’ holes meant high footing it through a foot slush.

There seemed to be a new set of logs in and around the larger hole.

And there was a fresh trail up the ridge. Today I followed. Under hemlocks and pines the ground is often bare, so I went that way and I discovered that a beaver had the same thought and even left of some of its woody poop on the wet leaves and needles.

I got up to where the beaver made a fresh cut and I turned to show how far it had come up the ridge.

Then I saw that the trail continued down a little swale and the beaver nipped two small lower branches off a pine tree,

And it looped down into a valley, then back up, and even then did not go back down to the pond, but continued up and over the high ridge and down into a swale where it cut a tree and nipped several lower branches

Since there were not that many drag marks, my guess is that the beaver is eating the twigs right here. The beaver continued up the other side of swale so that it was now well out of sight of its pond.

Those deep prints in the snow are mine. The beaver did not make much of an impression on the snow so perhaps it went about in the coldest part of the night. Two winters ago when this family was down in Wildcat Pond, I saw a beaver wander around on the pond in slushy snow in the middle of the day. And that winter the beavers often went up on the ridge, but I got the impression that they went right up and came down with branches. I don’t recall ever seeing evidence of a beaver wandering around on top of a ridge. Here was a beaver that wanted to be alone (remember there were several trees just cut down convenient to the lodge) and out of sight of all the usual trapping of beaverdom. Was it the patriarch or matriarch going afar for food so the young could get the easy to get fare? Or was it a two year old preparing for its separation from the family by first going over the ridge to prove to itself that there was plenty to eat wherever it went. Still nothing new at the Deep Pond, except that now there is a stream of water running out.

February 28 the recent pattern of wet snow at night adding to the slush during the day ended, and it got a tad below freezing last night. So I decided to head up Antler Trail keeping to the ridge as much as I could until I got to the Big Pond. The ridges were easier and while the snow was a foot deep in low areas it was not slush. From the high ridge, I could see brown water in the creek flowing down to South Bay, but I didn’t put two and two together until I got up to the south end of the Big Pond dam and saw water flowing under a big triangular opening in the ice and heard the water rushing under the dam.

Looking over to the lodge on the lower north shore of the pond, I saw that there was a hole in the ice in front of it and discolored snow around it that a family of otters usually leaves when it gets out in the fresh air. It certainly looked like the otters who had spent several days quietly up pond had come to the dam and breached it. There appeared to be at least one otter trail coming directly from the lodge to the hole in dam. However, looking at the hole itself there were no signs that the otters had been stamping in the snow around it.

I took a photo of the water streaming out and saved trying to find the hole or holes through the dam until when the snow melted.

Until I see the holes, I can’t be sure otters made the holes by digging and gnawing. I used to think that when a dam failed on its own that it would do so gradually and that signs of a rush of water down the valley below was a sure sign that otters made the hole, but the failure of the Shangri-la Pond dam twice after spring rain storms has made me more careful in blaming otters. I couldn’t walk on the pond directly to the lodge so I headed across to the north shore by walking along the dam. I saw small holes in the ice and snow and muskrat tracks around one, though everything was too indistinct, so I could no tell what it was up to.

Then I walked up along the north shore to the lodge. Looking from across the pond I thought the discoloration of the ice and snow around the hole next to the lodge might include some scats, but no, just signs of much wet scampering about.

I looked hard at the bare parts of the lodge and I think I just saw old scats. I could see the otters trails heading to the dam.

With water filling up all space under the ice, the otters can’t scamper around under the ice from pool to pool and scout the channels. I saw that the otter tracks continued upstream so I followed. Looking back it was easy to get the impression that the family of four otters is still together.

However, one otter trail, which could mean otters following each other, went to a nearby muskrat lodge and then to another muskrat lodge which was rather dug out.

I stuck the camera inside to see if I could get a photo.

But didn’t get a good photo. The otters went to the biggest muskrat lodge on the north shore and I don’t think they got into it. There was a neat hole into another muskrat lodge but it didn’t look like the otters just dug it.

Then the trail led to some digging into the snow, into dirt, and a little beyond that was a huge bullhead head which looked freshly cut.

Did the otters dig it out of that hole? As I followed the trail that veered off to the muskrat lodges, I soon picked up other otter trails, all heading toward the beaver lodge

where, last time I was here, they had a hole. It looked like they had used the hole again in this foray.

And the trail continued up pond. It was hard to tell but I think I was following the otters up pond, and I also saw slides on firmer snow going down pond. But these were hard tracks to read. In a recent journal entry I noted that I had never seen otters wade into to the pool of dying fish below the little spring on the north shore. Strike that. It looked like the otters had been there, breaking ice,

but I didn’t see any sure sign that they ate any of the fish or pollywogs. Of course, they are all small and the otters would eat them whole. Judging from the broken ice going up the stream to the upper dam the otters had been there too.

Water was flowing into the pond -- perhaps not as much as was flowing out. However when I got up to the dam, none of the holes in the ice and snow looked like otters had been in them.

Indeed arched in one hole poised in the flowing water was either a weasel or a small mink.


It didn’t panic and I got a little video before it dove, heading up stream perhaps into the small pond above. I didn’t see any otter tracks up on that pond. I went back downstream, taking more photos because now the sun was out and the sky rapidly blown all blue. As I crossed back on the dam, I thought I saw a trail heading along the outlet creek toward South Bay, but when I went down to check I saw it was a deer trail. I went back and sat on my old trunk perch next to the pond and contemplated the changes. Once again I saw no signs of beavers, no signs of them since early January when I heard a hum in the lodge up pond. It will take a beaver to patch the holes in the dam, and if no beaver serves, a pond that’s been here about 35 years will turn into meadow. Also unsettling is the possibility that someone was trapping the small ponds farther up the valley. But that otters have a knack for ruining the habitat they thrive in is not news to me. But I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Otters do what they have to do to survive and if beaver ponds disappear they can thrive in the marshes in the bays of the river. I sat for twenty minutes enjoying the sun and lively flow of water. Three eagles flew over me, an adult and two juveniles and perhaps disappointed that the red on the top of hat was not blood. I walked back home the way I came, noticing some porcupine work along the trail below the granite plateau to the south. If the otters and beavers move away, I’ll study the porcupines. That’s what I thought I’d be doing in the winter when I moved up here 15 years ago. Despite the dip below freezing last night and the warm sun today, the sap did not flow generously into Leslie’s buckets at our land. I walked down on the ridge to check on the beavers. None out. I sat in my chair half way up the ridge next to the lodge for about 20 minutes and heard no sounds, excepting the cackling pileated woodpecker that lit onto a tree right above me. I don’t think a beaver went back up the ridge. A beaver did reach up and trim several branches off an ironwood, cut and bending over the pond.

The beavers had also come out of that hole and gone up and back on the their lodge several timee, perhaps finding bark to eat on the logs there.

And over at the smaller hole, there was now big log there now and quite a few woody crumbs, so to speak.

Heading back I heard the woodpecker call in another part of the woods and then begin hammering on a tree trunk.

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