Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 14 to 19, 2010

March 14 blustery day after a rainy night and we went to the land to make sure none of the sap buckets blew off the trees. Since the temperature has not dipped below freezing in the last few nights, there was very little sap in the buckets. I walked down to see what the beavers have been up to. The ice is loosening its grip on the Last Pool

The hole beavers had been using down in the narrow channel is still there, but I am not sure beavers have used it recently.

The arrangement of their leftovers around the hole looked about the same, save that ice had disappeared west of the hole. Looking down pond, while the ice is receding and getting flooded over, there is still no clear channel for a beaver to swim on the surface of the pond.

I do think a beaver used the small hole in the ice in the upper end of Boundary Pond. At least it looked like there were just stripped sticks around the hole and fresh gnawing on a cut hornbeam on the shore, but after a thaw it is hard to tell what is fresh because just about everything is wet and looks new born.

The holes on the west side of the beaver lodge have joined, but there is still plenty of ice upon which the beavers can sit and gnaw.

And, I should, add strip birch bark.

The wind seems to have blown the logs in the hole into a neat arrangement. This certainly gives the impression that the beavers are doing most of their eating here.

There are now two holes open on the dam side of the lodge, both choked with stripped logs.

I suspect that many of those logs in those two holes were pulled off the lodge. It doesn’t look beavers have been down to the dam. The water is flowing through the dam in many places, but it still has ice and snow behind it so there is little the beavers can do to repair it. I walked up the east shore of ponds. This is the shaded area that usually holds onto snow into April. Not this year. It is almost gone. Down at the Deep Pond, ice still rules.

I looked for signs of muskrat activity and did seen green pond grass balled up high on the bank.

If I thought there was any chance that a beaver was in the pond, I’d insist a beaver did that, not a muskrat.

March 15 a little rain in the night, blustery and cold in the morning. We’ve had a three day blow from the northeast. After lunch I headed into the wind up the golf course, keeping my head down so I didn’t even see if the many geese on the first fairway were disturbed. I went over the ridge so I could come down the big rock. Usually I take this route when we have a leisurely thaw because rocks don’t get soggy. When I got up to the Big Pond dam I saw that otters had been there, leaving that white mucous scat so characteristic in the late winter and early spring.

It’s very hard to judge the freshness of these scats, but the mucous puddled almost green liquid in spots.

Plus the spur of the pond leading to the latrine had broken ice and muddy water, and I don’t think the little muskrat I saw here the other day could make such a ruckus.

The pond looked so full that I wondered if the beavers had patched the dam, but as I walked along the dam, I saw that the water was flowing out of the hole seemingly unimpeded.

That cut grass which I think are leftovers from muskrat meals was bobbing in the riley water all along the dam. The east wind was blowing broken ice up behind the dam and as I walked along I heard something slip off the ice. I waited and soon saw a mink surface.

It dove again and disappeared. And then as I looked farther upstream, I saw three otters diving in the water near the up-pond beaver lodge. Since the otters seemed to have already been at the dam, I worried that the otters were in the process of leaving the pond, so I moved up to the lower lodge, hid under a pine and watched for an opportunity to get some video. I first saw the otters working a large patch of open water surrounded by rotting ice. They soon worked their way through and under the ice and surfaced closer to me, though still far away. I kept looking for a fourth otter but none appeared. Two of the otters were certainly last year’s pups, playing with each other as much as they were fishing, seemingly incapable of separating. The other otter foraged alone but never got too far away from the others. So it acted like a mother otter, but certainly didn’t seem much bigger than the others. From the tracks I saw in the snow just a few weeks ago, the mother had seemed twice as big as her pups. One otter got up on the ice, the biggest, but the others didn’t join it so I couldn’t compare their sizes out of the water. The pups darted up out of the water as they swam over to a muskrat lodge. I couldn’t quite see them there as it was behind some grasses, but I saw heads bobbing up and down. Then one otter swam away and across the pond, and then the two others followed. The lone otter did look bigger but swimming alone it stretched out while the other two, still in their playful mode, were more arched. They all disappeared in the cattails and I suspected the sighting was over, but within a few minutes, one otter swam out and went down to another muskrat lodge, the other two followed. They were close enough to me now that I heard some chirping. I noticed that the battery of my camera was running low and I didn’t have a replacement so I took video clips in 10 second snatches, saving power in case the otters came up on the beaver lodge in front of me.

The otters kept up the same pattern of behavior, the one otter foraging and the others tangling together up and down in the water, with now and then a nice tail snap. The other otter sometimes swam between them and that inspired a few seconds of serious foraging.

Unfortunately, they didn’t come up on the lodge and instead swam to the west of me. I saw a gust of wind come from my back and across the pond toward the otters. I began hearing snorts, all three periscoped and then dove. One popped up for another look around and then disappeared. It is possible that I was seeing the three pups with one showing its leadership potential. More likely I was seeing the mother and two pups. My guess is that the mother did separate from the pups a week or so ago and went to the Lost Swamp Pond. One pup went to the Upper Second Swamp Pond, and two stayed in the Big Pond. That one pup headed up into the marsh east of the ponds. The mother rejoined the other two pups, which is why they seemed so happy. This sounds convoluted and is highly speculative, but animals, like humans, seldom do it by the book. My impression has always been that while the otter mother does her duty and mates with a male otter at this time of year, she has scant affection for the male and is as eager for the continued affection of her pups as the pups are for her supervision. When she has to hide herself and give birth to a new litter that will change, though I think I’ve seen a reunion of mother and pups in May; she leaving her newborns in a den while she foraged and happened to bump into her old pups who were ecstatic to see her. On days like this I almost accept the cliché of the happy, playful otter, but really what has kept me so patiently trying to watch otters all these years is the chance to observe the depth of affection otters have for each other. I headed for the Lost Swamp Pond and first checked to see if there was fresh otter scat in the mossy cove latrine. The ice was breaking up, but the west end of the pond was still relatively locked in. Most of the rest of the pond behind the dam was ice free. The otters didn’t visit the mossy cove latrine nor their latrine on the west side of the dam. Plus none of the ice looked broken in the way the otters had broken the ice in the Big Pond. So I don’t think they had been there. The water was gushing out through the dam.

I suppose it makes sense for the beavers to wait until after the thaw to patch the hole. A patch now would just flood water over the dam. While the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond had relatively high water levels, the water from the Lost Swamp Pond seems to be running directly through and out of the Upper Second Swamp Pond.

I never really noticed a hole in that dam, but there must be one, as good a chance that it is from neglect -- no beavers here last year -- as from otters digging. I walked down the north shore of the Second Swamp Pond which had a good bit of water and no ice to speak of. There was a pair of geese out in pond, trying to honk me away. I looked down at the lodge and saw nothing on or around that would suggest that otters had been there. I continued on to Meander Pond to inspect another dam. This pond is just down from the top of a small watershed and doesn’t get the influx of water that the other ponds get. It looked quite subdued.

On the way to the dam, I finally saw where the beaver trail in the snow coming to north side of the pond from the hole in the dam ended. Beavers had gone up the ridge to cut some red oaks.

And they have been girdling a white oak even higher up on the ridge. There was just a trickle of water coming out of the hole in the dam and while it looks like the beavers still have all the materials needed to patch the hole, they’ve still made no move to do it. The hole looks the same as it did three days ago.

Water was still flowing up out of what I think is a hole the beavers dug in the dam to lower the water level below the other hole so they could repair it.

But the longer the beavers take to patch the dam, the less my theory holds water, so to speak. I pressed on to Audubon Pond, no dam to patch there, but it is on the way to the otter latrine at the entrance to South Bay. Nice to know if otters are active in South Bay also. I could see that a beaver tugged a small ash tree off the stump it had been hanging on after it was cut. But the pace of work on the cut ash trees seems slow so I suppose there are just two beavers in the pond, as has been the case for years. Just up from the shore, under a pine tree, I saw dead porcupine. Since it still had its eyes, I suppose this was recent and not revealed by melting snow.

It looked bigger than a baby, but small for a one year old. I didn’t flip it over to see if it had been gutted and thus perhaps attacked while it was on the ground. On my way out to the bench where I could get a photo of the freshly stripped logs near the lodge, I saw more otter scats over the muskrat burrows, evidently fresh because I certainly would have noticed scats like these that had that white mucous attach to them.

Over the years I have seen fresh scats that are not blackened like the usual otter scat. I looked hard at the scats I saw here a week ago

And saw that that pile had more scats in, including some white mucous.

So otters have been here to, or were the otters I saw in the Big Pond also here? In other years I was sure the family I was watching made the circuit of all the ponds. I could track them in the snow. But the family I have been tracking in the Big Pond and had just seen certainly didn’t seem to travel far this winter. Did the otters who left scat on the rock in the Narrows come here? Ice no longer surrounds the beaver lodge in Audubon Pond so most of the logs the beavers stripped have been blown over to the shore.

The west end of the pond is still mostly ice bound. It looked undisturbed by otters or beavers. I continued around the pond and then down to South Bay where I saw no otter scats in the usual latrines. The bay is just about ice free.

That’s exposed mud, not rotting ice. Almost a chorus of red winged blackbirds from the marsh.

March 16 the hole along the Last Pool channel is getting bigger

Which suggests that a beaver is coming out in the remaining ice and wearing it away as it collects and nibbles sticks. Walking down the Boundary Pond, I saw another hole the beavers seem to becoming out of and resuming work on trees cut in the fall

The gnawing at the end of the trunk is old work, I think, but the thin half gnawed sticks on the gray ice are probably fresh work. The holes on the dam side of the lodge have merged and it was easy to see how many logs had been taken off the lodge.

In the fall, once their cache got jammed with logs, the beavers started pushing them up on the lodge, a case of eating your roof. Now there are some small holes in the ice behind the dam, but not much beaver activity out of those holes.

March 17 I went to our land just after lunch and decided to digest my food while sitting on the chair overlooking the beaver lodge at Boundary Pond. There were no beavers out when I got there, and just above the lodge it looked like half the pond was open.

However, looking up pond, all I saw was mostly ice covered.

I sat for about forty minutes and no beavers stirred. I heard sporadic peeping from frogs in the trees below the pond. On the opposite ridge, which is higher than the one behind me, I noticed that a porcupine had stripped bark off the trunk of the highest part of the two tallest pine trees.

Just when I was getting ready to leave, I heard a couple hums from the lodge, but no beavers came out. The ice at the far end of the cache was melting away, looked like open water.

A bit farther up pond, I saw an interesting apparition, what looked like the outlines of a tree in the ice, but no tree in the water below, just piles of gnaw-dust where the beavers had segmented the tree trunk.

Despite all the open water, a beaver is stilling using the small hole that they opened a week or so ago. I could tell a beaver had been out recently because there was a hornbeam log that wasn’t there yesterday.

Pleasant digesting, though not much excitement. Back on the island, I headed off after 2pm to look for otters. I even took my camcorder. The snow has been off the golf course so long that deer, turkeys and even geese don’t seem that interested anymore. But a porcupine was grazing and didn’t bat as eye as I walked by.

I went up and over the big rock again in part to avoid deer ticks, but as it turned out I didn’t pick up one on my pants during the whole hike. I didn’t see any fresh otter scats down at their latrine at the south end of Big Pond dam. I sat briefly to scan the pond for otters, and didn’t see any. I decided not to wait. All the ice is gone from this pond, and that’s where the otters seemed to enjoy foraging. There is still ice on the Lost Swamp Pond, so I headed that way. Plus I could see that a beaver had half patched the hole in the Big Pond dam. There was mud and muck pushed around the hole but still a smaller hole letting water out.

Not sure if that was intentional or just the water working its way through the beaver’s repair. The water level of the pond is relatively high and having it get higher too quickly would just give the beavers more leaks in the dam to patch.

There are cut green grasses behind the rest of the dam, and in the middle of one clump of green grass, I saw some cut stalks that appeared to be juicier fare, if not rhizomes. A beaver might eat that too, but these are probably muskrat leftovers.

I didn’t notice any ducks or geese on the Big Pond. The Lost Swamp Pond had more activity in that regard including a pair of geese, staying close together,

And even sleeping together, heads tucked back under their wing as they floated side by side. I also saw an immature eagle in a tree above the pond and then hovering over the upper end of the pond. Meanwhile, the only rippling I saw in the water near the remaining ice was made by ducks, not otters. Nor did the ice looked like it had been roughed up by foraging otters.

There were no new scats in the mossy cove latrine, though they might be hard to see because there are so many old scats. I sat for twenty minutes eventually checking the dozen of ducks all around the pond, too far away to easily identify. I just wanted to be sure they weren’t otters. There was no nothing new in the otter latrine next to the dam. Here too, a beaver had almost patched the dam, and filed many sticks and logs on top of the repair.

In this case I think the beavers intentionally are letting water still leak through. There was a solid push of mud next to a little rotten log the beavers probably left as a temporary stop gap.

Meanwhile, with the flow of water so cut down, there was not enough water flowing into the Upper Second Swamp Pond below to give it any semblance of being pond any longer. There was almost no water in it.

This pond is not that old but I thought the beavers would have fashioned more channels making it easier for them to wend their way through it. The creek coming down from the Lost Swamp Pond dam showed no evidence of the beavers trying to widen it.

Perhaps that’s more evidence that there was a strict boundary between the beavers in the Lost Swamp Pond and the beavers here. If there had been any relationship between the ponds there would have been a wider passage. The channel going up pond was wide and there are two old beaver lodges up there.

The reason I hazarded walking on the spongy muck was to see if I could see any signs remaining that the otter family had been here under the ice for a week or so and then a few days here and there last month. I did see what looked like otter prints in the mud along the edge of the main channel.

There were some little dead fish in the water, not many. I saw one head of a small bullhead that an otter had probably eaten. One year, after the snow disappeared I saw a few nooks along the main channel of Otter Hole Pond where there were piles of otter scats. I could almost picture the otters snug under the ice on those rocky nooks nabbing fish as they swam up the channel. Then the rising pond water covered all. Up where I thought the otters might have been denning, an old and small beaver lodge, I didn’t see any signs of them.

But I was unable to look inside the lodge. There was still a little pool of water up pond, in front of the other beaver lodge.

I forgot there is a fourth lodge, very small along the little stream of water coming down from the Lost Swamp Pond dam. The biggest lodge, and the only one easy to spot, is just behind the dam on the north shore. I was surprised not to see deep channels leading from it.

The reason the pond is so low is because there is a very low hole through the dam. No telling how that was made of formed. There are no beavers here to patch the hole.

The prettiest picture I could fashion as I walked around the depleted pond was made by nobs of muddy vegetation spread out in the north end of the lower end of the pond.

I walked down the north shore of the Second Swamp Pond, which still had more than enough water to qualify as a pond.

I didn’t scour the shore for otter signs, assuming that if otters had been there, they would have scatted on the dam. I noticed that the bottom of the pond around the beaver lodge below the north shore knoll looked to have been cleared of vegetation.

I saw one dead muskrat here back in late December, but here was evidence that a muskrat or two did winter under the pond. There were no otter signs on the dam. I headed home going through the woods, and saw my first mourning cloak butterfly. Back along the Big Pond dam, and then up and over the rock. Still nothing out in the Big Pond and the porcupine was no longer munching the fairway grass.

March 18 After a morning of working on our land, we snuck up to the Turtle Bog to see if a Blanding’s turtle was out. The ice there had been melting away from the edges. And yes, one was just out of the water climbing up the edge of the bank,

This one seemed as big as these turtles get, and probably a male since it didn’t react to our moving on the other side of the bog, and whispering to each other. We had a brief debate over whether it was actually a rock, even though after watching turtles here for 10 years we should know where all the rocks are along the edge of the bog. It was difficult to see if its neck was stretched out, but judging from the photo below, it was.

It soon noticed us and plopped back into the water.

March 19 more morning work at our land, I hauled out ironwood logs for next winter’s firewood, piling them near my sawing rock next to the Teepee Pond. On a rock below where I often sit to scope the bugs just appearing in the pond after the ice melts, I saw a generous peppering of muskrat poop.

A log at the entrance of the canal going from the First Pond to the Teepee Pond had about the same amount of poop. Back on the island, I was hoping to take the motor boat over to South Bay to scout for otter scats, but the southwest wind kicked up enough so that I hitched a ride with Leslie who wanted to see if the ice had left Eel Bay (yes, save for at the very end). I hiked from the Nature Center down to Meander Pond, approaching the pond with the wind in my face. But no need for that precaution. No beavers were out. The big red oak that they cut and that had first hung up in a red maple until the weight broke its crown and that is now hung up on another red maple seemed to be leaning lower,

I wonder if the weight of the oak will eventually tell and the beavers will finally get their meal. I didn’t see any signs that the beavers had been up to gnaw on the part of the oak trunk that they could now reach. Going down to the dam I could see that the beavers have been active. The water behind the dam was muddy, a sure sign of dam repairs.

Not only had they patched the hole in the dam that they had made in the winter, but almost re-formed the wallow below the dam.

Not sure why. They also patched the drain they had fashioned to divert the flow of water from the hole.

So what I expected was beaver engineering, was indeed just that. I’m impressed. And they fashioned a wallow below that drain as if they didn’t want the water they had collected there to go to waste.

I moved on to Audubon Pond and made a point of turning over the little dead porcupine to see if it had been attacked through the belly, as fishers are supposed to do. No sign of that. It probably fell out of the pine tree, or simply died on its way to the pond to get a drink. I got a photo of its back foot.

The beavers mostly cut ash trees in the fall, and exposed ash wood doesn’t show the signs of winter seasoning, so it is difficult to be sure exactly what are the beavers most recent cuts. There is a nice collection of ash branches in the pond at the end of the trail from their work.

There were no otter scats. I walked around to the bank lodge which is no longer hemmed in by ice. No signs that otters or beavers are now using it. I then headed due west through the wet woods and checked the otter latrine on the rock at the entrance to the Narrows. No new scats there. The wind was now southsouthwest and was even roaring through the Narrows so I didn’t see the usual ducks. I went along the Narrows trail to South Bay and didn’t see any new beaver work. Coming down to the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay, I saw a classic series of otter scent mounds below scratching into a low bank of grass and moss.

Looking up at scent mounds from the rock below made them easier to see.

There was even a pile of grass on the rock below making it easier to picture an otter making an emphatic exclamation mark that this is mine.

The only trouble was I couldn’t find any scats fresh around, on, inside or under the piles of grass and dirt, and only a few well bleached scats below the grass on the rock which looked rather old. But I doubt if any other animal would scrape up grass like this which so clearly suggests that something came up out of the water to do it. I didn’t smell anything but the only otter marking I can smell are scats. I know a fox comes out here periodically, and there is an old whitened fox poop in the grass there. But I can usually smell fox marking. With the wind from the southwest the water level in the bay rose and water lapped over most of the exposed mud.

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