Tuesday, March 16, 2010

March 2 to 6, 2010

March 2 we went to our land in the morning and the snow in our inner valley was still deep enough and cold enough to drag out some logs for next winter’s firewood. The temperature quickly got up near 40 and there was a bright sun, and no wind. Before we left, I checked the Boundary Pond. I approached along the ridge and immediately saw that a beaver had been up and down it during the night. There was a nice scrape of branches going down the ridge which did not obscure some beaver prints.

I could track the beaver as it toured the top of the ridge and saw how it went off to nose but not cut a small clump of sorry looking saplings, in my opinion.

The beaver was true to its wandering ways. Then it looped around and found some saplings worth cutting,

And then it went farther still to cut some smaller sapling, though it left one behind.

I followed the trail back down the ridge and saw a sign of spring, the beaver leaving behind dead leaves on snow that it had dragged down from the emerging ground on the slope.

Before I got down on the pond, I saw that a beaver walked over and cut some saplings on a little ledge of rocks just up from the pond, about 10 yards from its trail.

Does the beaver see or smell those saplings, or does it remember that they are there, perfect for eating at times like this when its movement is relatively restricted? Fun trying to read a beaver’s mind as I follow its tracks in the snow. Both of the holes in the pond seem to have been used.

There was a nice collections of logs in the bigger hole next to the lodge. I have noticed that there is a tendency here for logs be lined up much more neatly than the hodgepodge of beaver fodder one usually finds in a pond. Must be a "neat" beaver here.

And there was a trail going from the smaller hole off into the cache.

There was also a trail going over to a clump of anemic buckthorn, which beavers don’t eat.

It would be easier to read the beaver mind if I could see it roaming. Perhaps it was out in the dark, but it doesn’t look like it. I’d say it saw the saplings, then nosed them and realized they were not even worth biting. So memory did not play a role. I crossed over to the east side of the pond and noticed that the hole in front of the lodge seemed to be in play again but no beaver walked up on the snow around it. I went back to where I was working to collect my saws and I must say I am rather taken with the woods where I am working. It's on the east end where the inner valley swells. Hard to take photos of what I mean, but now without leaves there are cuts of little valleys and angles of ridges that entertain my dancing glances. Not using powered saws, I can look around as my hands work by rote. But soon the leaves will be out and this patch will be damp and bug infested. Back on the island I headed off to the Big Pond via Antler Trail to see if I could tell what the otters have been up to in the last 48 hours. Along the trail I saw that it was easier to see the white tails of escaping deer now that the snow is retreating off the ridges. At the Big Pond dam I could see and hear the water still flowing out of the pond and from the looks of the snow around the open water, no otters had been out there.

I sat on my perch for 15 minutes and did see a strange ripple that I hoped was an animal but since none appeared, was probably might be a chunk of ice falling into the water. With less water flowing and less snow on the dam, I could get a better sense of the hole in the dam. The ground over it -- and in the photo above it is below the clump of cattail stalks coming out of the water, is quite firm, so it is a deep hole. And it is now the only hole the water is flowing out of. I should think that if the hole occurred from freezing and thawing that the dam as a whole would be less stable than it appears to be. However, it would seem rather risky for an otter to dive under the ice and dig a hole deep down in the dam. I’ll have to wait until I see the hole until I decide how it get there. I didn’t see any tracks walking along the dam and up at the beaver lodge where I saw most otter tracks the other day, it looked like the hole they made in the ice and their trails had just widened from the thaw, and that the otters had not been out since I was last here

Unless they came out when it was cold and left no impressions on the ice and snow. I climbed up on the lodge and saw no fresh scats atop or around the layers of old scat

And I heard no reaction to my incursion from inside the lodge. I looked down into the hole into the ice and loved the shades of brown, but had no idea if otters had just been through the hole.

I didn’t go up pond where the otters had also been two days ago. I needed to check on the beavers at Meander Pond and the snow on the low ground was still deep enough to make that a hard hike. So I headed for the Second Swamp Pond, only glancing down on the Lost Swamp Pond and saw nothing to entice me down there. If the otters were touring the ponds, they would probably come down to the Second Swamp Pond too. While there was a hole in the ice out in the pond, it looked like it was naturally melting, no broken ice that a foraging otter would leave.

And water was flowing gently through the dam with no signs that otters had been there.

When got over to the ridge west of the East Trail Pond dam, I saw a stripped twig on the wet grasses.

No beavers here. I looked up and saw where a porcupine had been working in a tree above.

It looks the twig might have been in its way as it gnawed on the trunk. I could see that the twig had been cut off of the tree by the porcupine. I went up the ridge to avoid the snow and once again came down the north shore of Meander Pond. Five winters ago I spend many hours watching the beavers come out from under the ice at the end of the canal that came directly north from their lodge. This year, though the water there has stayed open, the beavers didn’t use the canal.

I noticed that the big red oak they cut and that had been hung up in another tree was now a little lower. It looked like the weight of the red oak broke the top of the smaller tree, a red maple I think.

The red oak dropped half of the way closer to the ground and a beaver could probably reach up and get some more bark off the trunk, but no sign that any beaver had done so.

Now its crown branches wedged into another smaller tree. Perhaps the stress of the load will tell on that tree too. I had been wondering if a beaver would try to cut the tree the oak was hung up in -- admittedly a dangerous operation. And I thought the tree in question was a red maple, not favored by beavers. However, this family has cut red maple, quite a few too. And a beaver did cut some branches off the part of the maple trunk that fell to the ground.

As you can see in the close-up photo below.

The last time I saw signs of a beaver coming up to the area of the red oak, it had climbed out of a hole in the ice over the main channel of the pond. The last time I looked that hole had frozen over. Now I could see that it was open once again. As I walked toward it to get a photo, I heard a beaver splash as it dove into the water.

I didn’t go any closer. I didn’t see any tracks coming from the hole up to the slope toward the red oak. I walked over to the lower part of the pond and saw a hole in the ice there with beaver trails radiating out from it, including one that came to the mostly snow free north slope.

I went out on the pond to get a closer look at the hole. Most of the trails radiating from it just went a few yards to exposed vegetation and woody shrubs

Rather meager fare but a close up of the hole showed that a beaver had made a nice meal of it, perhaps even eating some of the grass stalks.

Down at the dam, the hole through it is still being used by beavers

And there were trails straight down into the icy marsh below as well as to the ash trees the beavers have been cutting. They went back up on the pond to walk over to ash tree near the dam that they’ve just started to cut.

I took their old trail to the ash trees they’ve cut down, admiring how they trimmed the thick branches toward the bottom of the healthy ash tree

And then admired how they cut all that was good off a less healthy ash.

I headed home along the south shore of the pond and while I didn’t see any tracks in the snow going to their old work along that side of the pond, I saw that the wind blew down one of the large ash trees they had been cutting.

I headed home rather tired from the day’s work and hiking.

March 3 I headed off in the early afternoon to take a harder look at the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond to look for fresh signs of otters and beavers. It was a beautiful sunny day with a north wind to keep it from getting too hot. I sat by the Big Pond dam for 15 minutes and saw nothing new. I went from the dam, up the north shore, past the beaver lodge where the otters seemed to have focused their activity three days ago, and then all the way up the north shore to the upper dam. I couldn’t discern any fresh otter or beaver activity. I turned back and took a photo, all the tracks in it were from deer or me.

Going up the creek coming down from the upper pond I saw many dead pollywogs and sunnies, and a few live ones.

The other day I had written that most of the fish here were small and an otter could eat them whole. Today I saw one rotting dead sunfish that was about five inches long and cut in half. I headed over to the Lost Swamp Pond meeting the owner of the private land east of the park land. He led me to believe that there were beavers in the ponds farther up on his land, which is good news, but when I talk about the animals here I usually allude to what they were doing two weeks ago. Most people have a more expansive sense of time when talking about animals, which is good. I sometimes think my memories are too detailed, images stacked on images, and I sometimes lose the simple elegance of natural history. Which is to say, he might have been remembering beavers he saw two or three years ago. There didn’t look to be any activity in the east end of the Lost Swamp Pond which is on that private land, so I didn’t walk up for a closer look (with the owner in the area.) I did walk across the pond which could be unnerving as the skim ice from last night gave way and I went into a few inches of slush. I checked the dam, where water is still leaking. No signs of any animals getting under the ice and into the pond there.

I walked down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond where the ice had fractured into a rather striking picture, the beautiful thawing of beaver ponds. There were fresh mink tracks exploring crevasses but no signs of otters.

To get back home I didn’t hazard walking across the Lost Swamp Pond again but went up on the ridge around the west end of the pond. I sat on an old downed trunk up there to briefly contemplate otterless pond and then I realized that coming out from one of the holes otters had made in the ice at west edge of the pond about a month ago was a relatively fresh otter slide.

I went down to the pond to investigate and saw that an otter went from one gapping open edge of ice and down into a hole under the ice.

I walked around the pond to where the otters had come out from a gap at the edge of the ice near the mossy cove latrine. On the way I saw smaller holes into the pond that a mink had used.

Sure enough, an otter had come out from under that gap again

walked a few feet up on the ice and then back under the gap. I saw some distinct prints so that I think this otter had been out here more recently than the otters had been on the Big Pond.

I have seen signs of a lone otter in the ponds. When I saw tracks of four otters going down to the Second Swamp Pond a few weeks ago, I saw tracks of a lone otter coming out of the Big Pond dam. Much of the shore around the ponds is now grass, and I looked hard for an otter trail through the grass, but saw not the slightest suggestion of one.

So, crazy at it may sound to say with March getting warm, I think these otters are still lurking under the pond ice. They might not be able to do that for much longer.

March 4 in the morning I collected sap and in the afternoon I cut and collected firewood. While digesting lunch I walked down to check on the Boundary Pond beavers. It got cold enough last night to freeze up the remaining snow and a north wind promised to keep the snow hard, but by noon the sun was loosening it up again. So walking down to the ponds was still a bit of a trudge. As I left Grouse Alley and walked down to the Last Pool, I noticed tracks looping up from the snow covered over pond. A beaver had walked up and nipped two saplings.

Closer to the pond it had cut, segmented and carried away a birch trunk to a hole in the ice above the main channel.

The hole was filled with and surrounded by little stripped sticks. The beavers cut down a hornbeam that was right next to the hole.

Beaver trails radiated out from the hole. One went down to cut the top of the hornbeam,

And another went up the little pond and cut twigs in the crown of a birch that the beaver cut down in the late fall.

There were several other trails making looping forays for meals suggesting that there was more than one beaver walking around. And all the trails came from the hole. I counted my strides as I walked down to the Boundary Pond. Along the way I saw some depressions in the ice where melting snow was puddling, but I didn’t see another hole in the ice until I got down to the holes around the lodge.

I made 200 strides, probably of around 2 ½ feet which meant the beavers had to go about 300 feet under the ice. I had tried to see how deep the water was at the upper hole they climbed out of but the water was frozen. The beavers dug through about four inches of ice to make the hole. While the beavers had come out of the holes around the lodge, most of the sapling trunks and sticks that had been floating in those holes were gone.

One good sized log that had just been cut was in the snow and evidently the other part of the log had been taken into the lodge.

I went up on the ridge and sat in my chair for a few minutes -- nothing stirring inside the lodge. I had a good view of the three holes the beavers had in the ice around the lodge and their fresh trails from to nearby trees.

Only that one tree off the trail up the ridge had been cut down in the last few days. I went up on the ridge and with the old prints made by the beaver and me, it was hard to tell if a beaver had just been out. Then a little ways over the top of the ridge, I saw a cut stick next to some twigs the beaver had collected.

The beaver doesn’t seem quite comfortable enough to strip bark up on the ridge. It’s very difficult for a beaver to find a place more comfortable for stripping bark than a hole in the ice. With the thawing the pond is coming back alive and the beavers are taking advantage of it.

March 6 I headed off with Ottoleo to see if any otters had come out on the ponds. We walked up the golf course, peppered with deer poop. The snow cover is just about gone wherever the sun shines. We had snow all the way down the first valley to the Big Pond. It got down into the teens last night so when animals might have been out, the snow was probably too hard to register tracks. Now it was icy almost slushy, even deer prints were a blur. The Big Pond has mostly lost its snow cover. There is snow along the edges where there is no longer any water under ice that formed early in the winter. The old otter tracks now in the ice which had been made when there were a few inches of wet snow looked so dramatic that I initially thought they had to have been made yesterday when it was warm and sunny.

But checking old photos, I can see that they had been made several days ago. Plus there were no new wrinkles in the ice and snow around the hole in front of the lodge where the otter had been most active earlier. As we walked up to the lodge in the upper end of the pond, I noticed how much the otter strides contrasted.

Not sure what that means. Otters can move very fast, even in snow. So I sometimes look at the tracks I see and say, well, the otter was out for five minutes. But the longer strides mean the otters are sliding more, which suggests that the otters made those tracks when snow conditions were much different, meaning the contrasting trails were made several hours apart. But as much as I kept trying to see fresh tracks, I didn’t. We headed over to the Lost Swamp Pond and I saw some tracks around and almost on the side of the beaver lodge up in the southeast end of the pond, so we went up to check. The more I looked the more it looked like some beavers had been out.

Otters are dynamic when they get out of a hole and even if they don’t go far they leave the impression that they went hard. These tracks looked slow and plodding and the beavers here had not been up on the ice in a couple of months. I walked around the lodge, gingerly, because the ice is rotting and thinning. I saw another hole the animals used, and again it looked like beavers, no dynamic movements and the tracks went over to the tips of branches from the cache frozen in the ice.

This is good to see as it promises that the hole in the dam will soon be patched. As we turned away from the lodge, we saw an eagle circling in the northern sky, and Ottoleo who had better eyes was sure it was a golden eagle. We walked back to where I saw some furtive otter slides the last time I was here, and today we saw bolder tracks, including slides and prints.

The otter came out of a hole in the nearby bank lodge, or at least, it could have. The hole didn’t look that used,

But there was no evidence that an otter came out from the gap at the edge of the ice like the last time I was here. I saw no more otter signs around the pond, not even at the dam, but unlike the usual otters, these otters don’t seem that interested in holes behind the dam. We walked out on the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam and saw some scuffing out on the snow in the middle of the pond near the broken ice sheets. We went out to check and it looked like an otter might have come out from under the ice and sniffed around.

We didn’t see any signs of otters going up or down the creek coming from the Lost Swamp Pond dam. But there was a trail going up pond to the old beaver lodge where the otters had denned a few weeks ago.

The otter didn’t go into the lodge but headed up pond into the cattails above the pond.

I haven’t had otters to track for two years, so all the theories I developed during the several good years of tracking I had, have been put on the shelf, so to speak. My theory was that the mother leads her pups around their territory in late February and March and then she leaves them to fend for themselves as she goes to mate. I thought that the pups generally stay together until the general thaw. However, the otters who inspired that theory were far more adventurous in their touring. In one foray they might loop around every pond in their territory. In another foray they might go up and over ridges and into the frozen South Bay marsh. The otter family I am watching this winter has gone no farther than the Second Swamp Pond, Upper Second Swamp Pond, Lost Swamp Pond and Big Pond which are all rather close to each other. But my theory was concocted while watching a mother and two pups. One year I tracked a mother and three pups and they never seemed to separate. So? The tracks going out into the meadow above the Upper Second Swamp Pond was the first sign I saw of one of the otters leaving the cozy world they had been in for the past three months. Was it the mother? Tracks didn’t look that big. We went down to the Second Swamp Pond, and going from the bank beaver lodge on the north shore, I saw an otter trail with slides angling over toward the south end of the dam.

But that was the only slide I saw. Down at the open water behind the dam, deer slid a bit on the ice, but not an otter.

Am I seeing one otter going from pond to pond, or has the mother left one pup in each of the ponds? Let’s hope we get another day or two of fresh snow, to give me another shot at trying to figure out what is what. We also went to our land, and there I saw that a beaver, really looked like more than one given the amount of work, came out of the hole in the ice of the Last Pool.

The beavers cut down another hornbeam that was right next to the hole. Down at the hole in the ice beside the lodge there seemed to be more logs, but it may be that the thawing ice and snow are revealing logs that were lodged there in the late fall, but I don‘t think so.

The beavers had a trail going up to the ridge, and there I lost the trail because there was just patchy snow on the ridge. I did see some of the small trees they had cut as they went up the ridge.

Stunted ironwoods and elms, I think. I didn’t see any evidence that they got up to the top of the ridge.

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