Monday, January 3, 2011

January 1 to 6, 2011

January 1 the warmth continued and rain threatened. I made a big tour of the island latrines and beavers ponds. I caught a glimpse of deer as I went up and over Antler Trail -- so far an easy winter for deer. No tracks to notice because all the snow was gone. The South Bay ice was puddled with water in the middle. Melting snow can reveal old tracks in the ice and I wondered if I was seeing old otter slides on the ice along the north shore.

But I concluded that there was no really a pattern that otters sliding on the ice would make. I veered off the South Bay trail to walk down the embankment of Audubon Pond on my way to the otter latrine at the entrance to South Bay. From tracks in the snow I knew that a coyote or two had been here, now with the snow gone, I could see how one clearly expressed its interest in the beavers’ movements. There was a coyote poop at the crest of the beavers’ trail down to the pond below the embankment.

Once the snow is gone all that had been buried by it, still wet, seems to emit a glow. Although no beavers had been down to the pond below the embankment since Audubon Pond froze, I couldn’t resist taking another photo of the beavers’ now lambent creation.

Back down along South Bay I didn’t see any signs that otters had visited their latrine. However, it was now easy to see the bones of small fish in their old scats.

The only curious activity I saw were strings of river grass and milfoil pulled up out of holes in the ice, at least that’s what it looked like to me.

Perhaps deer did that. I saw two swans out on the retreating edge of the South Bay ice.

A few weeks ago as we went over the Thousand Islands bridge, we saw four swans flying high. I went back up the ridge and walked around Audubon Pond. There were no holes in the ice along the west shore and nothing open along the north shore save perhaps one small hole in the middle of the cache next to the lodge. But it was clear that beavers had been out there because there were flotillas of stripped sticks frozen in the ice next to the lodge.

And there were a few stripped sticks in and on the ice at the shore next to the park bench.

As I sat on the bench I heard two beavers humming in the lodge, and one hum, a whine really, was high like a kits. Beavers who have paired up in this pond have not had kits in almost 10 years. I also heard some gnawing in the lodge. I’ll have to keep checking this family. I continued around the north shore of the pond and saw that the beavers had cut another ash tree and trimmed a bit off of it, not sure when they did that, probably just before the snow.

I continued on to the East Trail Pond and here too, with all the snow gone, got a good look at what the beavers had cut before the pond froze. I saw now that two trees that I thought were an ash and a maple are actually an ironwood and a hornbeam, and relatively big ones.

Of course I really don’t know the tastes of beavers but ironwoods and hornbeams are not generally relished by beavers, especially ones thicker than six inches in diameter at the trunk. This family, which I have followed for about 10 years, has never been squeamish about expanding their palette. They even stripped the bark off the cut hornbeam’s stump. The pond nearby was still frozen and no signs of any broken ice.

On such a balmy day it was easy to enjoy the sculpted wood left behind by the beavers.

There were no holes in the ice down along their small dam either.

I couldn’t get a good look at the hole I made in the ice the other when I ventured too close to the lodge, and, of course, I didn’t go out on that ice today.

There is one red oak down by the dam and another that just needs a little more gnawing to get it too teeter.

So I guess this is a sign that the beavers are snug and well fed in their lodge and eating under the ice. I also noticed two smaller trees higher up on the ridge south of the pond that had been cut. I had not noticed them before.

To get over to the Second Swamp Pond, I usually climb the ridge, but on this wet day, I decided to go along the marsh and rocks below the ridge south of the East Trail Pond. This has never been easy to do and wasn’t today and I wound up in a patch of red stemmed stickers which in the spring and late fall often carry deer ticks. When I got out of the patch, there were several deer ticks on my pant legs, all of them looking rather stunned at the thaw. It was easy to flick them off. As I crossed the Second Swamp Pond dam, I was surprised to see a rather extensive array of mink scats.

There were more just outside the holes the minks have been using for year in the north end of the dam, though all these scats were recent.

I turned back to take a photo of where most of the scat was, a rather nondescript section of a beaver dam in disrepair no longer holding back much water.

I kept seeing mink scats along the dam but only one at a time. This pond is so low, I have trouble figuring out why its dam is so attractive to minks. Meanwhile thanks to the thaw water is pouring through the hole the otters made in the Lost Swamp Pond dam. However, I didn’t see any sure signs that otters had been there since the snow melted -- how could I tell with so many old scats littered around the latrine there.

I took photos of many of the scats just so I could distinguish them from any new scats that otters might leave. I must say they were photogenic in the damp grass, at least to me.

And I noticed that a few of the scats were of that honeycomb variety that I see now and then.

What was more entrancing, thanks to the thaw, were not all old scats revealed, but the once roly-poly ice sinking back into a level, with extensive puddles.

Though some ice blocks are still hanging on the dead tree trunks.

I didn’t walk on the ice, a wet venue and getting thin. As I walked around the west end of the pond to check the latrine there, I heard something swimming in the water, or so it sounded to me. I stopped and waited for more characteristic otter noises but didn’t hear any. It didn’t look like an otter had been out in the latrine, no new scats on the diminishing ice or the clump of grass they favored.

Then I heard noises under the ice over near the south shore. Maybe something was over there too but more likely the thawing ice is just uncommonly noisy as it drips and collapses into the water below, and makes a pretty picture.

Since it was so warm out, I had nothing better to do but sit and wait and see if something came out from under the ice. I sat up on the rock above the mossy cove latrine where I took photos of the old scats revealed after the snow melted. Then I heard something calling from farther up the south shore and thought for a moment it might be an otter chirping then realized it was a peeper. No other frog responded immediately, then 10 minutes later I heard another in another part of the woods. I thought I could see some open water under the ledge of ice where I had really heard an otter a few days ago.

When I gave up my vigil and walked over to the latrine, I saw a different kind of scat on the ice, that beige foamy scat otters sometimes have. It was floating in the water on the ice.

Then I saw more scats like that on the ground revealed by the hole in the ice the otters last made.

But I really can’t say that the otters are still under the ice, but it seems likely since, judging by the scats, they are eating well under there. There was nothing new at the Big Pond and since I was late for lunch I rather hurried along the dam. Oh yes, I kept checking for deer ticks and finally picked up two in stickers along the Lost Swamp Pond that looked rather lively.

None reached my precious bodily fluids, I think.

January 3 the cold returned, just below freezing, but no new snow, just a light dusting yesterday as the cold front moved in. We hiked via Antler Trail toward the Lost Swamp Pond, and saw two groups of deer along the way. The Big Pond dam looked unvisited, though, of course, with no snow it is difficult to tell if a mink or coyote visited. Certainly no otters had been there. We walked out on the ice of the pond which was smooth, which meant it was slow going getting out to the active beaver lodge. It was worth the sliding because the thawing and refreezing showed clear ice laced with bubbles outside an inner ring of clouded ice.

That suggests to me that the beavers did a good bit of swimming under there. However the ice around the hole they made near the lodge to get out from under the ice and collect food had refrozen clear. I could see more logs there now.

I took a close up of the logs and twigs which seems to show how much they prefer the logs to the twigs, but beavers do eat twigs whole, though I think most in the photo below are too big for that.

I still haven’t found the stumps of the trees that they got those logs from. Maybe they will lead me to them later in the winter. We went down to the boundary line to get over to the Lost Swamp Pond. There we saw a beaver in the cache beside the lodge in southeast end of the pond. That was nice to see and I got down on the ice and tried to sneak up on it.

Unfortunately, the wind was at my back and for some reason my boots were squeaking as I walked on the ice. So the beaver soon dove back into the water. I didn’t go up to see its hole in the ice. It doesn’t need to be bothered by me. I walked back down on the ice figuring the upper end of the pond was safe enough and from tracks in the dusting of snow on the ice, we could see that someone else had been on the ice yesterday -- but how heavy was he or she? I walked by the hole in the ice around the dead shrub trunks that the otters had used. All was flat ice now, and no bubbles underneath the new ice so I don’t think otters had been under there in the last day.

Meanwhile Leslie had been sitting above the latrine in front of the old bank lodge where I had heard an otter snort under the ice several days ago. She didn’t hear anything and the ice looked unvisited by otters and although the ledge of ice, where I assume the otters had perched when they weren’t back in the bank burrows, was getting thin and falling in at places.

I checked the nearby mossy cove latrine and saw no new scats there. As we walked around the west end of the pond, once again I heard noise under the ice, but not as much as last time. I think part of the noise arises from our walking on the bank pushing air along some ancient burrow out into the pond. The gap between the ice and the water or ground below makes a great sounding board that amplifies all sounds. The dusting of snow on the pond revealed human boot prints but no animal tracks. However close to dam in what looked like thinner ice, since it was easier to see the discolored water below, there was a hole in the ice, which an otter could have punched open.

Up at the dam, more water was flowing through the hole in the dam, but there were no signs that otters had been there recently.

And there were no new scats in the nearby latrine. We made a beeline home to warm up cold toes but paused on the way to study a venerable oak, though now dead, that for years carried a hanging garden in a huge lower limb. Half of the limb has fallen off. The hanging garden is still there.

After lunch we went to the land and I checked on the beavers in the Last Pool to see if they took advantage of the thaw to get out from under the ice. Looking from the west shore of the pond, it did look like they opened the ice where it had last been open at the edge of their cache, at least there seemed to be more stripped stick there.

I walked around the north end of the pond and it was easy to see how the water in the pond drained away from under the pond ice.

The thaw didn’t replenish the pond. I also saw ribbons of ice left behind by the thaw, or should I call them threads of thicker ice that have not quite melted.

Looking at the lodge from the north, I could see how the beavers opened a huge hole in the ice next to their lodge. When the water there iced over again it was perhaps 6 inches lower than the original ice.

There were also a myriad of stripped sticks frozen in the new ice which looked very thin.

My guess is that the ice was thin here because it was the channel the beavers used to swim over to their cache to gnaw off parts of sticks and logs to eat that were under the ice. I didn’t walk out on the poplar trunk to get a closer look, which might disturb the beavers. Looking at the lodge from the east shore, it looked like one of the logs stuck in the ice had been freshly gnawed. I thought I could see some wood chips on the snow.

Then I tried to determine if the beavers had gone off from the pond looking for more trees to collect or cut. This is hard to tell with the ground frozen and no snow anywhere. Of course, all the old work, damp from the thaw and glowing in the gloaming, looked fresh. I fancied that I saw work on one tree that was new to me.

Then as I moved along I thought I saw work on a birch that looked new.

Then it began to look more and more familiar, but so far I haven’t found a photo that I took before of that hanging birch log. Heading back along Grouse Alley, I saw that while beavers weren't taking advantage of what trees they had cut down in the fall, the rabbits were by gnawing off bark that they could get to.

We took our skates to the land expecting that the thaw and freeze would leave smooth ice on the Deep Pond like it did on the Wellesley Island ponds, but it didn’t. We checked the South Bay ice when we got home on the island and that was almost perfect for skating with most of the expanse of ice easy to see through. We skated as the sun set, first making the shore golden and then the ice a play of golden reflections. (I didn’t have my camera.) I saw one pike under the ice, and a goby. There were several dead bullheads frozen in the ice. One eagle flew over us. We skated out over the bay and the wind blew us back to the shore, all the while accompanied by the low roar of the broken ice waved against the ice shelf about a hundred yards west of us.

January 5 we got a little over 3 inches of snow yesterday and today was sunny with almost a cloudless sky and not that cold. We went to the land first. Leslie hiked up to the turtle bog and I went across the Deep Pond. I saw a bobcat trail, perhaps two bobcats, crossing the road

and then after crossing the pond, and not seeing any signs of otters or minks, I picked up the bobcat trail and followed it into the woods heading up the valley south of the pond. Its tracks crossed several rabbit trails.

The bobcat also scratched around a tree but I couldn’t smell anything. (It seems the only urine I can smell is from foxes.) Here too it looked like two bobcats had been about since I saw trails part. But both trails went up the valley which is a nice hike but not where I wanted to go. I went up the ridge along our boundary line expecting to pick up a bobcat trail there. But there were no tracks to speak of all the way to the Boundary Pond, the rabbits didn’t go back to their feast on the low shrubs sticking out of rocks and I didn‘t see any deer tracks -- I did see the trail of a small deer on the road. However I didn’t veer down to where porcupines were like to go. I took my annual photo of a snowy scene in the Hemlock Cathedral.

The Boundary Pond was undisturbed. No coyotes came down to sniff around the beaver lodge, which is now without beavers. And thanks to the cold night no beavers broke the ice around the lodge up in the Last Pool. Meanwhile Leslie saw more coyote and deer tracks and determined that one bobcat went up toward the Lonesome Pine up on the high ridge just east of the Deep Pond. I got to work sawing a downed ash tree, saving energy for tracking on the island. After lunch I headed off to the Big Pond via Antler Trail. I saw three deer up on the plateau and then at least five deer, all together, in the woods heading down to the Big Pond. I saw a mink trail at the Big Pond dam -- a rather shy mink who mostly kept ducking into the grasses along the shore. As I walked up pond I cut across some coyote trails. One, at least, sniffed or marked the usual muskrat lodge. Up at the lodge, I was surprised to see that the beavers opened a hole in the ice on the other side of the lodge.

Snow initially softens the ice and the beavers took advantage. I think they opened the hole that morning and dragged more woody brush from the north shore of the pond. I could hear a beaver gnawing inside the lodge. It was easy to follow their trail up the ridge to where they had collected some brush.

But I didn’t see any larger trees that afforded them logs, only shrubs thick with twigs. I went down to the boundary line and headed to the Lost Swamp Pond. It was easy to see that otters had been out of various holes around the pond and I tried to chronicle their activities. There were tracks around the nexus of dead shrub trunks, where last week they had a hole in the ice.

But the ice had flattened there and the otters had no hole. I saw that they came there from the nearby shore,

Where they had fashioned a hole in the ice and snow right next to the shore.

A few yards away just on the other side of the peninsula that divides the southeast from the northeast reaches of the pond, I saw more slides, and it looked like one otter came from the north shore of the pond.

I think there was a hole in the ice at the point but I dare not get too close to it, not wanting to make my own hole there.

I headed up the south shore of the peninsula toward the lodge following the trail of one otter, the same sort of trail an adult otter made here a week or so ago, except that then the otter was coming west down the pond, not east toward the beaver lodge.

Coyotes had also been on the pond and one trail roughly paralleled the otter’s trail, until the otter veered over toward the lodge.

There were otter slides all around the beaver lodge, where there are beavers denning. I could get a sense of how large an area the beaver I saw two days ago was swimming in, though now all that open water had iced over.

I couldn’t tell if the otters had used a hole right next to the lodge. I think two otters went to and from the lodge over to the holes along the south shore of the dam that I noticed two days ago, and a new hole.

Judging by their tracks and slides, otters usually romp around holes like this, but these otters seemed pretty direct. I didn’t get a sense of their paying there.

Looking to the east I didn’t see any more otter slides in the snow, so I went down to the old latrines the otters had been using. Before I got to the holes they had been using a bit east of the bank lodge and roughly across from the peninsula, I saw that they had come out of a gap in the ice. Here they did seem to go around in circles a bit, perhaps playing.

I could see that they came up from a hole closer to the bank lodge. From every thing I had seen so far on the pond, I could be sure there were two otter, and got the impression there were three, a mother and two pups, the state of the family when I last saw it here a few months ago. However, from these trails, I thought I could make out three pups, which was the state of the family when I first saw it in the late summer.

The otters are no longer using the latrine right in front of the bank lodge that they used for a week or so and where I heard an otter under the ice.

I continued toward the west shore far enough to see that the otters had not been on the ice down there. Then I headed for the dam. After their first foray at the dam, when they made the hole in the dam, they had not returned here. Now I could see that one otter at least had been out at the hole in the dam, and come up onto the latrine, now snow covered rocks and grass.

The otters didn’t seem to leave any scats in their recent forays. An otter also went on the other side of the dam, but didn’t continue down the dam. Water was pouring out of the hole in the dam, giving me the impression that the otter went on the other side of the hole and dug it out some more. I’ll be able to better judge that when I come back in a few days. If the hole had been dug deeper the pond ice should start collapsing once again.

I walked just below the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam and saw no signs of otters there. Then I headed down the north shore of the Second Swamp Pond, through the Fisher Woods, and over to the East Trail Pond, not seeing anything of note along the way, save for some mink trails. As I approached the East Trail Pond, I saw that the sun lit up the north half of the pond, so I decided not to check the south shore where the beavers had last worked before the pond froze, but to see if they came out along the north shore, plus from the ridge, I could get a better view of the lodge and see if they had a hole in the ice near that. There were no signs that they have used the little pools of water they dammed up on the stream coming down from Shangri-la Pond. When I got up high enough to see the lodge, I thought I saw tracks along a gap in the ice,

But on second thought, I realized I jumped to that conclusion too fast. Beavers generally don’t use gaps in the ice like that near the lodge. They make bigger holes that they can float in. Continuing along the ridge, I noticed a porcupine balancing itself up in a tree trying to gnaw the bark of a big branch near the trunk.

I noticed that the porcupine was working on an oak tree that the beavers had half cut.

Then I got the impression that the gnawing looked rather fresh. I looked down along the north shore of the pond, and I saw the hole I was looking for, complete with plates of broken ice next to it.

And I could see the beavers’ trail, made since yesterday’s snowfall that led up to work on the ridge that had not been done in a day.

And they had gone higher up the ridge, right up to where the park trail was at the crest of the ridge.

So, while I was expecting the beavers to come out along the south shore of the pond they had come out along the shore warmed by the sun and they had almost cut down one oak,

mostly girdled another and the work they did at the crest of the ridge was substantial,

Including some artistic gnawing on a large maple log.

So I was right all long. As usual, this family had no time to take it easy under the ice, only I had been looking for their activity in the wrong place. Heading home I planned to meet Leslie who was taking a friend out on the South Bay ice, but the ice at the north cove of South Bay looked a little uncertain and I could hear noise from a boat repair project up in Thousand Island Park, so I hiked over the ridge as usual. Meanwhile up on South Bay Leslie saw the slides of at least two otters, and our friend’s cell phone had a camera and he sent me these alluring photos.

I’ll try to get out and see them tomorrow. Taking photos as the sunset casts golden light and shadows on the snow is difficult. A photo edited in black and white gives a better view of the otter activity.

They used holes in the ice along the shore, even though open water was less than a hundred yards to the west.

January 6 we walked across South Bay to see the slides Leslie saw yesterday. The slides made by adult otters were quite impressive especially as they headed off toward the open water of the river.

They came out of holes along the shore.

And at two areas of the ice they appeared to have a run around,

And in the middle of one of these runarounds

There was a scat.

The slides the otters left were big so I assume there were two adults. However, one trail going back to the wide river had no slides,

which I usually think only pups leave, but these strides seemed pretty big. Since yesterday afternoon more ice froze in the bay, about 20 yards wide, and with no snow on it. So we walked up along the upper north shore of the bay looking for deformities in the ice that might reveal otter activity. Well off shore there were signs of what might have been otters breaking and/or swimming through the forming ice.

But there were no signs of corresponding activity on the ice right along the shore. There were otter slides in the snow along the shore which were definitely made after Leslie saw the activity there yesterday afternoon.

Two, maybe three otters, went almost up to the South Bay trail but instead of sniffing Leslie’s trail, they danced on two big chunky logs.

And then they went back to South Bay. They also came up on the flat rock where the creek coming down from Audubon Pond empties into South Bay.

I think they did this all yesterday afternoon because the ice near the rock was undisturbed. Leslie had not walked by the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay so I wasn’t sure when the otters visited there.

There was one slide and impression in the snow and four in the leaves making me wonder if the otters had rested there a long time.

There were slides throughout the latrine but no scats that I could see. The ice on the bay below the latrine was undisturbed, suggesting that the otters were here early in the night before the water below began to freeze.

Several weeks ago I thought I saw evidence of an otter making a bed here. I assume this is one of the periodic visits of the group of otters that also visit Picton and other islands.

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