Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February 10 to 15, 2011

February 10 although it has been cold and the snow is deep, warmer days are ahead, so we dug snow away from our outdoor stove where we’ll boil maple sap down into syrup. Digging away two feet of snow is not easy and soon we made enough progress to justify a hike. I headed down Grouse Alley on snowshoes and Leslie headed down the plowed road on foot. Deep snow is a good way to measure the weight and persistence of animals. On our land a porcupine is most persistent. By coming across the road, past our house and down Grouse Alley and back again it has helped us maintain a deep trough-like trail down the valley. We are having frequent snows but every night the porcupine plows the new snow.

When the porcupine veers off our joint trail, it shows how lightly it treads.

Usually the porcupine goes back the way it came except when it veers off to check trees and dens. So I thought the porcupine showed a little weariness with the deep snow by being careful not to cut the angle of one of its detour. It came right back to its main trail, taking a sharp left to get back on it.

The principal mystery in tracking a porcupine in deep snow is why does it pass so many trees on the way to the tree it chooses to climb. It can seem like the porcupine has a one track mind, and knows exactly what it wants. However, as the snow gets deeper, which means it is getting higher, more low hanging branches become available for browsing. Today I saw that the porcupine made a little jag to the left like it wanted to nose a low hanging hemlock branch.

But I couldn’t see anything eaten on the branch. Then I more or less lost the porcupine. I think it is going up the steep slope of the valley, where I can’t easily follow.

On the other side of the valley, I saw what must be the tracks of a hare, since the trail leaped under a downed tree trunk where no deer could go.

But the trail was rather deep for just one rabbit. Since it came off the deep trough the porcupine and I have made, perhaps two or three hares hopped along it. It looked there was a continuation of the trail up and over the valley slope. Every animal in this little valley seemed to have no trouble going straight up the slope, even the deer who are closer to my size.

I’m thinking that having four legs makes it easier to climb through the snow. When I got to the end of my trail roughly in the middle of the Last Pool with a good view of the snow covered lodge, I decided to go around the lodge because the snow on the east side of the lodge looked a bit depressed here and there. But I didn’t see any hole where beavers could have come out, even under the barely bare branches of the poplar that they like to eat.

Meanwhile, I found myself in three feet of snow and going back the way I came was not an easy option because turning around with snowshoes while sinking in three feet of snow is not easy. Fortunately, I saw a deer trail ahead, and I’ve found that following deer trails, even though made by relatively thin hooves and legs, does make the going easier.

So I made it back to my trail in pretty good shape. Meanwhile, Leslie saw what we think is a bobcat trail crossing the road, near to where bobcats seem to always cross the road. Thanks to the town plowing the road almost every day, there is a big pile of snow on both sides of the road. The trail the bobcat made was narrow coming down onto the road,

and wider climbing up the bank to get back into the fields where it might find something to eat.

That difference doesn’t make much sense to me, unless as it came down to the road the bobcat was stalking something. We could also see the trail of a coyote going down the road, and at one point, it plunged into the mound of snow beside the road. We saw what looked like a mouse or vole hole in the snow there so perhaps that is what the coyote was after. It looked like the coyote nosed a hole close to the road and nosed a hole at the end of its lunge.

Then there were tracks going right next to the Deep Pond. These had the gait of a bobcat but seemed to sink a bit too deeply in the snow.

So maybe they were the tracks of a small deer? Probably not, the trail didn't veer to any place a deer might like to go. There were some patches of open water that somehow defeated the deep snow just behind the dam.

Leslie heard and saw the raven about. I didn’t.

February 11 we had light snow off and on with temperature in the mid-20s. We headed across the golf course on our skis after lunch, and found the going easier. As the old snow consolidates and the new snow collects on top, the skis move more easily. I also took my camera today, but as we went up into the woods above the golf course and then down the valley to the Big Pond, I didn’t see anything to photograph, though the general snow-clogged view was captivating. The porcupine trails we saw two days ago were snowed over today. However along the last slight rock ridge before the flat of the Big Pond and surrounding meadow there was a fresh porcupine trail coming out of a little cave deep in the rocks.

I think a porcupine eventually moves into that den every winter. I took the shortest way across the Big Pond because I wanted to lessen the chances of my skis getting wet. I made it across OK, and then Leslie, who took a more angular route, said there were some interesting tracks on the lodge. I went up and saw that a coyote marked the top of the lodge with its urine, but I couldn’t see exactly how the coyote got up on top of the lodge.

I guess blowing snow covered the tracks on the flat. When I got to the Lost Swamp Pond, it looked like there were some tracks out on the lodge in the southeast end of pond. I skied there without getting my skis wet, and found that here too, a coyote or two had visited the lodge, marking it, and digging into the snow on it, at least, and perhaps deeper. I didn’t hazard getting too close to see.

I skied back the way I came and then skied down to the holes the otters have been using in the west end of the pond. It didn’t look like anything had been out near the dam. There was an otter trail from one hole to another in the west end,

though the trail was a bit snowed over

But it was easy to see that it was fresher than the trail I saw here two days ago.

So at least one of the otters here is getting out, if ever so briefly. Soon the deep snow should firm up making it easier for the otters to go where ever they want. For the past few weeks, once getting through the snow to this pond, I went back the same way I came. But skiing was so easy that I set a course for the East Trail Pond, and it proved easier than I thought. I only really got bogged down trying to get up on the East Trail Pond dam to take a photo of the porcupine trail going along the dam.

I saw deer tracks too, but nothing else of note. I have already fallen through the ice near the beaver lodge in the upper end of the East Trail Pond, but that was the only way to go to both see what the beavers there have been up to and get back home via South Bay. I easily got up over the little dam they had made about 20 yards in front of their lodge, but what happened to some of the ice behind the dam gave me pause. It had completely collapsed and no water was showing suggesting that there was precious little water behind the dam.

However I know the beaver family here well and they are masters at dredging. I could tell from the vegetation sticking up through the snow where the dredged channels weren’t, and I probed with my poles to better tell where they were. I avoided two pitfalls. Unfortunately I could not get a good photo showing the network of depressions in the pond, probably dredged channels, radiating from the lodge.

I got safely around the lodge, where there were no signs of beavers out, and gingerly moved over toward the north side of the pond where the beavers have made holes so they can get up to the trees they cut on the ridge overlooking the pond from the north. Just as I got close enough to begin evaluating the tracks I could see in the snow on the ridge, I saw a beaver walking from the ridge toward me and then disappearing into a hole I couldn’t see. I got my camera out just in time to get a photo of a beaver no longer there.

Well, conclusively seeing that a beaver had been out, I didn’t have to get much closer to the ridge. I made it across the major east west channel, now unseen under the snow, and thought I could see the tracks on the ridge to see well enough that they were deer trails.

Deer would walk around pine trees, beavers wouldn’t. However the trail behind the deer tracks could have been a beaver trail. Or, and this is as likely, a beaver had just come out of the hole and got a measure of the snow when I barged in on its pond, myself finally getting the measure of the snow and regaining my ability to get around in it. Meanwhile it began snowing and blowing. When I got down to South Bay it was rather fiercely in my face. I knew I could wait out the squall but I saw the equivalent of my predawn paddles in August, going off to see the otters. So I launched myself on the ice of the bay with all the snow coming into my face and the sun dimly shining through it all. Just like in the predawn, no photograph was possible, just the sense that separating the world into parts often misses the point. Everything pulses through the ether.

February 13 we went to our land to make snow shoe trails to the maple trees we will tap, and since we use some trees on our neighbor’s land across the road, I got a look at the foot of a cliff where, due to how it slants in, there is a snow free area. I saw red squirrel tracks, I think, coming out of there and up onto the snow.

Of course where there is no snow it is hard to tell if an animal has been there, but I didn’t see any poop or scrapping. Of course there is not much space there, just a few feet, and since if is rocky, probably not much to dig into.

It doesn’t seem like animals react to deep snow by finding refuges in those few places where there is none, other than using plowed roads, though we’ve noticed very few deer and rabbit tracks there, only coyote and bobcat. As we broke new trails we didn’t see any fresh tracks. I did finally notice a thin red oak the porcupine that comes cross the road mostly stripped.

Chores done I went down the old trail, down Grouse Alley to the Last Pool where there always seem to be tracks. The porcupine’s trail did no go as far as usual and veered up to a pine tree half way up the ridge.

I think it came back down the way it came, and didn’t follow an old trail around the pine and down the hill. Fresh tracks of a deer leaping down the slope crossed the porcupine’s trail. The porcupine's old trail to the small hemlock, that it usually goes under and sometimes climbs to gnaw, looked easy enough to follow, though the slope above looks ready for an avalanche.

Judging from a photo I took two weeks ago, the porcupine has doubled are area of its gnawing on the scraggly hemlock.

I trust it has been getting more to eat on other hemlocks, up high where I can’t see what it has been eating. Today, at the foot of this tree I saw fresh rabbit tracks, and nearby a hole in the snow.

On the other side of my trail, I saw two holes in the snow.

Did a rabbit have a tunnel in the snow that led to a place to run under a downed tree trunk where it could bite up at some bark?

There are holes in the snow just up from the trunk that lead to holes in the rocks and good places for a den. I saw rabbit tracks up there two weeks ago.

A bit farther along the little valley I saw what I am pretty sure is a mink trail, crossing the little valley and going up the higher ridge to the west, though it has gentler slope.

At first glance it looked like the mink came directly down the east face of the valley

But as the tracks got lower they crossed a gap between the snow and the rocks.

Or did they? On warmer days I am up and down this valley in minutes, but today I became obsessed with holes in the snow and began wondering if the mink had fashioned a trail along the gaps between the snow and the rocks.

Probably not, what good would damp stone be for a mink? I’ve long wondered if deer knew exactly where they were walking in the snow, if they could sense the easiest way. Today I saw a deer trail going up the west slope of the valley perilously close to the edge, where I assume the footing is tricky and the snow relatively deep.

I followed my trail to the middle of the Last Pool and saw some tracks possibly coming out from under the ice on the north side of the lodge/

I followed an old trail going west of the lodge, not the trail to the east that I got bogged down in the last time I was here. Then along the north shore of the pond I picked up a deer trail that led me by some deer stamping next to a hole in the ice of the pond.

I couldn’t see any water in the hole which confirmed what I suspected, there is not much water left in this pond. I also expected that these active deer made the tracks near the lodge, and I was right. Deer know that there are twigs for them to eat in the beavers’ cache, though this one was rather buried in snow.

Coming back around the trail I took to the lodge, I saw a fluffy bird feather stuck on a twig of a small bush.

Going back down Grouse Alley, I studied the snow covered slopes and fancied I saw holes in the snow continuing up from where I saw rabbit tracks.

This was a good a day to have this obsession because the temperature was about to climb above freezing and four warm days are predicted for the coming week. In a week all the snow might be gone.

February 15 blustery winds brought temperatures above freezing yesterday and I decided that it made little sense to hike on a cloudy day with all the snow melting, especially since it was supposed to turn cold right away. That was a good decision because today there were blue skies and 0F cold to firm the snow up. When I headed off for the Big Pond after lunch it was 15F and the north wind had diminished. I found that my snow shoes worked fine as long as I stayed on my old trail. I also found that my old trail was popular. Today I always seemed to be following a fresh deer trail, and I saw that a dog had been on it. That was relatively close to Thousand Island Park. Farther down the trail I saw some faint coyote tracks. Then I saw prints that looked like a fishers, but because trail was two by two and the stride was short, they could have been raccoon tracks.

Then as I headed down the woods toward the Big Pond, I saw fisher tracks.

At least the leaps of the animal with three prints bunched together convinced that a fisher had been there. I would have liked to have tracked the animal. But one step off my trail and I was bogged down in snow, and I had a good ways to go yet. Along the whole length of Antler Trail, I only saw one deer bed, and that made by a small deer. My guess is that all the deer are bedding as close to the golf course as they can, where they can always beat down the snow and find grass. The thaw widened the little creek coming down from the Big Pond dam. I only saw deer tracks around it and deer trails crossing it.

All the tracks I had seen so far fooled me into thinking I would see some tracks up on the Big Pond dam, but there was only one and it looked like a deer trail, unless I counted the brown stain of the water that puddled low behind the dam that was tracking how little water was in the pond.

There was a good bit of deer activity along the north shore of the pond.

I crossed over there to make sure an otter hadn’t been out there. I found all the brown ice firm and elsewhere the snow was down to maybe 6 inches deep. I expected the beaver to have broken out again, but there were no signs of activity at the lodge.

The Lost Swamp Pond was also easy to navigate and I saw right away that at least one otter had been out of one of the holes along the south shore, that they had used two or three weeks ago. The otter or otters scooted this way and that going a few yards from the hole,

And then there was one otter trail heading down the south shore to the west. I didn’t follow because the snow would have been deep along the edge of the pond. There was a large swath of ice around the lodge, meaning that at least all the snow there melted during the thaw, but I didn’t see any signs that beavers or otters had taken advantage. Nor had they come out at that nexus of dead shrub trunks in the middle of the narrow part of the pond, where a very old dam had been.

That gap in the ice had been an outlet for otters earlier in the winter. (Of course, because I keep this journal I can easily find out the day I last saw otter tracks in any particular place, but right now I can’t bring myself to do it, preferring to keep a vague sense of the time which might better approximate the animals’ sense of time, especially in the winter when they probably lose any compunction they might have to check certain spots every day.) I followed my old trail toward the lodge by the dam, and found the brown ice very firm. However, I didn’t go close enough to the lodge to see if the scurry of tracks above the gap between layers of ice was made by otters, probably.

The hump of ice and snow around the big dead tree had resolved itself into a table of ice. No signs of otters there. There were tracks on the dam but they looked more like deer trails.

Then my old trail conveniently directed me to the part of the north shore where the otters did come out, probably last night or this morning.

Last week I noticed a hole in the snow revealing where the otters had connected two holes into the ice, but when I saw it last week there were no signs of otters having come out of that hole. Today I could see the trail of an otter from that hole to the hole beside a small dead tree which was the starting point of this recent fan of activity.

I couldn’t get a good photo of that hole, and dare not get to close and mar the beauty of it all.

I did go around the pond side of the hole close enough to see the otter prints in the snow. That I didn’t see otter prints in the brown ice suggests that the otters were out some hours after all that ice froze last night but not before the snow hardened too much.

Before continuing down to the west end of the latrine, where I had scene otter signs during the deep freeze last week, I veered over to the old lodge in the middle of the pond where I saw some muss in the snow. The otters had been out there, even going up on the top of the lodge where they had probably spent some time last summer before the water in the pond got high enough to cover the top of the lodge.

Judging from how high the ice was under the gap where the otters came out, I think the otter must have swam through the water to get here.

The holes along the sides of the pond are dry holes so the otters can scamper on the ground under the ice and snow to get from one hole to another, and, I trust, those land routes skirt pools of water under the ice where the otters can find things to eat either swimming or buried in the mud. How I would love to shrink myself and get under the ice to enjoy that winter world of theirs. I thought there might be action outside the other gaps in the ice along the southwest shore of the pond. I saw that the otter trail I first saw today ended at a hole next to a tree up on the shore. It didn’t look like the otters used the holes in the ice just east of their latrine in the west end of the pond, but they had been out of that hole at the west edge of the pond and left more scats.

There were brown scats next to the older black scat. I have no idea what they ate to get a scat of that color, perhaps something that had been soaked through with the mud under the ice.

Seeing all that was quite satisfying and it was very easy going, but as I headed toward the East Trail, I left my old snow shoe trail and followed my cross country ski trail, which is not so firm. The Second Swamp Pond seemed to have thawed the most but I found all the brown ice firm.

However some of the brown ice was perfectly smooth which made me a bit wary so I went on some of the white snow that didn’t look deep. Usually that thin white layer of snow on a frozen pond at this time of year is kind to me. But today both shoes went about six inches down into slushy water. Fortunately I was able to hop out before my feet got wet. There was just a small patch of brown ice at the East Trail, which I avoided and made it across to the boardwalk. I noticed that a good bit of water had flowed out through the dam the beavers made. Fortunately, some lone hiker had snowshoed recently on the East Trail, so I followed that trail up the ridge and got a good look at the what the beavers there have been up to. I could easily see the depressions in the snow caused by the beavers dredging. I think the tracks around the lodge were made by deer checking out those depressions for water to drink.

There was quite a stampede on snow at certain points along what is the beaver channel to the work they have doing on the ridge north of the pond.

The flattened trail circling from the deep hole on the left side of the photo above probably was made by beavers. Deer went down to the brown water. The hole the beavers are using was hard to see from the ridge because a clump of bushes almost concealed it.

I couldn’t be sure if the beavers came up to the big red oak they have been gnawing for months. I think so.

The best proof that the beavers have been up on the ridge is that the tree they had been working on almost at the top of the ridge, right next to the park trail, was down.

And the beavers had cut off several big branches.

It was too cold, 15F, for me to expect to see the beavers come out. So I headed for South Bay but decided going through snow was probably easier than scraping along ice that might give way to slush. So I walked around on the South Bay trail. I thought I might see a fisher trail on the way, but I didn’t. Fishers have a big range and perhaps I haven’t seen them in the deep snow because they’ve limited their range and that now as the snow disappears they will be desperate to work those parts of their range that they have neglected.

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