Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February 17 to 20, 2011

February 17 the forecasts promised us three day above freezing, but after a day in high 30s, it dropped below freezing last night, which means the snow is still deep. Today the thaw began with the temperature in the 40s by mid-morning. The snow was still deep enough to require snowshoes and soft enough to make it slow going even with snowshoes on. So I trudged down Grouse Alley toward the Last Pool where I expected to find that the beavers have been out. Melting often present a riddle. You see signs of animal meals all around but you can’t be sure exactly when the animal had the meal, last night or did the melting snow just reveal the results of browsing a few weeks ago? The leftovers from a deer’s meal of ironwood bark looked fresh,

But I didn’t see any fresh deer trail to the tree, but there appeared to be some kind of trail, maybe a rabbit. So did the deer browse some days ago and a rabbit come for the leftovers or did a rabbit bite off all the bark last night when it was having a meal? The bark fell so far from the tree, I think a deer most have done the browsing. Then the next display on the snow was a collection of cut hemlock bows around a small and large hemlock.

I see this frequently, but here, I was pretty certain that the melting snow revealed the boughs. I have a pretty good idea of what the porcupine has been doing and it certainly didn’t do this last night. Then along the same east slope of Grouse Alley, I saw four squirrel holes, I assume, up in the snow, three in a line and one below the hole to the right in the photo below.

There were faded tracks in the snow including a trail to the hole below the others.

So I doubt that there is any trail from hole to hole under the snow, but I’ll probably never know. Then I passed the porcupine den in the rocks and saw what looked like fresh pee outside it.

I could get close enough to it to look into the den and I thought I saw the porcupine and took a photo, but the photo only shows gray rock that I mistook for the ends of porcupine quills.

It didn’t look that used inside the den in the photo above, but there were other chambers in this collection of sandstone slabs. Not far from the porcupine den I saw a big pile of rounder poop, from rabbits. A few yards farther down the same slope I saw another big pile of poop behind a sapling the beavers cut in the fall.

Since I didn’t see fresh gnawing on the stick, my guess is that this pile is not the residue of one rabbit’s visit to the sapling, but, and I have trouble visualizing this, the accumulation of poops left during several visits to the sapling as the depth of the snow increased now collected as the snow melted. Then I got to the flat rocks forming a bit of a wall where the other day I thought a mink might have explored under the snow.Now that I can see more, I didn’t see any sure trail.

However, I did see a kind of hunker-down clearing of moss down to dirt that must have fed or comforted some small mammal.

Where the slope just about ended, I saw where a squirrel did chow down.

Finally I got through this little “alley” of imagination to the Last Pool, and went on the trail to the middle of the Last Pool. I saw that the beavers had been out of their large hole in the ice in front of the lodge.

The water of the hole had both wood chips and branches.

And the beavers had come out of the hole and gone elsewhere through the snow of the pond. One trail looped near to where I was standing.

This looked like general browsing to me; the beaver didn’t seem to be going to a particular place where it knew it could get something to eat. It went up to a birch with shoots sprouting out from the trunk next to it, a birch that had been cut, but didn’t seem to eat anything there.

The beaver left some nice prints in the snow giving an idea of how deep it sank into it.

A beaver or two came out of the hole in the ice that deer had made and inspected the little shrubs and sapling nearby. Here they did get a few nips of twig and bark.

I tried to thrust a stick into the hole to see how deep the water is, but the water had iced over again. The beavers did most of their gnawing when they got around to the north side of the lodge and resumed stripping and cutting the big poplar that they had cut down months ago.

Their principal path was worn down around the east end of the lodge, but there was a trail or two coming up from the hole south of the lodge along the west side of the lodge.

From that angle I could see how the big hole had an opening extending under the ice, which probably help keeps the exposed water from freezing.

I also got a little closer to take a photo of the vent holes in the top of the lodge.

From my perspective the snow around the poplar has been the measure of how extremely deep the snow has been. The beavers seemed to be able to walk over it easily enough. Of course, a good bit of the poplar and its limbs had been stripped back in the fall.

Their fresh working left wood chips on the snow.

And in the beavers’ trail around the lodge I saw some small sticks, one well stripped of bark. I like to picture this being nibbled in the light of day, but I can’t be sure. Still, being outside the lodge must be a treat for the beavers prompting them to linger over their sticks on the snow.

There was a trail going over to the east shore of the pond and it ended at the large beech tree that they had resumed girdling just as the pond began to ice over some nights. They enjoyed some smaller fare on the way. I didn’t investigate what was probably a cut and segmented sapling.

Judging from the wood chips on the snow they didn’t gnaw on the beech trunk too much.

The going through the diminished snow was relatively easy so I headed down to check the length of the pond and the dam. I didn’t go far before I stopped over the bones and intestines of a small mammal with black fur, maybe a black squirrel.

But it also could have been a mink. Though minks are rated consummate predators, I have probably found dead minks in the wild more than any other animals than deer and muskrats. I rarely see dead squirrels, in the wild. I might have photos of mink remains somewhere in my journals that I can compare with what I saw today.

The ice on the pond had collapsed in several places along the main channel and in the areas the beavers dredged around the lodge.

There was no signs of any water getting through the dam, which suggests that all the water it had been holding back has seeped through.

There were no fresh tracks to be seen. Coyotes seem to have been uninterested in the pond this year, and there seems to be no porcupines working the flanking ridges. I walked back the way I came and saw something I missed as I went along the north shore of the Last Pool. A beaver took a bite out of a small hornbeam and judging from how small the wood chips and tracks were, I bet the kit had been done it.

The thaw is slated to get more dramatic tomorrow so I expect I’ll see more beaver activity here before winter returns.

February 18 we went to collect sap at our land and I had a chance to check on the beaver pond again. On my way down Grouse Alley, I didn’t see any sure signs of porcupine activity, just some vague tracks that could have been made by rabbits. I saw definite signs of rabbits gnawing little sticks.

And a beaver-cut sapling with shredded leaves and poop around it, suggested that rabbits had been there.

The beavers had been out again. They took advantage of the thaw to make their hole bigger.

And they filled it with more branches

They didn’t extend their foraging any farther from the hole but instead resumed cutting and stripping what they were working on yesterday.

The trouble with thaws is that they make the deep snow even more difficult to get through, but that said, the beavers' ability to get to the big poplar branches right next to their lodge in the middle of the winter testifies to their good planning.

This doesn’t show their limitations. It shows their genius. It was also tough slogging for me and a short tour around the small pond was quite fatiguing. I finished walking around at noon, in a light rain, and later in the day the sun came out and the temperature climbed into the 50s, but I went off to Montreal to pick up Ottoleo.

February 20 yesterday was a rather nasty day of dropping temperatures and wind. We went to the land to collect sap again and when we got to the beaver pond everything was frozen. The deepening cold did make it easier to walk on the hardened snow. This morning it remained cold but there was a bright sun and the wind was diminishing. I strapped on snowshoes and headed for the Big Pond and beyond. As I approached the beginning of Antler Trail, four deer fled from the lawns of Thousand Island Park and climbed the ridge. That ridge has a southern exposure so the deer made an easy escape. The cold firmed up the wet snow and going around on snowshoes was easy, but noisy. But the snow was not so hard that it prevented me from seeing a fisher’s trail crossing my trail up the ridge. I saw a better trail when I got to the other side of the plateau where the woods resume.

I back tracked one trail far enough to see where the fisher dug into the ground next to a small tree, but I couldn’t get any idea of why the fisher was digging.

This fisher had a strange slide with its foot, unless it was dragging its tail.

There was at least one other fisher going through these woods and it had small prints which suggests that it is a female, but I never saw the trails of the small and large fishers converge. I also saw one coyote trail. Seeing fisher tracks again emboldened me to predict where I’d see another trail, and, yes, I saw two fisher trails cutting through the woods on the ridge sloping down to the Big Pond. The trail was heading to the thicker woods along the creek going down to South Bay where I once thought I had found a fisher’s den. (Hard to prove that since it was high up in a hollow tree.)

I didn’t predict any activity at the Big Pond dam, and there wasn’t, even as water flowed out of the hole through the dam deep under the snow.

The otter never came out from out of this dam again, nor has a mink made its usual tracks here. However, I did see a hole, convenient for a mink coming up out of the dam headed below the dam into the marsh -- a likely place for minks to forage.

But there were no fresh mink tracks in the hole or going down to the creek. The pond was not easy to negotiate with snowshoes. Two days ago, when it hit 50F most of the pond must have had deep water above the remaining ice. Now that water has frozen and snowshoes aren’t that good on smooth ice. So I walked up the edge of the pond where there was still a few inches of snow covering the ice. Up pond the ice was rather crusty and I began seeing my old tracks in the ice, that I laid down a month ago. I also saw the now petrified tunnels voles or mice made through the snow back then.

I predicted that I would see evidence that the beavers came out again at their lodge. And I did see a collection of sticks frozen into their hole on the west side of the lodge.

But that collection of sticks frozen in a hole looked much like what I saw here back on January 10, so maybe I was just seeing an old collection of sticks revealed again by the melting snow. I certainly didn’t see any fresh trail going from the hole. The only new feature I saw near the lodge was a collection of old sticks frozen in ice that looked like it could have been a large patch of open water two days ago.

But I didn’t see any trails around there either and none of the sticks looked like they had been recently gnawed by a beaver. So I can’t positively say that beavers are alive and well here, but I only think there are two beavers here, and last winter I remarked at their inactivity in the winter and worried that none would be around to patch the holes in the dam in the spring, but two beavers survived the winter. When I got over to the Lost Swamp Pond, I was struck at how level the pond looked. The Big Pond has been level throughout the winter, but the otter holes in the Lost Swamp Pond were dug so that the ice of the pond collapsed here and there giving the pond a rolly-polly looked. Now all was flat again.

I presumed that this meant that there was no gap between the bottom of the ice and the water below which might make life harder for the otters foraging under the ice. So I walked up the south shore of the pond to see if the otters reopened the holes there that had been popular with them a month ago. No.

The ice around the lodge was flat save for a little relief skirting the lodge, and I saw a pile of stripped and unstripped sticks on the ice next to the lodge.

Now, this could be old work revealed as the snow melted, but it looked like there were tracks in the remaining show. I dared not get too close for fear of falling through the ice. Indeed I decided to avoid bare ice as I crossed the pond which forced me to make an arc well to the east of the lodge. Through this new ice I could see the outlines of an earlier pond that now forms the far eastern end of the pond and the creek connecting that pool to the pool of water around the lodge.

My snowy path took me near a stump sticking out of the frozen stream and there I saw clear ice, with bubbles under it, and beaver nibbled sticks up on the snow.

This looked like something the beavers might have just done, though in all my years of watching beavers here, I have never noticed them up here during the winter. But hard experience has taught me that few winters are the same. I have been watching winters here for 16 years and every winter is full of surprises. Going down the north shore of this section of the pond reminded me of something I first noticed here several winters ago, circular collections of sticks near the shore.

When I saw these before, I first thought muskrats did the collecting, then I thought it must be the work of beavers. The circle of sticks was rather close to a hole in the ice big enough for beavers to use. But the tracks to it were from a mink.

About 20 yards farther down the pond, I saw another circular pile of sticks so big that it was difficult to picture muskrats accumulating that,

But it was also interesting how few of the sticks had been nibbled. There were no otter signs in this end of the pond so, still working on my theory that the collapsing and flattening ice forced the otters to work on the margins of the pond, I checked the old holes along the southwest shore of the pond. There is still a slope of ice there and I saw where an otter did get out from one of the old holes, completely dry underneath,

and on its way to another hole 10 yards away along the shore, left a few scats.

This did not look like it was that fresh, but I could see prints so it wasn’t a case of melting snow revealing old activity. Down at their old latrine at the west end of the pond, I saw more activity,

And fresher scats, probably from a couple of otters at least.

I saw some very faint tracks up on the smoother snow and judging from that only one otter was out. The melting and refreezing seemed to obliterate the holes up closer to the dam that the otters used a few days ago. For the past month this was about as much activity as I usually see on my visits, but today, at the dam, I saw the otters were far more adventurous. The otters had come out of the hole behind the dam, and left two scats up on their latrine on the nearby shore.

They also dug the hole in the dam deeper, judging from the unprecedented gush coming out of it, that I think was due to more than just the recent thaw.

And the otters left the pond. I saw how they stamped around on the rocks next to the dam, and then headed down to and across the ice of the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam, heading to a patch of open water behind the dam.

One otter had made a neat slide for the last few yards to the hole.

The otters had gone through the dam and come out the other end of the hole, danced just below the dam briefly and then went along the dam, danced again and perhaps peed,

and went back over the dam and headed to a patch of open water where the stream coming down from the Lost Swamp Pond entered the pond.

The depth of the water at that hole in the ice is probably not very deep and it didn’t look like the otters made themselves at home there. I didn’t see any scats around the hole,

And there were many tracks going from up it farther up the pond.

There was also tracks coming back down to the hole, too.

The trails up and back went into the meadow above the pond and I didn’t follow.

Instead I tried to make sure that the three otters that went up into the meadow all came out. This was not easy. The otters could have gone into the meadow, then back to the hole and then back up into the meadow. I had to try some mental shortcuts and one was that only one of the otters, presumably the mother, would slide on the snow. And I did see one neat slide going into the meadow with a trail of tracks beside it.

So I could picture the mother and a pup heading that way, though not necessarily at the same time. In my experience two things can be going through the minds of otters at this time of year, other than simply surviving the winter. The mother often seems to try to reacquaint her pups with their territory and then she tries to separate from them so that she is free to mate with a male otter. I am not sure if touring the territory only results from her escape attempts, but I have seen the mother and pups return to the same hole enough times too suggest that she is consciously giving them a tour. One supposes that her losing her pups would be relatively easy. Anyway, I could track two trails that didn’t exhibit any sliding back to the hole in the middle of the pond, but I couldn’t be sure the sliding adult came back.

Since the adult should be the boldest of the group, I tentatively think that she has separated from her pups. That said, let me note, that I thought she had separated from them a month ago. Plus there was an errant trail that looked a bit bold that didn’t go directly to the hole but angled over to the inlet creek.

There comes a point in tracking otters when it is best to stop thinking about it and hope for another display in a day or two which will tie up any loose ends. So I headed for the East Trail Pond to see what the beavers there have been doing.

Since the snow was easy to snowshoe over, I took my old trail over the ridge to the East Trail pond. I expected to see fresh fisher tracks there, but I didn’t. I did see a fresh porcupine trail, delicate scraping by in the light snow on the hard snow.

I walked around to big granite outcrop where the porcupines usually den around here and found their well worn rut. Then I crossed the lower East Trail Pond, and since the ice on all the ponds had been firm, I went up on the pond behind the beavers’ dam. It looked like there had probably been open water behind the dam in some places, and that the water from the thaw did not drain out as quickly as I thought it might, which is good news for the beavers.

I managed to get tp the thicker snow covered ice and get over to where the beavers have their hole in the ice. The thin ice marked where the channel is, and, though wide at points, it was not continuous.

I’ve seen a beaver get under the ice using two holes, one was a long slit, like the portion of the channel shown in the photo above. The last one a beaver used was a rounder portal which seemed to get into the ice by angling down into the bank of the channel. Today that hole looked opened with a large circle of now frozen water in front of it.

There was a smaller hole in the middle of that ice which looked like it was made by a beaver poking its nose up through it, though it didn’t look like the beaver climbed out of the hole.

Perhaps the beaver decided it was too cold to venture out of the hole. The trail from the hole to the ridge did not look like it had been used recently

But a beaver going through deep wet snow would leave a choppy trail. Although the beaver used the trail to get high up on the ridge north of the pond where it has been cutting oaks, some of the shrubs along the way had been nipped for its delection.

I thought the higher water under the ice might have prompted a beaver to try to get the hole it had used a month or so ago which was right below the ridge at the edge of the pond, but there was no sign of a beaver reopening that hole. Then I crossed the pond again to see if a beaver opened holes along any of the channels going to the south shore of the pond. Under the ice these channels looked as extensive as those going to the north shore, but I saw no evidence that the beavers had made any holes along them or that they had made a hole near their lodge.

I decided not to go down to South Bay, always ready to avoid ice fishermen, and instead crossed the upper end of Otter Hole Pond, now mostly a meadow. I saw a fisher trail in the woods south of the pond. I hoped to see more fisher tracks around the grove of spruces. In other years I’ve seen a good bit of activity there late in the winter, but I only saw deer trails here. When I crossed over Middle Pond, now relatively dry, I saw the trail of three coyotes heading up to the Big Pond. I climbed up the ridge and got up on Antler Trail. While I was pretty certain that I was right about seeing so many fisher trails, I decided to follow one trail until I saw something that a fisher might do that no other animal would. I didn’t have to go far. I saw the fisher make an abrupt turn around and then go back and make a sharp right, walked on top of a log almost completely buried by the snow and turn left off it.

Fishers love walking on logs.

I expected to take it easy in the afternoon but Ottoleo returned after spending a few hours with Pat Sullivan on his land about a mile and half up the southern most granite ridge on the island. Ottoleo reported that they saw a fisher trail intercept a porcupine trail and that there was a fight with scrapes of porcupine quills in the snow and a long slide in the snow, evidently the porcupine escaping while protecting its soft underbelly. I asked how long the slide was, and he said about 40 feet, so I thought I better drive up and take a look. We climbed up an easy slope up the ridge and when Ottoleo showed me the fisher trail, I thought it looked much more like an otter trail exhibiting a spade shaped tail.

And the porcupine slide was clearly an otter’s slide.

Which continued well down a long ridge. Unfortunately the sun was going down and it was hard to get good photos. Plus I am not familiar with the land. We back tracked the otters to the top of the ridge and looking north we could see a wide valley (much wider than the valley in my neck of the island) where there are meadows and maybe pools and marshes congenial to otters.

But we couldn’t see any otter trails coming up the ridge at the point where we stood. So we followed the trails down the ridge. The sliding otter was rather direct, but the trail of the striding otter could become a bit circuitous.

Then when we got down to the flat, the trails converged. The sliding otter had to stride, and the striding otter, I assume, chased after it toward the meadows and fields south of Pat’s land.

What delightful confusion. I think there are two explanations for the slides. Two adults were in a mating chase, or a family of otters was enjoying a race down the hill. I tend to think it was the former, and I got a sense that while one otter was sliding more or less straight down the ridge, the other was trying to cut up and over rounded boulders perhaps trying to gain some advantage rather than just slide behind the other. I have a theory that pups don’t slide in the snow much, but that may be true only on the flats where I usually track them, and it is hard to believe that given such a beautiful slope, not too steep, that a pup wouldn’t launch itself on its belly and follow its mother. An adult following another might try to keep options open by not sliding, but I find that a bit hard to believe, too. So what do I know. I suppose it is possible that one of the adults is the mother I had just been tracking possibly leaving the Upper Second Swamp Pond a mile or so away. Maybe time will tell.

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