Sunday, February 13, 2011

February 3 to 9, 2011

February 3 After a month of good tracking, February began with bitter cold and then a day long storm that gave us another 8 inches of snow which meant that in the wood and fields the snow had reached a serious depth of 18 inches. Serious means that one has to think about where one is hiking, ever mindful that one has to hike back too. The storm was accompanied by brisk winds so snow drifts reached that laughing depth of up-to-your-hips; well, one laughs the first time it happens. At dawn today it was below zero, but it was sunny and the temperature climbed quickly and was a bit above 20F when we strapped our snowshoes on and headed for the Big Pond. The first tracks we saw were from squirrels who could move on top of the snow, but, of course, they couldn’t easily get down into the snow and get to their acorns. However, farther along in woods where the snow was not quite as deep, we saw solitary tracks that went deeper down into the snow, always next to trees. Of course, squirrels can travel in the woods from tree to tree, so perhaps these tracks were from a squirrel diving down into the snow from a tree hoping to get deep enough to get to some acorns. Since all this was in the shadows, I couldn’t get a good photo to illustrate. Otherwise, thanks to the brilliant sun and blue sky I could get good photos once I got out of the shadows in the woods. I took the first standing on the little pond well below the Big Pond dam.

There were mouse tracks just in front of me and a few deer trails crossing farther up the little pond - hard to see in the photo. The height of the Big Pond dam ahead of us was shining whiter than all the rest of the snow, any height of snow was gleaming white. We heard robins and we saw one perched high in one of the few trees here. Walking up the pond, we saw where the robin had come down for a drink where there was a bit of open water.

Up at the dam I was not surprised that a mink had been out, with its tracks winding like a ribbon a few inches deep in the snow.

There were no other tracks on the pond, but we soon ruined that. We walked up the middle of the pond since the snow looked less deep there, in part because the ice below collapsed most in the middle of the pond. The mink had toured the muskrat lodges along the north shore, digging into some, and then heading on its way.

There were no tracks near the beaver lodge and it looked like there was a lone deer trail crossing the pond above the beaver lodge. Then we went through the woods to the Lost Swamp Pond where we saw the squirrel impressions in the snow, and we saw where a grouse escaped from its temporary burial in the snow.

It would be interesting to get a close up slow motion video clip of a grouse breaking out and flying away. From afar it looked like something had been out of the hole around the lodge by the dam, which otters not beavers have been using, so I hazarded walking on the ice of the pond that with snow half as deep as now had up to three inches of slushy ice under the snow. Out on the pond I got a getter view of the lodge the beavers have been using and it looked less likely that anything had been out there.

As I approached the lodge by the dam, I saw another hole at the base of the dam.

But the closer I got to the holes the less they looked like holes made by something trying to break out from under the ice.

I walked up on the rock behind the lodge and got the best view, and I decided I was seeing where deer had stamped the ice, as deer often do to get down to some water to drink. I could see old deer tracks there.

I could be wrong, but even if otters below made the hole they didn’t make much use of it. I tried to go back across the pond the way I came. I was looking forward to seeing the old tracks on this pond smoothed over with fresh snow, and now I was seeing that smooth snow and marring it with my own lumbering snowshoe tracks that often went down into slush.

Going back down the Big Pond, as a snow squall headed our way, we marveled at our crooked ways.

Of course, we were a bit proud that we made it to the ponds, and now with a trail, it would be easier to get out next time when we trust we‘ll see evidence of the otters and beavers were know are here.

February 4 we went to our land to see how the snow settled there. We walked down to the Deep Pond and saw a few rabbit trails. Even hares with big feet don’t sink down much in the deep snow.

The deep snow seemed to be collapsing the ice of the pond. Otters and minks could get in and out of the pond water, but none seem interested. Up at the house we saw that as usual the porcupine crossed the road and headed to Grouse Alley. With the deep snow, its well worn path is perfect for creating a leaf trail, as we call it. The wind collects dead leaves in the path.

The porcupine went relatively far down Grouse Alley. Evidently deep snow does not cramp its style as much as bitter cold. In deeper snow, animals, including humans, tend to share trails and I tried to get some photos showing how the rabbits were using the porcupine trail. I saw where a rabbit trail or two crossed the porcupine trail, heading up the ridge,

And we could see how at least one rabbit followed the porcupine to a hemlock and got its own bite of bark.

I followed a rabbit trail up the sandstone slope

To what looked like its den.

The porcupine had a den on the other side of those rocks. When got to the south end of Grouse Alley two deer crossed our path running up to the Hemlock Cathedral. Nothing new at the beaver lodge.

February 5 beautiful sunny morning with the temperature just below freezing. I dressed lightly and headed up Antler Trail on snowshoes. Once in the woods on the plateau I saw three deer beds in the snow.

One was smaller than the other two.

I don’t want to try it, but perhaps having a bed like this is one consolation of deep snow which is so tough on deer. At least, it looks comfortable in the sun. At least one deer used my trail, but unfortunately for the deer I don’t veer from fallen tree branch to low hanging conifers.

The warmth seemed to bring out more birds, but the creek trickling down from the Big Pond dam was not much more open than before. I didn’t hazard getting close enough to tell if it was all bird tracks in the snow around the patches of open water or bird and vole tracks, or something going in and out of the water in straight line staining some of the snow brown.

There were slides in the snow probably made by a mink, but that trail took an angle to the open water and the trails running through the open water were smaller than what a mink would make.

The mink tracks at the dam that we saw two days ago were drifted over with snow and no fresh mink tracks there.

The ice behind the dam, really the ice of the whole central area of the lower part of the pond, had collapsed.

There were no mink tracks ringing the pond today. I broke a new trail up to the beavers’ lodge. No action there but the snow sculpted by the wind was worth seeing.

The only new tracks in the snow on the way to the Lost Swamp were from browsing deer. However, I flushed a grouse from a pine tree. The snow right around the pond along the south shore is about 3 feet deep; once on the pond it was a more pleasant trudge. I saw a spot where deer pawed down in the snow to get water, which I think is the cause of other small holes I see on the pond.

I brought binoculars today hoping that would save me from having to walk up to check far away marks in the snow, but the opposite proved to be the case. With the unaided eye the beaver lodge in the southeast end of the pond looked like it had been visited by something but I didn’t see anything resembling otter slides. However, with the binoculars I saw something that might be a slide over the top of the lodge. So off I trudged, and got close enough to see that no otters or beavers had been out but I couldn’t figure out what made the depression in the snow and since it was in a shadow, couldn’t get a good photo of it. The new commotion in the snow that I saw near the hole in the dam looked more promising.

But when I got there, standing safely on the snow covered ground instead of the slushy ice, it looked like deer had come down on an area where all the fresh snow had resolved itself into the ice and slush, when it is warmer, that is collapsing behind the dam.

I checked the hole through the dam and there was just a trickle coming out of there. I don’t think the otters have enlarged the hole. The ice is collapsing as a matter of course from water that had already run out. I didn’t see any mink tracks around, and only deer tracks below the dam. Deer browsed a small cedar tree growing on the rocks above the dam.

I saw some small tracks seemingly racing back and forth that looked like mouse tracks but there was a long tail drag associated with the prints and the prints were too deep in the snow to be mouse tracks.

I’ve seen weasel tracks before and these didn’t look like them. Water shrew? I went back to take another look at the broader commotion behind the dam, and I saw a bold otter print behind a small hole in the ice. How did I miss seeing it when I first looked down on this tanned ice?

How did an animal with such a big print get down that small hole? Then I took a look at the hole I thought the deer made to get to water and saw that it was a hole made by an otter to get out from under the ice. The deep snow was smudged by the nose and head of an otter that trumped the trail of a deer coming down that slope.

I took another look at the other holes and depressions near by, but couldn’t really get a sense of what the otters were doing, which holes they came up out of and which they went down in. I still thought the roughed up area on the ice was done by deer beating their hoofs down to get to water to drink.

Now that I knew otters had been out from under the ice, I looked around to see where else they may have come out, and saw some uneven snow down at the west end of the pond. There were fresh slides out of a hole in the ice next to an old upturned tree stump that the otters used a week or so ago.

I could only be sure of one otter having come out. A few yard farther along I saw where otters came out of another hole, again one that I think they used before. Here were two separate slides so perhaps two otters had come out.

The otters did not come out of the gap in the ice at the west end of the pond that they had used many times last month. They used a gap a little bit to the north of that which opened up to a slope dominated by an old downed tree with a few branches snaking along or just above the ground.

There looked to be many track and slides fanning out from a line of holes and there was a huge scat toward the end of the fan.

This was a challenge to my theory that there are only two pups here. Pups don’t leave scats that substantial. But there was so much stamping in the snow around the scat who is to say a couple of pups didn’t put one scat almost on top of another. Otters seems to have that talent. I have seen some high mounds of scats outside of holes in the winter. However, I also saw two slides of otters finding a hole nearer the tree trunk that were side by side and one looked bigger than the other. Pup sliding next to an adult?

There were no slides venturing far from the latrine. The otters seemed to have fun making new holes in the deep snow.

The principal hole was big and well rounded and there were some cut stalks of vegetation in front of it.

Perhaps the otters were not just playing and were trying to get something dry to lie on under the ice. There was an old stump up on the shore affording a seat without any snow on it. I sat and rolled my sleeves up to better enjoy the warm sun. I would like to think that the otters came out to bask in the sun but looking at their slides and stamping in the snow, I can’t say that any of them came out to be still. They were probably, out around and back under in five minutes. I sat for about 15 minutes trying to picture the otters in my mind as I looked over the white pond.

I heard and then saw a pileated woodpecker, a hairy woodpecker, and heard some blue jays. All other tracks on the pond were made by browsing deer. I went home by taking the trail I made coming out. I took a better look at the mink tracks on the little pond below the Big Pond dam and I thought I could see the tracks of two minks heading down to South Bay.

Perhaps minks have started their mating rituals, which is mostly racing about. Up in the woods along Antler Trail, I saw some more curious tracks that looked like they were made by three small animals racing side by side.

But the tracks didn’t seem to go anywhere or come from anywhere, unless the animals used my snowshoe trail and then hopped up on a small tree.

February 7 we keep getting a couple inches of snow everyday, and at our land we easily have over two feet. So we began our tour on the trail we have made going down Grouse Alley. We saw enough holes that the squirrels dug in the snow to fire our imagination.

I couldn’t get my nose down in the hole but it looked like the squirrel got something to eat, and perhaps there is a tunnel under the snow there. The porcupine that comes down here seemed to have made a major departure from its usual route, leaving a choppy trail in the snow going up the rocks to the east,

And it looked like there were trails up on the ridge. In these conditions we could not go up to make sure. There were not any deer trails today, nor deer to be seen. And again, there was no activity around the beaver lodge.

We decided to break a trail going up the second valley to the Hemlock Cathedral. We passed the striking green lichens on a sandstone face that I photographed a few weeks ago. The frame of snow is getting tighter.

It wasn’t easy getting up the valley but we picked up a deer trail for part of the way. The snow was not as deep under the hemlocks but still deep. It was easier for squirrels to get down to their grub.

I saw one trail I couldn’t identify, a small mammal coming out from an opening in the snow next to a hemlock trunk and going down the slope to the frozen pool I was standing on.

Deer had browsed under the tall trees, chewing the ends of the few branches that had fallen recently.

The going is obviously getting harder for the deer.

February 8 our recent snow light had not amounted enough to cover our trail to the Big Pond, save for the wind blown portions of Antler Trail where the snow over two feet deep was hard to wade through. Snowshoes can sometimes just barely part the white sea of snow. However, where the old trail remained the going was easy. There were fewer deer tracks in the snow along the trail, no deer beds, no mouse tracks and not as many squirrels about. Nature was subdued, on top of the snow; no telling how active the small mammals were under the snow. The first stop in my progress came when I saw the bark gnawed on a small beech tree almost to the point of girdling the tree. My first thought was the deep snow allowed mice to bite that high,

Then walking farther along and looking back, I saw that the gnawing went higher up the tree. So I thought deer might have done it, the deeper snow allowing them to reach higher,

Which was an absurd idea because deer were sinking into the snow deeper than I was. Such thinking is a testament to how deep snow can cut off oxygen to the brain. On my way back home, I saw more bark stripped up on the tops of the trunks of tall trees, obviously a porcupine had been there though its tracks were now obliterated.

As walked down the slope to the little pond below the Big Pond dam, I saw fresh mink tracks coming down the snow covered creek feeding that little pond.

The mink did not go up the pond to the Big Pond dam, but down toward South Bay. However a mink did come down to one of the patches of open water in creek draining the Big Pond. It looked like it came and had moments of indecision, impressed in the snow around the hole.

A closer look did not make much sense of what the mink might have been up to.

This is the area where I’ve seen the tracks of birds coming down to get a drink, but there were no bird tracks in the snow today. I was expecting to see mink tracks up on the Big Pond dam but there was absolutely no impressions on the snow there.

Since I have seen no signs of an otter leaving the pond, I think an otter must still be there, but I have no idea where. Walking up the pond, I got a whiff of sulfurous odor so there must be a hole somewhere on the dam, and perhaps the otter is lurking under there as before. I didn’t go up to the lodge where the beavers are because there were no wrinkles in the snow around it suggesting that anything had reopened the holes around the lodge. On my trail over to the Lost Swamp Pond, through the small woods, I finally saw a concentration of deer trails, using my trail and then fanning off into the woods. Deer are clearly attracted to where the snow is not as deep. My trail ended in the deep drifts along the south shore of the Lost Swamp Pond. Once I waded through them, I found much less snow on the pond but I was soon shoeing down into slush. The continual snows on top of the collapsing ice just seem to make a stew of slush under the snow and above the ice. A week of below zero temperatures won’t firm it all up, in my opinion. So I walked gingerly, pausing briefly to take a photo showing nothing had been out of the now snow covered holes around the lodge by the dam.

As I walked up on the north shore so that I could get safely close to the hole in the dam, I saw a hole in the ice not made, I think, by an animal coming out through the snow, but from the snow collapsing as an animal used a tunnel under the snow that led from one hole in the ice to another.

Given the radius of the tunnel, otters could be using it. But they didn’t use it recently to get out at the dam. The fresh snow covered the old tracks and almost covered the hole through the dam.

There were no tracks below the dam. So I headed down to the latrine at the west end of the pond. I think at least one otter had been out, but not recently. Its trail going from the hole in the ice at the far end of the pond to a hole a little farther east that had been snowed over.

There were smudges in the snow outside the main hole the otters used in the west end, again suggesting an otter had ducked out sometime before the snow last night.

I thought the ice around the hole looked solid enough for me to kneel down and try to get a photo showing the open spaces under the pond. I misaimed but one photo gives a hint of where otters might be roaming.

I had seen enough and I was tired. I carefully went back on the trail I made out to this point, and save for fussing through some slush the return trip was uneventful, until I saw four deer in the woods along Antler Trail. I hated to scare them away. They were probably scouting out a place to bed for the night.

February 9 we had steady snow in the morning and then sporadic snow showers in the afternoon with a much stronger wind. Yesterday, Leslie found it relatively easy to ski on the golf course, so today we skied across it and then up into the woods and down the valley to the Big Pond. The conditions were perfect for skiing in the woods. The deep snow covered all the downed tree trunks and branches and smoothed over the rocks and rills. Plus the snow was soft enough to keep the skis from sliding too fast when we had to go downhill. We saw about a dozen deer on the golf course and crossed a few deer trails in the woods. The high rocky east slope of the valley has always hosted porcupines in the winter and we saw the trails of at least one. No trail across the valley but we could see trails out of a den or two higher up on the rocks than usual. I didn’t bring my camera because it was snowing. The snow in the cattails and grasses around the upper portion of the Big Pond was at least three feet deep and not easy to get through. Usually the snow on the ponds is always manageable on skis but the snow today was deep enough and wet enough down below to make the going very slow. When I stood still to gaze at the patch of open water made by a spring off the upper north shore of the pond, one ski sunk down into slush. No tracks around that patch of open water. There were no tracks around the beaver lodge. So we headed back to the beautiful woods, up the valley and managed a route along the edge of the golf course where we were half protected from the wind. Now we have to figure out how to get close to the otters on skis.

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