Saturday, March 5, 2011

February 22 to March 3, 2011

February 22 a beautiful cold morning and when it began to warm up in the afternoon we headed off to check the beaver ponds for otter signs, and see if the fishers were still touring the woods around the beaver ponds. What a difference two days can make. On the 20th, by the time I got to the Big Pond, I had already taken 10 photos of fisher tracks. Today we saw one trail on the slope down to the Big Pond angling down to the creek. I like the way the animal broke its gait as it jumped over a small depression in the snow from an old deer trail.

We also saw a weasel’s trail working the meadow around the Big Pond. Here too it looked like the animal leapt over a hole in the snow.

Once again there were no otter tracks nor mink tracks on, around or through the dam. Judging from the number of their trails on the pond, coyotes had a confab on the pond.

Some checked muskrat lodges as some always do, and several danced along the north shore about 20 yards west of the lodge.

Not that I could figure out why there was so much activity at that particular spot. But the coyotes didn’t make such an impression on the Lost Swamp Pond. I followed one trail hoping that it might lead me to fresh otter activity. But it didn’t. There were no fresh otters signs on the Lost Swamp Pond. One mink at least was using their old holes in ice.

There were no otter signs down at the Upper Second Swamp Pond which is where I left, so to speak, at least two otter pups. Where there had been a wide hole where the inlet creek entered the pond was mostly frozen and snowed over.

It had snowed almost 2 inches the night after I saw the otter tracks there. Now all signs of that activity had been snowed over, save for the hole they made in the snow below the dam.

But no signs of the otters using that hole since the snowfall. There were interesting tracks on the pond between some dead plants. Since there were no trails coming into that area, I assume birds had been caging seeds.

We checked the northeastern and southeastern ends of the Lost Swamp to make sure otters were not up there. In the hole where I saw otter slides six weeks or so ago, I saw trails of minks and weasels.

It was disappointing to not come back with an idea of what the otters had done, but I was not surprised. Yes, last winter the otter family here stayed in these ponds, but in all other years, by late February otter families here were on the move. They usually came back before the thaw, and perhaps these otters will too.

February 23 conditions were finally right for skiing around South Bay. We’ve had enough freezing and thawing and freezing to banish slush, for now. So on a sunny, warming morning we took the tour. If I am right about otters being in the throes of mating, then there might be otter slides on the bay, but there were none. I am beginning to think that the conclusions I drew about what I saw on the 20th at Pat’s land are wrong. It’s too early for otters to race around looking for a mate. Anyway the only tracks on South Bay were from fox and mink; we haven‘t seen many fox tracks this winter. There seem to be more mink than usual, at least what mink that are here keep running back and forth on the same trails to get from the shore to holes in the ice.

When we got around to the Narrows we saw where a fox peed on a rock.

We saw more tracks in the Narrows, which makes sense because it’s the shortest way to get to the next island, taken advantage of by a raccoon who went from Wellesley to Murray.

We saw possible fisher tracks. Of course, we enjoyed getting close to the base of the granite wall of rocks.

Eel Bay was not fit for skiing on. The north wind had blown off almost all the snow. We skied along the south shore of the bay far enough to enjoy the rounded granite boulders there, but a more interesting feature was a long and wide fissure in the ice running from Wellesley out to Mosquito Island.

Along the bank of snow against the rocks on shore, the crack broke into a staccato dance.

We made a beeline back because it was getting too hot to ski. On our way to our land, we stopped at Pat’s land and checked for otter tracks. I didn’t expect to see any, and we didn’t. And the animals had been quiet at our land. The beavers hadn’t come out despite temperatures hovering around freezing. The porcupine seems to have searched the west wall of Grouse Alley for a den.

And by the road some mice had a grand run around,

in two places under the easy slope of soft snow on top of the season’s hard snow.

February 24 a cloudy day and not warm enough to weaken the hard crust of snow that keeps me up when I walk. So I got to the Big Pond in short order. The fishers had not returned to the woods along the way. I noticed several individual coyote trails going up the ridge. I followed to see if they might converge on a deer carcass, but I saw trails converge and then go off in separate directions. There were no tracks to speak of on the Big Pond. It has been warm enough for beavers to stir, but none came out from the lodge. I did see one small hole in the snow beside the lodge.

It was a dry hole, more congenial to a mink than a beaver. But if I want to harp on the idea that beavers must be surrounded by water in the winter, then I should start looking for a wetter place for them to den. I went up to the spring where it will always be wet (and deep if a beaver dredged there as it did years ago) but no beaver had ventured out there. The tracks of a small flock of turkeys didn’t even veer over to get a drink. As I headed to the Lost Swamp Pond I was resigning myself to not seeing much activity, and then I saw that the tracks of a rabbit crossed my well worn trail through the narrow woods between the ponds. Before we moved up to the island in 1994, we often saw rabbits. But the very cold winter of 1993-94 seemed to put an end to them. Locals said many foxes crossed the ice to the island that winter desperate to find food. Anyway, about 10 years ago we heard that there were rabbits in the fields in the central parts of the island. And often toward the end of winter we would see the tracks of rabbits venturing down to our end of the island. But we’ve seen a rabbit only once on the island, along the main road, in the last 17 years. (We see them all the time on our land which we bought in 1998.) So it was good to see rabbit tracks.

There were more rabbit trails, and certainly another rabbit because some tracks were smaller. When I walked by the pines at the edge of the woods, a grouse flew off from its perch. I saw grouse tracks in the snow, and a fisher’s trail. I managed to get a photo of the tracks of the fisher, rabbit and bird in close proximity.

All that proves is that the woods are a comfortable place in the winter, with which I agree. I tried to follow a rabbit trail until I got to some poop, but it was hard going in the underbrush where looser snow collects. I was surprised to see a tree cut by a beaver, probably in the fall, probably coming over from the Big Pond.

There were no new tracks on the Lost Swamp Pond, even the minks had not ventured on and around the pond. However, since I hadn’t put my snowshoes on I got down on my knees next to a mink hole at the west end of the pond,

and put my camera down the hole and took a photo

which shows what looks like a dry frozen landscape. I don’t think the camera used the flash so I was surprised at how light it was under there, but I’ll have to stick my head into the hole to be sure about that. No way it can be as light as it looks in that photo. The snow has melted enough on the dam so that I can get a good look at the trench the otters and the flowing water fashioned. The trench is at least three feet deep.

It was difficult to get a photo to show its depth. When the snow melts some more I should be able to get a better view and a photo of a cross section of the dam. I was impressed by the number of rocks worked into it. The hole in the ice behind the dam was small, a bit clogged with rocks, and hardly looked serviceable for an animal trying to get into what water remains under the ice.

I am no expert but I’d guess from its volume in the fall, when the pond was higher than I have ever seen it, it has lost at least 80% of its water, though some of that is tied up in an ice cover of probably six inches thick on average. This was the biggest trench the otters have ever made here. And water is still flowing out of the pond.

I went down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond, and saw no signs of otters. However, I saw that I am not the only body patrolling this ponds. A coyote had left a poop in the middle of the pond on my snowshoe trail from two days ago.

There was not much to see on the Second Swamp Pond so I angled over to the Fisher Woods, this time taking the low road. And this time I saw not only fisher trails,

but rabbits had been there too, a big one going west and a smaller coming east.

The porcupine had a fresh trail along the East Trail Pond dam. I decided to go up the ridge north of the upper East Trail Pond, the better to see what the beavers have been up to. I was surprised to see no startling evidence of the beavers having been up on the pond recently,

and I didn’t take a photo of the hole they had been using as there was no gaping black hole behind the brush that obscures a view of it from the ridge. However I could easily see that the beavers have been up on the ridge. There was much new work that I had not seen before. The beavers girdled a twinned white oak and have almost cut through another red oak.

I couldn’t see fresh trails. It looked like the beavers had been all over the ridge mostly tasting other oaks.

A beaver cut one small oak in a point of rocks up the ridge,

And I think they continue to gnaw on the big three trunk red oak (though one trunk is dead) toward the bottom of the slope to the pond.

They’ve been gnawing on it for months now. I decided to do the complete tour of the ponds and went via Thicket Pond, Meander Pond, Shortcut Trail meadow and Audubon Pond. I thought I might see signs of the beavers at Audubon Pond having been out, but I didn’t. Usually beavers there don’t come out much in the winter thanks to the deep pond around their lodge, but this year they didn’t amass much of the winter cache because they were cutting trees down over the huge embankment and never dragged branches up it to the main pond. However as I walked toward the Meander Pond dam I saw that something had dug into the old beaver burrow next to the dam.

I put camera down it and got a bit of a view of a tight little home for the beavers and muskrats that I’ve seen them use over the years.

There were no signs of anything living under the pond ice this year. Last year the beavers were here and breached the dam do they could get out from under the ice and go down into the meadow to cut alders and ash trees. So ironically, this pond might be storing more water this winter than last, though, since I didn’t go here much in the fall, I am not sure how much water is in the pond.

What once was the major pond along the little creek coming down from Thicket Pond has been a meadow for about 10 years. Shortcut Trail Pond was the first place we saw otters on the island some 20 years ago. Now it is popular with deer and that keeps the coyotes coming through. Along the edge of the meadow, I saw where coyotes made a hole into the ground,

don’t know why. I crossed the South Bay ice to get home. No tracks to speak of out there, though a very brisk wind was not conducive to tracking. Another storm coming.

March 1 we went away for three days and the day before we left it was stormy. When we came back yesterday we expected a warm reception since temperatures above 40F were predicted. It may have been warmer yesterday morning but when we got home at 2:30pm, it was 32F and slushy snow in our driveway was just hardening into ice. We expected to find half as much snow around the house and instead found about as much as when we left. It dropped below 20F last night and remained below freezing today, though the bright sun kept it comfortable. We thought our best measure of the warmth of the days we were away would be the amount of sap collected in the buckets hanging on the maple trees at our land. If so, it was a cold weekend. The buckets had little sap and much of it frozen. So we had plenty of time to hike about. I checked White Swamp first. It was easy to see that it did get warm enough to melt a lot of ice and that all froze again last night. Most winters we find a chance to skate on White Swamp and maybe we will, but this morning where the ice was smooth, I could also see bubbles of water underneath, not good for skating, though I could walk everywhere. As usual, I only checked the holes along the south shore of the pond that otters have used over the years. And one had been used, with three poops on the ice near it, though tracks going to and from it were not otter tracks, more likely fox tracks.

I took a close look at the poop and could not be sure if it was otter scat.

However, I have never seen any animal other than otters arrange their poops like this at this hole or many holes like this one around other ponds. Often the loss of the snow cover on a pond doesn’t wipe the slate clean, so to speak. You can often see the impressions left by sliding otters. However, I didn’t see any impressions of old slides on the ice below the hole. The wild stamping of coyotes nearby didn’t help.

Evidently a number of them were enjoying parts of a deer carcass, at least I found two bones on the ice.

The tracks also seemed to converge up the slope,

But when I checked up there I didn’t find any more deer parts. I wonder if it is more than a coincidence that I often find two unrelated activities occurring in the same area while elsewhere on the huge expanse of ice and snow there doesn’t seem to be much happening at all.

Despite the recent thaws the water coursing down the creek draining the pond on our land has not made any impression on the ice of White Swamp. I walked up the creek about 50 yards before I could get a dramatic photo of the flowing water,

But all that soon disappeared under the ice. There were no signs of any activity on or around the Deep Pond. As I stood next to our house waiting for Leslie to join me on a hike down Grouse Alley, a big chipmunk ran on the snow and hid under the house. I remembered that Ottoleo said he saw a chipmunk when we were here a week ago. For probably the first time this winter, there was nothing worthy of a photograph in Grouse Alley; not sure the porcupine waddled down it. The snow isn’t receptive to tracks. But at the Last Pool, the beavers dug out another hole in the ice, almost as big as their last one, but 5 yards to the west, more or less coming out of one of their cache piles.

I wonder if this is a case of the beavers literally eating their way through the pond ice.

As far as I could see the beavers didn’t roam around the pond like they did when they broke out of a hole a few weeks ago. They beat a path to a hornbeam at the edge of the pond, cut and trimmed it.

The beavers have been cutting the hornbeams in this valley for four years and especially during the last two years. How convenient that this one survived to provide a winter meal.

The back and forth trail to this meal means that what the beaver trimmed it took back to the hole. There was a less worn trail to some gnawing on a poplar branch.

Beavers had gnawed on that the last time they got out on the ice.

In the afternoon I hiked to the Big Pond, taking Antler Trail as usual. The snow was not good for tracking there either. I didn’t see any fisher trails, unless what I think is a raccoon trail was actually made by a fisher adjusting its gait to the snow conditions.

The trail was roughly where I usually see fisher trails, though it came up from a little creek, and creeks are often subject to raccoon patrol especially at this time of year. Walking along the ridge leading to the Big Pond, I could see that the creek down to South Bay had been flooded with brown water draining from the Big Pond.

That raised my expectations: perhaps otters had returned to the dam and deepened the hole through it that had been draining the pond. However, up at the dam, I only saw vague tracks that certainly weren‘t made by an otter.

From where I stood I could see one mink trail leading up to those tracks.

And other animals like a raccoon or coyote could have come over on the pond which was now a sheet of ice.

I stopped studying the tracks and tried to figure out how to negotiate walking on the pond ice. Brown ice which is the re-freezing of melt water can be as solid as normal ice but the ice can also cover three or four inches of water. I could see pretty well into the ice and see bubbles and flowing water below. Most of the ice was too chancy to walk on so I walked up the snow on the edge of the pond which covers solid ice. I saw shards of ice in the middle of the pond from the hooves of a deer that had wandered out there -- don’t know why. I expected to see signs that the beavers came out at the lodge, but there were no signs of any activity there. So I headed to the Lost Swamp Pond, disappointed not to see any more rabbit tracks on the way. The brown ice on the Lost Swamp Pond helped me measure how much of the water of the huge pond remained.

As I said before, I think it has lost at least 80% of its volume. There is very little water left in it, but some of water there in the fall is now invested in the remaining ice.

I thought I saw some tracks around the lodge in the southeast end of the pond. Walking was easy on the snow, so I went down to check. I picked up a coyote trail, and then some turkey tracks, and those two animals could have accounted for all the foot traffic to and from the lodge.

Then I crossed a trail not left by coyote or turkey that with webbed feet that looked like the trail of a beaver, but which was rather small for a beaver.

Then I crossed similar trails and I could see that the animal had dragged small branches that left wavy lines on the snow.

Plus some of the prints were large enough to be a beavers. I followed the trail into the brush but lost the trail before I found anything woody nipped. The beavers may have collected grass stalks. Turning back I followed the impressive line of trails to the lodge.

The brown icy was bubbly and cracking. However I got close enough to see the hole in the ice next to the lodge that the beavers had used.

The beavers had also gone to the north shore of the pond,

And I got a good photo of vintage beaver prints.

Here too, I followed a trail into the brush on the shore and the best I could tell is that it stopped at the ubiquitous woody plant here, a small dogwood of some type, I think.

Usually tracking beavers as they range away from their lodge at this time of year rewards you with the sight of gnawed bark that, in the ice and snow, does look like good fare. These beavers seemed to have walked a good deal for nothing. But obviously they knew what they were doing. Their trails seemed to go straight to something and back, like they knew exactly where to go. I crossed over the slight ridge forming the north shore of the southeast end of the pond, gained the northeast arm of the pond walked down that to the Lost Swamp Pond dam. There were no otter signs or other signs on the snow and ice. Here too, one can get a sense of how much water had drained out from behind the dam.

And water was still flowing. I still couldn’t get a definitive portrait of the hole through the dam.

Once the snow melts I’ll get a truer measure of its dimensions, if I get out here before the beavers begin to repair it. There were no signs of otters down at the Upper Second Swamp Pond, though there was a large hole in the ice behind the dam that now had thin ice over it.

But stray tracks around it didn’t add up to an otter. However, with so much water flowing through this dam, an otter might be able to find a ledge with a view of the flow where it could pick out something to eat. But I doubt it. I checked the west end of the Lost Swamp Pond, and there were only deer trails crossing the pond. On my way back I tried to cross over the ice of the upper end of the Big Pond.

It was quite an adventure but I made it. From the south side of the pond, I could get a perspective on the lodge and try to imagine beavers holed up there, high and dry, with a very short walk under the ice to the water remaining in the pond.

Last spring I got my first glimpse of the beaver, who survived the winter in that lodge, fishing up sticks to gnaw in the ur-creek from which the pond grew about 20 to 30 yards from the lodge. I explored the south shore of the pond and checked some tracks in the upper reaches. A big flock of turkeys had strutted across the pond.

No signs of beavers coming out along there.

March 3 last night I took a walk down the road at 11pm as the temperature dropped to 8F on a starlit night. Two months ago, at this temperature the river would have been boiling with mist and nascent ice. What ice might have already formed in the river would have cracked under the whip of cold. The creek I crossed over would have locked up. Tonight I could see the circle of open water out in the main channel of the river looking as placid as a pond on a warm summer’s night. The ice surrounding was so quiet, so bored. The water of the creek rushed merrily down to the river still ruled by the thaw we had two days ago. With the longer duration of sunlight everyday, nature won’t be fooled by a drop in temperature. Indeed, just after dawn with temperature below zero the song sparrow greets the sun. All the ice knows its days are numbered. Me too, I walk along not noticing cold that would have tortured me two months ago. Then today, during the afternoon with blinding sun reflecting off the snow making this the brightest day of the year so far, we took our usual hike, not to find tracks, but to sort through the many left by the animals undeterred by the cold night. We counted at least 8 deer just off Antler Trail (many more deer were grazing on the golf course south of the ridge we were on.) Squirrel tracks ruled the woods; mouse tracks dominated the plateau; then coyote tracks followed the deer trail, which was crossed by a fox trail. We missed the porcupines, and then we began paralleling a trail that gave us pause.

Was an animal dragging something, dragging its tail, or one foot? And what animal. The trail turned straight down the ridge,

And plunged at its steepest point where I couldn’t even see it and couldn’t follow.

However, I saw tha it continued down in the valley below and saw that the animal walked along the entire length of a tree trunk.

Even though all the trail seem smeared with uncertainty, I was pretty sure a fisher made the tracks. The likeliest other candidate would be a porcupine, but they leave a more deliberate trail and don’t drag. My guess is that a fisher or two made the eccentric trail because they are in the throes of mating, but I really don’t know. That we soon crossed three or four more traditional fisher trails did assure us that fishers were out in the woods last night. And one of the trails was eccentric in another way, though here it looked like it was dragging its tail not its foot.

Of course, seeing that fishers had been all through the woods had me anticipating that otters had been all over the ponds. But no, there was virtually no activity at the Big Pond dam or on the pond. The hole in the ice behind the dam was bigger but there were no tracks around it. There were mink tracks around the lodge along the lower north shore of the pond, but no signs of life at all around the lodge on the upper shore where I hope some beavers are still living. Crossing through the woods to the Lost Swamp Pond, we saw fisher trails, and trails left by two rabbits. We even saw one rabbit poop. It was so shady there that my photo came out all blue. Since we planned to press on to check on the East Trail Pond beavers, I almost didn’t go up to the lodge in the southeastern end of the pond. But I saw some discoloration on the ice near it, so duty called. The discoloration proved to be a strip of ice revealed after the wind blew the snow. A little beyond it I saw fresh tracks in the snow and this time the webbed foot tracks were so narrow that it finally dawned on me.

What I saw two days ago and saw today going to the south shore of the pond are not beaver tracks. Muskrats broke out through the ice near the lodge. That explains why I didn’t see the trails ending at some gnawed bark. The muskrats came out and dragged grass stalks back to the lodge or just a bite of grass, as I could see from one neat trail looping out from the hole.

One muskrat going back and forth two times could account for what I saw, but factoring in that some of the tracks I saw two days ago looked bigger than others, I think at least two muskrats were out and probably more.

The trails radiated from a hole in the ice smaller than the hole they used two days ago. I still think the trail I saw from the hole going to the north shore was a beaver’s trail. Indeed the size of that hole convinced me that beavers had been out. I wonder why the muskrats dug out a new hole.

And there are more questions, especially why are so many muskrats in the beaver lodge and not their own lodges? It likely arises from the pond water escaping through the hole the otters made. The muskrats’ lodges are on the shores of the pond and as I have clearly seen, the minks and weasels have been getting under the ice. So the muskrats have circled up in the beaver lodge that is still surrounded by water. I headed down to the dam where I saw that a mink had been out and a bit around the hole in the ice behind the hole through the dam.

No signs of otters, and not at the Upper Second Swamp Pond either. We crossed that pond on its ice and then trudged through deep snow to the granite ridge north of the Second Swamp Pond. One winter I did see otter trails on this ridge, but not today. Coming down the ridge toward the East Trail Pond we crossed a couple more fisher trails. They didn’t veer over toward the beaver lodge in the upper end of the East Trail Pond. We went up the East Trail gaining a view of the beaver activity below. But I could see a wide nexus of beaver tracks close to the lodge so I had to climb down the ridge to check that out. However, I checked on what the beavers had done on the ridge first. I didn’t see much new work, but there were some fresh trails in the inch or two of snow that fell yesterday around noon. A beaver got up to remaining trunk of the tree they cut high up on the ridge, and gnawed a little more.

I followed the trail to and from that as it meandered past most of the beavers’ current projects without gnawing much at any of them. There were also fresh trails up to the big red oak a third of the way up the slope. The shade prevented me from getting a good photo. Then I went down onto the pond to find the hole in the ice that allowed them to get back close to their lodge. There didn’t look to be any hole near the lodge.

I found that the beavers dug themselves out in an area surrounded by clumps of grasses.

It was hard for me to see how thick the ice was there, and I wasn‘t going to venture too close. Perhaps 3 inches?

There were nipped bushes around the hole that looked just cut, but there wasn’t a fresh beaver trail to them and they were cut relatively high. A beaver probably cut them when the snow was higher.

I think the time has come to spend some time here and try to see these beavers. They are in a most interesting predicament. Will they try to restore the whole East Trail Pond, and shift their diet more to plants than trees, or after they survive the spring living off red oaks south of the pond, will they shift to another small area of the ponds they have used the last 10 years and dredge up another path for survival through next winter.


Sara Ransom said...

You showed a photo, and wrote:
"...but a more interesting feature was a long and wide fissure in the ice running from Wellesley out to Mosquito Island."

I see a substantial house on what appears to be a small island... What can you tell me (us) about it. Intriguing.

Swamp Watcher said...

Most of the small islands up here in the wide St.Lawrence are privately owned and people have been building on them for years. Mosquito Island had a little house, now a bigger one designed and built by a local architect for his son's family. Because of ice conditions most houses on the small islands are just used in the summer