Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 11 to 14, 2011

March 11 it rained all day yesterday with much wind, but this morning there was just some drizzle and the temperature was slowly dropping from 40F. We went to our land to collect sap, and, of course, I tried to see what the beavers had been up to. The slushy snow was just manageable going down Grouse Alley. I made a half dozen steps down into the water of what will probably be a little stream for the next 3 months. But going out on the Last Pool was impossible. I took a photo looking down toward the far away to give a sense of how the snow was dissolving,

And I took a photo looking toward the lodge showing that the beavers didn’t break out through the ice there during the thaw

The beavers did get out from under the pond, re-opening the last hole they made in the ice toward the end of one of the channels to the north end of the pond, filling it with what looked like the same type of birch branches they collected there before.

I took a step toward it and went through snow and then into a foot of snow melt, not the water of the pond under the ice. I retreated and then went along the ridge which didn’t have much snow on it and got a better view of the hole and the work around it, though I can’t be sure if any of the yellow scars of the cut and stripped wood were made the night before. Most of it was old work.

I also took a look at the Deep Pond, where after seeing otter and mink tracks early in the winter, I haven’t seen signs of much activity. A week ago, Leslie told me that she saw a part of a turkey carcass there, and I finally got a photo of it today.

That was back in the southwest corner of the pond near the bank lodge. Not that anything using the lodge kept the water open. There is a tiny rivulet coming into the pond there. There was plenty of open water behind the dam but no signs of any animals using it.

When I got home to island, I planned to hike out to the beaver ponds, but I kept thinking of that foot of slush. I could imagine myself getting to the Big Pond with only 20 yards of hard slogging but once at the pond I feared I would only be dealing with slush and water. So I didn’t go.

March 12 it got below freezing last night and we had a dusting of snow which helped make everything seem less wet, so I hiked out to the ponds via Antler Trial, which I found relatively easy. The snow didn’t help tracking though I saw a neat juxtaposition of the prints of big and small herbivores.

That dusting of snow only clinged to rocks, as in the photo above, or to the pond ice. The Big Pond dam only had patches of snow so I could get a better view of the holes through it.

The leak seemed to operate on two levels though with only one intake, which I found strange. The hole in the bottom of the photo above, where the water had been flowing most of the winter, is now relatively dry, and the water is gushing at a lower level a few feet away, which doesn’t make sense. If the pond level gets a few feet lower, which is possible, I might be able to figure it out. With snow retreating behind the dam, I was able to see the tunnels in the snow the mink had used during the winter.

In the snow below the dam I saw a bullhead head.

I usually credit otters for biting off and leaving bullhead heads. Of course an otter did move into this pond behind the dam in January but I suspect a mink left this head. I found that I was able to still walk on the pond ice so I headed up toward the beaver lodge and I soon saw that there was a muskrat on the ice next to hole in the middle of the main channel way up pond, the same that hole I noticed a few days ago that I thought muskrats were using. Then another muskrat popped up onto the ice next to the hole.

I wish I had binoculars or a camcorder because I think the muskrats were grooming each other, but I couldn’t see well enough to be sure. I hope to see beavers in that hole soon. I think I saw evidence that a beaver had come out of the lodge again. There seemed to be a trail in the snow, going to the shore, though I couldn’t really see a beaver print.

There was a hole in the ice a few feet from the lodge which a beaver might be able to get through, though it might be a squeeze.

There was also a more typical hole closer to the lodge and there were stripped and unstripped sticks around it, though it is possible that is old work revealed by the thaw.

I also noticed that the nearest clump of grass there had been rather trimmed down. Deer, muskrats or beavers could have done that.

When I went back on the trails the beavers had used to collect some woody shrubs earlier in the winter, I didn’t see any signs that beavers had been there recently. The Lost Swamp Pond ice still had last night's dusting of snow on it, plus some of the holes the otters had used to get in and out of the pond were now rather large patches of open water.

Sure enough, an otter had been there this morning

The slide was faint, I think coming toward the open water. There was also some scuffing on the snow by the edge of a narrow part of a slit of ice. I could see tracks coming from the hole the otters have been using on the near north shore but when the ice is thawing I like to minimize the number of times I crossover beaver channels under the ice. I’ve gone through too many times and have frequently been surprised how deep they are. So first I walked up the south part of the pond to check for more otter tracks. About 20 yards I crossed an otter’s trail coming toward the middle of the pond.

As I back tracked I saw that it came from the highest rock on the south shore.

As I got closer to it I saw a faint otter trail going toward the rock. My photos couldn’t pick it up. Over the years, the otters have used this rock as a latrine and I saw a very fresh scat in the middle of a circle of snow about 3 feet in diameter on the top of the rock. The scat was surrounded by the lichens on the rock.

The scat was very fresh, and rather fulsome. It looked full of fish parts but I didn’t probe, not that I've ever been able to identify particular fish in fresh otter scats.

I don’t recall ever seeing such dramatic marking at this time of year when otters should be marking territory. I continued along the south side of the pond and once again crossed a beavers trail going from and back to a small hole beside the lodge.

I followed the trail a bit up shore but soon got bogged down in deep snow and once again lost the beaver’s trail. Its trail skirted a pile of sticks, that the beaver collected and half stripped, revealed as the snow melted.

I don’t think this was a recent meal. I didn’t any signs of activity at the east end of the pond so I decided to cross the pond just east of the lodge and get as close as I could to the hole near the lodge that the beavers use. There were a few stripped sticks in it so what the beaver is getting is probably bits of the ubiquitous low dogwood shrub along the shore, though the stripped stick looked a little green so maybe it was willow.

It is difficult for me to get up on this shore in the summer which is private property. When I got to the north side of the lodge, where the beavers also had a hole in the ice, as well as the otters and mink, I didn’t see any sign of that hole being used. However as the snow melted around the lodge, I saw a tangle of shrub branches, most of them, as I’ve noticed other winters, unstripped.

I suppose it is possible that the beavers eat the little sticks whole so I don’t see leftovers. I walked down the north shore of that section of the pond, and soon resumed tracking the otter. I saw a fresh trail from the hole almost at the point going to the large patch of open water that I investigated when I first walked onto the pond.

Now that the snow around it has melted it is easy to see that the hole the otters used went into the dirt bank, not directly into the pond.

This point is popular with muskrats as well as otters so that might be a muskrat bank burrow. This is the only time of year I can easily check the otters’ latrine here. I saw plenty old scats but nothing new.

When I got to the other side of the point, the beginning of the south shore of the northeast section of the pond, I saw an otter trail on the ice with a long slide coming from the dam. The trail was faint near the shore but it seemed to disappear in a small muskrat lodge that had almost been leveled.

I got the impression that the otter went down the hole in the middle of the lodge, gained a muskrat burrow going into the point and then came out from the burrow hole on the other side of the point. This point has a number of granite rocks partially forming it, so I can hardly believe an otter burrowed through the point. Muskrats do manage amazing burrows but I’ve never suspected an otter for being as much of a mole. I thought going directly to the dam would be dangerous as channels merge and the water is deeper there, so I took a circle route that took me close to the southwest shore of the pond. I could see the hole in the ice angling up on the bank but no signs of an otter coming out of them. Most of the snow has melted right around the dam which meant I couldn’t be sure if an otter had just visited. All the scats otters left in the fall were now easy to see, and being so damp almost looked fresh.

With the snow gone, a photo makes more sense of the otters' huge hole in the dam, where the water is still rushing out.

I didn’t see otter tracks or slides on the ice behind the dam so the otter probably swam under the ice to one of the holes in the ice some 10 yards behind the dam, got out there, and headed to the point where I saw its tracks. It was too dangerous to go out on the ice and prove that. I walked down the north shore to check the west end of the pond, and didn’t get far before I noticed a dozen or so dead fish, all very small, on a shelf of granite that is usually under the water of the pond.

The fish looked like they had been dead for a good while. So far I had only seen the trail of one adult otter, which was the case the last time we were here. I thought the juveniles, if they were still here, might be in the west end, but I only saw mink tracks going to some of the holes the otters used. Their line of old scats were revealed as the snow melted.

The going was easier than I thought it would be so I pressed on to the East Trail Pond to check on the beavers there. Getting across the Second Swamp Pond was easy enough, and by doing that I could be sure that an otter didn’t head down to South Bay. The Fisher Woods was easy to get through, but the creek coming down from the old dam was wide and then when I tried to walk across the lower East Trail Pond, I saw that it was mostly slush on top of uncertain ice. So then I crossed on top of the dam and managed to avoid the holes in it. I know from long experience that this pond is slow to melt, but I was little surprised that there was so much snow still on the old boardwalk despite several days above freezing. The snow remains, I assume, because we had so little sunshine during the thaw. Then the little stream of water coming down from the new dam in the upper part of the pond had swelled so that the only way I could get over to the East Trail was by going up to the dam and using that as a bridge over snow and water.

The dam is small and didn’t provide much foot room but it was icy hard and relatively easy to negotiate though I had to walk slowly. Of course, I had to pause to take photos. The beavers had used holes in the ice behind the dam. I could see a few stripped sticks there.

A beaver also pushed up some mud on the dam, some of the mud covering the receding snow.

There were three areas behind the dam where the beavers were active, including one where at places it only seemed to be able to get out from the ice right behind the dam.

However, there was a large patch of open ice just behind it with what looked like blurred beaver tracks on the ice behind it, which suggests that a beaver had just been there. My guess is that the bush they cut was honeysuckle, which they use more for their dams than eating, if they eat the bark at all. If it was honeysuckle then it was probably cut when they were making their dam. Let’s hope it was willow which beavers do eat.

Farther along the dam, it looked like beavers had broken flat sections of ice and heaved them back.

But maybe not because there was a beaver trail on the snow leading to the open water.

I didn’t see much evidence of the beavers eating here, just some tiny remains of nibbling on the dam.

I had eased over several leaks in the dam but the major outflow of water was here.

This is the first hole in the dam met by the water coursing down from Shangri-la Pond and above. The beavers did a bit of engineering here, building a dam across the creek before it came into the pond and then building a dam just below that went across the hole East Trail Pond, “L” shaped dams.

I made it across the dam and didn’t see any evidence that beavers came over the smaller dam and up the stream to the north toward Shangri-la Pond now a meadow after the dam broke there in 2009. (The beavers now in the East Trail Pond had been there from 2007 to 2009.) I walked up the East Trail to gain a better view of the pond and saw that the beavers had opened a big hole in the ice just a few yards from the lodge.

It looked like they were still using the hole in the ice just off the north shore of the pond that they had been using for some time.

I only saw one more tree cut down on top of the ridge.

They have several more trees in the process of being cut. There’s a good chance that I will no longer be able to chart their work up here by following their tracks in the snow. The snow on this north slope is almost gone. But I was soon back in the snow as I continued along the East Trail on my way home. I was tired; I didn’t detour and look for things to photograph, and to avoid more ridges with slushy snow, I went through Thousand Island Park.There I saw a huge chevron of geese, but with strange noises coming from it. Snow geese! There were two more waves and I was able to see the white birds, smaller than the Canada goose and quieter. They were coming from the southwest and heading northeast, as usual. I think there are about week earlier than usual.

March 13 we had a dusting of snow late last night and cold temperatures for most of today. I headed off to check the ponds in the afternoon confidant that the fresh snow would remain on the ice of the pond where I might see otter tracks and slides. I went the usual way which has become quite familiar and I didn’t notice anything new and expected the usual lack of activity at the Big Pond dam. Then I noticed that the snow on the south end of it seemed chopped up a bit, then I saw a scat on some bare ground and I realized that an otter had been there.

I’ve been expecting to see that for over two months. However the photo above hardly shows the activity and if I didn’t see a fresh scat at the end of the stamping in the snow, I would have been less certain that an otter had been there.

The scat wasn’t dripping wet like the one I saw by the Lost Swamp Pond yesterday. I wonder if the otter stepped in it. There was a clear trail to and from the scat to the open water behind the dam, but that was in deep snow. On the north side of the open water, I finally saw tracks in the recent dusting of snow clinging to the pond ice and a slide coming parallel to the dam.

This line of this dam bulges up stream with the principal hole that the otter used on the south side of the bulge, and that hole has been open for months. Now there are three small holes with open water on the north side of the bulge. The otter probably had something to do with creating them but I didn’t see slides and tracks going to them. I think as the ice thaws that otters prefer to make holes by swimming under the ice.

There were no more holes in the ice as I walked on the dam to the north, but I could see the otter tracks, coming and going, on the snow behind the dam.

I walked out on the ice and got a good photo of a slide. Clearly an adult otter made this trail

The trail went to the far corner of the pond, the fresher trail heading that way, and I didn’t follow it because the ice got thin. I assumed that the otter came down and went back up the north shore of the pond, and I think I was right. At least I saw a trail going up pond.

Actually, though I have been trying to do it for many years, I am a pretty bad tracker. I let my imagination take too much hold, and once I assumed I saw tracks going back and forth behind the dam, I assumed I was seeing a back and forth trail as I continued along, but I lost the trail coming in. As I continued following the otter trail up pond I saw that it veered across the pond, visiting a slice of open water. Here I saw the back and forth tracks separate and merged together.

I also saw tracks on the other side of that hole, but decided not to go over there as the ice over the channel going down the middle of the pond looked too thin support me. So while I was expecting the otter to go along the edge of the pond, like an otter did, perhaps the same one, when one came to the pond back in January, this otter went back and forth across the pond. Back in January there were no holes of open water in the middle of the pond. This otter also explored a patch of open water next to the beaver-less lodge on the lower north shore of the pond. As I continued up the pond, I realized that I was suddenly following a track that was coming down the pond.

Meanwhile as a relief from otter confusion, I could again watch two muskrats around the same large patch of open water where I saw them yesterday.

The otter had visited that open water where the muskrats were, as well as the lodge where I hope some beavers are staying. I am not sure what the otter was up to but it was probably inspecting and marking territory. It may also have been rather excited by the thaw and going from hole to hole looking for good places to fish. And perhaps when it was swimming under the ice, it found the ice too thick to break from below. I don’t think this pond had much running space under the ice this winter as the Lost Swamp Pond. Water drained out slowly for the most of the winter, not a great rush like at the Lost Swamp Pond. I didn’t track the otter in the upper end of the pond, fearing that the ice would be too thin up there. I headed to the Lost Swamp hoping to find tracks there showing an otter going over to the Big Pond. Once again an otter visited the open water in the middle of the pond where the main channel takes a dog leg right toward the dam.

Usually I cross over the pond a little ways up from where the channel is open as I walk over to see if the otter used the holes on the north short, but today I thought the ice was too thin to attempt that, and I was more curious to see if the otter went back to the south shore to scat on the high rock like it did yesterday. There was no sign of that. Instead I saw that the otter made holes in the ice all the way along the main channel, even breaking out a hole where there was open water around a stump nearby. Generally it made a hole, made some tracks around it but didn‘t venture far on the pond ice.

I began to get the impression both that the patches of open water around stumps were getting wider and that the otter could break the ice above the main channel at will.

This winter whenever I was unsure of the ice here, I crossed some 20 yards east of the lodge where I knew the channel under the ice was narrow. I had a good motive for trying that today because I was pretty sure I saw a beaver up on the ice around a hole farther to the east.

Since I just saw the muskrats on the Big Pond ice, I could better see that this animal was bigger than a muskrat. Plus its fur was black, not reddish like a muskrat’s. I couldn’t get close to it, because not only did the ice along the edges of the pond look rather thin but the holes along the channel, that the otter used, looked paper thin.

There was also a little stick next to the hole. The beaver had probably been there too. So I decided not to cross the pond, nor walk around the east end of the pond. I might have seen more otter slides there, but I would have disturbed the beaver who undoubtedly has more right to be up on this pond ice than I. So I went back down the pond the way I came up, and good thing I did. I had walked right over otter tracks coming from the south shore and heading to the middle of the pond. (I must have had my eyes on the beaver then.)

The tracks came to the pond on the ice above a beaver canal that points toward the pond above the Big Pond. As I followed the tracks I noticed that the otter couldn’t resist checking out every small hole in the ice.

I couldn’t tell what the otter did in the holes but there was mud around some of them, but the otter’s trail looked continuous on the snow so I don’t think the otter went down one hole and came out the other.

I hoped to see that the otter clearly came from the Big Pond but I couldn’t. All the tracks were smudged a good bit and it is just as likely that the otter went up and down over the canal. Plus as I tracked the otter toward the meadow that the canal bisects, I realized that I was following fresh beaver tracks, that even went by a stripped stick.

Now I tried to follow the beaver trail and lost it and any otter trail in mounds of soft icy snow. Tracking in these conditions is possible but trails have a tendency to become ethereal disappearing in the snow that itself will disappear in a few days. So I headed to the Lost Swamp Pond dam, staying well away from the ice over the main channel which took me by the holes otters had been using all winter on the southwest shore of the pond. I saw what looked like stomping in the snow around some of the holes, but no tracks were distinct.

I have lost track of the two juveniles that were here, but heretofore their forays have always been easy to notice and not a mere mess or trodding which is more commonly left by deer and coyotes. I decided it was safe to cross the pond at the west end, where there is no main channel underneath and the water now should be uniformly shallow and under 2 feet deep. The north shore of the pond is mostly free of ice, and I eagerly gained dry ground. Looking down from that vantage point I saw otter tracks and slides heading to the open water behind the dam.

Of course, with the snow gone from latrine on the ledge of rocks just up from the dam, and with all the old scats revealed, and looking moist thanks to the melting snow, I couldn’t be sure if the otter left a new scat at the latrine, but I think so. I also couldn’t tell if the otter went over the dam and down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond which looked flooded. All to say, I knew the otter had been here in the last 24 hours but I wasn’t sure if it was still here or back at the Big Pond or somewhere else. If it is primarily looking for food, and not completely obsessed with marking territory, then the Lost Swamp Pond should be easier to forage in, but the Big Pond, where otters have not spent much time this winter, should have more to eat. So I figured I had done my tracking for today and eased back on the ice figuring that if I went back exactly the way I came, I wouldn’t plunge into water. Then after a few steps on the Lost Swamp Pond ice, I saw that I had walked right over otter tracks coming down from the west end of the pond, so I had to back track that, which took me to the west end of the pond.

The otter weaved its way around the pond evidently checking out every hole in the ice, though not necessarily going into the pond.

Of course, since so much water has drained out of the pond, there is little water in the far west end. The otter still checked every depression and managed to get its feet dirty.

I don’t recollect seeing otter tracks wandering like this on a pond, like it was looking for something at the base of every trunk. Over the years, I have noticed that otters sometimes brace a fish they are eating on a tree trunk and I’ve seen mother otters leave bits of fish on trees for their pups to eat. The otters spent about a month under this ice much of it in this end of the pond. Maybe this otter was hoping to find some leftovers. It did make a straighter trail to get across over the pond to this corner of it.

I hyped up a close-up photo to get a dramatic look at its prints.

Around one hole just off the south shore, there was a flurry of tracks. I’m sure some of them were from the otter. There may have been a scat or two around the hole. The ice looked too thin for me to go too close to the hole.

The tracks skirted the pond and I am pretty sure the otter went up onto the mossy cove latrine, where I can still see old scats from the fall. I was sure I’d see a fresh scat, but I didn’t. It looked like the otter enjoyed scratching down some green moss and scratching up some dead leaves.

Unfortunately the prints were harder to see on the deeper snow along the edge of the pond and I gave up trying to figure out where the otter came from. The lack of snow on this south shore persuaded me take my old land route back to the Big Pond, which worked well. Any snow that I had to go through was manageable. And by going that way I could check the north end of the Big Pond dam which I couldn’t get to when I was standing on the ice of that pond. I found the otter’s trail there,

and I expected to see that the otter looped back to the pond, but I also saw a trail going up through the clumps of grass on the north shore of the pond. More confusion. Since the otter had been in the Lost Swamp Pond yesterday, I assume that it had come from there gone over, probably via that canal south of the Lost Swamp Pond lodge, though staying on top of the ice, to the upper Big Pond, then down around the Big Pond, and then back to the Lost Swamp Pond. The tracks in the west end of the that pond seemed fresher than anywhere else. I’d like to say that I’ll be able to see more evidence for that when I come back, but that ice is fast disappearing and I doubt I’ll be able to tracks an otter like this again until next winter, if I am lucky. Walking along the Big Pond dam on my way home, I saw another scat at the south end of the dam. This one was on the snow.

March 14 we went to our land to collect and boil sap and I got to work sawing and collecting firewood for next year. Of course I went to look at the beaver pond, expecting to see that the beavers had taken advantage of the thaw to get out from under the ice. Last year when Grouse Alley got too wet, I went up through a little gap in the ridge and walked down to the beaver pond on the east slope of the little ridge whose west slope forms one wall of Grouse Alley. Going on high ground was less wet, but not by much. There was not much snow on the ridge but what snow had been there formed puddles. The trail ends in the valley where the beavers had done a good bit of tree cutting last fall. There is still snow in the valley and I saw a beaver trail coming up it and ending at a small tree that the beavers had just cut.

I followed the trail down to the pond and saw a few other beaver trails looping off the main trail.

These detours led to clumps of woody shoots around stumps of bushes cut a year or two ago.

Beavers are often given credit for coppicing but in this climate shoots do not grow vigorously enough to replenish the beavers’ larder, so to speak. I think some shoot coming out of birch trunks, which look like they should be attractive to beavers, must have a taste to deter beaver browsing.

Even so the shoots seldom amount to much. We’ve owned the land since 1998, perhaps not long enough to get a sense for its potential for regrowth. As I got near the hole in the ice the beavers have been using, I saw that the beavers finished segmenting the birch they cut.

Unlike last time the beavers were active here, there were no branches collected outside the hole, just a lot of little stripped sticks

However, under the thin ice covering the hole, I could see several thicker sticks, all stripped.

I followed the beavers’ old trail up to the east side of the valley where a week so ago they cut a hornbeam that was left hanging up in a tree. It’s possible that the beaver had used the trail again, not that I could be sure there was fresh work at the end of it.

I felt sorry for the hungry beavers and it was easy enough to pull the hornbeam down.

I walked back toward the lodge and while I saw no holes in the ice around the lodge, I did see some freshly cut pine boughs, not sure where the beavers got them.

I went back down Grouse Alley which still has snow, but quite granulated so that it doesn’t show tracks of smaller animals well, so I couldn’t tell if the porcupine had been around. I went down to check the Deep Pond which is still covered by snow and ice except behind the dam and a few small spots where water flows into the pond. As I stood on the dam, I heard some gnawing over in the honeysuckle grove along and below the dam. I sat in a nearby chair to see if a beaver might appear. I did see a water shrew or big vole come up one of the streams of water flowing down from the leaky dam. It disappeared and then I heard it in a clump of grass right in front of me.

The noise was loud but I never saw the animal. Meanwhile I never saw a beaver and when I walked below the dam and through the honeysuckles saw no signs that a beaver had been there. So I think I was hearing a smaller animal gnawing ice or a stick in the ice, and the hollowed out ice and frozen ground formed a sounding board to amplify and lower the pitch of the gnawing. I walked around the pond and saw a mink trail.

That was good to see. A mink had been quite active here early in the winter. Then I had lost track of it.

No comments: