Friday, March 11, 2011

March 4 to 10, 2011

March 4 The thaw has begun, rain threatening, and the way to the Last Pool was slowed as the snow turned soft again. I got close enough to the hole that the beavers last used to determine that they had not come out of it since I last saw it. Then after I hauled some logs out on a sled, above the Third Pond. I walked to the Teepee Pond and First Pond via and inner valley. I stayed under the trees where the snow was manageable. I do not remember my winter hikes being so constricted in other years. The combination of Deep Snow and the beavers being so close meant that for two months I had mostly chronicled the doings in Grouse Alley and around the Last Pool. Not that my hiking today was that extensive. I checked famous rocks where after thaws in other years, I saw piles of grouse poop. This year I saw two poops,

almost suggesting to me that I had really not missed anything. Deep snow that both accumulates and dissipates slowly doesn’t preserve tracks well. There were no tracks today on the Teepee Pond. Finally when I got onto the smaller First Pond, I saw a mink’s fresh trail.

It led up to a hole atop the old bank beaver lodge.

I knew the hole well because I dug it out about three years ago, three years after the beavers left the pond. I knew it opened into a commodious cave, for a mink, fox or raccoon, and the snow around the hole seemed worn down enough so that I could picture all those animals using it.

I dug out two other holes into other chambers that the beavers had made into the bank.

Animals used these also. And it looked like a raccoon’s trail going from one.

An animal investigated the only small patch of open water, where the rivulet from the small pool above dribbles into the pond.

Those looked like fox tracks. A meager hike but I felt like I caught up with old business. Walking down the road, we saw a flock of cedar waxwings, and Leslie saw some robins.

March 5 it began raining in the night and was raining in the morning and the temperature climbed to 44F. We drove to our land to collect maple sap, hoping that the trees had dripped all night, but we found the maple maple trees have not gotten into gear. One bucket had a gallon of sap, three had about a half gallon and rest not too much. We collected about 5 gallons of sap. I braved the rain and the pure slush of snow in Grouse Alley and got down to the Last Pool where I expected the beavers to have been out. I got close enough to the two holes they used early in the winter and saw that there were still frozen. But a little up pond, I could see that a birch had just been cut down, so I knew the beavers had been out.

When I got over to the cut birch

I could easily see the hole the beavers used to get out from under the pond, where they had dragged all the branches they trimmed off the birch.

The birch branches looked swollen to me, poised to bud.

I got a better angle on the hole the beavers were using and could see that there was water in it, though brimming out of the hole. I blush to say that I had difficulty picturing where this would be without the snow. It should be at the end of a channel but I’m not sure.

I don’t think a beaver resumed work on the hornbeam they cut the last time they were out, but I think one resumed gnawing on the branches of the big poplar.

Three beaver trails ventured away from the pond. One beaver cut a tree about 15 yards up in the woods to northeast of the pond, but the tree remained hanging from other trees,

Another trail went up into the meadow northwest of the pond

And a beaver revisited a birch that had been cut down and partially trim and gnawed in the late fall.

I could see some fresh gnawing on the right end of the birch. Another trail went up to a bush just west of the pond and I couldn’t see anything nipped there. The snow was too wet and deep to allow me to venture farther, and I retraced my steps to get back.

March 7 after raining all day on the 5th, we woke up to snow on the 6th, with temperatures dropping. I bailed my boat and we took a walk around town. Today it was cloudy and cold in the morning but as we walked up Antler Trail, the sun began to come out from behind the clouds. The 4 inches of snow we had yesterday proved perfect for tracking. We saw the usual deer, squirrel and mouse tracks on the granite plateau and then at the fringe of the woods to the north, I saw mink tracks. I have seen weasel tracks up here in the winter but never mink, so at first I tried to see the tracks as made by a large weasel, but that didn’t work.

We saw more mink tracks as we continued on the trail. I developed a theory that the thaw and rain caused so much flooding in the beaver ponds and meadows that the minks had to seek higher ground. When we got to the ridge overlooking the creek going down from the Big Pond to South Bay, we could see that there was quite a flood,

And we saw a mink trail heading up the ridge, but there was a fisher trail heading down to the creek. Birds were also active we saw two spots where grouse took off.

Given the breadth of the creek, I thought a good portion of the Big Pond dam might have failed. But the closer I got to the dam, the more orderly the creek below it seemed, and the dam was well intact. Walking to the dam by the usual trail, I saw that a mink had come along the trail the other way. At the south end of the dam, I saw enough mink tracks to suggest that two minks had been there. Plus there was a mink scat, suggesting one mink was marking its territory.

So the minks were not fleeing a flooded pond. They were off marking territory and looking for mates. The ice on the pond was firm though a bit tricky as it sloped toward the middle of the pond. The hole in the dam had done good service by preventing broader damage to the dam by the flood.

It would have been exciting to see the pond at the peak of the flood in the early morning of the 6th. I think that the new level of the pond is about a foot higher than the level before the rain and thaw. My guess is that in the middle of the pond this new layer of ice is on the old ice. Along the shore where the ice had probably largely melted, there is a new layer of firm ice, and it makes the beaver and muskrat lodges looked locked in ice.

I hoped to see signs that beavers had been out at their lodge, but there were no signs in the ice or the surrounding snow. A mink did climb up the lodge, probably to mark it,

and it scatted in snow beside the lodge. Once again, it looked like two minks could have romped together there.

That was about it track wise. The minks went up into the brush, but nothing else. There was a fisher trail in the woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond, at least I think so. At times the trail looked like a hare made it, so perhaps it was a case of a predator mimicking the gait of its prey, or vice versa, (a theory I gleaned from Bill Murray in Caddyshack!)

though I’m pretty sure it was a fisher’s trail. Then I looked out at the Lost Swamp Pond, and saw immediately that otters might be back. There were tracks coming out of a hole above the main channel under the ice that the otters had used in January and February.

And indeed, otters were back. They went back and forth from the hole in the ice and a hole in the bank of the north shore they had used earlier in the winter.

The trail from the hole in the bank was quite dirty, but there were no scats around it.

There were also some mink tracks, which always makes me wary. But the hole these animals were using and the amount of dirt outside is a sure sign that otters used it.

I’ve never seen mink leave a trail of dirt that extensive. Then I tried to learn something about the otters that made the tracks, and I think it is likely that these were the same otters that left here after February 20. I saw an adult’s slide in the snow and perhaps one frozen in the ice. However the prints are harder to decipher, though I think there are three sets of prints going each way.

When I tried to take my next photo, the camera battery ran out of power, and the batteries I had for a replacement were low. So I had to conserve power by not taking many photos, which was unfortunate. I saw a nexus of mink tracks around the holes in the ice, in front of burrows into the bank, along the north shore of the southeast section of the pond. Some tracks went to the beaver lodge in the middle of the pond there. I didn’t see any otter tracks. I went back down the pond and around the point where I saw fresh otter tracks and went to check the dam. There were otter tracks behind the hole in the ice behind the dam, up on the rocks next to the dam, and some on the dam, and there were scats in their usual latrine on the shore there.

The scats look fresh, that is, not frozen yet, so they were probably from this morning.

There were no otter tracks going below the dam. I checked the bank of the stream below and only saw mink trails.

The stream is gushing and judging from the dance of ice hanging from the branches of the plants below the dam it had been gushing more during the thaw and rain.

I couldn’t see any way of telling if the otters dug the trench in the dam deeper. I also checked the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam where I last saw signs of the otters on February 20. There were no signs of otters, but minks had been over the dam which looked a bit washed out. There was more water going down the creek than I had seen before.

My camera was still working and I should have gone back to the southeast end of the pond to take photos of what I saw there, but I had already taken plenty of photos of mink tracks. They seemed to be everywhere. I couldn’t resist taking an “art” photo of the dead tree trunks on the Lost Swamp Pond wearing little white tutus showing the high water mark after the recent thaw.

We didn’t go to our land in the afternoon since it was too cold for sap to drip. So I headed off across South Bay and up the East Trail to check on the beavers in the East Trail Pond. I passed a few coyote trails on South Bay and then more mink trails, and a fisher trail at the foot of the East Trail. I thought I noticed a difference between fisher and mink. I saw fisher detour to check out or hop up on a stump, while the mink trail going the same way took the usual elegant beeline up slope, showing no interest in stumps. Then a few yards farther along, I saw mink tracks that showed how a mink leaped up onto a narrow stump about two feet high.

So much for theories holding a mink down to earth. I saw another fisher trail that flanked the bank of snow along a stream of runoff. I usually expect fishers to not be attracted to water. Perhaps I can hold onto that theory: who could resist running along the elegant curves of snow carved by that little stream?

There was a breeze from the north, so I decided to approach the East Trail Pond from the north, just in case the beavers were out. The temperature was just above 20F, warm enough for beavers. I stayed on the trail to get up the ridge south of the pond and then went off it and eased down the deep snow to get to the pond, going down the snow was a treat. And as I came down a beaver was going along the ridge north of the pond.

It stopped at the red oak that it cut down earlier in the winter and reached up to gnaw bark off the trunk.

It cut off a small branch too and seemed to eat it there. I was poised to get a video of it dragging a branch off the ridge and down to the pond, but it didn’t seem disposed to do that. Then I saw two black lumps on the pond over, I think, at one of their holes into the pond. I saw one black lump move and the other disappeared so I think there were two beavers there.

I was to get a video of one of them going up the ridge, but neither did. This pond did not seem that thawed over and refrozen, though the depressions around the lodge seemed higher and now level with ice.

That these beavers had completely adjusted to the change in conditions did not surprise me. They have been masterful at that for the 10 years I’ve watched them, and, I assume, their parents before them. I went back up the ridge to the south which proved a nice route -- the slope was gentle and the flanking rocks pleasing. I saw more mink trails and what looked like a another show of marking territory half way up the slope.

Then I went down the East Trail and up the South Bay trail and checked Audubon Pond. No signs of beavers having been out, but mink trails danced around the drain, which had a curious veil of ice stalactites hanging down inside the metal cage over the drain.

There was much open water below the embankment where I am sure the beavers wished they could be, but this man made pond makes it very difficult for beavers to get downstream over the embankment during the winter.

I had to be a little careful crossing South Bay because there were some spots of open water along the sun drenched north shore of the pond. Here too there were mink tracks,

And here too there was a congregation of tracks around some significant spot, for minks.

March 8 I headed off in the late morning to check for otter signs, cold and sunny so the ice was firm and the snow firming up again, not that I strayed much from my well worn trail. That had the advantage of allowing me to distinguish new tracks from old. I saw the minks were still racing up on the rocks along Antler Trail, well away from the river and beaver ponds.

I think two minks were in a chase. But I didn’t see any dramatic fisher trails, though I must admit that I was in a hurry to get to the where the otter tracks might be. The Big Pond dam was about the same, and one mink trail went from the middle of the dam down the middle of the pond.

I didn’t see any new wrinkles in the snow around the Big Pond lodge so I angled directly to the trail following the boundary line that leads to the Lost Swamp Pond. I saw some grouse tracks in the woods, but no rabbit trails. When I was about to step onto the pond, I notice a black shape up on the ice right next to the lodge in the southeast end of the pond. At the same time I heard a crow cawing from the north shore, which, of course, suggested to me that it was probably a crow, but I thought it might be the head of an otter sticking up out of a hole in the ice. When it disappeared without flying off I forgot about the crow. Then as I walked across the pond (I was over 100 yards from the lodge,) a mink came out of the hole and raced across the ice to the north shore and then up the shore briefly and disappeared, I assume, into another hole in the ice. I got a few seconds of video not worth sharing. I checked the holes the otters used yesterday and saw nothing new. Then I walked up toward the lodge knowing that I would at least get photos of a freshly laid mink trail. Yesterday I saw mink trails along the north shore and going in and out of the burrows in the bank, but my camera battery was low and I didn’t take photos. Today I saw a hole in the ice well away from the burrows that looked a big bigger than minks would need. In the back ground of the photo you can see the minks tracks I saw yesterday, but I thought the hole in the ice was probably made by an otter.

Then I went a bit farther up the pond and took a photo of the fresh mink trail going to and from the lodge.

And then I noticed a short strip of tracks close to the lodge which proved to otter tracks, juvenile otter tracks coming out of a small hole in the ice next to lodge, going about 10 yards and then returning back to the hole directly.

Closer to hole there were tracks of an adult otter that made a loop close to the lodge.

My guess is that this otter came out to slide in the snow and probably roll on its back, something I’ve seen otters do. Then I went back to take a close up of the more manic juvenile trails.

I can’t account for what they were doing. It would be easier to account for both brief forays if the tracks showed the otters leaving the lodge. I could assume that was because the lodge with beavers, muskrats and otters (I’ve seen the tracks of all three animals coming from the lodge in the past week) was getting too crowded. I saw some wrinkles in the ice east of the lodge and walked up to check them. Perhaps they could be otter slides,

But they looked a little too old to associate with the fresh tracks around the lodge. The continuing trails in the snow were faded and were either made by a small beaver or large muskrat. Then I saw wrinkles in the ice which had formed above the main channel of the pond east of the lodge. Angling over to that, I saw another otter size hole in the ice and snow, though nothing came out of it.

An otter could have poked out to see what it could see. The ice looked about 2 inches thick. (I’ve never done a study of how thick the ice has to be before an otter can’t poke up through it.) The major wrinkle in the ice was around a dead stump and it was hard to tell if otters or beavers were responsible.

But looking up the ice to the east it was easier to picture otters bumping along either on top of or below the ice

I headed up to the large circle of snow, which actually marked where there was still a pool of water under the ice (not sure how that played out, usually it is the opposite, the snow covers were the water below the ice has drained away.) The first tracks I saw were from turkeys, and indeed, as I walked on the pond I had heard some turkey yipping off in the field to the northeast.

Then I saw the trail of a juvenile otter in the snow.

That trail crossed another trail which I first thought looked like another otter’s trail, but on closer look I had my doubts about that. No telling what made that trail.

Then I saw another otter trail, featuring a small slide.

I have a theory that sliding is not innate in otters and that it can take some of juveniles a bit of time before they can manage it. This is the first slide I’ve seen by a juvenile in this family. I saw a flurry of tracks farther up the snow covered portion of the pond and thought there might be a general romp of otters, but the tracks around that hole were all made by birds.

I could also see wing marks where the birds took flight. I went up to the hole in the ice almost at the far east end of the pond that otters had used soon after the pond froze. It seemed like mostly mink and other animals used that hole, though there was one trough close to it that an otter might have made.

Then I saw another hole in the ice a bit back to the west and relatively high up on the sloping ice south of the pond. This proved to be the focus of the otters activity.

The photo above shows tracks going to the hole, but I also saw tracks coming to the hole which were harder to photograph.

This suggested to me that maybe the otters entered the pond from the meadow to the east, which is where I suspected they might have gone back on February 20, and that the tracks coming in were fainter because they were older. And once entering the pond the otters went to the dam, and then yesterday or this morning they came back to the east end of the pond running, as usual, under the ice. I should have gone back into the meadow to find tracks but crossing the ice looked dicey and I did see tracks in the snow coming out of the meadow, probably otter. The hole below me, however, looked very accessible,

So I knelt down a stuck my camera into it. None of the photos I took was good but one did suggest that rather than an expanse of open running room under the ice, at least, at the hole, there was a burrow for the otters to run into.

And hopefully find the running room to find pools of water where there were things to eat. So I headed back down to the dam to see if the otters had been there again. On the way I saw some mink action around a small hole in the ice, with a check on a nearby muskrat lodge.

I am not sure why there was so much scurrying around the hole. It is possible that two minks were contending. There were mink tracks around the burrows flanking the dam, where I saw a mink back in early January.

The lodge nearby, where I don’t think there are any beavers, looked rather iced in.

And there were no new otter signs at the dam. I finally got a portrait of the otters’ hole through the dam that showed light at the end of the tunnel.

There was a mink trail on the shore just west of the dam, showing where the mink slid in the snow to get back on the pond.

I learned a good deal from this hike and rather bent myself down on the trail home as if I didn’t want to learn any more, but. Leslie had come half way with me and then had gone home by going from the Big Pond up the second valley to the golf course. Then, half way home, I got the great notion of going up the first valley to the golf course, so that Leslie and I would cover by the valleys where in other winters we often saw the tracks of fishers and porcupines. Big mistake. In the valley the snow was deep and going slow. I saw one fisher trail in the valley and then followed a deer trail up the ridge to the west hoping that we be easier going. Perhaps. I didn’t see any fisher trails up there but there were some porcupine trails. Leslie had the same problem but saw more fisher trails and only one porcupine trail.

In the afternoon we went to our land. Going down Grouse Alley I saw that the porcupine had renewed its foraging with vigor, concentrating on the west ridge. There was a fresh trail, stripped with pee, going toward likely dens.

And there were tracks going up on top of the ridge and coming around and down farther than the porcupine has ventured thus far this winter.

I even saw where the porcupine climbed up a log to avoid the deep snow. I got as far as the Last Pool and saw that the freeze up of the water from the thaw left the low parts of the pool, where the beavers have had three holes in the ice, quite iced over.

It struck me that the beavers at the East Trail Pond minimized this danger of holes getting flooded and freezing over by digging up through grass clumps and dirt to get out from under the ice. I also saw a trail at the end of Grouse Alley which first looked like a fisher’s trail to me, which would be big news because we haven’t seen a fisher trail here in years.

The trail had the 3 x 3 gait and it went up the ridge, weaving around like a fisher would, with even an abrupt turn. But then I saw prints that were too rounded, and up on the ridge, the 3 x 3 ended and there was a typical canine gait. So I thought it had to be a coyote.

Then there were 3 x 3 tracks coming straight down the ridge, and the animal climbed a small rock. So I began thinking it was a bobcat but the books I’ve looked at never show a bobcat having a 3 x 3 gait. Close to our house, I did see a perfect mink slide.

March 9 more thawing and heavy rains are headed our way so we made a point of hiking to the beaver ponds to see how the otters were doing, but there was no thaw today as the temperature was in the low 20s and a strong east wind made it seem rather cold. Deer tracks dominated the snowscape. About four fled from us as we hurried along Antler Trail. However, one small and busy track gave us pause. It seemed to come up the ridge and cross our trail and continue up and then come back down.

I bet it was a grouse trail and won the bet when we found the end of the trail and wing marks where the grouse took flight. We also crossed a fisher trail. We hurried up and across the Big Pond ice until I noticed a hole in the ice about where the main channel is some 20 yards from the lodge.

I remembered that was the area where I first saw the beaver appear in the pond at the end of last winter. Had a beaver already poked through the ice there? I couldn’t say yes because there were no sticks on the ice around the hole, just bits of grass, and a muskrat could have left that. As we headed to the north shore of the pond we passed two little holes, with muddy tracks around the larger hole.

I think a mink made the holes, though such stamping around in a small area is not characteristic of the mink here who usually seems to be in a constant gallop when it is out and about. When we got over to the Lost Swamp Pond the wind was fierce. I showed Leslie the old tracks and she noticed that some of the grass stalks around the hole in the ice at the edge of the pond that the otters used two days ago was cut rather short, and a one exposed grass patch had been dug into.

Perhaps the otters were trying to make a den under the ice more comfortable. There were no new otter tracks there nor any new tracks around the lodge in the southeast end of the pond. We walked along the snowy north shore where I expected to see tracks of the otters coming down from the meadow to the east, but we only saw a coyote trail. I was counting on proving that the otters came in from the east because it would cinch my theory that the territory of these otters spreads to the east and that this is the western extremity of it, which I have suspected for years because it has been years since I’ve seen otter slides come up here from South Bay. (However, last summer I was quite excited by a theory that the otters had a land route from the Lost Swamp Pond to South Bay, and I thought I saw some proofs for that!) Anyway, we did see that otters had been out at the far east end of the pond since I was here yesterday. They came out of a hole in the ice

and left muddy tracks down the middle of the pond heading west.

It looked like one otter was heading toward the lodge, but there were no impressions left on the ice going to the lodge.

Except where the otter or otters came another hole.

It was a bit frustrating to lose track of them but it is likely they continued their progress under the ice. We checked the north shore where the otters had come out of holes back in February and January, and did bump onto tracks, but from a beaver who apparently came out during the thaw.

It went over to meadow and brush south of the pond where we lost the trail. Leslie headed home and I continued around to the dam to see if the otters came out there. I didn’t see much play in the snow, but there was a fresh scat up in the latrine next to the dam.

I poked it with a stick and it was softer than the scats I saw there yesterday. I also saw an otter slide going down behind the hole in the dam. The visual complexities of the hole in the dam and the snow make it hard to decipher what is going on. I went below the dam and it didn’t look like the otter continued along the water flowing out of the stream, but that is a hard call because the thaw and outflow has washed away most of the snow. I took a photo there and the gray of the icicles left by the surging water matched the gray of the trees long dead in the pond behind the dam. This is art and deserves a larger photo.

The extent of the flood of water coming down the creek was marked by the lack of snow and it testifies to the strength of the dam and the size of the breach in the dam.

I wish I had been there during the peak of the rushing water. I headed home via the west end of the Lost Swamp Pond and saw that the mink had reclaimed all the holes that the otters had used. Then at a hole across the pond from the hole along the north shore that the otters used yesterday I saw muddy tracks left by animals going from one tunnel under the ice to another. These could either be mink or otter tracks. This area has been favored by the otters.

The under ice world can be complex. I continued home the exact way I came, having learned how exhausting it can be to stray.

No comments: