Monday, February 6, 2012

January 19 to 25, 2012

January 19 it warmed up enough for a hike to the ponds but the ice under the 4 or 5 inches of snow gave me pause. I plotted a straight line to the East Trail Pond. It had probably been too cold for beavers to be out save for three evenings ago when we had a brief warm up before another light snow followed by temperatures too cold for a beaver to venture out of a hole in the ice for fear that the hole might freeze over. I made it up Antler Trail easily enough but veered a bit off my usual route over to South Bay to admire the gnawing a porcupine did in a large oak tree.

I always look around when I see porcupine work in a tree. Today I saw a small porcupine up in a smaller tree about 20 meters away.

It didn’t move as I admired it. I saw its trail in the snow and began following that down the ridge, but it merged into larger deer trails. I’ve learned over the years that following deer trails in the snow is only good to a point. They often lead to thickets and deer have little regard for the angle of slopes. Fortunately there was a gap in the thicket they led me to and the steep part of the slope wasn’t icy. It was easy walking on the South Bay trail because a crew inspected power lines after another one of our wind storms, fortunately no big equipment had to be brought in. I approached the East Trail Pond by walking down that snug canyon where the beavers had foraged a bit in the fall. There was no sign of them being up it since the snowfall. When I got down to the official park trail, I saw that the large red oak the beavers cut and that was hanging over the trail was now down on it thanks, I assume, to the recent strong winds giving gravity a hand.

The crown of the tree fell conveniently onto the west edge of the pond. But the beavers had not gotten over to it, nor broke through ice there.

The mink had a hole in the ice there, but I could see no sign of it today. I walked along the frozen pond shore to where the mink had a hole through the ice in front of the old bank burrow and while there was no trails to it there was a depression in the snow.

The hole looked interesting giving more of an impression that it was as much a tunnel as it was a direct hole down through the ice and into the pond. I never dig around these intriguing features even though I know they will disappear with the next thaw or snowfall.

There was a deer trail along the dam but no other signs activity. At first glance the level of the ice looked high.

And there was no open ice below the dam. The pools of water in the meadow below all looked frozen.

The ice behind the north end of the dam seemed a bit depressed. Perhaps soon it will be thin enough and the beavers can fashion a hole there, not that there is much to eat around the dam unless they get a taste for cattails.

I saw some tracks frozen in the ice going from the north shore of the pond to the lodge. As best as I could make out they were all from deer.

I followed the tracks to the lodge and saw a depression in the ice that I first thought must be an effort by the beavers to make a hole. But since all the effort to make the hole seemed to come from above the ice, I decided that is where deer stamped the ice in an effort to get to some water for a drink.

This is the first very close look I've gotten at the lodge, though I kept enough distance to avoid falling in where the beavers might be active, like I did last winter. The light was not the best for a close look. From what I could see the logs on top of the lodge looked more formidable than from a distance and perhaps because of that the dirt part of the lodge looked a bit dug out.

Then I headed over to the north shore where the beavers have a hole in the ice. I followed deer tracks and then saw what looked like a beaver trail coming from the hole.

The trail went up the slope and I saw that a beaver went up to the huge red oaks

and even higher up the ridge to a tree they cut a few months ago. Unfortunately the light was not good for taking photos of trails in the snow.

The hole the beavers crawled out of was frozen solid. There were plenty of beaver prints around it and some wood chips freshly gnawed.

Then I headed up the trail the beavers made going up the ridge directly from the hole. For me it was rather icy, but I trust that the beavers were out during the brief window of warmth after the last light snow.

The trail led to the big maple rooted in the pond that fell onto the ridge. The beavers cut a few more branches off leaving wood chips in the snow.

The trail went higher up the ridge up to the crown to the oak they just cut down.

They cut branches and also gnawed a bit of the long segment of the trunk that a beaver started to cut off. After climbing up that icy ridge, I should think a beaver would need to eat something as well as collect branches and drag them down the ridge for eating later.

To avoid the ice going down the slope, I angled over toward the big red oak and saw that a beaver did some gnawing there. If we keep getting strong winds, as we have been getting this winter, that big tree is going to fall.

Before I left the ridge, I took a photo of the pond below and from that distance all the fat prints in the snow and ice looked like they were made by beavers.

There are things for beavers to browse on the ice, but I didn’t see any beaver prints around a winterberry bush.

And when I got to the big prints in the snow, formless from melting and larger than the original impression, I saw plenty of deer poop among the prints.

The deer, not the beavers, did the browsing on the pond ice.

January 20 Leslie joined me on a walk across South Bay. We’ve had fresh snow, so we hoped to see some tracks. The only tracks I saw were from a mink running along the shore.

Farther along I saw some nice mink prints going east and west.

Leslie just stayed on the ice but since I was so close to it, I had to go check the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay. There were no signs that an otter had been there, but I got a good view of how the ice broke up thanks to the recent southwest wind.

It would be nice to discover a vocabulary to describe all the shapes ice breaks into.

Last year at this time South Bay was completely ice covered and ice wrapped around the headland of Wellesley Island. This year whenever the bay is ice covered warmth and wind break it up again.

This is the warmest winter we’ve experienced in our 17 years here.

January 22 we went to the land and did a little tracking. The tracks at the Deep Pond were not as easy to interpret as last time when three coyotes went around the pond and one marked with left foot drags. One animal kept brushing the snow with its paws as it walked and we kept looking for signs that it was a bobcat. And if the snow had been deeper on the pond, instead of a mere inch or two, that brushed snow would have suggested bobcat.

But the almost parallel line of prints seemed too wide for a bobcat and the individual prints didn’t seem quite round enough.

On ponds like this coyotes seemed to show off. And bobcats usually prowl alone and, as before, there had been two or three animals on the pond.

Anyway, I told Leslie that we should track it into the woods and see what the animals did at logs. The smaller bobcat or fox, for that matter, is more likely to step on the log or even walk down it. We found that the animals had ignored the logs. Their trails crossed deer trails and a porcupine’s trail in the woods,

and went right by two deer beds in the snow.

The snow was deeper in the woods and we didn’t track the animals far. We went to the pond and I walked around the edge of the pond. The bank lodge at the knoll was still covered with snow. I saw a bit of frost on some twigs at the apex of the lodge.

Perhaps from the beaver breathing inside, but there were frosted twigs elsewhere around the pond. Then I saw rabbit tracks coming down the knoll and going under the tunnel of snow formed where the snow laden branches of the honeysuckles touched the pond ice.

There was a bunny poop on the trail that I could see. There were more tracks in the tunnel -- difficult to get a good photo of them. I still had time to take a quick walk down Grouse Alley. I saw that the porcupine there had been out again. At first I thought it went to and up an ironwood -- not a tree it usually bothers, but on closer look I saw that it had nipped a hemlock bough that had drooped down next to the ironwood.

There were no tracks to note on the Last Pool but then I did a double take and saw that the big poplar behind the lodge that the beavers had half cut a year and a half ago had been blown down.

I think this was the biggest of the several poplars that the beavers cut.

I wonder if it had fallen a year ago, if that would have persuaded the beavers to stay. Indeed, two large poplars fell after they left.

January 23 I headed off to check the beaver ponds trusting that a recent thaw, even some rain, made ice less dicey to walk on. I followed deer tracks most of the way to the Big Pond and then as I approached I saw some coyote prints in the trail mix, so to speak. And on the Big Pond the coyote tracks took over. One seemed to have gone over for a sip of water. But the interesting tracks right behind the dam were from mice or voles.

Usually at this time of year I pick up mink, muskrat, otter or beaver trails at a hole in the ice behind the Big Pond dam. Today I saw where a mouse or vole came out of its own little hole in the dam.

The tracks looped around and found another hole in the dam. I did my duty and followed the coyote tracks up pond. The coyotes didn’t check the empty lodge on the lower north shore of the pond. One did go up on the lodge that’s just off the upper north shore. As I went along the boundary line through the woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond, I saw the trail of one rabbit.

We usually see them here every winter, but never very many. I walked up the Lost Swamp Pond again following coyote tracks and they seemed to have a had a brief dance in the middle of the pond.

The coyotes seemed to pay attention to the lodge, though I doubt that any animal is living in it. The ice now is too thick and the water too shallow.

Sure that the ice was thick around the lodge, I walked up to it and saw the latest coyote deposit, but also some old otter scats.

Of course, I had seen no evidence of otters around this pond since the ice formed, and so far there is only one hole in the ice into which otter might dive to do some fishing, and that’s behind the dam. On my way to that hole I veered over to take a look at the lodge by the dam. It still had snow on top so I couldn’t check for otter scats there. Then as I continued toward the hole behind the dam, I saw what looked like otter slides.

And there up on the rock above the pond, where I last saw otter scats here almost two months ago, was a fresh otter scat with a few indecipherable fish parts here and there. This is also the first time I’ve seen so many snow fleas enjoying otter scats.

There were smeared otter prints and slides down on the ice around the hole, but no sign of the otter going anywhere else on the pond. I walked down the north shore of the pond where in other years when the pond had more water under the ice otters often went to make holes in the ice. I saw no signs of otters there, nor minks. Minks also usually make themselves at home in this pond during the winter. I went over the ridge down to the Second Swamp Pond and crossed the middle of the pond where the ice looked firm. I learned last time I was here not to skirt the marshy areas. Yes, the water here has to be shallow but on a winter hike any puddle of water can seem deep. I saw long otter slides along the north shore of the pond heading west toward the East Trail Pond.

The otter didn’t veer over to check out the old bank lodge along the north shore of the pond.

Then the trail turned toward the East Trail Pond, though I lost the otter’s tracks as deer and a coyote seemed to follow its trail. Anyway when I got up on the old East Trail Pond, I saw the otter’s trail coming up over the old dam.

It was headed straight to the new dam.

I expected to find that the otter put a hole in the dam and I tried to assess the amount of water that might have poured out through the dam. It was easy to see that some water had come out but not as much as some floods I’ve seen over the years coming down from breached dams.

Then I was surprised to see that the otter trail did not lead to a hole in the dam. Nor could I see a hole in the dam. The otter went up and over on top of the snow which looked rather deep on the dam.

I lost any sense of where the otter went. I guess when it got onto the pond the ice was hard enough not to reveal its tracks or it got under the ice through a small hole I simply couldn’t see. Looking around I saw that the ice behind the dam had collapsed severely. There was a large patch of brown ice, but no hole anywhere to be seen.

Walking along the dam, I finally saw some open water below the dam, but no evidence that the otter used that.

I confess that I wasn’t feeling good about what I was seeing. Almost every winter I’ve seen dams breached by otters, and most times I got a sense that the changes wrought by the water draining out increased the activity of both the beavers and otters using the pond, that they all found a new and welcomed angle on foraging for the food needed to get them through the winter. This breach seemed to lead to nothing for beavers or otters. Standing on the pond looking back at the dam, I got a better sense of how much water had drained out of the pond.

As I walked toward the lodge, I saw the otter slides again in the snow heading toward the lodge. The otter had turned left at the dam, I had gone right, and then it had come up to the lodge.

Back in the fall the beavers endeavored to keep otters off their lodge by jamming sticks on top of their lodge and keeping up a patrol in the pond to ward off otters. I could see now that the otter finally gained the lodge. I didn’t see any holes around the lodge, always a likely place for beavers to make one. So I headed over to the north shore to see if the beavers had used the hole they gnawed through the ice there. I saw that there were no fresh tracks in the snow around the hole and the ice in the hole looked well frozen.

I continued walking around the perimeter of the pond especially checking where the mink had made a hole. I didn’t see any holes where I thought they should be. And the beavers didn’t make a hole in the ice at the back of the pond where the crown of a red oak fell so conveniently for them. There had been a mink hole there too.

And there wasn’t a hole around the old bank burrow on the south shore of the pond. I walked over to the lodge and since the ice felt firm and, if I fell through, the water would not be deep, I walked closer to the lodge than I ever dared to before. I saw a hole in the ice next to the lodge.

The hole looked comfortable for an otter’s use, and didn’t look like it had been used by beavers. There were no wood chips or nibbled sticks outside of it. There were no otter scats either, but there were otter prints.

Since so much water had drained out of the pond I knew it was safe to stick my camera in the hole. The photos I got did not show much, much water gone but some water underneath, which looked iced over.

Anyway, the beavers had plenty of air to breath under the ice. I was close enough to the lodge to fall face down on it, which I did. I could see the vent at the top of the lodge. To keep from getting too wet falling through ice, I have not made such a close study of a vent on the top of the lodge before.

I had two somewhat conflicting emotions. On the one hand I felt I had gained a new intimacy with the secrets of beaver life, yet another hole which was a key to their survival. In winter with water in the pond under the ice, they would smother to death without a vent. And then I felt that because I was there, eyes looking down it, even pushing a stick down it, that I was actually bent over a funeral pyre. The beavers inside might be dead, given that I had seen no signs of recent life, and all the minutes I had just loitered around the lodge there had been no sound from the lodge. I fancied I could almost smell the stench of death, but I didn’t. Looking up from the lodge, I saw the otter slides coming from the dam.

I had just written a blog in which I made the categorical statement that otters don’t eat beavers. Now I wondered if I would have to scramble around that by saying that an otter might kill a beaver but not eat them. For I certainly didn’t see any signs of the otter eating anything at this pond that suddenly seemed so sterile. I have known this beaver family for over ten years. I went back below the dam to take a closer look at the flooding below the pond with much of the ice there stained gray or brown. I didn’t see any signs of beavers or otters coming down there.

I walked up to the dam where I thought there must be a hole and while I saw open water I didn’t see a hole in the dam.

I had been at this pond on the 19th, saw signs of beaver activity but no evidence of water draining out of the pond. Something drastic happened to this dam, and I’ll be uneasy until I figure that out.

January 25 I headed off to the East Trail Pond to see if a beaver had come out of the pond during the last 48 hours which had been warm for the season, part of the time just over 40F with some rain, too. Snow and ice no longer slowed me down much. Up along Antler Trail at the crest of the ridge over looking South Bay, I saw that the porcupine that had gnawed bark in a large oak had moved over to a smaller tree.

Beavers have entertained me in the winter for 17 years but before we moved up here, I expected to spend my winters studying porcupines. The books I had read about beavers all said they stayed under the pond ice all during the winter. With much of the ground bare, there were fewer tracks to see. The spotty snow that remained was old and hard and not good for tracking. I came down to the East Trail Pond at the area where the minks had a hole into the pond. Two days ago it seemed to be covered by snow. At least I didn’t see a hole. But it reappeared today, with some scuffing around it, so perhaps the minks are still using it.

There was no evidence that a beaver used it. I knew the best place tosee evidence that beavers were still active was at the hole in the ice the beavers made along the north shore of the pond. At first I was certain a beaver had been out there since the last time I saw it. The hole was open and it looked like there were freshly stripped sticks around the hole. Then I realized that the snow around the hole the last time I was here had mostly melted and that could have covered the surrounding leftovers.

Looking down into hole I could see that there was no water in it and some half stripped twigs. This certainly looked like fresh nibbling.

Looking closely at the sticks on the ice, I could see that some were still partially in the ice, but two green sticks were completely free of it.

I got on my knees and stuck my camera down in the hole. I got a good photo showing the ice on top, the commodious air space and the remaining water below now forming what remains of the pond under what I suppose I can call the ice ceiling. Of course when that ice melts it will be part of the pond before it drains away. Between the ice and water below were many segments of the woody shrubs that I’ve never identified.

Another photo, taken with the camera pointed a bit up pond, I think, showed that a beaver cut some of the woody segments and stripped them under the ice ceiling.

Another photo shows more beaver cuts and gnawing.

I could also get my head down enough so that my eyes could see this amazing world the beavers now lived in. It was so alluring as to be nonsensical. Why should cutting these small segments of wood seem so special when the beaver could cut much longer segments by going out and standing on the ice? If this had been a bitter cold winter this under ice buffet would seem necessary, but the winter had been warm and beavers had been out on top of the ice. I followed what I was pretty sure was the beaver’s trail up the slope. It was hard to tell because it was so icy. When I got to soft snow, I could see the beaver’s prints.

Then I saw that the beaver had begun gnawing bark off the oak tree it had cut down a few weeks ago. Two days ago it had only cut some branches out of the crown.

I took a closer look at the tooth marks on the tree and decided I couldn’t see different sized teeth which would suggest that more than one beaver had been gnawing.

Since I was almost up to the park trail, I walked down it back to the pond. Crossing the bridge over the inlet creek, I saw that there was a large hole in the thin ice of the pond where the creek flowed into it.

No signs that any animal used it. As I walked out on the ice and looked up pond, I saw what looks like a muskrat lodge.

I had seen muskrats here in the summer, perhaps some are still here. Enough snow had melted on the dam, which, of course, also increased the flow of water into the pond, so that I could easily see where the water was leaking through the dam.

From above, the hole didn’t look like much but when I got flat down on the dam and got my head below it so I could look back I saw a huge hole. None of the photos I took was quite in focus, but you can still see that it is perhaps two feet wide.

Another photo shows how the ice collapses behind the hole.

Unfortunately when the beavers made this dam they did not use many logs so who over made the hole did not have to gnaw anything. I don’t think a muskrat would make a hole like this. They usually make them when they burrow into a dam thick with mud. I don’t think this was a case of the dam simply failing because there was a hole and when a relatively new dam like this fails, a large section of the whole dam is washed away. That leaves an otter or a beaver as the culprit. Two days ago I did see an otter slide coming to the dam but as far as I could see, the otter didn’t use the hole. While the otter left slides on the pond and climbed out of a hole beside the lodge, it left no scats behind, and no fish nor frog parts were strewn about the ice. In my experience, when otters breach a dam, they take advantage of the pools of water left under the ice where it is harder for fish or pollywogs to hide. In two other cases where I clearly saw that beavers made a hole in their own dam, they did their principal foraging below the dam. As far as I could tell no beaver had come out of the hole and foraged below the dam. It was using the same hole to get out from under the ice that it had been using before the water drained out of the pond. However, this family of beavers had made a hole in the Meander Pond dam a few years ago. I’ll never know for sure, but I think a beaver made this hole. This has been a warm and easy winter for humans, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy for animals. There were a few nights when the temperature went under minus 5 F. Plus while the lack of snow makes it easy on the roads, it allows the pond ice to freeze hard and thick. The beavers did gnaw through the 4 to 5 inches of ice to make a hole to get out but maybe one beaver decided that it would be easier to simply drain the water out of the pond. The thick ice is probably as protective as the water. Eventually I will get a better photo of the hole. And maybe the otter will come back and take advantage of the hole. I’ve seen that happen before. So I had a lot to think about as I headed to the Lost Swamp Pond. Of course, I kept an eye out for otter slides, but I didn’t see any. All appeared quiet at the open water behind the Lost Swamp Pond dam.

There were no knew scats. When I worried that the otter might have killed a beaver at the East Trail Pond, I figured I would have to check this scat for beaver hairs. As far as I could see today, it was all fish scales and the usual mysteries of the otter diet.

In other winter here, when otters moved in, after paying respects to the open water at the dam, they took advantage of the far west end of the pond and a little bay near the mossy cove where the ice was never as thick because of little springs there. I checked both areas, and while I saw small patches of open water, I didn’t see any evidence of otters taking advantage of it. However, I saw what could have been the impression of an otter sliding, going to the open water near the mossy cove.

Instead of taking Antler Trail to get home, I went up the creek feeding the Big Pond that is one of my routes during a normal winter since I can use my skis. The route leads to the golf course and during almost every winter I’ve used that route, I’ve seen a porcupine den in the base of a big tree, a dying red oak. Now the oak is dead, and the strong winds blew it over.

At the base of the tree I could see a huge mound of ancient porcupine poop.

This land and I are growing old together, a bit of a surprise for me.

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