Monday, March 5, 2012

February 1 to 9, 2012

February 4 we've been confined to our house since February 1 but did get out for walks along the headland allowing us to keep an eye on the swans, as many as 7 now. We also drove over to the Nature Center to get a look at Eel Bay. Although there is plenty of ice for the fishermen in the lower part of the bay, the ice west of the Nature Center, we were told, is too thin. And the bay is all open water from the Narrows over to the Grand View Point.

I assume the Picton Channel where I watch otters is completely open. If we hadn’t taken the motor off our boat, I could go over there and see what’s happening. The water level has been rising, perhaps as much as two feet in the last two months, which seems to have made the ice along the Eel Bay shore uneven and full of gaps.

Today, we were desperate to get to our land though we couldn’t do much. I hurried down to see if the otter that left scats outside of holes in the ice around the Deep Pond had come back out on the ice again. There were no signs that it had at the west end of the dam nor on the pond. I walked over to the inlet creek where there is now a large hole where the creek enters the pond.

The hole looked promising with marks on one side of it, but on closer look there was nothing left by an otter, in my opinion. We had a light snow last night. And the hole in the ice looked like it formed naturally, not from either a beaver or otter breaking the ice.

The photo above also shows the sunken ice in front of the bank lodge. It has dropped low enough to be stained by the water below it. Perhaps that brownish stain suggests that the beaver has been active there. I hope so. There are also no signs of an otter coming out of the hole it made a little farther up the inlet creek. A rabbit crossed the inlet on the ice not far away.

A bit farther up the inlet, where the otters left some scats outside a hole, I didn’t see any new scats or signs of otters coming out. I could see how thin the ice is, hardly an inch, so perhaps this hole has opened without the assistance of any animal.

I crossed the pond to the east side of the dam where the otter evidently made a hole in the dam and left a big pile of scats on the dam. On the way I saw a raccoon’s trail, only one today, heading away from the dam.

There was nothing new at the hole in the dam. The raccoon did veer over to that area to make its own inspection.

Otters don’t have to come out on the ice to do their scatting or anything else. That’s one reason why they put a hole in the dam to lower the water level under the ice. Plus this is a deep pond and it is quite easy to swim to get to every corner of it. Where the water is deepest the slope along the shore and down into the pond is steep. There are some cracks forming along the shore. The most dramatic cracks are behind the west end of the dam. The raccoon checked them out walking on the ice. No signs that the beaver or otter checked them out swimming under the ice.

Leslie went up to check a dead ash tree that I cut down next to the cabin. It fell into some smaller trees, including a poplar. We figured that weak tree would give way under the weight of a rather tall ash, but we were wrong.

February 5 I got a chance to take a long hike which I made into a complete tour of the area I’ve been watching. I went out on Antler Trail. The snow is too spotty to do much tracking. There were plenty of deer tracks. When I go the Big Pond, as I expected, I saw coyote tracks. One skirted the open water behind the dam.

The open water is caused by the large holes in the dam. I could see water flowing out of one.

There may be a deep hole in the dam also draining the pond, but I no longer check that. I walked up the pond to the boundary line and saw some coyotes trails, straight up and down the pond. The snow in the woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond was too hard to show any but deer tracks. There were coyote trails on the Lost Swamp Pond too, three parallel trails. I assume they were made by the same three coyotes I saw here a month ago. As I walked up to the lodge in the southeast end of the pond, I took a photo to try to show how far the dry grasses extended into the pond.

Last winter I tracked otters in and out of holes where all that grass shows now. There was one patch of ice stained gray by the main channel running through the pond. I investigated and saw no hole. A coyote did check out the spot.

To complete my story of the encroaching grass, I took a photo of the shore just south of the lodge where otters had several holes last year.

I checked the beaver lodge for new scats and poops. Certainly no new scats and I don’t think there were any new poops. There were no holes, not even any weak points in the ice around the lodge. I took a portrait of the lodge, for aesthetic reasons. Alas, I don’t think the lodge is involved anymore in the stories of the animals I’ve watched here for the last 17 years.

There are not even any signs that minks have visited. To complete my photo essay of how uncongenial this pond is for aquatic mammals, I took a photo of one of the beaver canals at side of the pond. There is no water under the snow cover; what ice there is isn't very thick either.

While water is still flowing through the hole in the dam, the rate of flow is slowing. The open water behind the dam is icing over.

There were no tracks on the snow. While conditions were terrible for tracking, it was easy walking over the snow encrusted ice and the frozen ground. When I walked up on the north end of the East Trail Pond dam, I saw tracks all over. At first look I thought a I saw an otter slide from the dam to a large hole in the ice a few feet behind the dam.

I soon saw the tracks were more complicated. I decided that what I thought was an otter slide, was a coyote’s foot drag.

Then I decided that the prints I saw shaped more like an otter’s than a coyote’s were made by a raccoon. Finally to explain the scuffing in the ice around the hole, I decided a mink had used the hole.

The coyote tracks were best seen a few yards away from the hole behind fissure in the pond ice. It was easy to see the foot drags.

However, despite dissecting the scene to satisfy my head, my heart still said an otter had been there. As I walked on the dam down to the hole that I think a beaver put through the dam, I saw the trails of minks or of one mink going back and forth between the holes in the dam. At the hole in the dam there were tracks going back to the patch of open a water a yard behind the dam. There were no otter scats up on the dam and no belly slides on the ice and snow around the hole.

And there were two by two raccoon prints going back to the open water behind the dam.

I took another photo of the hole in the dam. Now that all the snow is gone, it is easier to see how big it is.

Then after using all my skills to prove that an otter didn’t go out of any of the holes behind the dam, I went back to the lodge and saw that the beaver had patch the hole in the ice beside the lodge that the otter had used.

Did that mean that an otter was indeed around? The hole has been there since January 23 and the beaver just got around to patching it. Or was the beaver just trying to keep the raccoons, minks and coyotes from using it? There were no tracks around the lodge to make it easy for me to draw any conclusions. While I stood there, I heard the beaver splash into the water under the ice. I headed over to the north shore of the pond where things seem a little clearer. The beavers have a hole in the ice, and it was easy to see wood chips from their gnawing as well as more stripped sticks.

I didn’t need snow around the hole to show tracks in order to see what was happening here. I stuck my camera under the ice to see what was new, and although I got a different look because the camera’s flash went off making everything under the ice look brighter, I didn’t see more beaver cutting or gnawing.

Of course, I took more photos to see what I could see in other directions. A photo looking to the east, toward the dam and toward the most likely route back to the lodge was the most revealing photo I’ve taken so far. It showed a collection of stripped sticks. Clearly this is where the beaver likes to sit under the ice and gnaw.

The photo also suggests that the beaver enjoys the gap under the ice not to eat the now exposed section of trunks under the ice, but to bring sticks and logs from above the ice down under. And indeed it looks like a safe and comfortable place to eat,… for a beaver. Then I took a photo under the ice looking up pond and that turned out to be revealing too, by accident. It showed that not much was happening under the ice in that direction, but also showed how thick the ice is, clearly showing the insulation and protection provided by the thick layer which certainly must moderate all the possible extremes of winter.

Then I took a photo of what the beavers have been eating above the ice. They are cutting the woody shrub trunks rising above the ice, and then taking some of that under the ice, or so it seems.

Then I followed the beavers’ trail up the ridge, still a bit icy in places, and before I got to the red oaks they recently cut down and have been gnawing, I saw that they cut down a red oak up on a rock ridge above the ridge. Although the oak was rooted under the rock, it fell along the rock and evidently a beaver did a balancing act to get its incisors onto the hanging tree.

Of course I don’t eat bark, but I cut down dead trees and trim the branches out of their crown for kindling and cut up the trunks for firewood. I always find it a pleasant task, and I think that's because of the geometry of trees and how trunks, branches and twigs all taper down in size seducing you into thinking that you always have a mechanical advantage once a tree has fallen to the ground. I went back to the beavers old trail and looking up saw that all the branches from the two red oaks had been cut and all but one branch hauled down the slope.

A beaver is cutting a little log off the trunk of the second red oak it cut down, even as it gnaws off a bit of bark for a quick meal.

Before leaving the pond, I walked back on the ridge to get a photo of the red oak they just cut down and it shows the pond below. This is high up for beaver and it's quite precarious and exposed when it leans over to gnaw that bark.

Then I hurried around the pond and headed up the South Bay trail to check the otter latrine above the entrance to the bay. On the way I veered up and walked along the embankment forming the south shore of Audubon Pond. I didn’t see any signs of activity there. Thanks to a cold night a bit of new ice formed at the end of South Bay ice shelf, and I saw bubbles under the ice and, here and there, a break in the ice.

That suggested an otter might have been swimming there early this morning, but certainly didn’t prove it. I needed to see fresh scat in the latrine to bolster a case for that, and I did, one fine big black scat.

I took a photo looking back at the bay, showing the confusing variations in the ice,

Which made it hard to visualize the otters pattern of foraging. I walked home on the good ice. No signs that an otter had been up on it.

February 7 I headed off to the East Trail Pond at 3PM to get a look at the pond now that another over 40F day has melted more snow. The warmth also makes the ice on the pond thinner as I could see around one of the old mink holes in the far southwest corner of the pond. No sure signs that minks have used the hole recently.

Continuing down the south side of the pond, I crossed what I think is a fisher’s trail, but the tracks ended too soon for me to be sure.

Even when there is snow on the ground, it is usually too hard now for prints to register. I went over to the burrow on the south shore which I think a mink was using. Here the collapsing ice is leaving cracks along the edge. It looked like a trail out of one hole into another, but no fresh tracks.

Down at the south end of the dam I saw small holes in both sides of the dam that were suitable for minks.

I saw the trail of mink coming to and from the dam.

Two days ago there were mink, raccoon, and coyote tracks behind the north end of the dam. The holes those animals were dancing around then got wider in the thaw and looked like placid puddles but there were no tracks around them today.

Walking along the dam, I noticed what looked like an extensive burrow into it that didn’t emerge on the other side as a hole. Perhaps muskrats were burrowing into this dam.

However, I think muskrats would have done the job better. I might be thinking too much about this. Since the water comes into the pond just behind the north end of the dam, and can come in with a good flow, I began wondering if a persistent current has been wearing away the dam. I walked up to the lodge and all seemed about the same there and I heard some gnawing under the ice. I thought it came from under the ice where a few branches extended up through the ice from the small cache the beavers had below.

I listened for a while and then carefully got out my camcorder and took video to record the sound. I decided to walk over to the hole in the ice along the north shore of the pond by walking well west of the cache farther from the lodge. As I did, I heard that the gnawing was coming from the north shore. So I adjusted my route so as not to alarm the beaver who I assumed was on the ice just above the hole, where I had a seen it gnawing the last time I saw it a couple weeks ago. As I got closer to the hole I heard that the gnawing was coming from up on the ridge, and soon enough a beaver came down the ridge carrying a chunky red oak log about three feet long. It was careful not to lose control of the log and avoided letting it tumble down the ridge and onto the ice (which is what I would have done because there were clumps of shrubs on the ice that would keep it from bouncing far from the hole.) It took a minute or so for the beaver to get the log gripped by its teeth,

and then the beaver carefully went down the steepest part of the slope -- no more ice on it.

And without any pause, it went right into the hole with the log.

As quietly as I could I got over to the slope and then to a spot on it with a good view of the hole below. The beaver kept gnawing away oblivious to my presence. I could see the shallow water in the hole pulse as it gnawed, and I misinterpreted the ripples during several pauses as movement back to the hole. But the beaver didn’t come back out. I tried to get a little lower down the ridge and held my camcorder as low as possible, but still couldn’t get an image of the beaver under the ice.

Then the beaver started breathing heavily and I retreated. Then I saw that it might not have been reacting to my getting too close for its comfort. I saw a mink running on the ice, below the rocks, to my right. It paused when it saw me craning my neck to see it. Then it ran up to the hole with what I think was part of a frog in its mouth.

As far as I could tell the beaver didn’t react to its approach. The mink looked like it wanted to go down into the hole, but seemed confused. It dropped its frog part by the side of the hole, then ran back to the hole and gave me a hard look.

Then it scooped up the frog part and ran on the ice along the shore until it found another hole to get under the ice. The video tells the story better than I can.

The beaver stopped breathing heavily and I resumed waiting for it to come out of its hole. Then I heard what I was sure was an otter’s snort coming from the same area of the pond where I first saw the mink. I craned my neck again and saw nothing. I heard two, maybe three snorts, that didn’t seem to move. But no otter came out of the hole. The beaver continued gnawing and didn’t even breath heavily. I moved back farther and stood up so I could get a view of the lodge and the dam but I didn’t see any otter come out of holes there. My mind was racing. I have seen beavers completely ignore otters, but… was it really an otter? Not being sure where the gnawing noise was coming from when I stood on the ice next to the lodge made me doubt my ears in this case. So I decided that I would get down on the pond and walk over to where I thought I heard the otter, and listen and look for another hole it might have used. But I heard no otter, saw no others holes, so….

February 8 we got over to our land after being away for four days and I went to check the holes the otter was using at the Deep Pond. There were no new signs of activity on the 4th and none today. I could see that nothing had used the hole in the ice behind the hole in the left side of the dam since then. We’ve had no snow for several days, but if an otter came out of the hole and swished its tail, as it did before, there might at least be a stain on the ice left by a wet body coming up from out of the water below.

I looked up on the dam where I had seen a pile of scats and now with all the snow melted, I can see a much larger pile.

None of the scats looked fresh but comparing the photo above with one from the 30th, I think an otter scatted there scats since then but probably a day or two after I first saw the scats on the 30th. I stuck my camera down in front of the hole and shot back at the pond which gave me a glimpse of the world under the ice.

The photo is not very revealing but it doesn’t show any stripped sticks or lily roots left by the beaver. If the beaver was disposed to get out, I think it could easily break out at the hole that’s formed where the inlet creek enters the pond. There are no beaver or otter signs in or around the hole.

The lodge looks quite dormant.

However, that is a difficult call for a bank lodge. Plus the beaver had been using a burrow into the east bank of the pond for a den during the late summer. Walking up the inlet creek, I saw some otter scats sunk a few inches in the ice.

Since there was a light cover of snow on the pond on the 30th and the 4th, I can’t be sure when the otter left them, probably a while ago. The ice immediately above the water still flowing down the creek, which is now more than a foot below the ice, is rather thin and fragile. It is breaking back toward the pond.

The beaver could get out here too. Where I saw scats along the edge of the inlet creek back on the 30th, I saw more scats today.

Again, I assume they were either there on the 30th and covered by the snow or left by the otter on the day or two they remained in the pond. Often I remind myself when I don’t see fresh signs of an otter around the pond when I know that an otter has been in the pond that an otter doesn’t have to come out from under the ice. It has everything it needs under the ice, in the pond with plenty of air space between the ice and the water and probably plenty of dry dirt and vegetation along the shore under the ice. I walked below the pond to make sure that the beaver did not go out of the hole and forage for food. I saw no evidence of that, and this beaver has cut a honeysuckle branch on two and that bush dominates below the pond.

Meanwhile my boots were getting wet from water streaming out through the dam, at the big hole, as well as more mysterious leaks.

February 9 we went to our land again -- time to collect maple sap, not to mention firewood for next winter. I checked the Deep Pond and there was nothing new there. Before we went home we skated on its somewhat bumpy ice. I went to explore the pond the beavers made of the Deep Pond creek going down from the Deep Pond just before it drains into White Swamp. I am kicking myself for not seeing this pond when the beavers were using. There are no signs the beavers are here now.

I cant be sure how large the pond was. I might get a better idea when the snow melts. But I could see several trees the beavers cut down, mostly elm and ash.

But I was surprised to see that the crowns of trees they cut down were not trimmed.

As I got closer to the dam, I turned around and took a photo of the impressive flat that certainly struck me as great place for beavers to engineer a huge pond.

However, as I contemplated the dam, I got to thinking that maybe the dam wasn’t built up this year. Indeed looking at old photos I took of it in 2006 and 2007, the dam looks about the same size. However a high level of water did back up, froze and then the ice collapsed as water leaked through the dam giving the pattern I am familiar with from watching other beaver ponds.

I will have to wait until a complete thaw. If beavers were living here last year, there should be a collection of stripped sticks somewhere. I haven’t found any lodge here yet. There is a rather long log on the dam in a curious position. Other photos show that the tree fell from behind the dam.

I’ll have to figure out what the beavers did with branches and logs cut off the tree. Maybe they hauled them down to White Swamp and not back to the pond. There is no mystery about the lodge on the south shore of White Swamp. It is new since last winter, when I last paid attention to the swamp. I see enough changes around it, including ample open water to convince me that beavers are now in the lodge.

Although the photo editing of the photo below makes it looks like it is of a Caribbean beach, it shows what I think is a lily root half eaten by a beaver and floating in the open water in front of the lodge.

I got on the bank next to the lodge which allowed my to get close to the thin ice in front of the lodge. There were plenty of bubbles under the ice, air bubbles from the beavers I assume. There were a few stripped sticks too.

The lodge is quite massive with dirt topped with logs. The huge swamp does not have any trees in it and the south shore is a steep ridge and I didn’t see evidence of beavers cutting trees low on the ridge near the lodge.

The beavers could have found logs under water, but I can’t imagine there would be that many. Perhaps they got some of the these logs from the pond formed by the dam at the inlet creek which is a good hike from the lodge -- 200 yards? -- but beavers could swim all the way. I took a photo of a patch of open water on the other side of the lodge with the huge swamp in the background. No trees out there.

Then I turned and took a photo of the lodge with the other end of the swamp in the back ground. That gives a view of the beavers’ cache of logs, where there have evidently done little munching.

There was a stripped stick frozen in the ice of the patch of what had been open water, the patch farthest from lodge. And there were plenty of bubbles under the ice.

I continued walking down the south shore curious to see if otters, now that they’ve apparently left the Deep Pond, are scatting again in their latrine along the south shore. With the snow around the hole gone, I could see a much bigger pile of old scats, but no fresh ones. So I can’t say an otter has been here.

Walking back on the ice of White Swamp, I realized that I might be able to skate around the whole huge pond, but not today. As Leslie drilled maple trees to tap their sap, I took a quick look at the Boundary Pond, beaver-less for the first time in a couple years. Ponds without beavers certainly seem less lively. Of course there were no signs of life on or around or in the lodge.

No holes in the ice behind the dam, even though the dam has a slow leak.

The ice has lowered in an orderly fashion. Having beavers in a pond makes the transition from winter to spring seem less of a revolution. Although I wish the beavers were still here,

The thaw this year might be interesting as I will be able to concentrate on what comes alive again in the pond, not on what beavers are eating.

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