Monday, March 5, 2012

February 11 to 16, 2012

February 11 I think a light snow had been on the ground for about 12 hours, time enough, I hoped for some animals to show themselves on the East Trail Pond. That there weren’t many tracks on the way to the pond, just a deer trail or two, boded ill for my hopes. I soon saw that the snow covered the hole I think an otter made next to the East Trail Pond lodge.

Or I should say, the snow covered the beaver’s patch job on the hole. I took a photo of the trackless lodge. I always think lodges finally look completed when covered with snow.

When I got down to the dam, the water that opened at two spots had iced over. But I did see tracks along the dam.

There was a small trough in the snow coming down to the ice, and then mink tracks on the ice.

So it was clearly a case of a mink running along the dam, not an otter coming over the dam. Plus there was no evidence of a beaver or otter coming out of the hole and going below the dam.

Walking along the north shore of the pond to the beaver hole, I saw mink tracks coming out of the gap in the ice along the shore, probably where the mink I saw the other day got under the ice.

The mink had scooted on the snow into the clump of bushes.

Whenever I have seen minks on the ice they generally ran quickly around the pond. In the summer they have a more leisurely pace. I suppose since they can’t eat snow, they are in a hurry to gain terrain where they might find something to eat. The mink did not fuss around the beavers’ hole in the ice.

The beavers hadn’t been out either. We’ve had some cold temperatures in the last 48 hours, and it had only gotten above 20F in the last few hours. I got down flush on the ice, and stuck my camera into the hole. I took photos looking toward the dam expecting to see the log that the beaver took under the ice when I was here on the 7th. There were 3 large logs and the one that was farthest from the hole looked most like the one it had hauled down


Both photos make it look like there is a slope down to a channel of water but I assume that is an illusion caused by the tilt of the camera. Taking a photo looking straight ahead ice and water looked level.

However the shrubs do grow out of mounds of dirt and the gnawing beaver seems to sit on that mound which means the mound gets bigger from the accumulation of wood chips and stripped sticks.

I wish I could better interpret what the photos show and expand my understanding of what I know. I’d like to see evidence that there are definitely two or three beavers using the hole. Perhaps a smaller beaver simply stays under the ice and gnaws on the thin trunks there but one beaver could account for everything the photos show. I did stick my head under the ice and on this cold day in the low 20sF, I was impressed by how warm it seemed under the ice, warm enough to smell things, and it did not smell bad to me. I don’t think that is an idle observation. Smell is an issue in beaver ponds in the winter since often the still water smells like rotten eggs, hydrogen sulfide, which I have read can be a bit of a soporific, though no one has studied if it helps beavers achieve and maintain torpor during the winter. There were no beaver tracks in the snow. I still climbed the ridge to take a photo of the tree from which I suspect the beaver cut the log that it brought down to its hole on the 7th.

That is the last red oak it cut up on the ridge. Then I headed off on the East Trail and then the South Bay trail to see if otters had visited the latrine over the entrance to South Bay. There would be snow on that slope today. I saw mink tracks on the snow covered ice heading up the north shore.

I didn’t see any otter slides or tracks on the ice but below the latrine I saw what could be interpreted as a trail going to or from the shore through and then on the ice.

But there was no sign of anything getting on shore or any more characteristic otter tracks and ice breaking. Otters rarely make perfect patterns when they leave a trail.

The photo above is also notable because it shows how little ice there is now, rather rare to have so little at this time of year. I was still able to walk across the bay on the older ice.

February 12 we had a true winter night with an inch of snow in the morning and cold and sun all day. In the afternoon, I walked along the headland and for the first time this winter, the river almost looked right, snow covered ice everywhere but the main channel. Then I went to the docks to get out onto the old South Bay ice and I saw the trail of a mink evidently dragging a dead muskrat back to its den right along the south shore of the bay.

At least that’s how I interpret the smaller tracks of a mink with a larger trough in the snow with a line in the middle. The dragging tail of the dead muskrat makes the line.

I skirted the ice fishermen whose boot tracks marred the pristine white of the bay ice. Then I picked up coyote trails in the middle of the bay. The coyotes, at least 2 maybe 3, went straight to where the new ice had formed last night, but they evidently saw that it was too thin. They walked along the edge of the new ice but not on it.

There was a mink trail, as usual, along the north shore of the bay. As usual I hoped to see otter slides in the snow at the latrine overlooking the entrance to South Bay. Usually snow cover provides a definitive, if brief, record of otter activity. Today I was perplexed. There were tracks in the snow but not a coherent trail.

Then I saw a black scat unceremoniously plopped on a dead leaf.

The scat looked wet but all scats get wet in the fresh snow. There was a bit of ice on the scat, but a moving otter can track some ice bits on a scat.

Usually I can see otter activity much better with my eyes, but today, perhaps because the snow was fresh and the melting rapid, I had trouble focusing on it. However, when I saw the photos I took, I thought I could see otter trails in the snow coming up and down the slope.

There appeared to be a trail up on the rocks going parallel to the shore, and down on the ice there were two trails running parallel to the shore.

When I first saw the tracks on the ice, I thought a mink made them, but the photo of them makes a good for an otter making them.

But arguing against an otter making the tracks on the ice is that thanks to last night’s cold, there is now an expanse of snow covered ice stretching to the channel.

Minks generally run along the shore and seldom venture out on the ice. Otters find it hard to resist sliding out on the ice. Otters could get over to the open channel in no time.

February 13 to my delight I found that the snow and temperature were perfect for tracking. For the first time this winter while walking on Antler Trail along the first swamp ridge I crossed fisher trails. As usual they were going up and down the ridge.

A coyote investigated one of the trails allowing me to get a good photo showing the difference between a fisher and coyote print.

I was tempted to do some tracking but from the trails I saw I got the impression that they were made by males on the make. The prints were deep in the snow and emphatic and possibly I’d go up hill and dale only to find that one fisher made them all, and probably not find any dens or holes where the fishers hide food.

Since the lack of snow has made tracking impossible most days, I can’t say fishers weren’t around earlier in the winter. But usually, as I’ve seen during long winters with perfect tracking, fishers are scarce along this trail until later in the winter. I don’t know why. There was no activity around the Big Pond dam. Minks are ignoring that area this winter. Water still flows out of the twin holes in the dam.

I think the dam and the water immediately behind it have become uninteresting to minks because for almost two years no beavers have maintained channels and pools behind the dam by dredging up mud to repair the dam. So the ice on the depleted pond squeezes down on all the space behind the dam where silt has built up from the 30 or more years that the dam has been here. Farther back of the dam, there is probably two or three feet of water in the old creek and beaver channels, but no holes in the ice to make it easy to get to them. As usual three coyotes had been on the pond, making a beeline to better areas to sniff opportunities.

In the woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond, I saw a busy fisher trail with a spot of green pee on it. Like the other trails it was straight, not the usual fisher zig-zag.

There was nothing of note happening at the Lost Swamp Pond. Nothing has used the hole in the ice just behind the hole in the dam.

Over the years winter activity at the Big Pond has been off and on, but the Lost Swamp Pond was rarely dull, never as dull as this. I was surprised not to see any fisher tracks in what I call the Fisher Woods between the Second Swamp Pond and East Trail Pond. The fisher tracks I saw to the south of this area looked fresh. Maybe the fishers haven’t reached this neck of the woods yet. Then I finally got to where beavers are active and, as usual, found that other animals are active there too. While the beavers haven’t used the holes in the collapsing ice behind the dam, it looks like a mink continues to use them.

However, when I got close enough to see the tracks left along a long crack in the ice, they looked so small I thought an ermine might be about. Over the years I’ve only seen two in the winter, both times at a dam that had holes in it.

A few days ago I saw tracks outside all the holes behind the dam, but not today, even though the ice slanting down behind the dam seems to be making caves of sorts. I should ease up there and see how deep the water is. Perhaps it is too shallow to attract much attention.

Today I saw a new wrinkle in the pond, as the ice is collapsing, and melting, cracks are forming in the middle of the pond. I saw tracks coming out of one that looked much more like mink tracks.

I followed the mink trail toward the lodge where it ended at a crack in the ice at the base of a small shrub. I also saw that a beaver had nipped some branches under what had probably been the ice line a few weeks ago.

I had another hole under the ice to stick my camera down. The image show some beaver gnawing, but the water under the ice looked frozen.

I assume that beavers would be more comfortable swimming under the ice instead of walking on thin ice just below thick ice. The mink trail on the ice didn’t continue to the lodge. A mink could easily get down the hole I think an otter made and that the beaver covered. Perhaps the mink is shy of getting too close to the beaver. Then I headed over to the beaver hole on the north shore. I could see tracks in the snow showing that a beaver had been out and gone up the ridge.

But first I got my look under the ice with my camera. I decided it was dangerous to lie on the ice as I had been doing, but the hole had widened enough so I could sit on the rock next to it, with my feet on the pond bottom and lean low with my camera. Comparing the photo taken today with one taken on the 5th, it doesn’t look like the beavers are cutting many of the branches under the ice

I think the beavers use this area to gnaw on the logs and sticks they bring in from the outside, both from the ridge and on the ice where these branches extend much higher. The bigger logs are on the dirt just to the left of the hole, as I sat looking down on it, but perhaps the beaver has stopped doing that because there didn’t seem to be more logs scattered down there.

Sometimes I use “beaver” and sometimes “beavers” when I describe the activity here. Last winter I saw three beavers on the ice at once. I saw two beavers in the pond at the same time last fall. But I have only seen one beaver at a time this winter. There was a nice beaver trail in the snow curving up the ridge which was a pleasure to follow.

The main trail went smartly up the ridge toward the red oak they last cut down.

But another trail looped down to the red maple cut down on the pond that is leaning up on the ridge, and continued down to an oak trunk low on the ridge just above the precipice,

Then it half circled the big white oak trunk that the beavers had girdled and took a few gnaws out of it.

Then a trail went along the trunk of a red oak cut and mostly stripped.

I walked along the trunk until I found where the top was not snow covered. I saw fresh wood chips in the snow below there a beaver gnawed.

This hardly seemed meal enough for all the effort. But a little snoop here and a little snoop there, not to mention the fresh air and pleasure of walking in new fallen snow....

February 16 the sun was out and temperature just getting above freezing. I was still able to cross South Bay on the ice. I went up to the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay. When an otter comes to the latrine, it first climbs out of the water up onto a steep rock that gets more or less flat and then there is an apron of moss below a grassy slope that is steep at first and then becomes a gradual incline for 5 yards to a steep rock slope. When otters did a good bit a scatting here after the last snow, I saw several scats on top of the moss apron. Today I saw that the moss surrounded by the scat had a maroon color, not the usual green.

I assume otter urine changed the color of the moss.

Then I looked around the latrine for what might be a new scat. Usually I measure freshness by how wet the scat looks. I didn’t see any typical wet black scats but I did see an array of gray scats, one laced with bits of bone.

However these scats could be older than ones I saw before. They could have been under the snow when I saw the others on the snow. I also saw a beige scat that looked moist, and that I hadn’t seen before, but scats like that typically are slow to age.

The ice that revealed possible otter tracks below the latrine a few days ago had melted.

I walked to the new edge of the ice but the warmth has melted the veneer of snow that had been on the new ice in South Bay so there was nothing to reveal tracks and the wind that had broken up the newest ice had pushed waves chewing off the edge of what remains of the ice pack. If otters had surfaced there the evidence has probably been washed away or broken off.

I have been seeing scats along this upper north shore of the bay for years, but I have never seen the otters here and I am not sure how they forage here. While kayaking at dawn I have seen them or heard them along the upper south shore of the bay and then I did not get the impression that the otters fished back in the bay too. Of course, my kayaking by them might have made them shy. There are latrines back in the bay and no doubt otters check in there, but I think the fishing, and crayfish hunting when they are in season, is sufficient at the entrance to the bay just off a strong current that runs from Eel Bay, through the Narrows and into the main channel of the river, though let me be quick to add that I have never seen otters foraging in a way that I could be certain was “off a strong current.” I began thinking about how otters fish the river when I made up bedtime stories for my son 15 years ago. I am still telling myself new stories.Then I went up to check Audubon Pond. The beavers have still not come out from under the ice anywhere. However, the wind has been doing some work for them, blowing down the hickory on the point along the west shore of the pond that the beavers had half cut.

Then I hurried over to the East Trail Pond staying on park trails until I veered down the little rock lined valley which has become my winter gateway to the pond. Coming down that protected valley keeps me out of the wind so I can scan the pond and see if a beaver or mink is out without my smell alarming them. As usual this winter, no animals were out or about. (The one time a beaver was out on the far ridge, I didn’t see if from the valley and walked around most of the pond without alarming it before I did see it.) I checked the hole the mink had in the ice in front of the burrow on the south shore of the pond. The ice and snow around the hole looked rather used, much more than minks might do.

I saw some otter prints and then some generous black scats on the snow covered ground next to the hole.

I think the experts say that the all black comes from eating frogs and pollywogs, which makes sense in this case because frogs were plentiful in this pond. The scats were also very big.

There were no otter slides leaving the hole. I walked over to the lodge to see if the otter had used the hole beside the lodge, a hole that it may have made. The hole remained covered by what the beaver had pushed over it and by the snow.

Down at the dam I didn’t see any scats on the snow. A bit of the slope of the ice from open water to the dam looked gray with use, consistent with an otter going up and down.

I didn’t go up on the dam to see if there were scats there but I assume there are. I walked up pond toward the hole in the ice on the north shore and checked the holes that are opening up in the middle of the pond. I saw a sloppy trail paralleling one crevasse. The prints looked like an otters, and the gait was like an otter‘s.

There was a small spread of scats near the hole.

And away from the hole the prints in the ice and snow became more distinct. The distances between the holes that the otter used seemed to preclude sliding. Otters like to pick up a little speed as they run before they slide on their belly.

There were more scats near the hole in the ice, next to a clump of shrubs, that the otter ran to. I’d like to say two otters made all the commotion left on the ice around the hole, but, in my experience, two otters on the ice leave much more commotion.

The hole that the beavers are using to get out from under the ice on the north shore of the pond is almost directly below the rock slope covered with pine straw and moss that was the otters principal latrine during the fall. The snow below part of the latrine and leading to the hole was gray with use, and it looked like the pine straw in the latrine had been scraped up again. But I didn’t see any scats in the latrine or on the ice.

The prints I could distinguish around the hole were left by a beaver coming out to nip a small branch.

I took my usual photos of the hole. I confess to being inordinately fascinated by a hole in the ice. However it is getting more difficult to tell what is old nibbling and what I haven't seen before.

Judging from the photos I’ve taken under the ice, the beaver has added another stick, a thin one as yet mostly unstripped, to the pile of logs and sticks it has collected under the ice.

Looking up pond I noticed some new nibbling up in that direction.

All very interesting, but my mind was pulsing to figure out what the otter has been up to. There were no signs that it had been under the ice there, save that there was some open water which a foraging otter could have kept open. I saw otter tracks coming into the pond on January 23 and haven’t seen any leave the pond since then. However, this has been a bad year for tracking. And I have seen otter signs in South Bay which is not far away. On February 7 after I had seen a beaver and a mink, I thought I twice heard otter snorts. But between January 23 and February 7, I didn’t see any otter signs here and until today I have not seen any otter signs since February 7. I have tracked otters to ponds before and had to wait for several days to see evidence of them coming out on the pond, and that was a family of otters. It is certainly possible for a single otter to lay low for three weeks, and with such poor foraging opportunities at the Big Pond, Lost Swamp Pond and Second Swamp Pond, it makes sense that an otter would stay here. So I think an otter has been under the ice all this time, but time will tell. Maybe I’ll see evidence of one otter in those other ponds; maybe I’ll see evidence of one otter coming out of this pond; maybe I’ll see evidence of an otter going back and forth between this pond and South Bay. So far no otter signs on or around South Bay have pointed to any otter coming here. I went up the ridge to see what the beaver has been cutting. The now and then, with a February 5, photo of the red oak the beaver last cut shows how thoroughly the beaver subdued that tree.

The red oak it cut down before that one has been trimmed of branches but the trunk bark has not been gnawed, and there is still a bit of bark on the red oak it cut before that one.

I headed home via the other ponds just to make sure that no otter had been there. I found all three ponds as quiet as usual. With the snow gone at the Lost Swamp Pond latrine, I could see the old otter scats. Unfortunately it is difficult to judge the age of otter scats in the winter. The ones I saw today could easily be over a month old. The other poop there had been left by a coyote.

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