Monday, March 12, 2012

February 19 to 23, 2012

February 19 we continue to have more or less warm weather and the snow is melting and retreating everywhere. But the ice that formed on the ponds earlier in the winter is thick and has never had much snow on top of it, which often weakens ice, nor much water under it thanks to holes in dams. So while I could not track animals in the woods, I had hopes of seeing beaver, mink, and maybe otter tracks on the East Trail Pond. I came down onto the south shore as usual, and saw no otter signs around the hole in the ice in front of the bank burrow. I went over to the lodge and saw that a hole had opened up in the ice next to lodge, a few feet away from the hole that I think an otter made three weeks ago. No sign of anything using the hole.

There was another hole in the ice about 5 meters from the lodge at an area where deer had smashed the ice down during a thaw trying to get to water. Something had walked by the hole but the tracks were covered with snow.

I headed over to the dam and saw no tracks radiating from the hole in the dam, but the ice has collapsed behind the hole and the depth of the water there is probably less than a foot.

I took a close look at the hole in the dam. A month ago, my first impressions of it, lying on the snow and sticking my head below the dam, was that it was a classic rounded beaver-made hole. However, as far as I can tell the beavers have never used the hole. Now it looks more like the classic otter trench hole, but otters usually dig them in stages and as far as I can tell there has been no digging in this hole since it was made a month ago.

The water coming into the pond flows in just behind the north end of the dam. The ice there is thinner and now most of it has collapsed giving a good measure of how much water drained out of the pond, a good two feet, and now the flow into the pond is meager.

As I walked up pond to check the cracks in the ice that an otter and mink had been using, I got a better perspective of the muskrat lodges in the pond and now saw that there were three.

Despite the lodges, I had not seen any muskrats here all winter. One crevasse I had been checking had now widened into a wide hole as the ice collapsed and shrank back. I saw a fan of tracks coming out of it/

I couldn’t see any distinct prints which suggests that a beaver had been in and out of the hole dragging a branch behind. I also saw fresh gnawing on a stump in the hole.

Maybe a branch the beaver cut off the stump scrapped up the snow as the beaver cut off sticks and gnawed them. Over at the hole on the north shore, the ice around it is breaking, somewhat defeating my attempt to measure beaver activity by the growing pile of stripped sticks in the hole.

As usual I lowered my camera to get photos of the under ice world. I can’t see any evidence of gnawing away from the hole. Indeed, the ice farther back from the shore looks white which means it has been frozen longer.

My photo looking toward the dam, where most of the beavers’ leftovers are, showed the ice that fell; a pretty photo but not much to learn from it.

The photo looking up pond showed how thin the ice was getting in general. I could see the dead leaves slowly settling in the ice above.

I’ll have to be careful walking along the edge of the pond where the ice is usually thinner. I took a photo looking down at the hole in the ice along north shore, which seems enormous to me now.

Toward the end of every winter the snow melts from the land while ice and snow still cover the ponds. This warm winter that stark contrast has come early. So I took a photo of the convenient world of ice where I had been able to walk anywhere on the pond.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that a frozen pond is more convenient for the beavers. In the closer-up photo below, the two holes in the pond ice that a beaver has been using are at the sides of the photo giving a better idea of how far the beavers have to go under the ice to find a way out where there is something to nibble.

Then I faced the snowless ridge. I can no longer follow the beavers'every move up the hill. There is still a beaver trail in the dirt and pine straw.

But that will soon lose its definition as the earth responds to the warmth and lengthening day. Once again I'll only be able to tell where a beaver has been by the gnaws it left behind. To make that easier to keep tabs on, I took photos of the current state of the red oak trunks the beavers have worked on through the winter. The trunk of the last red oak, which fell along the rocks above it, has been pulled down toward the trail.

The first red oak the beavers cut down here this winter has been well gnawed, but not the second. I don’t know why.

Over the years I’ve watched them, this family has always had a taste for red oaks, and usually their winter projects included felling and stripping red oaks much larger than these. One winter they climbed several feet up a red oak that got hung up in neighboring trees. I decided to head to South Bay via Meander Pond, but didn’t look at those stripped oaks. I tried to take advantage of the solid ice, which might not be solid for long, to walk along the pond’s channels and check the lodge. One foot strayed and it went through the ice and water briefly covered my boot. The beavers now in the East Trail pond spent the winter of 2009-10 here. I’ve seen no mammals here since then, though I haven’t been around it much. When I got to the lodge, I saw that at least one muskrat had been in the pond. Its remains were on the top of the lodge.

I took a close-up of the muskrat skull. I saw no poops near the remains so it is likely that a mink rather than a coyote had the meal.

As I walked on, I turned back and took a photo of the lodge. When the beavers were here they had holes in the ice at the lodge, into the main channel and at the end of the channels where they were foraging. Eventually they dug a hole through the dam to make it easier to forage below the pond.

Today, I saw one small frozen over hole in the main channel and there was a bit of open water behind the dam where there was a slow leak. No signs of anything using the hole. I checked the north shore of Audubon Pond for holes, but saw none. Crossing the ice from the bench on the north shore to the west shore, I crossed the trail of three coyotes.

There were no holes on the west or south shores. The beavers are evidently content under the ice. I went down to the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay and saw some deep scratching in the latrine, down into dirt.

I know that a fox also comes here, as well as the coyotes. So I had to find some otter scat to prove that otters had been back. I found some at the back end of the scratching, but not very big. However I didn’t think it was a case of old scat having been scraped up.

I nosed around the latrine and found a large scat but not that fresh. It was on top of a leaf, not covered by another leaf, which I think suggests it is relatively fresh.

I took a photo looking back at the latrine just to put the otter activity in perspective. It hardly makes a dent in the leaves, grass, and dirt of the slope.

The otters coming here has nothing to do with the edge of the ice pack in the bay. That has retreated well back into the bay.

I checked the edge of the ice pack and saw that it had been roughed up by the wind, which has been blowing most days this winter, not otters.

I was able to get on the good ice and walk across the bay and saw no notable tracks.

February 21 As I crossed the granite plateau on Antler Trail, two deer paused in their browsing to look at me, while a herd of deer ran off in the woods -- at least a half dozen.

Both Leslie and I bumped into two relatively tame deer hiking on this trail a few months ago. Anyway I appreciated one posing in front of me. Its fur and tail looked especially beautiful. Maybe an easy winter has something to do with that.

The deer were near the trail. They were slow to run off as I passed them. I went down to the South Bay trail, then up the East Trail and down to the pond. I saw coyote tracks going by lodge,

and mink tracks going along the dam.

Of course I was looking for otter signs, still holding on to a hunch that one otter was trying to spend the rest of the winter under the ice of this pond. Each day I don’t see fresh signs of an otter diminishes that theory. As I mentioned two days ago, the hole in the dam, now revealed because all the snow melted, looks more and more like the work of an otter.

Today I checked the top of the dam around the hole for scats. I saw several blacks scats. All of them looked old, and small.

It's possible that they are mink scats, but my impression was that an otter left them. But they were too old and non-descript to do anything for my theory that an otter has been here most of the past month. Today there were certainly no otter tracks around the dam hole or anywhere else. So I followed mink tracks back out to the middle of the pond. Not long ago I had observed that minks generally don’t run on a snow covered pond preferring to stay along the shore where there are likely to be holes in the ice. But now holes in the ice have opened up in the middle of the pond, which is where the mink went.

At none of the holes the mink ran to did I see any evidence that going into the hole gained the mink anything to eat. Often there are blood stains outside of the holes minks use.

The mink ran over to the lodge, but I didn’t follow. The ice keeps getting thinner.

At a hole in the ice between the lodge and the north shore, nearer to the latter, I saw beaver tracks.

I could also see wood chips and one long stripped stick.

The beaver ranged a bit on the ice and snow but seemed to gnaw stumps of shrubs cut long ago. I also got the impression that the beaver prints here were smaller than those I’ve seen on the ridge.

This is the first evidence I’ve seen in a while that there is more than one beaver here, that big one I‘ve seen up on the ridge. This little beaver seemed to roam around a bit, which is typical.

Then I went over to the beaver hole along the north shore and it seems like there has been a little activity, a couple more stripped sticks.

I have watched other beaver holes in other winters and it is not unusual for huge bouquets of sticks stripped and unstripped to be stuck in holes and littered about outside the hole. In those cases, I knew there were several mouths to feed in the lodge. If there is more than one beaver in this pond, then it is probably another adult or an adult and a 2 year old beaver both capable of taking care of themselves. As usual I stuck a camera in the hole and took photos pointing in different directions. One gave a strange perspective of the thin ice separating the world from the pond’s underworld.

Looking up pond, the photo shows that the ice is thicker, and while there has been come nibbling up there close to the hole, the photo doesn’t give the impression that a beaver has ranged far up pond under the ice.

I went up on the ridge and saw clear evidence that a beaver had been out of the hole foraging for bark. One of the red oaks the beavers cut and trimmed, but didn’t strip bark off the trunk, now has a few feet of bark gnawed off the trunk.

I should turn scientist and try to figure out how much nutrition a beaver gets from gnawing that much bark.

Since I’ve have just about given up on the idea that an otter was staying under a pond, I headed toward the Lost Swamp Pond to see if an otter had visited the latrine their recently. When the otter came into East Trail Pond a month ago it came from the Lost Swamp Pond. I crossed the Second Swamp Pond and took a photo to show the open water there. Minks had ran from hole to hole a few weeks ago but not recently.

I crossed a trail of coyote tracks going up the pond.

They were going my way so I followed.

As I did, I noticed that one of the trails was made by a fisher.

Soon enough the trails separated and I could clearly see the fisher’s 4 x 4 trail.

Fishers generally don’t run up ponds like this. They are more prone to cross ponds going from one side to the other where there is cover. This was more like an otter. Eventually the fisher turned off the pond and headed for the meadow and I assume the woods up on the ridge where I have often seen fisher trails in the winter.

The only thing I saw of interest on the Lost Swamp Pond was a raccoon’s trail.

We went to our land in the afternoon and went down to the Deep Pond to see the tracks there. A coyote had crossed the pond and left some poop on the ice more or less in the middle of the pond.

We walked up to check the hole in the ice above the inlet creek. There were no tracks around the large hole in the ice where the creek enters the pond.

There were tracks coming off one of the holes over the creek. It was hard to decipher them in the glare and the photo of them wasn’t good, but it looked like a beaver came out of the hole and sat down, as we've seen this beaver do, and probably groomed itself.

We wondered if the semi-circle in the snow outlined the beaver’s butt and maybe there was an impression of the tail, or one foot.

But that is perhaps seeing things that are not really there. There were other prints and we soon saw that it wasn’t just a coyote snooping around the pond. We saw bobcat prints.

The photo below is edited to give more contrast to the animal’s trail.

I’ll check a track book to see if it looks unmistakably made by a bobcat. I have two videos of a bobcat stalking beavers, and I think a bobcat killed a beaver in this pond a few years ago.

February 23 we had another inch of snow, enough to invite tracking. I went off on Antler Trail hoping to see fisher tracks going up and down the ridge of the first swamp like I did after the last snow a little over a week ago. But there were only deer tracks along the ridge and coyote tracks on the Big Pond. I was pleased to see a mink’s trail crossing the Lost Swamp Pond.

Before going to the dam, the mink checked out the now small lodge in the middle of the pond.

Evidently there is no muskrat using it. The mink sniffed the top and then hurried over to the dam where it got close to the little patch of open water. I didn’t look closely to see if it went in the water or over the dam and down to the next pond, probably the latter. Not that I saw mink tracks on the Second Swamp Pond. Only coyote tracks down there.

There were no fisher tracks in the Fisher Woods. Finally walking across the old busted boardwalk that years ago crossed the East Trail Pond, I saw a scurry of mink tracks coming up from the wet meadow onto the boardwalk and under the boardwalk.

There were so many tracks at first look I thought it might be an otter slide. On close look I saw that the trough was studded with sharp mink prints.

I assume this is the time of year minks do their courting and mating. I saw a spot of blood on one trail not associated with any frog parts so I guess that could be from courting as well as eating.

The mink trails continued on the other side of the dam where minks seem to have gone into the ice holes. Thanks to the wet snow and warmth there is more water in the pond. However, the trails here went in all directions, not like the obsessive scurrying around the old boardwalk.

At the hole in the ice along the north shore there was a little more water in the hole and several more freshly stripped sticks.

Thanks to enough of the new snow melting, I could see that a beaver had a gnawed a good bit more of the oak trunk up on the ridge.

However, that new gnawing was done before the snowfall. There were no beaver tracks in the snow. I was close to the East Trail so I headed down to South Bay hoping the snow might reveal recent otter activity. I saw that two large holes had opened up in the middle of the ice in the north cove of the bay.

When I see that, I stop crossing the South Bay ice, unless we get a couple nights going down to 0F. Once again there were no signs of otter activity at the edge of the ice. I noticed that a big block of wood that I had walked by on the more solid ice was now floating in the water and the ice next to it is breaking up.

There was still a bit of snow on slope where the otters frequently scat overlooking the entrance to South Bay. There was also a line of leaves without snow and some digging along that line.

Where something dug into the dirt along that line of snowless leaves, the digging exposed what looked like the top of a root.

Otters general don’t dig down for roots. Deer do, and of course foxes and coyotes are prone to dig into the dirt too. As I walked along a narrow clearing through the light snow seemed to come up from the direction of the water below, and, of course, with no ice below, only an otter would come up from that direction.

So I hunkered down and looked for fresh scat, often hard to find in piles of wet dead leaves. But I found a squirt that is undoubtedly fresh.

I soon saw more fresh scat.

However, these scats were away from the suspected otter trail in the leaves that I saw when I approached. They were on a trail coming directly up the slope a bit to the west of the other trail.

I looked hard at the first trail again and satisfied myself that there were bits of fresh scat perhaps spread around by all the scraping. No photos I took made any sense. Sometimes when I have actually seen otters scrape a latrine and then gone down to see the scats they left, I was surprised to find no scats. They also squirt out urine and perhaps scent. Satisfied that probably at least two otters had just been here, I headed up to Audubon Pond. Rarely have I seen fresh otter signs in nearby Audubon Pond after seeing fresh signs in the South Bay latrines. And I didn’t see any today. I did see that a mink ran around the pond.

It went over to the beavers’ bank lodge in the embankment but seemed to find a way under the ice at another spot along the embankment.

Meanwhile as far as I can tell the beavers have not made a hole in the ice in front of their lodge but the ice there is all discolored gray which suggests that they’ve been swimming under there gnawing off sticks from their cache pile to take back into their lodge.

In the afternoon we went over to our land to collect maple sap. Given the late thaw followed by a light snow, we checked the Deep Pond for tracks. Of course we looked over the two areas of open water behind the dam.

I saw that the beaver was hunched up in the water at the opening farthest from us munching on something.

We haven’t seen the beaver since the late fall and we know it hasn’t been out since a few days ago. So we didn’t want to bother it. At first it seemed to be gnawing a dead grass stalk. Then we heard gnawing and it looked like it had a stick in its paws.

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