Friday, March 2, 2012

January 9 to 16, 2012

January 9 there was still snow on the ground this morning but a thaw on the way so I made a point of getting out to check the ponds sooner than later. I went via Antler Trail to the Big Pond and only saw a few deer tracks along the way. The Big Pond presented a white expanse save for some open water behind the dam, behind the two holes in the dam where water was still flowing out.

Today there were no fresh coyote tracks on the pond as there were back on the 31st. This pond froze when the water in it was as high as its been for months. Now the ice is all white giving no idea of how little water there is under it. Unlike in every other winter I’ve walked on this pond, there are no grass lodges made by muskrats. The pond was usually deep enough for them to make at least one, sometimes three, in the marsh right behind the dam. None there this year.

The only possible sign of mammalian life under the pond was a frozen bubble or two under a damp patch of ice where the main channel narrows in the middle of the pond.

However, I suppose the flow of water itself could make some bubbles under there. Plus the flow had thinned the ice there enough that any self respecting mammal would have bumped up and made a hole. I took a brief look at the lodge in the upper end of the pond and saw no tracks there. I headed to the Lost Swamp Pond which was as white and featureless as the Big Pond until I got over to the north shore of the pond and picked up the trail of one coyote.

I followed if past the lodge and then along the dam. It went up on the dam briefly and then back on the ice.

There was a small open patch in the ice behind the hole in the dam, and no signs of anything going into the water there.

The coyote ignored it but its gait as it ran down the pond was 2 by 2, which is a pattern I don‘t associate with coyotes.

As I headed down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond, one duck flew off. There was more open water there than in the bigger ponds.

However, judging from the tracks if left, the duck had been on the ice when I flushed it.

Although a photo doesn’t capture the depth of water, the one below suggests how shallow this pond is, and how useless for a muskrat. There is little vegetation on the bottom.

I flushed 6 ducks from here several days ago. Maybe they picked the bottom of this shallow pond clean. Usually I avoid the wet meadow between the Upper Second Swamp Pond and the Second Swamp Pond proper, but today I walked down it, as is my custom when everything is frozen. I didn’t see much but did get wet feet. There is not enough water in the upper end of the pond to freeze properly.

Where there is no vegetation in the pond, I found solid ice to walk on. The channel down the middle of the pond has generous streaks of open water.

Again I could see how the water here could freeze in a way suggesting that otters had slid on the ice. That coyote I tracked on the Lost Swamp Pond walked between the patches of open water in the lower Second Swamp Pond, and then walked back the way it came.

It may have just gone up on the dam and then turned back. There was not enough snow to look for fisher tracks in the Fisher Woods, nor porcupine tracks below the old East Trail Pond dam. I walked up to the old pond and walked out on it. There was no open water behind the dam and no fresh tracks on the snow on the pond. Over the years this pond, when frozen, has always struck me as a pretty good sculpture garden. However, in the last few winters, because the pond is so much smaller and many of the old trees left dead by beaver girdling or the flooding of the valley have been blown over, the sculptures are fewer. I did notice one striking “creation” arising from the inevitable decay of so much that had grown up here.

Now what if my sole interest in my hikes had been aesthetic. There are fewer beavers and otters to delight me, are there also fewer beautiful trees, rocks, vistas, and juxtapositions? Must think about that. The ice on the old pond was a bit crusty and it look another mammal or two had busted the ice before me, probably deer.

I got over to the boardwalk that crosses the meadow that 5 years ago was the middle of the East Trail Pond. I hoped to see mink tracks there but didn’t. I took a photo looking over toward the ridge north of the new East Trail Pond where I expected to find fresh signs of beaver activity on the snow if not see a beaver.

There was no open water behind the dam, and no tracks. As I walked up the ridge, I peaked over at where I saw the hole the beavers made in the ice the other day, and I saw a beaver sitting on the ice just outside the hole gnawing on a stick.

I found a place to sit that afforded a good view of the beaver, but the angle of the bright sun on the ice precluded my getting good photos or videos. But I could see that the beaver had a nice collection of small sticks as well as two big logs.

I watch the beaver for a little over a half hour and it scarcely moved and was rather desultory in its gnawing. Most of the time it nosed over and sometimes gnawed a small stick and then began gnawing a little log that looked to be about 2 inches wide and 2 feet long. I kept hoping it would go up the ridge and collect some more logs, or that another beaver would come out of the hole and join it, but, more or less, nothing happened. So while I was pleased to see a beaver, its lack of activity was troubling. Usually beavers keep moving when they are out on the ice, or other beavers horn in on the action. I was seeing lassitude more characteristic of mid-summer. Of course down on the ice, out of the wind, with sun striking the ice at a warming angle…. A small flock of golden crowned kinglets flew in, accompanied by the usual complement of chickadees. I got a fleeting video of one.

Then I quietly walked along the ridge to see what the beaver had been cutting. The beavers or beaver, if only one is coming up here, were not desultory about cutting down a squat, thick oak. Some projects up here take months, this one was down in a week. The beaver has bit off a few branches, perhaps the ones it is gnawing now down on the ice.

I managed to get closer to the oak that fell off the ridge and is now leaning on the maple rooted in the pond that fell onto the ridge. A beaver cut off a branch and gnawed some bark off the trunk.

Standing close to the precipice, I got a good view of the pond. Since the water is frozen and white and since there is no snow anywhere else, one can see the pool of water behind the old dam in relation to the new pond where the beavers are living.

From where I was sitting on the ridge looking down at the beaver, I saw mink tracks in the snow on the pond. I went down to get a better look, being careful not to disturb the beaver. Just as the last time I tracked minks here, there was more than one trail, and no clear indication of whether one mink ran back and forth twice, or two minks were out.

I think there is just one mink. I’ve seen a mink on the ice a few times and that one mink went back and forth. It struck me as expression of the mink's pure joy at being able to run on the ice.

The tracks led to the hole in the ice along the southwest end of the pond that I saw the last time I was here.

There was no blood on the ice today. The hole is triangular in shape with sticks stripped by the beaver forming the two sides of the triangle in the ice. The ground forms the other side. Those sticks probably weakened the ice enough so that the mink could dig and eat out the hole.

Not for nothing do other animals like to hang around ponds in the winter where beavers are living. I stuck my camera down in the hole and took a few photos, which were not very illuminating.

This hole might be more useful for the mink when some water drains out of the pond. Then it can run along the bare ground to pools of water under the ice where it will be easier to find things to eat. I walked out toward the middle of the pond, careful not to disturb the beaver that might still be sitting by its hole in the ice. I didn’t see anything else to report on the ice, but up on the ridge, I saw that the oak the beavers cut that fell a bit over the ridge had several branches in its crown that had been gnawed by a porcupine.

I wonder if the porcupine will climb back out there to eat more bark.

January 15 the cold weather and duties at home kept me confined to the house and civilized parts of the island, despite 5 inches of snow two days ago. A half inch of ice fell before the precipitation changed to snow. This morning the temperature rose smartly above 0F, the wind speed decreased to maybe 10 knots instead of the usual 20. I knew the snow was too deep and the air too cold for my aging body to head into the woods. But I knew that the wind would have tamed the snow on South Bay making it easy to cross the bay on the ice and get on the wild side of the island. So off I went. I was right about the depth of snow but the wind and cold provided some persuasive wind chill. Half way across the so far trackless bay -- there were many patches of bare ice -- I am almost turned back to be blown home. But the I knew the north side of the bay would be out of the wind and I could see that there was more snow cover on the ice. When I got to the north shore, I saw a two small holes in the ice.

There was no evidence that any animal made the holes, but I like to see. It gives me the absurd notion that the bay is alive and breathing. Then as I walked up the north shore, looking for more holes and finding none, I saw an otter track coming toward the shore.

There was only one trail, not the tracks of a family of otters. Seeing it immediately warmed me up. Unfortunately the trail went directly to the edge of the ice where there was no snow cover.

The trail was angling out of the bay so I continued walking to the west, hoping the otter traveled where there was some snow. I saw a mink’s trail going to the east in the snow just on shore.

Then I saw a very strange trail of what I decided was made by a large bird dragging something, perhaps its tail or a wing.

I decided it was a bird’s trail because the trail turned and I saw wing prints where the bird took off from the ice.

However the tracks continued over to the big rock on the shore, that I call the docking rock, because I’ve sometimes docked my boat there, where the animal made some commotion in the snow, perhaps the bird landed. I also saw the mink trail there.

But frankly I wasn’t that eager to track those animals. I wanted to pick up the otter’s trail. And on the other side of the docking rock I saw that continuing up the bay just off shore.

Then as I got up to where new ice formed after the last snowfall, I saw the trail going onto the new ice where, because of the lack of snow, I wouldn’t be able to track the animal.

The new ice looked solid but I couldn’t be sure it was thicker than 3 inches, my limit for ice. Because it was much more convenient to go on the thin ice, I stayed close to the shore; plus the beauty of and designs made by the ice crystals made it irresistible.

As luck would have it, the spot were I gained the shore was the where the otter sliding down the ridge gained the bay.

That made walking in 5 inches of snow with the temperature a few degrees above 0F a pleasure. I went up the ridge following the otter’s slide down it.

The snow was relatively soft so the otter did not slide down all the way. Where the slope was gentler it leaped through the snow leaving an impression with its tail with every leap.

As I expected, the otter had come up the other side of the ridge from the creek that drains Audubon Pond.

Looking down at the creek, I thought I saw the otters trail coming down from Audubon Pond.

I angled down the slope to what I thought was a hole in the snow at the base of a mound of dirt where the otter tracks seemed to come from. But the hole looked rather small for an otter, as did the tracks.

I soon realized that I had been taken off the scent of the otter, by mink tracks. The photo below shows leaping and tail marks much like the otter’s since there is no point of reference to show how much narrower this trail was. However, toward the top of the photo, you can see where the mink burrowed under the snow, as a mink could easily do in 5 inches of snow but which an otter could not manage.

Thinking it possible that the otter came down the creek and didn’t leave any tracks in the snow flanking it, I trudged up to the embankment where the little creek begins, fed by a drain pipe from the man-made pond above. But I didn’t see any otter slides down the steep embankment. I did see mink tracks, and saw there the small mink managed to burrow ahead under the snow. Can I say it ran under the snow?

I climbed the embankment and found the pond without any tracks on it. Fortunately a cross-country skier had been by and I could follow its trail along the embankment. Then I was back in the snow as I walked down to the otter latrine above the entrance to South Bay, where, if my theories about otters were correct this otter had to have visited. All the huffing and puffing was worth it. I saw bold otter tracks going up the latrine

And then sliding back down to the ice covered bay.

I’m not sure what the otter did on this brief foray. I didn’t see any scats left behind or any moss or dirt pawed up. Perhaps it didn’t claim the bay as its own but was only sniffing around to see what other otter might have claimed it. That said, it went up the slope a few yards west of where the otters who have been visiting this area this fall have been scatting. However, an otter might have been up where it went just before the snow. I don’t come out here everyday. It was time to get home and get warm. Along the way I looked for otter slides heading up the creek.

And I found them. The otter was attracted by creek and ran up it.

Evidently when it saw the high embankment, it made a sharp right and went up the ridge and then back down to South Bay. This doesn’t make a neat picture because the otter definitely seemed to come up to the north shore of the pond from the southeast, from the point back in the bay which divides the south from the north cove.

I back tracked it as far as I could, I saw where it nosed around that point, but was unable to find a hole that would get it under the ice where it might catch some fish.

Then I lost the trail though it looked like the otter came over from the south shore, not from the creek at the end of the south cove that flows down from the Big Pond.

So I think the otter came onto the ice on the TI Park side of the bay, then raced around on the ice looking for holes. Then it headed for the north shore.

Then it made a brief foray up the creek came back down but before it returned to open water, it hurried up to check the latrine above the entrance to the bay. I am the first to admit that what I saw is open to other interpretations. I lost the otter's trail because the lower part of the south cove did not have as much snow cover. Too bad but at least I had more snow crystals to enjoy.

Then in the afternoon we made a very quick trip to our land where we found all the trees and bushes encrusted with snow. We penciled in coming tomorrow for a longer visit. I dashed down to see the Deep Pond dam. While all the bushes were bowed with the weight of the ice and snow, the snow folded over the dam

At the one place where there is a pretty good leak in the dam, there was a dimple in the snow down to the leak.

The bushes on the knoll above the lodge were bowed down completely concealing the lodge.

Looking up the inlet creek, all looked tight and white.

We’ll come back tomorrow and see what else we can’t see.January 16 we came back again to our land and hurried down Grouse Alley so I could get photos of the snow in the sun. I couldn’t get far. The snow and ice covered branches blocked easy passage.

Even a bird might have a challenge trying to get above it all.

I managed to duck through some low branches, and slipped on an ice covered snow hidden rock. I saw that deer were managing to get around and taking advantage of the ice and snow by browsing the bowing hemlock branches.

Then I saw a trough in the snow with a line of yellow pee.

I didn’t follow the trail up to a hole in the boulders forming the west face of the little canyon where the porcupine was probably denning

A deer trail went all the way up the ridge.

None of this is that remarkable. The snow is not deep by our standards and the ice under it not a hazard for four legged animals. It is just a snow fall that humans are ill adapted for. In the winter, I look forward to walking upright and seeing everywhere since there are no leaves swelling on every bush and tree, not to mention high grasses and plants. Today the way head looked closed in. Plus it was very cold.

So I walked as fast as I could down to the Deep Pond where I knew the way was open and the snow not deep. Yesterday, it was more or less featureless. Today I saw tracks all over.

They appeared to be coyote tracks, three animals, but they didn’t necessarily act like coyotes. I saw a trail coming down the knoll along side the bank beaver lodge. There was a smaller trail going over the lodge that looked like it might have been a mink’s trail.

There was no way I was going to be able to get up on the knoll unless I wanted to wrestle with ice and snow covered shrubs and trees while having poor footing.

Then it appeared that one or two of the coyotes went over to nose around the snow covered tall grasses just off the south shore of the pond.

The only thing I could think of was that they were looking for rabbits, not that I saw any rabbit tracks around, and no sign that their nosing gained them anything.

There was a crisscrossing of trails out in the middle of the pond. Often its easy to get the impression that the animals making the trails were interacting, but not in this case.

Then I saw a rather dramatic trail from the middle of the pond to a small mound at the entrance of the inlet creek. The animal dragged its feet.

At the small mound I saw some more prints, three small poops, one next to and two just on the mound a snow, and a stain of urine on the snow of the mound.

I took a close up of the poops. They did not look like typical coyote scats, but during this cold snap, and the snow, coyotes might not be getting too much to eat.

The experts say the dragging of the foot after marking is typical of coyotes.

I’ve never seen such well defined foot drags, so I took some close-ups. It looks like the animal is actually scraping back rather than dragging.

But then the dragging seemed to show the coyote turning which suggests that it was running hard and slipping rather than prancing while marking its territory.

The coyote trails on the ice converged where the animals ran up the slope and into the woods.

There was a wide and long trough in the snow where the coyotes ran down onto the pond.

I did not see any coyote tracks on the road and there was no trail up the inlet creek. So I got the impression that these animals were going over hill and dale, not sure why they were heading into the more difficult terrain during difficult conditions. I went back to the road and took the easy way to the Third Pond up the hill. As I expected the coyotes went there. Here too there were slides or drags, but not as many as there were on the Deep Pond.

Then the coyotes ran up into the woods to the east, and it was too cold for me to follow.

Leslie was waiting for me back at the car. She had looked for rabbit tracks around our house and cabin but didn’t see any.

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