Sunday, April 22, 2012

February 25 to 28, 2012

February 25 we are going to our land more frequently mainly to collect maple sap, and now we check on what the beaver has been doing. Worried that the Deep Pond might be too wet to walk on, I approached it using the trail going through the woods below the Third Pond. I went down to look at the dam first and could get close to the open water where we saw the beaver on the snow covered ground. The water was still open but no signs that the beaver had just been there.

It wasn’t the best light, cloudy day, and I couldn’t nose right up to the dam and perhaps because of that I couldn’t see what woody vegetation the beaver might have nipped.

The big shrubs are all honeysuckles which the beaver did cut a bit last fall. I walked along the high east shore of the pond heading to the holes over the inlet creek. There are two holes opening along that shore as the ice collapses and shrinks. No signs that the beaver or any other animal had used them.

I could see the beaver’s tracks coming out from the long hole over the inlet creek. I could count at least three up and back forays.

One trail ended over some very small woody plants that the beaver nipped which scarcely looked like a meal to me.

I also saw some nips of thicker shrubs but I didn’t see beaver prints right by them. On moist days like this old nips can look fresh. I also didn’t see any drag marks in the snow.

This beaver seem to gorge on lily roots at the end of the summer and most of the fall. In the spring it cut countless small willows up at the Third Pond. I can’t figure out its sudden dainty eating habits at a time when most beavers have a ravenous appetite.

February 26 we had snow, then sleet and rain, and then more snow, amounting to over 2 inches at least, which makes it the second largest snowfall this year. (It would hardly count during our typical winter.) We headed off to hike down the valley behind the golf course which more or less leads to the Big Pond. As we crossed the golf course a herd of deer scattered, at least 20 of them. During our usual winters the wooded valley is a good place for fisher and porcupine tracks, usually the latter animals do a lot of gnawing up in trees there. But the last time we came down the valley a few weeks ago we didn’t see much porcupine work. Today the snow was hard and plenty of wet globs of snow had fallen from the tree branches so tracking conditions were not good. But at the top of the valley, I saw a fisher’s trail.

It was heading into the rocks and my eyes followed the trail which led to a dead porcupine backed a bit up towards a granite boulder.

Some of its entrails were closer to me along the fisher’s trail. In my almost 18 years of hiking here this is only the second time I’ve seen evidence of a fisher killing a porcupine, something they are commonly thought to do. There have always been plenty of porcupines here and an increasing number of fishers. The last time I saw evidence was back in 1996.That porcupine had been in what I now call Fisher Woods with no place to hide but trees, and fishers can also climb tree. This porcupine was near rocks which should have afforded protection.

Fishers are supposed to kill porcupines by attacking them where they don’t have quills, the face or belly. This animal’s face seemed intact. I checked the belly. It looked ripped and exposed but it is hard to say the fisher gorged on what it exposed. It did eat the legs to the point of breaking the bones.

I tried to get a photo of its face. While it didn’t look like the fisher attacked the porcupine’s face there is a wound on the top of its head.

I didn’t see any fisher tracks around the dead porcupine nor any signs of a struggle left in the surrounding snow. Of course, the weather was quite changeable last night so there might have been a struggle at the beginning of the storm which was later covered up by the snow but there is little snow on the dead porcupine. The porcupine may have died from either starvation or falling out of a tree and the fisher came upon it and had a meal. As usual, the guts of the dead animal were dragged away from the rest of the body. Not sure what attraction a bag of half digested tree bark would have for the fisher.

I tried to backtrack the fisher’s approach to the porcupine but instead found its trail leaving the area. Could both animals been up a tree?

I took a look back at the where the porcupine died. I could think of worse places. In so many ways it is a paradise for a porcupine with innumerable dens in the jumble of granite rocks. The porcupine looked small. It was probably sickness rather than inexperience in the ways of a persistent predator that killed it.

I made a halfhearted attempt to see a porcupine den in the rocks and didn’t see one. Certainly the fisher trail didn’t lead to one. It simply continued down the valley. So did I but then turned off the fisher trail and headed for the Big Pond going by a small ridge of rocks where a porcupine usually dens. I found the den active with fresh poop in front of the hole and fresh tracks around it.

This winter the porcupine here is gnawing trees closer to its den than usual. The lower trunk of a nearby white oak is almost completely stripped.

There were no tracks on the Big Pond, nor anything remarkable in the strip of woods on the way to the Lost Swamp Pond. With the ice collapsing it is easier to get a sense of where the water is under the pond. There were coyote tracks and a stampede of tracks suggesting that the coyotes were getting frisky with each other.

Coyotes also went over to the dam and visited the otter latrine just above the dam where they had pooped a few weeks ago.

There was a stain of urine on the snow almost circled by coyote prints.

There were coyote tracks as usual on the Second Swamp Pond, no signs of fisher today, nor minks. I went down to the dam to see if the minks might have been down there -- they usually centered a good bit of their activity at that dam. All I saw were coyotes tracks and they led to one spot on the dam.

There the coyotes dug into the dirt of the old dam.

They dug into a muskrat burrow and evidently found a muskrat to eat.

They left a muskrat tail that looked a bit chewed.

While there were no mink tracks at the Second Swamp Pond dam, there were fresh mink tracks on the old board walk below the East Trail Pond dam. They seemed to be doing the same rushing back and forth I noticed the last time I was here. I assume the deeper tracks are fresher and the scratchy tracks were made in the night when the snow was hard.

The recent rain and snow made no perceptible difference to the Big Pond, Lost Swamp Pond and Second Swamp Pond, but thanks to the hole dug through the dam in late January, the East Trail Pond lost most of its water. I was surprised to see that the pond water was back up to the level of the ice. Since the ice had collapsed a bit after the water drained out, the water was not up to its highest level. All the same, there was probably no more air under most of the ice.

There were a few mink trails on the snow behind the dam suggesting that the mink was checking out the new dispensation. I walked on the dam over to the hole in the dam. I could see that a beaver had broken the ice that had just formed behind the hole and then had walked over the dam.

Visualizing what has been happening in this pond is getting more difficult. I assumed that a beaver dug the hole through the dam and I explained its not going out through the hole by observing that there was not much to eat below the dam and as the water drained out through the hole the ice behind it collapsed onto water that was too shallow for the beaver to comfortably swim in. Now the water is deep enough, the hole in the dam still there and a beaver breaks the ice and climbs over the dam. However, I didn’t where it got anything to eat below the dam. I am beginning to think the otter dug the hole in the dam. And while I am on the subject I am beginning to doubt my mantra that draining water out of the pond makes it easier for otters to get at the fish in the puddles remaining in the pond. What the otter got here were frogs and pollywogs. Maybe to get the hibernating frogs it is much easier to sniff over the mud so it’s not the depth of the water but the easier access to mud -- but I am not even sure that frogs hibernate in the mud under the pond water. While I stood at the dam, my brain did not ache with those thoughts. I turned back and looked at the now full pond and was struck by the beauty of the new ice on it formed by water from the thaw and rain flooding over the old collapsed ice.

I didn’t hazard walking on the ice but walked up the ridge north of the pond using the East Trail. I saw that a beaver had come up it after the snow going so far as to gnaw some of the trunk bark under the snow covered oak they have been working on recently.

The beaver did not walk directly up the log and back. It also nosed around bark to eat lower down the ridge.

Unfortunately the snow down there was spotty enough to keep from clearly see where the beaver went.

Or beavers. What I saw in the snow, which was never crystal clear, gave me the impression that a smaller beaver roamed lower on the ridge. While the beaver or beavers generally returned to old work, there was a clear exception, a big gnaw in a pine tree just up from the hole in the ice.

Down at the hole, where the ice had not collapsed much, it was clear that the pond filled up with water again. So the under ice world that I have taking photos of for a little over a month is gone for a while, perhaps, for good if we have a quick thaw. Of course I don’t know exactly how long the water remained unfrozen. It looked like it was long enough to allow a beaver to strip sticks and leave them floating in the water.

A beaver did walk on the pond below the ridge coming out of the hole and seeming to know exactly where it wanted to go.

It went directly up a gentle slope to the big twinned red oak trunks that they have been gnawing on for over a year. The wood chips from the gnawing were scattered on the snow three feet below the cut where the beaver was gnawing.

I walked back up to the trail on the ridge which comes down west of the pond. I walked back to the pond and checked for tracks on the pond and saw that a mink was once again using the holes in the southwest corner of the pond that a mink dug shortly after the pond froze.

Going down to the South Bay trail, I didn’t see many tracks and only a vague suggestion of a fisher’s trail. Then as I walked up the South Bay trail going over a pipe buried under the trail which drains water from a low woods north of the trail, I saw some bold fresh tracks crossing the trail heading for those woods.

My first reaction was fisher. They do sometimes come down to the bay. Then I thought otters. I followed one trail toward the woods and it looked more like a leaping otter than a loping fisher made it.

Then I saw that the animal made a trough in the snow. Fishers only do that in deep snow, not the few inches on the ground now.

Of course, I needed only to look out on the ice of South Bay to prove that otters made the tracks. Fishers might run on the ice -- I once saw a fisher trail going from one island to another in mid-February-- but they don’t side.

I would have like to go out on the ice and get a close-up of otter slides but I feared that the ice had melted too much during the recent thaw. The otters certainly sank a bit in slush.

The new ice along the north shore of the bay had no snow on it so it didn't record tracks. It wasn't broken up either so otters had been there. I couldn’t connect the tracks on the land with the tracks on the snow.

I was sure I'd see some sign of the otters going along the shore. I had been noticing some digging on the path at the docking rock latrine, and today it looked deeper.

But I only saw a bit of old scats nearby. As usual I veered up to Audubon Pond and walked along the embankment. I thought I might see the trail of those two otters, but I didn’t see anything on the pond. Then on the trail back down to South Bay, I saw the trails of two otters coming out of a spillway from the pond and heading down the trail toward the bay.

I followed the tracks down to the bay, wondering if the otters veered over to the latrine overlooking the entrance to South Bay. No. The otters had gone directly into the bay.

Of course, they could swim up to the latrine, but they didn’t. The snow was patchy there but I am familiar enough with the slope to know that no otter had come up on it since the last time I was there.

I walked back up to the spillway and backtracked the otters onto Audubon Pond. In all my years of tracking otters here, I had never followed one that took such a sensible route out of the pond.

Tracks leave a record in space, but the timing is not so easy to tell. Were the otters running together? One chasing the other? Or one following the other several minutes or hours later? The tracks I saw on the pond suggested to me that the otters crossed the pond at the same time. At a point where their trails crossed it looked like they had almost collided with each other.

The otters had crisscrossed a few yards back a bit farther out on the pond.

However, they had not danced across the middle of the pond. Judging from their tracks they generally kept to the shore and seemed to have been looking for a way to get under the ice.

For me tracking is the art of telling yourself a story that you only half believe and that you are constantly revising as you see more tracks. This time of year the tracks of two otters could be the story of a mother trying to escape from her pup so she will be free to go off and mate again; a male otter chasing a female in order to mate; or two male otters vying for dominance. Of course there is a size difference between a mother and a pup, but there is also a size difference between a male and female. I have tracked mothers leaving her pups several times. Generally the mother doesn’t take the easy path such as going off the pond along the convenient spillway. Plus comparing these two trails, it did not look like one was that much bigger than the other. I began to get comfortable with the story of a male otter chasing after a slightly smaller female. I back tracked them to the lodge just off the north shore of the pond. Seeing their parallel trails coming from the lodge, it seemed more likely that they were running side by side.

They didn’t get into the lodge or under the ice along the edge of the lodge, and I think they tried to. Then when I backtracked them to the east shore of the pond, my story shifted again. Their trails were not always parallel. One otter had followed the other.

Going on the smaller ponds east of Audubon Pond and through the meadows up the valley, I saw more evidence of one otter following the other rather than their running side by side.

Then when I got over to the woods, I saw that their trails were parallel again.

In this type of terrain whenever I tracked family separation before, the otters usually went up and over the highest ridges in the area. Not these two otters. They even seemed to like using the park trails. The only climbing they did was over the logs in their way.

They got over the ridge dividing the slopes down to South Bay from the old Short-cut Trail Pond by taking the lowest possible route.

I think these otters like each other. This time of year especially I don’t think there are many of us around, and feeling good as I walked home, I could tell myself a story of a male and female otter flirting with each other by leaving scats on the South Bay latrine and then celebrating the heat of the female with a race around their mutual home turf. But any story is fine with me as long as it leads to otter pups in the spring.

February 27 we went to our land to pick up sap, and, of course, checked the Deep Pond to see if we could tell what the beaver has been doing. Another sizable patch of open water has formed behind the other major leak in the dam.

But there is no evidence that the beaver climbed out there. Nor had it used the open water behind the east end of the dam where we saw it a few days ago. We walked across the pond and saw that it had been out of the widest patch of open water where the inlet creek comes into the pond. We could see beaver tracks going from the open area to the brush on the nearby slope.

Most of the water had iced over again. I suppose the bubbles under the ice now were left by the beaver. The puzzling thing about this beaver is that at least around this pond it has not been eager to cut any branch larger than an inch in diameter. Now it seems to be nipping twigs less the a quarter inch in diameter. We couldn’t get close enough to closely examine what it left behind.

But when we looked up at the end of its trail, all that seemed nipped is the wispiest brush around. I thought the beaver just did it. Leslie wasn’t so sure.

We think a bobcat is keeping an eye on this pond. We saw a possible urine stain next to possible bobcat prints. However, the small prints could be from the beaver’s front paw.

Curious problem. The more I look at the photo, the more I think it is all the beaver’s activity. However, the next day, the 28th, we saw the trail of a bobcat crossing the pond.

I think there are fresh beaver tracks coming out of the open area above the inlet creek.

Once again it didn’t look like the beaver went up to cut anything with any heft. We hope the beaver hangs around when all the ice thaws. It will be curious to see how much it varies its diet.

February 28 cold sunny day and I repeated my hike of the 26th. The dead porcupine at the head of the second valley down to the Big Pond is one of the big events of my winter since it likely was killed by a fisher. But now that it is on my list of things to check on (I don’t actually have a list,) my tour of the ponds is a bit longer. The valley itself is beautiful but walking up the golf course to get to it is not always interesting. However, today there were two large flocks of turkeys as well as the usual middling sized herd of deer. I generally like being vague about numbers because it saves me from counting, then making charts and graphs and then crunching numbers that begin giving me impressions of things that I really don’t see with my eyes. The usual number of turkeys on the golf course is around 30. Today there was double that. Sometimes the deer herd numbers around 60. Today there was about half of that. When I walked down the valley on the 26th, I didn’t notice any porcupine work. Today I saw some gnawing at the bottom of a trunk, not fresh, because there were no wood chips on the snow.

The trunk of one of the thin tall maple trees, the porcupines' usual fare here in the winter, was almost completely stripped of bark.

Again it didn’t look that fresh, but I certainly would have noticed this the last time we walked down here a little over a week ago. The dead porcupine was another 20 yards down the valley. I took a photo of it with my boots next to it to show how small the porcupine is.

I am not adverse to poking around dead animals and speculating on the cause of death and who might be scavenging on it, but porcupines do not lend themselves to poking around. I think something has chewed on it in the last two days. I think I would have noticed the loose bone now out on the snow away from the body.

Those are short quills around the bone and they are what you must avoid when poking. The guts ripped from the body and lying on the snow a few feet away look bigger than before, which doesn’t make any sense. The light today was better for photos.

Again one can see the quills in the snow. There were no new prints around the remains, but the snow is hard and unrevealing. I didn’t see any signs of an active porcupine until I got to the den in the rocks south of the Big Pond. The poop on the stoop had been rearranged as the porcupine lumbered in and out.

So far my hike had been like every winter hike I’ve taken in late February for the past decade or so. But after checking out the porcupine in the valley, I usually had fishers to track -- none today. Then down on the Big Pond I would have either beaver holes to nose about or otter slides to track, sometimes both. Today there was nothing of interest on or around the Big Pond. Likewise the Lost Swamp Pond. I feel obliged now and then to take a photo showing why nothing is wintering here. The water in the pond is too low to allow minks, muskrats, or otters to get any use out of burrows along the north shore of the pond near the lodge.

That was a good place to bed if the lodge was occupied. At a cursory glance it looks like there should be enough water around the nearby lodge to accommodate animals.

I was hoping that because a beaver was not in the pond other animals would be eager to use the lodge during the winter. There might be muskrats in there but I’ve seen no evidence of that -- neither the coyotes nor minks have ventured near it. I had seen raccoon tracks on the Lost Swamp Pond, but today I didn’t see any until I got to the East Trail Pond. Those long toes almost suggest muskrat prints but I think a raccoon just had wet feet, which always leave more of an impression.

The minks, so active here, had not been about. The pond is still filled with water even though water is flowing out of the hole in the dam. The ice behind the hole was still intact. No beaver had ventured out there after the freeze and I didn’t see any new beaver prints on the dam.

However, on the back edge of what had been open water during the thaw where there are clumps of cattails, it looked like some ice had been broken.

When there was two feet of air space under the ice it was easier for me to picture the beavers’ life there, but now that the pond is like, well, like it usually is for beavers, it seems more mysterious to me. I fancy that I try to see the world through the animals’ eyes but I certainly latch onto any vision of it that I can make seem more familiar to me. While I could probably walk on the pond ice, now that the pond is relatively deep again I think it would be a foolish risk. So once again I studied the lodge in the middle of the pond from the ridge north of the pond. It doesn’t look like a beaver has been out on the ice there, but there are possible tracks here and there, probably from deer who are not as timid as I am about walking on the ice.

I sat briefly on the north ridge and took a photo to try to give as idea of how the ice shrank the last two months. With water back in the pond, I can see where the ice was before.

The beavers’ hole in the ice along the north shore has gotten bigger. Now that it is full of water, it is more difficult for me to tell if a beaver has come out of it recently.

I went back up the ridge to check the trees the beavers have been gnawing and didn’t see any new work. I noticed gnawing on the top of the trunk of the red maple that fell on the ridge, but I think the beavers had done that a while ago and I just didn’t notice.

I went up to the East Trail and went down to the South Bay trail. There was no otter action today. The shrinking ice shelf was breaking up and there were no signs of otters or anything else helping it along.

We haven’t seen the swans for weeks. I had often seen them out on the bay. I checked the otter latrines and saw nothing new. Walking along the embankment of Audubon Pond I heard a beaver swimming under the ice. Two days ago and today, around our house and on trails in the park, I saw skunk tracks everywhere.

I very rarely see a skunk, though I don’t go looking for them. I only smell them around civilization except on those very rare occasions when a dog accompanies on my hike.

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