Thursday, February 28, 2013

February 13 to 18, 2013

February 13 we had about a foot of snow on the 8th and that and the cold kept me out of the woods. On the 11th we had a minor thaw. The predicted rain did not amount to much and we had some flurries. Yesterday the thaw could have continued but it stayed cloudy. It was suppose to freeze up last night, down to 20F, but it hardly got below 30F. So conditions for crossing South Bay this morning were not perfect. The snowshoes just kept us up out of the slush below the crusty snow. What tracks coyotes and deer left were hard to distinguish and minks out early in the morning probably didn’t leave an impression. Some industrial strength ice fishermen were there too and they drove away other living things and we were soon in the woods heading up the East Trail. Tramping up the trail was not easy so when we got down to the East Trail Pond we sat on a downed tree for a few minutes and I told Leslie what I had been seeing at the pond. From where we sat the only tracks we saw were from deer circling the pond and nosing down for grasses. The snow was still deep. I noticed what looked like freshly gnawed pines up on the ridge north of the pond, but thought that might just been a case of the sun melting the snow up there and revealing old work. At first glance there didn’t seem to be any signs of life at the beaver lodge.

However, now that I could see it with half the snow blown off and melted, it looked substantial enough for a beaver to winter in.

I checked the dam where the otter had made a hole and didn’t see any activity there. However, farther out on the dam, I saw a tunnel in the snow, more likely made by a mink than an otter.

Of course, I am always looking around for beaver work and I saw some gnawing on a fallen tree at the south end of the dam. I don’t recall if that was done before I left in late September.

There were some deer tracks going over the middle of the dam. All the new tracks at the north end of the dam where beavers had been out were deer tracks too.

I checked some apparent holes in the snow up on the dam and they were all made by deer nosing down for plants to eat.

Back on the 3rd, when I returned to this pond after 4 months, I admired the beaver gnawing on a maple that must have fallen across the dam after I left, but not until today was enough snow off it so that I could get a good photo.

We headed up the ridge north of the pond and found the beds made by the deer whose tracks we saw all around the pond.

Higher up on the ridge we saw a porcupine climbing up a small pine tree, but instead of going toward the top of the pine, it quickly climbed down and then climbed up a taller pine tree next to it. Never saw that before.

As we climbed the ridge we noticed trails coming up from the pond that looked a bit busier than trails deer leave when there is nothing to browse. We soon saw that beavers made the trails. I started my investigation at the top of the ridge where the beavers have been trimming branches off a mostly dead pine tree, rather large, that fell since the last time I was here.

I could see drag marks next to the beavers’ trail heading down to where the beavers had a hole in the pond last winter.

As I followed that trail I passed other smaller pines that the beavers had cut since the big snow on the 8th. There were chips that they gnawed off the tree trunk on top of the snow.

The beavers seem quite methodical in their pursuit of pines, all about 6 to 8 inches wide near the base of their trunk.

I saw where a beaver tasted some pines with a small gnaw. It will be interesting to see if they spare or cut that tree down too.

When I was here on the 7th, I walked down this trail and got on the pond where I knew the beavers’ had their hole last winter. I didn’t get any sense that beavers had used the trail recently or had a hole there. My feet went through the pond several feet away. But the old hole was wide open today with a pine log next to it.

Some boughs of pine needles looked to be half way down the hole.

Looking closely, I could see some winterberry saplings had been nipped, but the pines were the big attraction. I climbed back up the ridge and before I left this recent beaver work, I noticed how juicy one freshly cut pine stump looked.

So the beavers are here after all. Now I’ll try to see them which I’ve managed to do the past two winters. This year I’ll have a chance to see how they gnaw into that sticky pine.

February 14 we had some thawing and refreezing and we finally figured we could make sufficient progress on snow shoes. So we headed across the golf course, causing more turkeys than deer to flee but not impressing the geese around a small pond that must have had some open water. We reached the valley going down to the Big Pond in good shape. From there it is more or less downhill but we had things to check. At first glance the valley looked free of porcupines,

But we did see some work high in an oak and maple on the ridge to the west.

There were no porcupine trails on the slopes or floor of the valley. However, we did see a fisher trail coming down the east slope from about where a fisher killed a porcupine last winter.

The photo of the fisher trail is not very convincing but that animal hopped through the twinned trunks of a large tree, just like a fisher would do. The snow was too deep for me to trudge up and take a photo of that. Other than crossing a few deer trails our walk toward the Big Pond was uneventful. No more fisher trails and no grouse or grouse trails. I often see them in these woods. I was pleased to see that a porcupine is using the den in the small ridge of rocks just up from the pond. There was a deep trough through the woods.

The trail came from the den into the low granite pile. A porcupine has been here every winter for the past 10 years or so and sometimes I see it hunkered down just outside its den, but not today.

I warned Leslie that the Big Pond might be more of a frozen meadow than a frozen pond but at first glance there was not as much vegetation sticking up through the snow as I expected.

However there was not much water underneath the snow and ice. We headed up to the spring along the upper north shore of the pond. When this pond was deep, that spring kept a patch of water open all winter that was often pulsing with little fish and pollywogs. Last winter the spring barely registered on the ice of the pond and this year it looked even narrower.

I saved checking the dam for another day and headed through the woods to the Lost Swamp Pond. We often see grouse and their tracks in those woods and sometimes rabbit tracks, but only deer had been along the trail since the snowfall. Back in the fall, the Lost Swamp Pond was half drained, but there was enough water backed up behind the dam then, below the hole in it that the beavers half heartedly patched, to make me think that there was still a beaver lurking in the pond. I could see at a glance that the pond was much lower now.

As we approached the dam we saw some thick chunks of ice either around or wedged between the trunks of the dead trees in the pond.

That suggests that the water drained out of the pond in the past couple weeks. So we started looking for otter slides. We saw a trail coming out of a hole next to a dead stump 10 yards behind the dam.

There were no holes nor otter tracks around the lodge, but when we looked along the dam, as we stood on its east end, we saw two holes with trails coming out of them.

Coming out of the hole in the middle of the dam, we could see the otter’s tail prints in the snow left behind when it scampered toward the hole in the deep snow.

I could see some prints just outside the hole, but no otter scats.

The other hole, just west of the dam, is high up on the rock bank there. There were tracks and slides but no scats.

The parallel slides down the slope suggest that there were two otters, but there was so little activity, I suppose that one otter could make all the tracks and slides I was seeing in a matter of a minute of wild activity. Otters get their food, fish and pollywogs, under the ice. Maybe they come out on the pond to get a breath of fresh air. We could certainly smell the sulfur dioxide in the water as it rushed out of the hole deep in the middle of the dam. I couldn’t get a good photo of the water rushing down the creek below the dam -- all in the shade, but looking down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond, I could see a ribbon of brown water on the ice of that almost dry pond.

I didn’t have the energy to continue tracking otters in the deep snow, but I went far enough to get a sense that a coyote made the tracks going to the Upper Second Swamp Pond. Then I studied the otter tracks going down to the Lost Swamp Pond and found it difficult to make sense of them.

From a distance I saw some roughed up ice where brown melt water above the old ice of the pond had frozen. But I don’t think otters had anything to do with that. It looked like deer had cracked the ice trying to get down to water.

I’ve noticed that deer seem to prefer still water that's a bit harder to get at than water rushing out through a hole in the dam. Maybe they don’t like the sulfur smell of the old pond water, which enveloped the dam today. We scanned the rest of the pond looking for more holes but didn’t see any. Then we walked home the same way we came and it was a half as hard negotiating the deep snow.

February 15 we went to our land to pick up the sap from the maple trees and we got about 5 gallons. Then we walked down to see if there was anything new at the Deep Pond. I had tried to walk out onto the pond two days ago and was stopped by deep slush. Today we saw that the deep snow was disturbed over on the high bank that forms the east shore of the pond. We walked around the edge of the pond avoiding the slush. We guessed that the disturbance was either made by deer browsing on a honeysuckle bush growing in the bank, or beavers digging out from under the pond. To our delight, we saw that beavers had just dug out of the pond.

They broke through ice at what looks like a high water level so the beavers must have built the dam up in the fall.

It is likely that they also dug the hole deep in the dam that drained most of the water out of it.

When the snow settles I will check that hole to see if the beavers went out of it to cut trees or bushes below the dam. I probably won’t be able to check for otter scats until the snow melts. I followed the beaver trails from the new hole high on the bank,

Which led to a small ironwood they probably just cut down

I also saw a cut stump sticking up out of the snow, remains of a tree they cut weeks or months ago.

And I saw a few ironwoods partially girdled.

The beaver here two summer’s ago lived off the lily roots and pond weed and this summer two beavers must have lived off what remained of the roots, several honeysuckle bushes that they trimmed, and a small grove of hornbeam saplings that they cut. They didn’t touch the ironwoods, save for one cut last winter, nor the maples. As we walked over to the grove of maples southeast of the pond, we saw where a beaver reared up on the snow and nipped off the top of a honeysuckle branch.

Beavers who lived here several years ago cut many of the maples leaving many stumps. Meanwhile saplings have been sprouting up. Because of the deep snow I couldn’t see the saplings they cut, only the large trees, and those I could see well were hornbeams.

We were a bit hurried as we looked at all this. Not only was the snow deep but a cold front was blowing through.

I saw one larger tree cut down with a few feet of the trunk stripped. Looked like an ash.

There was one stump with a short log hanging off it giving the impression that a beaver segmented the rest of the tree.

I probably should have waited for better conditions to investigate all this work but I was so excited to see it that I couldn’t restrain my camera. Leslie was sure this meant that the pair of beavers here would have kits this spring. But there was a pair of beavers here last March and they seemed chummy for a while but we never saw any kits.

February 16 cold day that I hoped would firm up the snow and make it easier to snowshoe, and I was right. I crossed the golf course and headed for the Big Pond. There was nothing new in the valley. No porcupine nor fisher trails. Once at the Big Pond I headed down to the dam, following coyotes trails that helped give an idea of how little water was in the pond. There is a dip to the center of the pond where the old creek is.

Down behind the dam there is a hole in the ice with a few tracks radiating from it, but all the tracks were from animals coming to the small puddle of water, now frozen, for a drink.

I don’t think there is enough water under the ice to even attract a mink much less a muskrat or otter. For an instant I thought I was seeing mud or spots of old blood around the dam, but all that proved to be cattail fuzz in the snow.

Walking back up pond, I veered over to the beaver lodge along the north shore of the pond which now looks flayed out like a big bird nest.

I headed for the Lost Swamp Pond and again saw no rabbit or grouse tracks. Since it was easier to walk on the snow, I walked up to the lodge in the east end of the pond. The ice had collapsed down where the narrow creek or channel runs.

I think it is fair to call it a creek, but as far as I can remember, before the beavers built their dam this was an area that seemed uniformly flooded in the spring when we sometimes made the mistake of thinking we could take a shortcut through it to get back over to what we called the second ridge, the modestly elevated area north of the Big Pond. We didn’t see this area in the winter until 1994. Our longest hike back in the late 70s and early 80s was to go from the ridge north of the golf course as directly as we could to the highest ridge on the island that we called the third ridge. Then we walked along the ridge far to the east, out of the State park. When we had an urge to get home we cut across what became the Lost Swamp Pond. I think we tried it twice, getting miserably wet the first time as we slipped off the exposed branches of low bushes into a foot or two of standing water. The second time, I thought I saw a way through and we managed to find even deeper water. Maybe that deeper water was the creek. But it is such a straight ditch that will soon be revealed when the snow melts that it may be a channel dredged by the beavers after they built their dams. For the past 10 years or so, beavers here generally began the winter in the big lodge in the southeast end of the pond. Then when otters breached the dam, they moved into one of the three lodges nearer the main dam. I hoped this was a perpetual motion machine with the beavers living off pond vegetation and red osier and other small woody shrubs that were convenient to any of the lodges along with a few large hardwood trees. The latter, however, soon became only accessible near the lodge farthest from the dam, which may be why this perpetual motion machine ground to a halt. That lodge today looked unused by beavers though there evidently had been a patch of open water next to it.

But in past winters this was not an area the beavers usually kept open. I walked back down to the dam to see if the otters had been active since I last saw their activity here two days ago. I saw some very faint slides on the ice below their hole in the snow west of the dam.

The slides made an impression in either the remnants of snow fog crystals or the hint of lake effect snow we had last night. It looked like one otter briefly came out of the hole and went back in. But multiple slides can mean another otter.

The light was better for taking a photo of the water gushing out from the hole in the bottom of the dam.

But the snow was still too deep to try to get a look at the hole. I went down to the Upper Second Swamp Pond and was struck by how meager that pond remains. It was virtually dry last summer. Now with water flowing down from the Lost Swamp Pond dam, there is a pretty and very short meandering creek in the middle of the old pond bed.

I don’t think there is any room under the ice there for any otter, muskrat or mink to forage or den. I headed down to the Second Swamp Pond and once again was struck by how full the pond looked after being almost empty when I left it in the fall.

That even got my hopes up that beavers had moved back into the pond. But I saw nothing along the shore and nothing at the old lodge to suggest that beavers were back. And right behind the dam, where the water should be the highest if the dam had been repaired, I saw many large clumps of vegetation, hardy sedges I suppose.

I suppose the grasses that grew on the newly exposed pond bottom were fragile enough to be bent down by the snow. Perhaps in time the meadow will rule even in the winter. I headed for the East Trail Pond and at the old dam, I was pleased to see what I’ve seen for every winter as long as I can remember, a porcupine trail in the snow going from the jumble of granite rocks east of the dam across the dam and up the ridge to the west.

I walked on the little pond behind the old East Trail Pond dam and then through the snow covered meadow to the new dam. I crossed over it at about its middle and didn’t see any otter slides or holes. I saw a large fresh trail coming up from the patch of sometimes open water behind the north end of the dam.

When that patch of water was open the beavers did some dredging or they left behind some of the vegetation they brought up to eat from the shallow bottom.

Before I got to those beaver trails I saw from afar, I noticed a smaller beaver trail up and over the dam and then through the cattails below the dam over to a large tree next to the old boardwalk. A beaver had gnawed on that tree.

At the well worn major beaver trail coming out of the water that was open a few days ago, I could see beaver prints in the snow.

The trail was wide, but I never have the patience to try to determine if one beaver going back and forth made the trail or several beavers.

I could see some drag marks in the snow so I followed the trail, up briefly and then down a gentle slope.

To a smaller tree the beavers had cut down the trimmed.

On the way there was a large red oak that beavers had gnawed as it they hoped to cut it down.

I saw other tracks coming up from the patch of water that had been open. Some trails went relatively far. To me it looked like beavers had made all the trails.

Then I walked up the ridge north of the pond where the beavers had been cutting down and cutting up pine trees. I took a better photo of the big, half dead pine that looks like it was blown over.

I managed to get a photo of wood chips under the stump of a branch that a beaver gnawed off.

The photo also shows a tangle of branches that the beavers didn’t touch. I looked for new gnawing on the pines and didn’t see any, but I thought I saw fresh beavers prints on the trail coming up from the hole in the ice.

And the pine boughs that were outside the hole earlier were gone.

The water in the hole was frozen over just like the water behind the dam. But when I looked down at this hole on the 13th, I didn’t see any water. So the water level below the ice must have risen with the thaw and the water froze some time last night. I wanted to get down on the pond ice to look for otter tracks, and as I did that I saw where a beaver dug down to get to some dirt and moss and other vegetation under the snow up on the step of rocks just above the pond.

The tracks coming down to the digging came from the red oak stump from where four trunks sprouted. Two died years ago, the beavers cut down one last winter and now they are back at work on the last living trunk.

I walked down onto the ice and found one hole in the ice under a clump of bushes that looked like it had been recently used by a beaver.

This was like the holes under the bushes that the otter used a few days ago. There were no signs of an otter moving on top of the pond and while I never saw tracks from here to there, I think the otter in the Lost Swamp Pond is the same otter that was in the East Trail Pond. I did see a brief mink trail that led to a small hole at the edge of the rock cliff.

I walked across the pond to where I know there is a burrow in the bank that muskrats, beavers and otters have used, but there was no hole through the ice down into the pond near that burrow. I walked home via the East Trail and walked across South Bay. I went out of my way to go to the TI Park mail boxes, not so much for the mail but to see if the pine grosbeaks were still in the berry tree at the nearby corner. I saw them there yesterday, and they were still feasting on the berries.

There were about a dozen of them and they were not shy at all as I moved under them taking photos.

They also hopped down on the snow to get the berry seeds that dropped down there. In some varieties of this species, the males have striking red, but this seemed be what is called the russet variant judging by one male I caught on camera.

We’ve seen them in here in other winters, but not for a few years.

February 18 the temperature has been well below freezing so I didn’t expect to see any fresh beaver activity at our land. But the snow has been settling and firming up so I thought I might get around better and see what the beavers have done. The slush in the middle of the Deep Pond had firmed up and I was able to get closer to the hole in the dam, which certainly looks like it was made by a beaver.

Meanwhile Leslie had crossed the pond and up on the slope of the east shore of the pond found some claw marks in the snow below a urine stain on the snow under a small bush.

The claw marks looked big so I suppose a coyote did it. But since there was no trail of tracks on the hard snow perhaps a smaller animal did it, a bobcat.

So as I checked out the beaver activity around there I also looked for bobcat or coyote prints and didn’t see either. Today it was easier to see the beaver tracks around the beaver hole, and it looked like the pond ice was collapsing back making it look like a crevasse was opening to left of the hole in the ice.

I also saw a small hole in the snow farther down the slope over one of the beaver burrows. I bet the beavers are staying in a burrow along this slope. As the snow compacted I expected to see the stumps of saplings that the beavers cut in the fall while I was away, but I didn’t. A large ash they cut down near the inlet creek had its few branches trimmed but there was very little gnawing on the trunk, just a foot of stripped bark.

All the smaller stumps around were the remains of trees cut months if not years ago. There was a smaller ash nearby that was still standing. The beaver didn’t gnaw into it enough to give the wind a chance to blow it down.

And I saw that two relatively small maples that should have been easy to cut down were still standing, only half gnawed.

Then I headed up the ridge planning to go along the boundary line to Boundary Pond. I looked for beaver work higher up the slope and saw none. So, though a beaver or two is obviously in the Deep Pond now, there was only a modest amount of tree cutting in the fall. As I continued up and over the ridge, I picked up a trail that had the gait of a bobcat if two bobcats made the trail.

But I never saw any prints that looked like a bobcat’s. So I began to suspect that I was following the trail a porcupine made through the harder snow. Then I saw a typical porcupine trough in the snow.

I also found that the snow in the woods was not that firm and I found myself in some deep snow. Tracking became difficult so instead of veering here and there, I made a beeline to Boundary Pond where there was nothing new and I headed home from there after sitting for spell on a log and enjoying the quiet.

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