Friday, February 15, 2013

February 3 to 7, 2013

February 3 we’ve been away since September 19, caring for Leslie’s father. It’s the longest time we’ve been away from the island and our land since we moved up here in the early summer of 1994. One reason it was easy for me to be away so long is that there are now fewer beaver ponds and fewer beavers to watch. Of course, while I was away, I hoped that the beavers and other animals would flourish. We arrived yesterday in the middle of a lake effect snow storm that left about 7 inches of snow. Since there was a major thaw a few days ago, except in some deep woods, it was the only snow around. Since mid-December it has been relatively cold here and it was cold today, in the low 20sF. I managed to head off for a hike around 2pm. I went to South Bay via the road expecting that a snowmobile might have broken a trail across the bay. It was the weekend after all, but none had. Ottoleo told me that the lower part of the bay was safe to walk on, but since there had been a thaw, then a quick freeze and then fresh snow, I worried that there might be a weak top layer of ice with puddles between it and the solid ice below. Never fun to walk on that. So I walked around the bay along the trail. The 7 inches of fresh, relatively dry snow was easy to walk through. Few animals had stirred since the storm and I saw no tracks on the trail usually well used by animals. Looking down on the ice, I didn’t seen any tracks there either.

Not until I got to a small wooden foot bridge on the East Trail did I see where a mink took advantage of the shelter afforded by that.

I approached the East Trail from one of the valleys coming down from the high ridge south of the pond. The beavers seemed to flourish here last winter and I saw three now and then. During the summer I seemed to see less of them but just before we left, I saw a beaver, perhaps two, evidently building a new lodge closer to the north shore. Seven inches of snow can cover a good bit of evidence of beaver activity since in the winter beavers often eat out of the cache of logs they sink in the pond in the fall. So that the pond, at first glance, looked almost featureless was to be expected.

But this family, who I have followed for a dozen years, usually cut a good number of trees during the winter. As I walked on the pond over to the lodge, I looked along the shores for fresh tree cutting and didn’t see any. This family often made small caches outside their lodge but I couldn’t see any today, and something should stick up out of just 7 or so inches of snow.

Then I walked toward the dam until I cracked some ice underfoot. I didn’t see any holes in the ice behind it. Certainly the water level of the pond was not too high when the water froze. Hard to judge that after a snowfall.

Then I walked over to where the new lodge was being built and I had trouble finding it since it sits rather low in the snow.

Then I recalled that the water in the pond, thanks to a dry summer, was rather low when I saw them build it. No sign of a cache here, no holes that a beaver might climb out of, but those would be covered by the snow and a beaver might not want to dig out at this cold time of year. Then looking in the direction where the beavers had a big hole in the ice last year, I saw some tracks going from one clump of bushes to another, the usual pattern browsing deer make and they are usually the first animals browsing after a snowfall.

But the trail was really a trough, and around the clump of winterberry bushes to the right I saw the holes the animal or animals came out of.

The size of the area of packed snow outside the hole looked like what one otter could do. But otters often scat outside their holes and I couldn’t see any scats.

I also didn’t see any evidence that a beaver made the hole, even though the size and shape of the hole is typically how beavers break the ice. The animal’s tracks were sinuous, but didn’t go far from the hole and ducked under the snow covered bushes, not something I picture an otter doing.

Of course, I looked for a good print and studying the few I found, I got the impression that it was more likely that two minks in a chase made the troughs and not an otter.

Minks are light and usually when I track them in the winter, they rarely make a deep impression in the snow. But the snow we had yesterday was quite fluffy, and probably wouldn’t support minks. Anyway that’s how I explained the deep trough from the holes to a fallen log where there might have been another small hole where a mink could disappear.

I climbed up on the ridge north of the pond to get an overview. From their I could only see my tracks on the pond. I took a photo to show how much bigger the old lodge in the middle of the pond is than the new lodge in front of the last clump of bushes on the right side of the photo.

Then when I looked down at the dam, I saw some tracks and a hole in the ice and probably through the dam, something otters often do in the winter.

I saw one trough coming out of the hole in the dam and then two troughs coming up from the hole in the pond ice and heading in the direction of where I saw the other tracks that I was tending to think were made by minks.

I looked just outside the hole to see if there were any otter scats and saw none. I didn’t see any distinct prints but I did see some small tunnels in the ice like minks often make.

Last February I saw a big play of mink tracks in holes below the dam. There were troughs worn down into firmer snow.

Of course, I also looked for beaver work and didn’t see any nibbled sticks in or around the hole in the pond. However up on the up slope to the north, I saw some gnawing on a large tree which was done since September and perhaps relatively recently.

Last winter the beavers cut down several trees high up on the ridge north of the pond and to get there I just had to walk up the East Trail. I didn’t see anything cut this winter, but I did see some cut pine trees on the lower part of the ridge. Last August these beavers cut several big pines and perhaps they cut these sometime this fall.

Once the snow melts I might get a better sense of that. Walking home on the East Trail, I saw one porcupine trail but not the porcupine.

February 4 we got over to our land today after being away since late September. The house was fine, and the cabin too. Even all the woodpiles were still covered. Some of the fences in the upper garden had been blown over but they needed some work anyway. We walked down to the Deep Pond via the Third Pond. That smaller pond had good ice and the water level looked high. A mink had scampered across it since the snow fell. We saw the trails of two coyotes going around the Deep Pond. Of course, I was looking for signs of beavers. I was seeing one beaver there in September and thought there were two, plus they were building a bank lodge on the low part of the north shore. Today, if it was there, the snow had buried it. And there was no sign of beaver activity at the bank lodge below the knoll, the usual home of beavers during the winter. There was a hole in the dam.

But no signs that any animal used since the snow fell two days ago.

When the snow melts, I’ll check for otter scats. There were no beaver cut or gnawed trees that I could see. We walked down the road to White Swamp, following coyote tracks now and then. No activity that we could see on White Swamp but we didn’t poke around the shore. Before I left in September I tried to patch the hole deep in the Boundary Pond dam and after a few rains it looked like the patch was doing some good. So I went down to the Last Pool and Boundary Pond to see how high the water rose. There appeared to be some snow covered ice in the Last Pool channel, but not much.

And I knew with the water that low in the channel there was no water in the Last Pool. I walked down to Boundary Pond and it was obvious that there was no big pond but it looked like the lodge was surrounded with now frozen water and the water level was much higher behind the dam than it was before I patched the hole.

With the thaw I might get a big pond briefly, but obviously without beavers tending it, the dam is only half as effective, if that. Then I climbed up the west ridge to meet Leslie in the Hemlock Cathedral. At the edge of the hemlocks there was a beautiful porcupine trail.

Then I took my annual photo of Leslie walking into under the snow covered hemlocks.

As we drove out, we checked the First and Second Ponds. A deer crossed the latter. No rabbit tracks anywhere. Mammals are not really what I am looking forward to seeing at the land. I can’t wait for the flowers, frogs, turtles and birds.

February 5 We headed to South Bay and on the way along one of the main roads in mostly deserted TI Park, we saw a screech owl up in a hole in a big tree

Its eyes were closed and we got pretty close. Not until we walked away did it jump back in its hole. As we crossed South Bay we saw two crows out on the ice near the point.

As we approached they flew off and we saw that they pecking at the remains of a deer.

There were coyote prints all around the remains and coyote trails going to and from it. Although it’s good to see them, coyote trails on the South Bay are usually not that exciting to follow. At the point there were mink trails, once again a deep trough in the soft snow.

Mink trails are common along the shore of South Bay, but usually have mysterious ins and out. There’s no exercise in tracking them, except for the imagination.

Minks always seem to find a way to get through the ice and into the water. There was more mink traffic along the north shore of bay where there are burrows into the soft bank. The trough the minks made in the snow was even bigger.

I must say I prefer the trails one mink makes in harder snow. One can sense the lightness and strength of the little animal. In the snow conditions today, the coyote prints were quite elegant.

And when coyotes dash up from the bay into the ridges, a likely route in mating season, they leave a token of their strength, speed and grace.

The trail in the photo above crossed the old otter latrine overlooking the entrance to South Bay, an area that has also always been of interest to coyotes and foxes. No signs of the otters having been there. From higher up on the ridge, I took a photo of the river. The snow had been blown off a good bit of the ice and the ice looked thin. At least, I thought it might be dangerous walking out on it.

We walked along the embankment that forms the south shore of Audubon Pond. Two beavers were here in the summer, but we saw no signs of them today, though we just scanned the shores for cut trees. The bank lodge where they spent last winter was covered with snow. There were a few twigs sticking up suggesting there might be a cache under the snow and ice.

There was some recent porcupine gnawing up in some trees at the edge of woods,

But no porcupine trails in the snow. Leslie headed home back across South Bay, and I pressed on to the East Trail and then up to the East Trail Pond following trail I made two days ago. Animal activity in the middle of the winter is usually sporadic so I didn’t expect to see anything new, but the bright sun might lend itself to better photos. I walked over a bit north of the lodge and took a photo that better shows the lack of a cache anywhere around the lodge.

I walked over to the holes I saw in the ice over near the north shore of the pond, and saw nothing new around them. Then I noticed some tracks coming over the middle of the dam and going down to the hole in the ice behind the north end of the dam. That looked interesting. On my way to investigate that, I saw another hole in the ice, much like a beaver would make about 15 yards from the lodge in the middle of the pond.

It was frozen over today. Given the slight apron of packed snow around it, a mink was most likely the animal nosing outside of it just after the snow fall. At first glance, I saw that the tracks coming over the dam made a trough in the snow bigger than chasing minks would make.

I hoped they were the trails of two otters coming in and out of the pond, but when I got closer I saw that humans made the trails. That was disappointing. Then I saw an older looping trail, that no human would make.

I checked the trails around the hole in the ice north of the dam and saw that it was still too cold, low 20s, for anything to break through the ice. I decided to cross the pond on the old boardwalk well below the dam. Perhaps that human broke a trail to the other ponds I needed to check. I didn’t get far before another trail distracted me, a definite otter trail heading back up to the dam.

I’ve seen trails like this before at this time of year as otters moved from one pond to another. I decided to back track the trail, but first followed it back to the dam to see where it went once it got to the dam. I took a close up of the trail noticing the large tail prints.

The trail led to some open water below the dam but I couldn’t see clearly where the otter might have gotten into the pond.

The otter ran along the top of the dam and must have slipped into a hole since covered by wind blown snow. So I turned back and tried to find where the otter came from. Briefly the human prints went over the otters. Maybe somebody else is tracking otters here. But the trails diverged just a few steps farther, and I saw that the otter had come from the ridge south of the pond. I scanned the ridge expecting to see an otter slide coming down, but instead I saw that the otter had come down from the south end of the dam behind me.

When I got back up on the pond, I saw where the otter ran behind the dam. There was also a mink trail there and I was reminded of how small minks are.

My back tracking, which can go for miles this times of year, ended in a few more feet. I saw the neat hole in the dam that the otter had come out.

While I am positive that an otter made the trail, I was surprised not to see any scats. I think that testifies to how fast the otter moved when it was out from the safe darkness under the ice. Minks and otters can live together under the ice so I don’t have to let today’s observations change my identification of the tracks I saw two days ago that I attributed to minks chasing each other. Fortunately, now I have nothing better to do than keep an eye of this pond.

February 7 Yesterday was sunny and relatively warm in the morning, in the 20s, but we had errands to do and spent just enough time at our land to hike up to the Turtle and Bunny bogs. We saw more rabbit tracks in the Turtle bog.

At this time of year the bog always looks filled with water, albeit mostly frozen, just waiting for Blanding’s turtles to emerge in March.

Today it was just below zero at dawn but warm enough in the afternoon, 12F, to hike out to the East Trail Pond. A big snow storm is on its way and the clouds were thickening all day. The snow we had on the 2nd has settled to about 3 inches and is now easy to walk through. So I went via Antler Trail, where there were plenty of deer trails but no antlers from the annual shedding. I got down to the South Bay trail and continued to just see deer trails, no trails of coyotes or fishers. As usual it was warmer walking in the woods, but when I walked down from the East Trail to the East Trail Pond, I walked into a stiff northeast wind and it was cold. I assumed there was a good chance that I could make short work of checking the pond, but I walked down to it taking a different angle and walked by a tree that the beavers cut and that the wind probably blew down weeks ago that has been untouched by the beavers but rather well browsed by the deer.

Here was an indication that the beavers have left the pond. I soon realized that I have put too much thought into the this pond, both long term and short term, to make short work of inspecting it even when the wind chill was below zero. However, there was nothing new at the hole an otter made in the dam,

and no new otter tracks at the dam, unless the trails I attributed to minks at the north end of the dam were made by otters. Something had been out of the hole in the dam there since I first saw it on the 3rd.

Blowing snow would have smudged those trails. I went over to the dam and took a photo looking down at the runway outside the hole.

I couldn’t distinguish any prints but I did see some spots of blood. Again the width of the impression all that activity left in the snow suggest the bigger otter did it, but otters usually leave scats outside their holes. The iced over area behind the dam had one small chunk of ice knocked out of it.

The bubbles under that ice suggest minks more than otters. Then I walked over to check the holes on the north side of the pond below the rocks of the high ridge. I didn’t see any signs of new activity even though I saw the dancing trail of single mink running over there. Last year the beavers had a large hole in the ice at the foot of the rocks which they used to climb out of most of the winter. From where I stood the ice looked a bit uneven so I climbed up the ridge so I could look down on it. No hole there this winter.

Looking up the ridge I saw the stumps of more small pines that the beavers cut.

When beavers cut pine, the gnawed wood can start looking old fairly soon. This gnawing still looked fresh.

Then looking down at the pond, I saw what looked like an otter trail going parallel to the ridge.

So I had to go back down to the pond to check that out. I went the same way the beavers did last year and when I got down on the ice, I saw a little mink hole into the ice in a small clump of bushes near the rock ridge.

Looking at neighboring clumps of bushes, I could see more holes in the ice, some large enough for beavers.

But no signs that beavers had used them. I could see from the holes that I was on thin ice, but I wasn’t alarmed because I know from last winter that given how much water had drained out of the pond, there wasn’t much water below the ice. I tried to ease back to the trails I had already made on the pond, but foot went through twice, once a dry plunge and a little farther on my boot touched a little pool of water.

I got to the trails I made the other two days I walked on the pond and got out to the center of the pond where I knew the ice would be thicker. Then I eased over to check the otter trail. I saw where the otter came out of a hole in the ice around a small tree. After a look to the west, it hurried over to a clump of bushes to the east.

The trail ran by a strange circular depression in the rock cliff. Several winters I ago I tracked an otter family that came in from the river directly to this pond and directly to this magical looking circle in the rocks. But this otter ignored it.

I was tempted to try to figure out what holes the otter used under the bushes, but I knew the ice was thin and didn’t want to break into the world the otters and minks had fashioned under the ice.

I noticed that trail of the single mink continuing next to the rocks, quite slight compared to the impression the otter made. I also saw a pine log gnawed by the beavers on a ledge about three feet up from the ice.

That raised the question about what the beavers might have done to fashion the world under the ice here. Since the ice here was thin, did that suggest that beavers had kept this water open before a deep freeze after Christmas? Ottoleo had been here off and on while we were gone. He reported seeing fresh beaver work in the fall but didn’t notice how the ponds froze over. I haven’t seen any fresh beaver work, nor any logs obviously collected and gnawed after the ice froze. But the fresh snow might have covered all that over. Standing on the pond ice below the pine gnawing a beaver did up on the ridge I could get a photo giving an idea of the lengths a beaver went to cut a pine tree, not one of their favored foods.

That the beavers here were so interested in pine, which I had noticed back in August, suggests that they might have been running out of preferable trees to gnaw. So as I wander around, I best keep an eye for where they might have moved if they did leave. Meanwhile the wind had not let up, and I lost my yen to check the other big ponds keeping the wind at my back. I decided to check Thicket Pond and Meander Pond because to do that I could stay out of the wind in the woods, and this beaver family had spent several winters in those two ponds. They were convenient in the winter because both of them had small springs that kept a patch of water open despite the severity of the winter. There were no signs of beavers in Thicket Pond despite the spring still doing its mite.

There was not enough water in Meander Pond for the spring there to contribute much. It did keep a good bit of the ground northeast of the pond snowless.

After winters when the snow cover lasted well into March, that bare ground was usually the first place I saw mourning cloak butterflies.


Schmoomunitions said...

Why do you think there are less beavers this year?

Bob Arnebeck said...

Back in 2003 I had beaver families in several ponds so I think it is a case of the beavers eating themselves out of all the good homes in the area at once. The family that remains here has often struck me as the most resourceful but even they are finding food now. Evidently several beaver families discovered this area at the same time in the 1970s. They had a good run of some 40 years. It'll be interesting to see if and when the area recovers so that beavers can flourish again.