February 20 a pattern of light snow and deep cold at night is making it easier to tour the ponds. At the top of the valley down to the Big Pond, I saw that a porcupine found a meal up on a pine trunk on a high spot in what will soon be a frog filled vernal pool.
Then, making a quarter turn toward our trail to the valley, I saw a series of fresh woodpecker holes on another pine tree.
Again, I saw no signs of any activity on the east side of the valley, the shady side, but up from the lowest part of the valley on the west ridge I saw that a porcupine had stripped the bark of several small branches and had almost completely gnawed the bark off a medium sized white oak.
I couldn’t see a trail to the tree so perhaps the porcupine came to it when the snow was at its hardest. I don’t think I am crediting the wrong animal for this. The porcupine who dens in the rocks just up from the Big Pond had been out. I saw a trail from a pine it had been browsing not far from its den. There were fresh pee stains on the trail.
The porcupine also made tracks to the woods west of its den and there was a neat perpendicular intersection where it met the trail to the pine to the east of the den. There was one poop pellet right at the intersection.
In deep snow a grid pattern makes some sense, but I am not sure I’ve seen this before. Leslie had taken the high road to the Big Pond and when we met she reported seeing a good bit of porcupine pine work up on the ridge west of the valley. We crossed the Big Pond without investigating anything, and then walked directly over to the holes the otters were using in and around the Lost Swamp Pond dam. It did not look like there was any fresh activity.
The outflow from the pond seemed to be diminishing.
Back up on the west side of the dam Leslie spotted some scat, which we hadn’t seen yet outside any of the holes the otters were using. But with a close look that scat on the dam looked more like a mink scat, and the hole in the snow next to it was about the size a mink might make.
Leslie headed home and I continued on my usual route. Down on the Upper Second Swamp Pond, where the water coming down from the Lost Swamp Pond had stopped flowing, I looked back and took a photo of the Lost Swamp Pond dam. The snow on it made it easy to see.
While that little pond below the Lost Swamp Pond was mostly dry underneath the snow, I was not so sure about the Second Swamp Pond where a good bit of the snow had the brown color of possible slush underneath the ice that formed after the last thaw. So I took a land route to the East Trail Pond and went up and over the ridge that brought me near the porcupine den in the rocks on east end of the old East Trail Pond dam. The porcupine trail curling into the den was the least of the activity. Deer prints were all around a cedar tree that was bending down touching the snow.
I angled over to the farthest extent of the beavers’ recent foraging below the new East Trail Pond dam and got a photo of the wood chips under a branch a beaver gnawed off the smaller tree they managed to cut down
They gnawed two cuts into a fairly large red oak.
Beavers do gnaw in the winter to keep their incisors in shape so they can seem to do extra gnawing at the time of year when we might think they’d want to be as efficient as possible. This tree is a bit smaller than the red oaks these beavers have cut down in other winters. A larger tree had some gnawing but not as big a cut into the trunk as beavers or porcupines did years ago. I’m not sure if this is an oak or maple. If the latter it may be spared. These beavers are used to cutting red oaks in the winter.
I got the impression that beavers had not visited farther away trees they had been gnawing, but it looked like they had just gnawed the maple that fell on the dam that they probably cut months ago.
I blush to say that I didn’t take a photo of this trunk earlier from the same angle as the photo above but if it had looked like that with tracks all around and gnawing on the trunk, I think I would have taken a photo. Over the years, I’ve asked myself why I keep taking photos of the beavers gnawing on trees. A great deal of the attraction is aesthetic but that’s not so much the case in the photo above. Then there is what might be called my shock and awe at the beavers’ audacity. That such a relatively small animal does such a number on trees demands to be recorded. (I very rarely chronicle my cutting down trees and cutting them up into logs.) I certainly have never approached all this beaver work with a scientific bias. I am incapable of calculating what nutriants they get from various trees. I never quantify how much bark they gnaw, how many branches and logs they cut and if those branches and logs wind up on their lodge or on their dam. I guess I basically think I am simply observing another animal's necessary compulsion. Cutting trees is how a beaver defines itself and rather than analyze that I simply record it waiting for some big realization to dawn on me, perhaps not until one of the trees falls on my head and instead of my life flashing through in my doomed mind, I’ll finally see what a beaver’s life is all about. Seriously, I think if I keep my observations more protean and less scientific, I will understand beavers better. I’ve also noted beaver trails going over the dam and through the cattails and over to trees along old boardwalk. Today I saw gnawing on what is probably a red maple. How else explain how it has survived over 20 years of beavers living in this pond.
I think it has been scientifically established that beavers do not like to eat the bark of red maples. Indeed I’d be on safer ground scientifically if I assumed that tree was not a red maple simply because a beaver gnawed its bark. But I have seen this family cut down, gnaw the bark, and cut the branches off red maples in the fall when their leaves are red and easily identified. Beavers are not aware of the scientific literature about them, and consequently I may learn more by not judging these beavers by how they measure up to what the scientific literature says about them, certainly on the short term, which in the case of this family is getting on to 12 years of observation. Maybe later when, as far as I will be able to see it, their work is done. The patch of open water behind the dam was iced over, though it looked like the ice could be easily broken. At first glance some of the beaver tracks coming up out of the hole looked like they must have been made that morning, but on closer look they looked old.
On my way to check the holes beavers have used to get out from under the pond which are all along the north shore, I walked by the new lodge I had seen them making before I left in September. For the last few weeks the snow covered this low lodge. Now I could see that no mud or muck had been pushed up over the logs and branches crisscrossed to make this lodge which is good evidence that the beavers aren’t using it.
Then I got close to the hole right under the rocks and saw that the beavers hadn’t used it and assume it is still frozen over. I moved around the nearby clump of winterberry bushes as I headed back to the middle of the pond and I saw a hole that a beaver must have come out of that morning. The ice surrounding it looked wet and I could see the little stumps of cut winterberry branches sticking up out of the ice and snow.
I took another photo of the hole from another angle which showed how the hole cut under the ice.
I didn’t see any evidence that an otter used that hole, nor did I see any more holes on that side of the pond. I crossed over to the south shore of the pond where beavers, otters and minks had holes in the ice last winter. I didn’t see any holes there today. As the snow has fallen and melted off the downed trees along the south shore, I decided that trees were down that had been standing when I left in the fall.
To confirm my suspicions I will have to study photos from the fall. There were several trees down then especially along the edge of the pond.
But there were two maple stumps, I knew I would have taken photos of if I had seen them before this.
But since their trunks were gone, they must have been cut a good while ago. A stump with the cut trunk lying on the ground right next to it was bleeding sap.
Does that suggest that it was cut down more recently than the stumps that were not bleeding? Higher up the ridge there was a large choke cherry tree that had been well gnawed around the trunks and looks like it was blown down recently.
None of the branches had been cut nor any trunks bark gnawed. This is the second tree like that. The beavers probably did the cutting at the end of the fall and then strong winds after the pond froze brought the trees down. It will be interesting to see if the beavers get back to these trees after the thaw.
February 22 a combination of light snow then a very cold night lured me out to the ponds because that usually means good tracking. Plus it was a partly sunny morning, though, as it turned out, it clouded up soon enough. As soon as I got into the woods at the top of the valley down to the Big Pond, I saw a fisher’s trail.
The trail went straight through the woods without any detours.
At the bottom of the valley I crossed another fisher’s trail and since it more or less went in the direction I wanted to go, I followed it. As I headed up the slope of the north front of the ridge west of the valley, the slope that faces the Big Pond, I saw the trail of a bigger fisher merge with the trail I was following. It looked like that fisher did a double take leaving a little circle of tracks in the snow. (I edited the photo below in black and white.)
The trails of the two fishers went up a slope. One fisher danced around the big tree,
Then as fishers are wont to do, they scooted down a 5 foot high rock cliff with the aid of dead snow covered branches leaning over the rocks.
That the fisher with bigger prints was chasing suggests that mating has started. Fishers usually circle around these woods. (They usually race straight through what I call the Fisher Woods.) So I didn’t follow but turned away from their tracks going down to the Big Pond. Down in the rocks just above the Big Pond, the porcupine had been out and it must have been just after the cold dawn because it left a shuffle of tracks on the top of the snow not its usual trough.
I wonder if it feels safer in the trough or freer in the hard snow. I certainly felt footloose, but still kept to my usual pattern as I toured the ponds. Who knows what I am missing, but I am continually delighted with what I keep seeing. I saw fresh mink tracks circling the lodge in the middle of the Lost Swamp Pond.
I didn’t see any hole in the ice and snow around the lodge and can’t say that the mink got into the lodge or under the ice, but maybe it didn’t want to. It circled the lodge after seeming to probe it and in the photo below edited in black and white, it looks like it briefly danced around in a tight circle.
I won’t say that it was chasing its tail, but that tail certainly makes an impression on the snow. As I got closer to the lodge, I saw that either one mink was making large loops around the pond or other minks were racing around too. I saw two trails heading toward the dam.
When I got close to the dam, I lost interest in the mink trails. There were otter slides to try to figure out. I saw them on the bank and on the pond ice.
It looked like a otter slid down the slight slope straight for the low apron of ice around a dead tree trunk where, if it was looking for hole through the ice and into the pond, it didn’t find one and then hopped over to the next dead trunk and didn’t find a hole there either.
When I got close to the hole the otters had been using to get out on the ice, and I looked down on that area, it was hard to describe what the otters were doing.
I should add that I don’t say “otters” with my usual confidence. Usually I see side by side slides as the otters make a trek of some distance either around a pond or from one pond to another. I suppose all the tracks I saw could be ascribed to one otter looking for new holes, but there was a trail going up a slope and a slide coming down that seemed to have nothing to do with finding a hole in the ice. I continue to puzzle over the two photos below just as I puzzled over the trails when I first saw them.
Anyway, I think one otter ran to the top of the slope and then slid down and that another otter ran half way up the slope and followed in the first otter’s slide.
As approached I thought the otter activity radiated from the hole they had in the ice west of the dam but as I looked more closely at the hole, I saw that might not be the case.
The ice outside the hole had been browned by sliding but now the hole looked more like a crevasse.
Especially when the water drains out of a pond and the ice collapses, holes through it can suddenly lead to nowhere. When I walked along the dam, I saw a new hole into the dam and it looked like the otters couldn’t resist using it repeatedly once they dug it.
There was also more water flowing through the breach low in the dam, and there were fresh otter slides going down to evidently investigate the outflow.
I saw where a small dead fish was stuck in a dirt clod where the water was flowing.
It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the otters dug into the dam and did what they had to do to increase the flow of water which would in turn make it easier to get to the fish either in the water flowing out or in the pools of water left in the diminished pond. Standing on the dam, I saw slides and tracks going out to and back from the hole in the ice the otters had made several days ago at the base of the big dead tree 10 yards behind the dam.
There were also slides heading over to the old beaver lodge just east of the dam.
I didn’t see any sure evidence that the otters got into lodge from the pond surface. Looking back from the lodge I could see fresh tracks coming out of the two old holes they had into the dam.
I must have spent a half hour enjoying looking at these new slides and that may be more time than it took the otters to make them. Of course the otters may have ranged under the pond ice and found a hole elsewhere through the pond, but I scanned the pond with experienced eyes and didn’t see any slides at those likely weak spots in the pond ice where I have seen holes in past winters. Given the slides going down to the outflowing water, I thought it more likely that, if the otters left, they headed downstream on their way to the East Trail Pond where I had seen otter slides a couple weeks ago. The increased flow of water through the Upper Second Swamp Pond did wash a small dead fish up on the grass along the stream.
But I didn’t see any slides in the snow and there was not enough water for otters to swim under the ice of that now almost dry pond.
To get to the East Trail Pond I followed my overland trail not because it would be easier than walking on the Second Swamp Pond but because it would take me through more of what I call Fisher Woods. And I did bump into a fisher’s trail skirting the ridge south of the Second Swamp Pond. That fisher dug a hole into the snow where it might have cached some food. It must have been a small morsel because there were no meaty remains left behind, just some plant matter scattered around the hole.
I crossed more fisher trails but they all went in a southwesterly direction, as they usually do here, and I was heading northeast. Since it had been well below freezing since the last time I checked the East Trail Pond, I didn’t expect to see fresh beaver activity there. But I was still surprised to see no activity at all.
When I crossed the foot bridge there and looked down, I saw why the beavers didn’t swim under the ice to this sometimes open water behind the dam where even on this cold day some water was open. The water is rather shallow, only a couple of inches deep under the bridge.
The hole the beavers made through the ice under a clump of winterberries was now well frozen and snow covered.
I walked to the center of the pond and from there looked around for other possible holes into the pond. Last winter an otter made a hole right next to the beaver lodge in the middle of the pond, so I headed in that direction. Along the way, I took photos of the winterberry clumps. I think technically what I am seeing sticking out from the snow are branches of thicker limbs snaking along the pond bottom. In other ponds I have seen winterberry grow back quickly, but the bushes I passed looked a bit anemic.
The cuts I was seeing did not strike me as recent and other clumps looking rather spare.
If the pond fills with water again, if the beavers stay, I will be able to check these bushes again next winter. If the beavers don’t patch the hole in the dam, I will be able to see how all the vegetation here responds in the summer.
I don’t think the beavers depend that much on these bushes for food. Back when this pond was three time as big, the beavers foraged in this upper end of that bigger pond in the spring and never came back here in the winter. They were most active behind the dam, what I call the old East Trail Pond dam now, and, as I recall, the water there was too deep for bushes. I don’t recall the beavers then ever cutting winterberry, but I’ll have to check old photos and videos. When I got to the lodge, I took a photo. It is looking more and more like it continues to be the beavers’ home.
While it is surely built with substantial logs, there does appear to be a few wispy winterberry branches on it. I hate to argue with poets, but I must say at this time of year when the winter snow firms up, I never see two roads diverging in the snowy woods. I find that I can easily walk in any direction and I was almost lured into going in the direction where I hadn’t broken any trails. I went down to the old dam, nothing new there, then walked up the ridge to the East Trail and took that down to South Bay, an old route after all. I was curious to see if the fisher trails I saw in the Fisher Woods continued across the East Trail, and they did. The two fishers, as far the portion of their trails that I saw there, didn’t do anything of note as they raced toward the woods north of South Bay. I did see a neat hole dug by a squirrel, with cracked acorns outside it.
Then curious about tracks out there, I made the mistake of crossing South Bay. There was only a quarter inch of fresh snow on the ice so it was slow going with my snowshoes. I saw two coyote trails taking the usual direction going up the bay and probably on to other islands, pretty romantic when you think of it. But the mink trails always fire my imagination more.
Maybe because they leave a tail mark, as the photo above, edited in black and white, shows.
February 23 we went to our land to get maple sap and drill new trees, which Leslie did with the help of Marlee and Ottoleo.
Such colorful caps must be a sign of spring. Meanwhile I went down to the Deep Pond to see if the beaver had been out. On the way I saw how neatly a rabbit can leave the remains of its meal.
As I crossed the pond, I first noticed that what I think is the vent hole of their bank lodge on the high east bank of the pond looked bigger.
I walked up on the slope and admired the shape of the vent and saw what looked like recently stripped sticks on top of it.
The snow is still deep enough to make it worth my time to retrace my steps to get back down on the pond. Coming up a gentler slope up the east shore, I had noticed a small hole low on the slope with tracks coming out of it. I soon saw that a mink had dug its way out of the pond and ran toward the creek.
I had also noticed a hole high in the opposite bank on the northeast shore of the pond. It looked like something had been out of it leaving tracks now covered by snow.
My guess is that this is the new way the beaver or beavers get out from under the pond. To be sure, I’ll have to wait to see some fresh beaver tracks outside of it. Going back across the pond, I took a photo of the hole in the dam. Still no beaver tracks outside of it, but it looked like that mink may have gone through the hole in the dam.
I also saw some almost completely covered turkey tracks coming for the open water behind the hole. Perhaps they enjoyed a drink there.
February 25 We walked out to the Narrows on the ice. We’ve had cold nights which might keep animals off the ice and we had enough snow this morning to obscure tracks. On cloudy days that are still bright my old eyes find it more difficult to relax and see. I miss the sparkle of sun on the snow and ice. Without the sunshine the camcorder I am using to take still photos doesn’t work well either. (My digital camera needs a plumbing clasp to keep the battery compartment closed and that’s hard to manipulate in the cold.) But there was not much to take photos of except Leslie and rocks.
The snow was just a few inches deep and the ice firm below it, so we could carry our snowshoes.
The photos I took of porcupine work up in trees growing next to the rocks didn’t turn out at all, but I have many from other years, and, I think, even of a porcupine gnawing away up in a small pine tree oblivious to the 6o foot drop to the rocks below. We also noticed some rather fresh beaver dining on a large willow stump enjoying a few of the many thin branches sprouting out. And, as the photo barely shows, a beaver is gnawing the trunk below all the shoots.
I wasn’t here in the fall, when a beaver must have done this. Walking through the Narrows, we saw some fresh mink tracks.
Leslie spied the hole the mink used to get under the ice.
Going around the bend into Eel Bay, we saw where a beaver had nipped sprouts on what looked like a small willow stump, and at least one little branch coming out of another stump, maybe a red maple.
I kept looking for some more substantial tree cutting by beavers and saw none, so this was all probably just a meal for a passing beaver resting on this rocky shore before finding some place more comfortable to hang around. We walked down the south shore of Eel Bay as far as the trail that goes from that bay up and over a ridge to Audubon Pond. We saw two mink trails heading straight out onto Eel Bay. No ice fishermen out there so I don’t know where the mink was going to find anything to eat on the ice. We didn’t see any tracks on Audubon Pond. If the beavers are still there, it has been too cold for them to come out here. Beavers often don’t come out until well into March. I think that’s because they can find things to eat in the deep pond throughout the winter. Not that I am sure beavers are here, since I didn’t get a chance to see them in the fall.
February 26 we went to our land and while Leslie collected what little sap was in the buckets, it’s been too cold for a flow, and drilled some more trees, I went down to the Deep Pond. A beaver, if not two, was out of the new hole in the northeast bank. It had muddy feet and seemed to do most of its nibbling on the honeysuckle bush right next to the hole.
I walked along the east shore of the pond and saw that no beaver had been out of the first hole through the ice and snow. A browsing deer made what tracks were there.
The little mink hole near the lowest part of that shore was now snowed over. I went up on the bank to get another view of the holes and to see where else a beaver might have gone. I got a better photo of the freshly nibbled sticks on top of what I assume is the new bank lodge above an old beaver burrow.
Here, I think, is how that area looked when I left it in September.
My guess is that it has been built up a bit more with sticks, but I won’t know for sure until the snow melts. Then I got over the hole the beaver came out and judging from the tracks, tried to picture what the beaver was doing.
I didn’t crawl down in the snow to see if the sticks in the snow were the remnants of what was cut from above or from below. My guess is that the beaver was nuzzling down in the snow getting what woody parts of plants remained there. I didn’t see any nips on the honeysuckle branches. There was a faint trail to another honeysuckle bush and I couldn’t see exactly what the beaver went over there to eat.
Curious. Over the years, in winter I got accustom to following beaver trails out of holes to sites of major lumbering with newly cut stumps blooming in the snow, the drag marks of major branches, and long trunks of gnawed wood that even made me hungry. I think it is a function of how many beavers there are, especially if there are kits in the lodge trying to survive their first winter. In the fall and early winter 2011-12, I lost track of White Swamp, the huge wetland into which the Deep Pond drains, and I missed the construction of a large beaver lodge along the south shore of the swamp right at a point where I customarily spend a bit of time. So today, while the ice was still good, I snowshoed down to the swamp. As usual the spring at the edge of a little cove off the swamp kept the water open and deer left tracks in the snow around it when they came for drink. No aquatic mammals seem to have taken advantage of it.
There was a bit of oily film on the water. I think plants can exude this but I rarely have seen it in the winter. The lodge is nearby and it was almost completely covered by snow and no signs of beavers coming out from it. Parts of it were snowless and so there may be some hot bodies inside it.
I scanned the trees along the bank and saw no beaver gnawing anywhere. I walked down to where I usually see an otter hole, or holes, usually surrounded by scats in the winter. I followed a coyote trail in that direction but the coyote showed no interest in anything happening along the shore. There appeared to be no activity at the old otter latrine site, save for the tracks of a deer running down to the swamp. It ran passed a small hole in the ice.
I took a look at the hole and it appeared to lead to the bigger hole in the bank that otters have used over the years to get down into the water. Surely no otter used that little hole. A mink probably made it. Back up on our land, I found that I had time to kill so I headed back down to the Deep Pond. It certainly was warm enough for a beaver to come out so I thought of rehearsing spring and summer pleasures by sitting in the chair we have there and waiting for a beaver to come out of the hole. But the lawn chair was tipped over and frozen in place under the snow. I recalled that last winter the beaver, who cut precious few trees all year, did cut an ironwood on the slope behind the bank lodge under the knoll. Of course, I had been keeping an eye on the bank lodge and have seen no signs of anything living in it, save for a largely unused mink hole.
I walked up the slope and sure enough I saw a small ironwood that had been cut and a few branches trimmed off it and a large ironwood cut enough around the trunk that a very strong wind might blow it down
But this area is tucked a ridge to the west and gets little wind. I took a look at that ridge, more or less a cliff at that point.
In two months trillium will be blooming on the ledges overlooking the trout lilies and spring beauties that will be blooming where I was standing. Then I turned and embraced, in a manner of speaking, the pleasures of the winter. I walked over to the creek to make sure a beaver hadn’t come out from under the thin ice there. As one foot crashed through that thin ice going down about two feet, I had a lucky day -- all dry. Spring is a surfeit. Winter is a string of luck.