Wednesday, March 13, 2013

March 1 to 5, 2012

March 1 we had about four inches of wet snow and we were duty bound to go to the Lost Swamp Pond to see if the otters had come out of their holes. It was slow going through the new wet snow even with snowshoes. The temperature didn’t drop after the snowfall. Sloppy snow makes bad tracking conditions and we didn’t see evidence of any activity in the valley save from deer who sunk into the snow deeper than we did. When we got down to the Big Pond, we saw that the ice and snow of the upper part of the pond was discolored.

However, where the creek narrowed we found slush that was still firm enough to stay white and we crossed there.

The ice behind the dam wasn’t discolored. After the spring thaw it might be pretty dry down there. We pressed on to the Lost Swamp Pond which still looked mostly solid snow and we found it that way as we headed toward the dam. There were some faint mink tracks around a hole under the ice by a dead tree convenient to the old beaver lodge in the middle of that section of the pond.

Much like last time I was here, we saw parallel mink trails heading toward the dam.

At a patch of wet brown ice near the otter hole just west of the dam, we saw otter slides. One has to be careful with otter slides in ice, even thawing ice, and I think these were the same slides I saw here a week ago.

The other tracks were another matter. An animal had just been stepping around in the fresh snow.

We also noticed more noise from the dam. Thanks to the thaw more water was coursing out of the pond through the deep hole that the otters presumably put in the dam.

The last time the flow increased I saw evidence that the otters went into the dam and perhaps deepened their hole. Today, the recent thaw could explain the rush of water. Plus for the first time we didn’t notice the sulfurous smell from the water. This was melted snow and ice water not long standing pond water that had putrefied under the ice. Standing on the dam, I took a photo looking back at the otter hole and it didn’t look like otters had come out of that. I didn’t go down on the slushy ice in front of it to identify the tracks there.

An otter probably danced around there. Looking behind the dam, I could see a clear otter trail to the hole around the big dead tree behind the dam.

The tracks came out of the hole into the middle of the dam and we could see fresh otter prints outside of it as well as a blood stain and what was probably the head of a bullhead.

There was an otter slide coming down from the beaver lodge east of the dam heading into the hole into the dam. Only by editing the photo in black and white does the slide show up so it was not that fresh but certainly came after the snow we had two days ago.

I back tracked the slide to the nearby shore of the pond behind the lodge. The otter came down over where, in other years, otters had denned in muskrat burrows. But the otter had come down to the pond from the brushy high ground that soon slopes back down to what had been the upper reaches of the Upper Second Swamp Pond which has completely dried out in the last two years.

While I can’t imagine there were places to fish along that route, in other late winters otters have preferred traveling through all that brush rather than always go up Lost Swamp Pond to the east and continue over flats were there was once a string of ponds. And this otter was coming to the Lost Swamp Pond, and it may have gone right out. We saw a slide from the hole in the dam crossing the pond to the long peninsula that divides the northeast from the southeast sections of the pond.

In other winters otters have had holes through the ice into the pond all along that peninsula. But we soon lost the trail of this otter. I don’t think it got under the pond. We were too weary to continue walking around the pond to see where it might have gone. We backtracked ourselves to make our return trip easier. As we crossed the Big Pond, Leslie noticed a bluish tint to some of the ice in the middle of the big patch of browned ice.

I’m not sure why there is so much water under the ice here and not below. Maybe the ice fell into the narrow creek below this section of the pond damming up the melting water. Usually the area of the pond behind the dam retains more water than this upper part. Going back on our trail, I was at the right angle to see more gnawing in the pine tree near the porcupine den just up from the Big Pond.

There was a fresh porcupine trail to the pine, but no porcupine to be seen. After examining all this fleeting activity, it is nice to rest the eyes on billion year old granite. Rocks can look so young sticking out of the snow.

To be sure, I re-broke the trail for Leslie who walked behind me.

I took the photo just before she began to flap her wings and stick her tongue out at me.

March 2 we went to our land to prepare for the flow of sap from the maple trees -- always slow business. Meanwhile I decided it was now warm enough to use my old camera, but on a cloudy day photos of the snow never look good. I took a photo of rabbit gnawing on a small woody plant.

While Leslie checked the trees, I scouted dead ironwoods that I can cut up for firewood. Walking down the mossy cliff, which forms the east side of our inner valley, I bumped into two ironwoods that grew up together but they weren’t quite the same. I’ve longed noticed that some ironwoods are lighter and their bark not as flaky. They always seem to get bigger than the darker, flakier variety.

The pleasures of cutting firewood in March are well known. I was told about them my first winter here in 1994-5. The woods in March are often quiet and with firm snow easy to get around in. But those qualities are only noticed by a real man once he turns off his chain saw and ATV or tractor. The manly game is to cut and split all the wood one will need for next winter in a matter of a day or two which seems to me a waste of precious time. The photo of the mossy cliff below hardly catches the beauty of it and the rhythmic cutting of my saw hardly mars the quiet. The idea is to take advantage of every good day in March, sometimes there are not that many.

Thoreau was wrong about wood warming you twice, when you cut it and when you burn it. It warms me more than that: finding the dead or dying trees, cutting the tree down, cutting it into long logs, carrying logs to a better place to saw them into smaller logs, splitting the logs, stacking the logs so they can season, moving the logs to a convenient dry spot in or near the house, carrying the logs to the fireplace and then feeding the fire. Several of those operations can work up a sweat. On my way farther down the valley where I cut three ironwoods, I saw where some turkeys had a meal.

I've already collected the ironwoods that the beavers cut down last year. This year I’ll cut down the ones that died as the beaver pond flooded back in the valley. If the beavers were still here I would be discrete in my cutting and collecting and enjoy watching the beavers forage instead. Of course, there was absolutely no signs of the beavers still being in their old haunts in or around what I had called the Last Pool.

The pleasure in watching beavers is that except in the deeper ponds, you can always tell what they are eating. With rabbits for example, it is only easy to keep track of their meals during the late winter.

My work done, about 90 minutes worth, I headed down to the Deep Pond. We are still getting light snowfalls at night so the tracks left by a beaver the last time it came out the newer hole it made for getting out of the pond had since been covered by light snow.

I last looked at the hole on February 28

And then there was one trail up and back from the hole to a honeysuckle bush.

There were other trails today going to another honeysuckle bush.

And on the way to that bush I could see where a beaver nipped low twigs from another kind of bush.

Here was nipping more worthy of a rabbit, though I must say the more I looked the more low nips I saw.

I'm not familiar enough with what the beaver nipped to say that it's beginning to swell with sap providing a good meal to both rabbits and beavers. I walked back down on the pond and then over toward the road. There were many track in the snow on the dam above the hole in the dam.

I think deer and turkeys made most of the tracks. I didn’t get close enough to check every track but I think if a beaver had come out there, it would have flattened the snow surrounding the hole.

March 3 We headed to the East Trail Pond via South Bay where we saw no remarkable tracks. It has been warm enough for beavers to be out on the frozen ponds, and at first glance at the East Trail Pond, I thought a pine tree was missing up on the ridge.

I headed in that direction to investigate but before I got to the pond I saw gnawing on a tree that I had not seen before which looked relatively recent, but I think it has been covered up by the snow since I got back to this pond a month ago.

This gnawing is near the branches of the fallen tree that I noticed here February 3. Maybe this was the last work the beavers did on this shore before the pond froze. As I crossed the pond, I couldn’t resist a photo of the lodge looking like a mountain beaten but not bowed.

Then I had to focus on the snow and ice framing the granite vortex in the wall of rock that forms the north shore of the pond.

The “missing” pine had been atop the stump closest to the precipice.

The trunk of the pine evidently flipped as it fell down to the pond because its thick end was pointing toward the middle of the pond. The beavers had not gnawed or stripped any bark off the trunk of the tree but they cut off several branches.

The snow on the trunk suggests that this tree fell a few days ago and the tracks coming to and from it were not fresh. I followed the old tracks past the clumps of bushes.

They led me to a hole in the ice surrounded by several small stripped sticks. A branch was half way down hole with the bushy end with pine needles in the hole. That pine branch was not stripped. I picked up the largest of the stripped sticks near the hole and judging by its smell, it was definitely pine.

Smaller stripped sticks were right next to nipped branches coming up out of the ice, winterberry I suppose.

I can draw some conclusions about how these beavers use pine. Unlike other beaver families I’ve watched, they don’t strip bark off the pine trunks. They do gnaw the bark off smaller pine sticks, and they may well prize the pine needles for bedding. Still, it would be nice seeing the beavers dealing with the pines. There were tracks from the hole in the ice going off to over to bushes some just about nipped down to ice level

And others with plenty of woody branches at their full height.

The hole next to the rock shore which the beavers used a few weeks ago and most of last winter looked to be frozen and snowed over.

Many of the winterberry branches coming out of the ice there looked freshly nipped but to get to them, I think the beaver came out of a small hole in the ice more or less in the middle of the largest clump of bushes nearby.

There was also a cut pine branch there still sporting needles and larger stripped sticks that looked like pine to me. Last year we didn’t have a long winter and didn’t have much snow either. The hole in the dam wasn’t as deep either which all meant that the beavers’ hole here appeared and expanded a bit with the thaw before it disappeared. The beavers didn’t have to keep breaking out of other holes under the winterberry, though they had holes elsewhere in the pond. Apparently beavers like the comfort of water under their holes and don’t like to walk any distance on the dry pond bottom under the ice if they don’t have to. This pond might be mostly thawed in a week or two and I still have much to think about in regards to the beavers life under the ice. We walked over to the dam and at first look it seemed the beavers last stepped out onto the dam where the water was deeper

They also broke the ice toward the middle of the dam.

And made a trail through the cattails and sedges below the dam

to the red maple they’ve been gnawing that is next to the old boardwalk.

Leslie, who is an expert on maples, verified that it was red maple. Beavers are not supposed to like red maple. One might ascribe their major gnawing into the trunk as arising from the necessity of working their incisors so they don’t grow too big, but the intimate gnawing around the base of the trunk suggests a taste for the bark.

When I was behind the dam I saw that the beavers had not used their old trails from the dam to the trees they cut on the gentle slope northeast of the pond. But looking from the maple, I saw that there was a new cut on the farthest tree they’ve cut down recently.

I think they made a trail through the cattail marsh to it, not that they did much gnawing, just two cuts into the trunk that I could see. I didn’t go over to check because Leslie wanted to move on and I promised to guide her across the Second Swamp Pond and then point her toward Antler Trail, which I did. Meanwhile I headed up the Second Swamp Pond to the Lost Swamp Pond to see what the otters have been doing. Standing below the Second Swamp Pond dam, I took a photo looking up stream at the pond that the beavers abandoned in 2009, save for one beaver‘s brief visit last summer.

And a photo looking downstream toward Otter Hole Pond, where there have been no beavers since 2003.

However, my guess is that beavers were active here for about 30 to 40 years. Indeed around 10 years ago, I discovered the remnants of an old lodge and out lines of a small pond just below the Second Swamp Pond dam. I got the impression that this might have been the first lodge in this end of the island. There is not the least hint of the lodge and small pond now. Indeed, a considerable stand of trees is not far from where I thought those early developments were.

Before the beavers left these ponds, they did cut a few trees there, but when I try to picture beavers moving back into this valley, I see them cutting trees in that stand and building a dam on the far side of it where the creek coming down from the East Pond flows. But why didn’t they do that years ago? Maybe the photo above gives the answer. The trees are all on a slight elevation, a mound of land, that must have deterred beavers who saw the difficulty of building canals in that area. Beavers commonly scaled all the ridges around to bring down trees but dragging a tree down a ridge can be easy. Slightly elevated ground just too far from a creek seems most problematic for beavers. I still think the area just below the Second Swamp Pond dam might attract beavers because there are several clumps of alders, I think.

At least in past years a beaver cut a few of the saplings sprouting out from common roots.

Up at the Lost Swamp Pond, I saw no new signs of the otters and I worry that the more venturesome trails I saw here two days ago meant that the otters left the pond, which would make sense because there is not the usual amount of water under this ice in the late winter. I did see another mink hole behind the dam where we had only seen one two days ago.

I got down as close as I could and took a photo which suggests that the minks took advantage of a fracture line and fissure in some rather thick ice for a mink.

I decided to go home via Antler Trail too. The snow was firm so I didn’t have to break a trail and I soon had Leslie’s tracks to follow. I saw some old fisher trails, not worth a photo and trails that mice made,

which always have surprising turns. I flushed 3 or 4 deer along the trail, but didn’t find any antlers.

March 4 despite it being a blustery day, Leslie insisted on taking a hike on the ice through the Narrows and I finally gave in figuring that once I got through the eye watering cold wind of South Bay, the sun gleaming sheets of icy snow would make the lee side of the Narrows doubly warm. I was right about the cold and the warmth and out of the wind all was pleasant. We began walking along the rocky south shore of the bay just southwest of the entrance to the Narrows. We found crow tracks around the well picked remains of a deer vertebrae.

There were mink tracks going in and out of a hole at the base of the granite rock behind those remains. We then followed mink trails into the bay, which, I believe has a name -- Escanaba?

We weren’t surprised that the mink tracks led us to the huge beaver lodge tucked in behind a rocky point, with its back to all the action in the river and facing the western sky.

The last time I kayaked here in the late summer, there were no signs of a beaver using the lodge. Today we saw a large tree almost gnawed to the point where a strong wind might blow it down.

But that was the only sign of beaver activity that we saw. As we walked away, I took a photo to show how the lodge relates to the river. That the huge lodge that fills the whole western face of that point was almost completely covered with snow suggests that there are not any warm bodies living in there.

We’ve long enjoyed the mossy grottos formed in the rocks but I don’t recall them ever looking so lush in the winter.

At the foot of the rock forming the largest of the small islands in the bay, we saw clumps of red osier exclaiming that they were still alive.

Unfortunately, a family eager to show off its airboat has a house in this area. Leading the way, Leslie tried to ignore the boat and snowmobile tracks. I kept my nose to the snow and saw an otter slide going from the Murray Island shore and heading out to a rock island in the little bay,

I back tracked the slide to the little cattail marsh along the shore. Coming straight from that direction an otter would cut the distance if it was trying to get from Eel Bay to South Bay or to the main channel of the river, that way over Murray Island is rather flat -- about the only flats crossing the island, not that I am suggesting that an otter prizes flats at this time of year. Usually going high up and over rocks is part of their late winter mating rituals.

Then we followed the otter’s slides. It looked like it checked out some of the holes the minks had along the rock shore of the island

But then seemed to ignore the island

and seemed to head straight toward the main channel of the river, the nearest open water.

The photo makes the distance look farther than it really is. Then we turned around and walked back halfway through the Narrows, where we saw a fisher's trail heading directly across the Narrows.

Fishers prefer to roam under the cover of trees. With better light and a better camera, I got a photo of the porcupine work up on the east cliff of the Narrows.

Then as we headed back into the cold wind, I could just make out another otter slide in the ice, though I couldn’t be sure which way the otter had been going.

We quartered the wind at our back by going down South Bay. In the days when the island beaver ponds had water, an otter might go down that way to find shelter in those ponds. No slides today. We went down to the point of the peninsula. I wanted to see how the willow there, that beavers had half cut down, was springing back to life.

The sprouts around the stump looked rather feeble. There was a tree budding atop the surviving trunk.

March 5 we keep anticipating a gushing flow of sap from the maple trees but our 13 buckets still only yield enough to make it more sensible to boil the sap at home. It is still cold. So I have plenty of time to wait for a beaver to come out at the Deep Pond. I saw today that one, at least, had been out of the widening hole in the ice behind the hole through the dam.

I could also see turkey tracks between the hole and where I was standing on the pond. I walked farther onto the pond ice and took a photo looking square at the hole in the dam. I could see a freshly nibbled stick, rather small stick, but it suggests that the beaver is getting more comfortable about sitting on the ice or dam to nibble rather than take everything back into pond.

Since the ice gets enough warmth and sun to melt and there is a flow of water into the pond, the dry nooks the beavers might have had under the ice are getting flooded, especially here at the dam. I was momentarily excited when I saw slides coming out of the hole in the ice, thinking an otter might have come out of the pond, but otters make straight slides and these slides wavered. The beaver was dragging its tail, probably as it went back to the hole because there was no mud on the ice.

A beaver went up and over the dam and also along the dam for about 10 yards.

Along the dam there is only honeysuckle bushes to browse, but it looked like the beaver cut a sapling below the dam.

A beaver also browsed the brush along the west side of the outlet creek. I am remiss in not identifying all that the beavers nip. But when these plants are leafed out, either the beaver doesn’t eat them or I don’t notice it if they do, and in the winter when such fare can seem to be their only meal, and thus crucial to identify, it presents a few sere sticks and nothing else as clues as to what it is. The other tracks along the creek were from coyotes. They probably came for a drink but perhaps they are interested in the beavers too.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, it did not look like a beaver had been out of the hole half way up the bank of the pond. It did look like a turkey strutted up to the hole to take a peck inside.

I also took a walk down our inner valley to continue sawing and collecting dead ironwoods for next winter’s firewood. The snow there was soft enough to reveal tracks but I think hard enough to prevent wandering porcupines from making troughs.

At least that's who I think made the wavering tracks I was seeing here.

The snow everywhere is basically hard and only me and the deer are prone to plunge into its full depth which probably varies from 6 to 16 inches. Looking forward to the thaw, I am hoping that my attempt late last summer to patch the hole deep in the Boundary Pond dam worked and that there will be ponds here in the spring. I can now see down into a few feet of the Lost Pond channel,

And the water is just a few inches deep,

but all beaver ponds leak throughout the winter and there is no telling how much water will back up in the spring and with enough rain last well into the summer. Last but certainly not least, the tracks that were almost every where I looked were left by rabbits.

They also scattered their poops all over the snow. I took the photo above because it shows two rare spots were a rabbit seemed to slow down enough to leave 5 or 6 poops in a pile. We came again to the land on the 6th and I saw that a beaver had been out of the bank hole.

That day I threw myself into my work on the ironwood and let the tracks take care of themselves.

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